San Jose Mercury News: President George Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin may have found a way to avoid an imminent head-on collision over the 30-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Their idea is to tie Bush's plan to test and deploy a missile defense system to Putin's proposal to reduce substantially each side's nuclear missile stockpile.
The two leaders announced the concept after meeting on Sunday in Italy. They are a long way from reaching an agree ment, but the concept is encouraging.
A few weeks ago, Putin threatened to tear up other arms treaties and put multiple warheads on existing missiles if Bush proceeded with a missile defense system. Now, he says, that may not be necessary.
Bush, who hasn't retreated from his plan to test a defense system whether Russia likes it or not, must show equal flexibility and put off hasty moves, such as installing radar in violation of the ABM Treaty.
Worried Europeans: An agreement with Russia would help to placate America's European allies, who are worried about a renewed arms race. But talks would not include China, which, far more than Russia, believes its long-range fleet of only 20 missiles could be neutralized by a missile defense system.
Any effort by China to expand its missiles could set off an arms race that would ensnare Pakistan and India, which also have nukes. Proliferation in Asia could pose the biggest danger and unintended consequence of a missile defense system.
Putin may believe he has more to gain by compromising on missile defense and keeping on good terms with the United States than engaging in an arms race his country can't afford. The United States has about 7,000 strategic nuclear weapons and Russia has about 6,000, but many of Russia's are deteriorating, and Russia can't keep them up.
Under the signed-but-still-unratified START II treaty, both nations are supposed to cut the stockpile to between 3,000 and 3,500. Putin has suggested lowering that number to as few as 1,000 warheads -- a figure that's practical for Russia and better for the world's security, but one Bush may not be willing to match.
Relic: Bush says that the ABM Treaty is a relic of the Cold War and that Russia has nothing to fear from a system designed to protect America from a sneak attack by a rogue nation.
Perhaps so, but Russia remains wary of America's intents, and significant doubts remain about the cost and feasibility of what Bush is proposing.
Persuading Russia to waive objections to a missile defense system would remove one major objection to it. But only one of many.
A deal to rid both nations of thousands of nuclear weapons, however, would be a triumph.
BRADY LAW WORKS FINE AS IT IS
St. Petersburg Times: As Bert Lance used to say, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The Brady Law background check system for handgun purchases isn't broken. To the contrary, it has stopped gun purchases by 600,000 lawbreakers. So why does Attorney General John Ashcroft want to weaken the law? The obvious answer is that he was doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association, giving the gun lobby what it failed to win in court.
Law enforcement agencies had been retaining gun-purchase records for auditing purposes for up to 180 days (the time limit dropped to 90 days last month). But Ashcroft has decided the records should be held for only one business day after the sale. The attorney general claimed the one-day limit was sufficient for law enforcement purposes and would protect the privacy of legitimate gun owners.
False identification: One day is not enough time for the FBI to audit records to make sure checks were performed properly. Among other things, they try to determine if a gun buyer won approval by using a false identification. This system gives applicants more than the benefit of the doubt -- so much so in fact that the Department of Justice estimates about 45,000 applicants with open arrest records slipped through the cracks and purchased guns between April and December of 2000. The less time officials have to verify an applicant's background, the more mistakes will be made.
Ashcroft's proposal came just four days after the Supreme Court declined to hear an NRA challenge to the Brady Law's background check provision. But the NRA knows it has a friend in the Bush administration. Ashcroft's rule was unnecessary, and it will make it more difficult for law enforcement to curb the sale of firearms to people who have no business having them.