Gun control: antigun groups chalk up wins at state level

Gun control activists, who in recent years have been notably unsuccessful at getting tighter firearms restrictions passed at the national level, slowly but surely are making their mark at the state level.

Despite stiff opposition, at least four major statutes have been enacted within the past year that either provide mandatory jail terms for possessing a firearm without a permit or for using a firearm while committing a crime. And more may be on the way during the coming weeks.

New Jersey lawmakers, who earlier this year provided a minimum additional sentence for those convicted of a violent crime while armed, are about to grapple with a proposal to ban the private possession of handguns.

Similar, though less restrictive, legislation currently is being considered in North Carolina and Oregon.

In Illinois, where for the first time in the state's history a bill banning the possession of handguns made it successfully through a legislative committee this spring only to be stopped in the state Senate, a measure to impose mandatory add-on prison terms for gun-related crimes is pending.

In the Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, the village council is preparing for a June 8 vote on two proposed ordinances that would outlaw the sale and possession of handguns.

Such efforts to outlaw or restrict ownership or transportation of easily concealable firearms have escalated since the March 30 attempted assassination of President Reagan and the May 13 shooting of Pope John Paul II.

Within hours of the latter, for example, the Connecticut Senate approved legislation providing a one-year mandatory sentence for people caught with a handgun without a permit.

That measure, signed into law May 28 by Gov. William O'Neill (D), is the third of its type in the US. Massachusetts in '75 and New York in '80 enacted such statutes.

A second Connecticut law calls for an add-on mandatory prison sentence for persons convicted of possession of a handgun in the commission or attempt to commit a crime.

Before imposing the one-year sentence for illegal possession of a handgun, a judge would be required to take into account any mitigating circumstances.

Holders of gun permits henceforth must be notified at least 90 days before the expiration date of the permit and would have a 90-day post-expiration grace period before being in violation of the law.

In Morton Grove, the village council has two measure on next week's docket. The first, expected to pass, would outlaw firearms sales in the community. The second proposal, if approved, would ban handgun possession within the village.

While conceding that the opposition has been better- financed and better-organized, gun control activists appear increasingly optimistic that needed lawmaker support is building.

The pending handgun ban for New Jersey, pushed by state Senate president Joseph Merlino, cleared it first hurdle last month when advanced by a legislative committee. The measure calls for a 5- to 7-year prison sentence or penalty is sought for illegally carrying such weapons.

Handgun owners would have four months in which to turn in their small firearms for reimbursement. Those illegally possessing these guns would be able have a similar grace period and the assurance of freedom from prosecution.

The proposals in North Carolina and Oregon zero in primarily on so-called "Saturday night specials." The North Carolina bill would apply only to guns whose metal parts will melt at 800 degrees F. or less, explains its sponsor, state Sen. Charles Vickery. He also is pushing a measure for a 30-day mandatory jailing and/or $200 to $500 fine for illegal issuance or illegal possession of a gun permit.

With the recent passage of the Connecticut and New Jersey laws, at least 21 states now have some form of mandatory sentence for commission violent crimes involving possession of a handgun.

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