Make sure laws work

Mingo County, W.Va., Sheriff Eugene Crum might be alive today if an existing federal gun control law had worked as it was supposed to. That revelation came on the very day U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sen. Patrick Toomey, R-Pa., unveiled an important proposal to keep firearms out of the wrong hands.

Crum was shot to death earlier this month, allegedly by Tennis Melvin Maynard, who has been charged with the murder. Maynard’s father has said his son is mentally unbalanced.

Recently, Mingo County Prosecuting Attorney Michael Sparks said that under federal law, Maynard was not allowed to possess a firearm. A statute prohibits sale of guns and ammunition to some people with histories of mental illness, though Sparks did not specify that as the reason Maynard should not have been able to buy the pistol he allegedly used to kill the sheriff.

Maynard bought the gun from a dealer – who ran the background check required by law. Because of some breakdown (Sparks cited only “an inexcusable delay”), Maynard was able to purchase the gun. He may have been able to purchase more than one firearm.

Since the mass murder of children and educators at a Connecticut school in December, members of Congress have been discussing additional federal restrictions on firearms. They have not been able to reach agreement, in large measure because some lawmakers are concerned about infringing on Americans’ Second Amendment rights.

Manchin and Toomey recently revealed a proposal for expanding background checks of potential gun buyers. Their deal is important because both men have records as Second Amendment defenders.

At first glance, the Manchin-Toomey plan sounds as if it could keep more guns out of the hands of criminals and those with potentially dangerous mental illnesses. The measure also appears to be responsive to many concerns about Second Amendment rights.

But in Washington, the reaction to any concern, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House, seems to be that new laws are needed. Whether existing statutes enacted to address the same problem have been enforced usually is an afterthought.

News about the gun used by Sheriff Crum’s alleged killer ought to change that. If Sparks is right, Congress should open a no-holds-barred investigation into what went wrong with the background check system in that case.

What good are new laws on any subject, after all, if we are not enforcing rules already on the books?

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