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Published May 16, 2011

America's gun culture is taking its toll on the nation's police departments. In its latest annual report, the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence recorded a 24 percent jump in the number of police officers killed by gunfire between 2009 and 2010. And 2011 is on track to be even deadlier; already, at least 33 officers have been killed by gunfire this year - including three in St. Petersburg. Policing is a dangerous, difficult job. But it is made riskier by politicians who are cowed by the gun lobby from even discussing sensible gun controls.

The Brady report paints a grim picture of how routinely officers are facing deadly gunfire, and in today's Perspective section bay area officers talk about the work they do to protect the rest of us. Often, officers are killed responding to everyday situations from road rage and traffic calls to drive-by shootings to reports of a prowler that St. Petersburg police officer David S. Crawford responded to when he was shot and killed in February. Multiple officers are being killed or injured by gunshots at the same incident, such as when St. Petersburg Sgt. Thomas Baitinger and officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz were killed in a shootout in January. Law enforcement said 2010 was the deadliest year for police in two decades. Three officers have been killed in the cities of both Tampa and St. Petersburg within the past two years. This is a national and local problem that lawmakers up and down the line must address.

It is no mystery what it would take to start better protecting police and the public. Congress should reimpose the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and restricted the sale of military style assault weapons and the high-capacity magazines that enable shooters to peel off dozens of rounds of ammunition without stopping to reload. The only use for such firepower is to kill large numbers of people in a short period of time. Lawmakers also should close the so-called "gun show" loophole that allows unlicensed dealers to act as private sellers and avoid subjecting buyers to a criminal background check. And federal authorities need more resources to crack down on sellers who flout the weak gun laws and on straw buyers and traffickers who act as mules for felons, gangs and criminal organizations.

The nation's police are seeing the effect in the rising use of assault weapons against law enforcement. Police officials call these weapons the criminals' armament of choice, which is why the International Association of Chiefs of Police has made gun control a political priority this year. It is calling on Congress to renew the ban on assault weapons and large clips and for new tools to track and share data on firearms used in crimes.

America's lax gun control laws have also escalated the security threat in communities on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border. Nine of 10 firearms confiscated by Mexican authorities in recent years came from the United States. The danger America has exported is now turning against the nation, presenting even more risks to local law enforcement. It is time Congress found the backbone to consider serious and sensible ways to better balance the right of gun ownership with the societal obligation to protect the police and the public.