Steve Chapman

Both of the White House proposals would inconvenience law-abiding gun owners who use their firearms -- including "assault weapons" with large magazines -- entirely for innocent purposes, including hunting, target shooting and home defense. They would not impede violent criminals from obtaining guns, which are widely available in illegal markets and will remain abundant.

In the category of "possibly helpful" is a new rule requiring private gun sales to include a federal background check -- as purchases from licensed dealers already do. That change, which would cover some 40 percent of all gun transactions, holds the potential of preventing convicted felons from getting guns by stopping them at the point of sale.

But don't expect too much. Supporters point to research indicating that 80 percent of criminals bought their guns privately. But as a rule, the people who sell guns to criminals are criminals, who do not make a fetish of complying with federal regulations. Most if not all of this commerce will continue.

The chief effect will be on law-abiding people who are accustomed to buying guns from friends and fellow enthusiasts. Maybe the added cost and trouble will pay off by disarming some career crooks and homicidal maniacs.

But maybe not. Among those who would not have been impeded are Adam Lanza, James Holmes and Jared Loughner, whose weapons were bought from licensed dealers.

Same with Wade Michael Page, who killed six people at a Sikh temple near Milwaukee. Jacob Tyler Roberts, who killed two people on a spree in an Oregon shopping mall, wouldn't have been affected, since he got his gun by stealing it.

The mistakes Obama is making are familiar ones: exploiting misconceptions about guns, exaggerating the value of symbolic actions and presuming that new laws will foil incorrigible lawbreakers. The assault weapons ban was irrelevant to fighting crime before, which is no reason it can't be irrelevant again.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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