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Corralling the illegal guns in our streets

THE DOMINOS pizza arrived at the home of Liquarry Jefferson about the same time as Boston police. The night the 8-year-old died of a gunshot wound was just another night in the life of a typical dysfunctional American family.

Go ahead, rail against their dysfunction. That won't stop it.

Now, how about trying to stop the flow of illegal guns into homes like this across America?

This tiny first-grader was accidentally shot by his 7-year-old cousin. The handgun used in the shooting may belong to Liquarry's 15-year-old half brother, Jayquan McConnico, who is already under supervision by the Department of Youth Services for gun crimes.

"Why was that gun in the house?" asked Mayor Thomas M. Menino.

Menino and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York are spearheading efforts to get unregistered, illegal guns off city streets. Some 235 mayors have joined their cause. This week, the US Conference of Mayors unanimously called for repeal of the so-called Tiahrt amendments, which are named after Representative Todd Tiahrt, Republican of Kansas.

The mayors argue that these amendments -- which have been inserted into the Department of Justice appropriations bill each year since fiscal 2003 -- place unnecessarily broad restrictions on access to and use of gun trace data compiled by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives.

One restriction prevents the ATF from sharing crime gun trace data among neighboring jurisdictions. The amendments also restrict law enforcement agencies from providing state or local regulatory authorities with a problem dealer's trace data. Repealing these amendments will not stop illegal gun trafficking; but law enforcement authorities say it would make it easier to investigate networks that supply illegal guns to criminals.

The fiscal 2008 version of the Tiahrt amendments -- which are backed by the National Rifle Association in the interests of protecting gun owners' privacy -- will soon be up for consideration by Congress.

Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton says the mayors' request is "a test of the willingness of the Democrats" to go up against the gun owners' lobby. "Do they [Democrats] have the willingness or the power to get a piece of gun legislation through?" asked Bratton.

So far, Congress has shown a willingness to do so only if the NRA is on board. Spurred by the Virginia Tech campus killings, the House of Representatives recently passed what could become the first major federal gun control law in a decade.

The measure, backed by the NRA, directs states to streamline the system for keeping track of criminals, mental patients, and others barred from buying firearms. If it moves through the Senate and is signed into law by President Bush, the bill would be the most meaningful gun control act since Congress banned some assault weapons in the 1990s.

The NRA targeted candidates and officeholders who supported the assault weapons ban. Would Democrats have the guts to go up against this powerful lobby with a presidential election year looming?

"I hope the NRA would not run our Congress," said Menino. In the aftermath of Boston's latest shooting, the mayor fired off a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate majority leader Harry Reid, and other key lawmakers, seeking support for repeal of the Tiahrt amendments.

The adults in Liquarry Jefferson's life failed him. His father is in prison on armed robbery charges and has been convicted of manslaughter. His mother, Lakeisha Gadson, has a record of violent criminal behavior. She first told police armed intruders had forced their way into the apartment building and shot her son. She later apologized for lying to authorities.

Society is not responsible for the personal choices these people made; but it is responsible for the country's willingness to let guns get into their hands. Americans may disagree on the Second Amendment and the meaning of the right to bear arms. But who believes anyone in Liquarry Jefferson's family had the right to the 9mm semiautomatic that was found in the stairwell of his home?

Stopping illegal guns and gun trafficking should be a national priority -- as much as a priority as denouncing this dysfunctional American family for events leading to one boy's tragic death.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is