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Guns Dot Com

THE HORRIFIC EVENTS IN LITTLETON, COLORADO, have been, by now, ascribed to a number of influences: The Basketball Diaries, Marilyn Manson, a comic book called The Trenchcoat Brigade, Goth anomie, a band called KMFDM. While all these things may or may not have figured into the style of the crime, there is one thing we cannot dispute, no matter how greedily we cling to our Second Amendment rights. The only way any corrupting lyric or movie scene could have led to death at Columbine High School is that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, like the other schoolyard marauders who preceded them in the last three years, had guns.

As of this writing, it appears that Harris and Klebold got those guns from Klebold's 18-year-old girlfriend, Robyn K. Anderson, who bought them at a gun show. But wired as they were, they could just as easily have acquired their firearms online. Gunindex.com, an Internet firearms directory, lists 214 sites where potential buyers can browse gun selections, read up on new techniques, and order guns and ammunition. A brief query to one, ammodump.com, returned a friendly answer within 24 hours, offering a Glock 9mm for $485; another, Bill's Gun Shop, advertised ammunition for sale to any buyer who could prove his identity with a photocopy of a driver's license -- a test minimally precocious kids can beat to get a beer.

Most sites require a federally licensed middleman to deliver the gun into the new owner's hands, but more casually regulated sites still exist, including online auctions through which individuals can sell or trade firearms without much supervision at all. Transactions at such sites are conducted from buyer to seller, who, while they agree to abide by state and federal gun laws, are not policed. Until recently, one of those sites included the immensely popular eBay.com, where a firearms category had initially been created to serve collectors of antiques. But as eBay gained visibility, "everyday general-issue firearms began appearing on the site in ever greater numbers," according to Senior Director Kevin Pursglove. Effective March 5, eBay discontinued the firearms category. "It was too difficult to guarantee that the complexity of gun laws in myriad states would be honored," Pursglove says. "We came to a decision that guns were not an appropriate category for eBay."

Would that it were so easy to pass a federal law regulating online gun sales. On March 16, Senator Charles Schumer (D., New York) -- who has been persona non grata to the National Rifle Association since he likened Second Amendment absolutists to the flat earth society in 1995 --introduced The Internet Gun Trafficking Act of 1999, a modest proposal to "plug a gaping loophole in the enforcement of federal firearms laws -the ability of felons and minors to find guns for sale on-line and illegally acquire those guns without detection." A similar proposal is pending in the House, sponsored by Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D.-IL). The law would seem a no-brainer, except for the NRA's vigorous opposition, expressed in a March 19 fax alert, "Hey, Sen. Schumer: Enforce.the.laws.com!" "Just because a gun is advertised and sold on the Internet does not negate the laws that would apply to the same transfer if it occurred via a newspaper's 'classified ads' section," the alert reads. Yet as eBay's decision demonstrates, online transactions are simply too hard to oversee.

And unless we start watching more closely how kids get their guns, we have no hope of controlling them by censoring their culture. "When I bought my first home in Littleton, Colorado, 38 years ago," wrote Scripps Howard reporter Dan Thomasson, "such an occurrence would not have been imaginable." Meaning, presumably, that in the months leading up to April 20, 1999, predicting what happened at Columbine High School was not impossible. In 1997, the Centers for Disease Control reported that 86 percent of firearm deaths in 26 countries for children under 15 occurred in the United States, at a rate nine times higher than any other country studied. From 1985 to 1994, the risk of death by gunfire nearly doubled for teenagers between the ages of 15-19. Teenage gunslingers from Moses Lake, Washington in 1996 to Littleton have claimed 17 lives in the past three years. We might look for warning signs in movies and for harbingers in their Web pages, but unless we also search their rooms for hollowpoints, events like the one in Littleton will become more imaginable every year.