Making handguns harder to hide

By , Philip J. Cook is associate professor of public policy at Duke University in North Carolina.

The 22 calibre Rohm revolver that was used to shoot President Reagan, adn the Charter Arms 38 Special that killed John Lennon, both have short barrels, as do a large percentage of all handguns used in street crimes. Criminals prefer such guns because they can be readily carried concealed in a pocket. I believe that the time has come to adopt stringent regulation of commerce in such guns.

State and local "place and manner" ordinances reflect a common judgment that handguns carried in public pose a greater threat to the peace than handguns kept at home. In most states, carrying a concealed gun is either prohibited (except for law enforcement officers) or requires a special license. The stringent penalties of Massachusetts's Bartley-Fox Amendment and New York state's new law are further reflection of the public's concern with the practice of going armed.

Short-barreled handguns of the sort used by Mark Chapman and John Hinckley are designed explicitly to be carried concealed on the person. Anyone who wanted a handgun for another use would prefer a longer barrel, since a longer barrel confers greater accuracy. My proposal is directed to state legislatures: ban the sale of short-barreled handguns to everyone who is not licensed or otherwise entitled to carry a concealed weapon. This proposal is a logical extension of the existing state laws and would facilitate the enforcement of these laws.

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My proposal should not be confused with the decades-old campaign to ban the "Saturday Night Special." The term "Saturday Night Special" was coined in reference to inexpensive handguns often used in assaults in poor neighborhoods. These guns have been singled out for special attention by handgun control advocates for obvious reasons: their low price makes them attractive to violence-prone lower-class urban youths who might not have the resources to acquire a better quality gun: and eliminating such guns from the marketplace would have little adverse effect on middle-class families who want a gun for protecting their homes and have the resources to purchase a Smith and Wesson.

Congressional advocates of a ban on Saturday Night Specials have proven squeamish about confronting the price issue directly, however. A minimum price provision for handguns (in the form of a high federal tax, perhaps) is vulnerable to the charge of blatant economic discrimination that would deprive poor families of one much-needed means of self-protection.

More than 40 Saturday Night Special bills have been introduced to Congress since 1969, and almost all of them approach the price issue obliquely by proposing to ban handguns that lack a "sporting purpose," or that fail to meet the "factoring criteria." (These criteria were created to implement the 1968 Gun control Act's ban on imports of handguns that lack a sporting purpose.)

Since most handguns are acquired for self-protection, rather than sporting uses, it would appear that the sporting purpose test is largely a euphemism for minimum price and size. But this euphemistic approach has the effect of diluting the force of the basic argument and generating endless quibbles about what precise combination of metal quality, safety features, calibre, and sight and trigger designs qualifies a handgun as a sporting weapon -- and why in any event that sporting use is a relevant criterion.

It is time to end this unproductive argument and recognize that the essential , crime-related dimension of concern is notm the quality of the handgun, but rather its size. These two dimensions are correlated, but they are by no means equivalent. Some small handguns are expensive -- Chapman's reportedly sold for expensive, are peculiarly well suited for use in violent street crime.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms has conducted several studies of handguns confiscated by the police. These studies demonstrate the disproportionate preponderance of crime handguns with short barrels defined in this case as barrels of less than three inches in length. They constitute more than two-thirds of the handguns confiscated for each category of violent crime.

Of course, if the availability of such guns were sharply reduced, some street criminals would make do with longer-barreled guns, though they are more awkward to carry and more readily visible to the police. Other more enterprising criminals would modify whatever handguns they were able to obtain. My proposal is admittedly modest, and it would have modest results. Perhaps it would only avert a few hundred homicides each year and a few thousand robberies and rapes. That is surely enough to justify its implementation.

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