Handguns on the hustings

Are Americans fairly represented by a field of presidential candidates containing only one man sufficiently in favor of gun control to turn up at a gun owners' meeting and say so? We doubt it. Nor can we believe that Americans were fairly represented by the people in that New Hampshire crowd of 1,200 who booed Republican candidate John Anderson or called him "traitor" for advocating so mild a control as handgun registration.

All six other Republican candidates -- as well as Democrats Jerry Brown and Jack Carter (speaking for his father in the White House) -- reportedly drew cheers from the gun owners for statements against gun control. Jack Carter told of candidate Carter's position in the context of young Jimmy's boyhood exploit of shooting his first quail at the age of 10.

This was the same episode on which Jimmy Carter campaigned in 1976, though at that time and on into his early presidency he led many to believe he favored handgun control. He called for registration of handguns and an outright ban on cheap handguns, so-called Saturday-night specials. Presidential aide Hamilton Jordan promised: "Carter will really go on gun control and really be tough."

Indeed, Mr. Carter did have the Justice Department work up some draft legislation to toughen the 1968 law that had left such loopholes as permitting the importation of Saturday-night-special parts while prohibiting importation of the assembled guns. But he never took the looked-for lead in getting Congress to act. Last year the President let it be known that political considerations were prompting him to let gun control languish.

Into the void stepped Senator Kennedy with a handgun control bill of his own. It did not go as far as strict gun-control advocates would like. But it at least called for banning the manufacture, importation, and sale of Saturday night specials. And it provided federal encouragement to states to adopt gun laws modeled on that of his home state, Massachusetts, where gun-related crime dropped after a one-year prison term was mandated for anyone convicted of carrying a gun without a license outside of home or place of business. Since the law does not forbid ownership of guns, it won considerable support from progun groups in Massachusetts.

So candidate Kennedy does have a record of initiating legislative action to run on. In fact, he alleges that some gun groups have been distorting his record to put off New Hampshire voters. But Mr. Kennedy was elsewhere when the other candidates met the gun owners the other night. He could have told them just what degree of handgun control he favors and why he favors it.

Instead, John Anderson was left to stand alone to take the gun devotees' jeers. We believe millions of Americans stood with him.

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