New impetus for handgun controls seen

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The man police say fatally shot former US Rep. Allard K. Lowenstein of New York merely had to show his driver's license to buy a 9mm. handgun from a Connecticut hardware store.

But Mr. Lowenstein's death not only dramatizes how simple it is for almost anyone to get a handgun legally. It may also spur a whole new round of gun-control efforts at a time when national legislation toward that goal was faltering.

Among the expected new steps:

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* In New York State, legislation was introduced just prior to this particular shooting to provide a minimum mandatory sentence of one year for the unlicensed possession of a handgun. Now, says a spokesman for Mayor Edward Koch, who initiated the legislation, passage of a new state gun-control package could come before summer.

One other state, Maryland, has similar legislation pending. Massachusetts already has such a law, which has been effective in reducing handgun deaths, according to federal officials.

* In a text of remarks prepared for delivery at a memorial service for Mr. Lowenstein here March 18, US Rep. Paul McCloskey (R) of California said: "If we do not finally dedicate ourselves to control handguns, we do injustice to the priceless gift Al made to all of us. The pistol, like the hand grenade and the switchblade knife, has no place in America, save in museums and the holsters of law-enforcement officers."

* Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who flew to New York over the weekend after the news of the shooting (Mr. Lowenstein was a friend and former aide), has vowed an increased effort to win passage as quickly as possible of his own gun-control legislation, introduced late last year. Some Kennedy aides and those who work independently for gun control feel the atmosphere of shock at the Lowenstein murder is conducive to getting new legislation through.

"I hate to say this, but when a public person is shot, it gets a lot more publicity and people start screaming for controls," says a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc.

Besides this, Senator Kennedy's legislation, which is still before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, may get a boost because this is an election year. Of the major presidential candidates, only Mr. Kennedy and US Rep. John B. Anderson (R) of Illinois support strong controls, while President Carter has, for all intents and purposes, backed down from his 1976 campaign pledge to press for tougher controls.

Ironically, one component of Senator Kennedy's legislation, if it were law now, possibly could have prevented Mr. Lowenstein's death. That provision calls for a 21-day "waiting period" between the time someone applies to buy a handgun and the time he or she is can take possession of it.

Dennis Sweeney, the man police say killed Mr. Lowenstein with the handgun purchased at Raub's Hardware in New London, Conn., "applied" March 3 and took possession of it eight days later.

But Joseph Raub, owner of the store, told the Monitor in a telephone interview that he doesn't believe a longer waiting period -- particularly the 21 days advocated by Senator Kennedy -- would stem the tide of murders by handgun in this country.

"There needs to be more cooperation between mental hygiene authorities and police," Mr. Raub said. He said Mr. Sweeney stated on the application that he had no previous mental illness problems. But records show that Mr. Sweeney was a patient in a mental hospital for a brief time.

The Kennedy bill calls for specific checks if a person applying for a handgun has a history of mental illness. In addition, the legislation, which has picked up more and more support in the US House of Representatives since it was introduced there in mid-November, would ban the manufacture, importation, and sale of all so-called "Saturday night specials" -- the small, inexpensively priced, and easily concealed handguns that are big sellers.

Originally, the Kennedy legislation had 12 sponsors in the House when it was introduced. Now it has 36, according to Charles Orasin, a spokesman for Handgun Control Inc.

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