Washington — John W. Hinckley Jr. last week pleaded "not guilty" to the attempted assassination of President Reagan on March 30. During his trial here he will have every safeguard of the American judicial system. It might be profitable, while this is going on, to reconsider how Hinckley got his gun.
Eight of the 39 US presidents were victims of assassination attempts. Of these three escaped injury, one was injured, four were killed. In addition two presidential candidates were shot, and two ex-presidents were targets of attack, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt. It is a grim record.
Under America's loose federal gun control law Hinckley could buy a handgun from any one of 160,000 dealers or pawnbrokers.Anyone can become a gun dealer by simply paying $10. Under federal law a purchaser need not wait after filling out his form saying that he or she is not a felon, drug addict, or mental incompetent before taking possession of the handgun.Hinckley was arrested by Nashville police last October when he tried to pass through an airport security check carrying three guns. The incident coincided with campaign visits to Nashville by President Carter, and a scheduled Reagan visit. The arrest caused Hinckley only minimal inconvenience. The gun he had last March in the attack here was assembled in the US from inexpensive imported "Saturday night special" parts and was sold to him by a pawnshop.
The Reagan administration has commissioned a bipartisan panel to draft a new program to fight crime. (There have been a dozen such commissions in the past.) The American Bar Association urges the new group -- the Attorney General's Task Force on Violent Crime -- to take a role of leadership. America's crime rate is higher than that of any other Western democracy. A violent crime occurs in the United States every 24 seconds. In a recent year in Canada there were 52 handgun murders. In England, Scotland, and Wales there were 55 handgun deaths. But in 1980 in the United States 10,728 Americans were shot and killed by handguns.
For almost 50 years polls have shown that the public wants tighter handgun control. But this view is not shared by all. A powerful one-issue lobby, the National Rifle Association, resists stricter gun control legislation in Congress. As Hinckley is tried here the public might examine the situation once more. Last March a Washington Post-ABC News poll, following the attempt on Mr. Reagan's life, showed 65 percent favored stronger anti-handgun control. A similar poll by the Associated Press and NBC News a monthg later reported 71 percent favored a police permit for a handgun possessor. A third poll, by Gallup in May 1981, put the control advocates' a little higher, 81 percent.
Will Congress act now? I think it is doubtful. Sportsmen fear that if handguns are licensed, rifles and shot guns will be licensed, too. The lobbying is intense, bitter, and well financed.
The ABA has analyzed the US problem of violent crime. In a formal statement it commended the attorney general's appointment of his task force. It noted the "ever-increasing rate of crimes committed by handguns." Legislation and control resources are insufficient, it says; "It is absolutely crucial," it says, that the attorney general "be given the tools to fight handgun violence." Violent crime increased by 13 percent in 1980, it says, and "over 250,000 Americans were robbed threatened, or raped at gunpoint in that year alone."
New handgun legislation was introduced in Senate and House in April, incorporating many of the ABA proposals. It is entitled the "Handgun Control Act of 1981." Sample loophole to be closed: the present right to import parts of handguns for assembly here, although the guns themselves are banned. Among various other restrictions there would be a compulsory waiting period before gun delivery, and close waiting period before gun delivery, and closer checks on the purchasers' background. Records of sales would be required.
Will it pass? I repeat that I'm doubtful. I have seen many reform efforts in the past sidetracked, thwarted, ad forgotten -- all save the diluted 1968 act following the Kennedy assassinaton. The courts are now putting a man on trial for a spectacular attempted handgun crime. But in a sense the nation itself is on trial -- a nation which allows handguns to be bought and sold that kill 10, 000 a year; a nation that does not force its parliament to obey its wishes.