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News-Sentinel.com Your Town. Your Voice.
Opening Arguments

Smoke 'n' guns

Former Fort Wayne mayor and prominent gun-control advocate Paul Helmke thinks a "leaderless ATF" has chosen the wrong target:

As I've mentioned before, terrorists have ludicrously easy access to guns in this country.

[. . .]

And now, the federal agency with specific responsibility for gun trafficking and gun crimes, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) has announced a crackdown on... tobacco.

[. . .]

Don't get me wrong -- I've never been a smoker, and I'm all for taking steps to highlight the dangers of smoking.

But while the ATF announces it will fight our terrorist enemies' access to our cigarette supply, the agency continues to sit out the debate about whether we should close the "terror gap" in our background check system for gun purchases that enables terror watch list suspects to buy all the guns they want, and the gun show loophole that allows them to buy guns without Brady background checks.

This leads to a relatively straightforward question: Given a choice of shutting off al Qaeda's access to American guns and its access to American cigarettes, which should be the higher priority?

Despite the arguments many of us on the gun-rights side might have with Helmke about what controls there should and shouldn't be on firearms, I think we can probably concede his point that, given the state of the world, focusing on smoking instead of weapons is a pretty strange choice. Smoking, after all, is mostly people hurting themselves, the hysteria over seconchand smoke notwithstanding. There's no doubt at all, on the other hand, that guns are responsible for violent homicides as well as suicides

What's interesting, though, is that such disparate problems as tobacco, acohol and firearms (and now explosives) are under the same government agency. Given the ATF's convoluted history (here's a fascinating account on the agency's own website), it could be argued that a smoking crackdown is a justifiable priority. In the days before the income tax, the country depended on levies on such things as tobacco and alcohol to fund itself, and the forerunnr of the ATF was the collection agent. It wasn't until Prhibition and the resulting explosion of gang violence that the agency got so much into the "firearms" aspect of its work. There's a lesson in there somewhere, but I'm not sure what it is.