Reagan's responsibility in curbing gun violence

Even without the terrible handgun-related tragedies of the past several weeks -- spotlighted almost daily by the media -- this season of the year should help to remind Americans of the urgent need to find a reasonalbe solution to the problem of growing violence. There can be little true peace within the land until the terrible din of gunfire is silenced -- and the acquisition and use of guns are brought under control.

he basic facts are little disputed. Hand-guns now account for over half of all m urders annually in the US; 50 percent of those deaths involve an acident or a dispute with a friend, relative, or associate.

Unless Americans are willing to accept a society based upon a growing "siege mentality," workable solutions must be found for an effective deterrence of handgun misuse. Public opinion polls repeatedly indicate that the great majority of Americans favor gun controls.

Currently efforts are underway by some lawmakers in Congress to ban any type of national firearms registrations requirement and to water down provisions of the Gun Control Act of 1968 and several other related laws. Those measures basically prohibited the interstate shipment of guns to individuals, curbed over-the-counter sales to persons from other states, and imposed severe penalties for transporting a gun across state lines for use in civil disorders. The American public needs clearly to recognize that the political climate in favor of weakening existing legislation, as well as imposing a ban on any federal licensing of handguns, is considerably strengthened because of anti-gun control advocates will shortly be taking over the chairmanship of several key Senate committees.

Meantime, handguns continue to tumble out of the factories at the rate of over 40,000 a week. At the same time the murder rate continues to climb. During 1979 alone, handgun murders took 10,728 lives. Experts believe that the toll may be even higher for 1980.

What, then, can and should the American public do to get a grip on this problem?

Most gun-control advocates would clearly perfer a total ban on new handgun sales, except in the case of law enforcement officers. Washington, for example, noe forbids the sale of new handguns.

Given the present political atmosphere, that approach is obviously not realistic. For every state that totally outlawed new gun sales there would be at least two that would not. The practical effect would be to allow guns to continue to flow throughout the US.

Thus, on a purely pragmatic level, gun control advocates might well start with President-elect Reagan's own proposal. Mr. Reagan said that "if somebody commits a crime and carries a gun when doing it, add five to fifteen years to the prison sentence." We would prefer that legislation mandating such sentencing be federal. Barring that, the 32 states without such laws should join the 18 states already providing for mandatory sentencing. All states must develop legal formulas that ensure that wrongdoers cannot skirt mandatory sentencing through plea bargaining.

The approach now taken by at least two states, New York and Massachusetts, appears promising. Both states impose a sentence of at least one year in jail for merely carrying a gun without a license. Massachusetts has had such a provision since 1975; New York since this past June. The New York law even makes the carrying of an unlicensed loaded gun a felony. To what extent such laws will prove effective is still in question. There is evidence, however, that handgun-related crimes may be down somewhat in Massachusetts.

State legislatures, meantime, must establish at least minimal standards over the sale of handguns, even apart from the politically embroiled registration question. It is intolerable that a weapon of destruction such as a handgun can be sold to an individual with severe mental problems, as happened in the case of the young assassin of John Lennon. Minimum standards are imposed, after all, for the ownership and use of an automobile. Certainly there should be similar provisions for anything as lethal as a handgun.

In light of the American people's overwhelming support for gun control, President-elect Reagan owes it to them to come up with constructive solutions. Exerting leadership on this question, he must not let himself be swayed by manufacturers and interest groups that would roll back even existing safeguards. Given the terrible price that Americans have paid for their right to own such weapons, it is time that the nation act.

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