Stepped-up gun-control efforts meet stiff opposition

Although gun-control activists may not be able to match their opponents in political firepower, public support for tighter restrictions appears to be building.

In the six months since the March 30 attempted assassination of President Reagan:

* Two states -- Connecticut and Hawaii -- have enacted major new laws aimed at curbing use or possession of handguns.

* Morton Grove, Ill., a village north of Chicago, approved a ban on both the sale and ownership of small firearms.

* Plans for a 1982 statewide initiative petition drive have been taking shape in California.

* Gun-control forces have stepped up their organizing efforts at all levels -- national, state, and local.

Nonetheless, gun-control opponents have been increasing their ranks, too. The National Rifle Association (NRA) now claims a membership in excess of 2 million, about double what it had less than a decade ago.

Although apparently less well-funded, groups advocating handgun control also have been gaining substantial backing from concerned citizens. Fifty percent of the nation's murders last year involved handguns.

Focusing on an "End Handgun Violence Week," planned for Oct. 25-31, a major effort is under way to spark an increased awareness of what gun-control advocates say is an increasingly critic problem.

Programs on more than 200 college campuses across the United States, church sermons, panel discussions, and a variety of local fund-raising events are being promoted, according to Steve Masters of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, based in Washington, D.C.

Besides enlisting public support and lobbying in state legislatures, gun-control groups are involved in what could be costly litigation in support of their cause.

The Morton Grove ordinances, for example, have been challenged by both the NRA and the Washington State-based Second Amendment Foundation (SAF) in federal district court.

A verdict is expected by mid-November. Whichever way Judge Bernard M. Decker rules, however, an appeal seems almost certain. Some close to the scene anticipate the case may go all the way to the US Supreme Court.

At issue is whether the ordinance violates the right of citizens "to keep and bear arms" under the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, the "protection of private property" guarantee in the Fifth Amendment, and the right to keep and bear arms section of the Illinois Constitution.

One of the controversial gun-control ordinances, approved 5 to 1 June 8 by the Morton Grove village trustees, bans sales of handguns in the 23,000-resident community.

The second, which passed 4 to 2 at the same session, outlaws private possession of such firearms in Morton Grove.

Enforcement of the two measures, which were to have gone into effect on Sept. 6, has been deferred until Nov. 6 through agreement between the village trustees and gun-control foes.

The outcome of the litigation could have widespread impact well beyond the boundaries of Morton Grove, since many other Illinois communities as well as some in other parts of the nation have been considering similar handgun bans.

In East St. Louis, Ill., for example, Mayor Carl Officer, concerned with his city's high crime rate and the prevalence of handguns, has appointed a special task force to map a strategy for dealing with the problem. At the same time, local citizens are being asked to suggest steps to curb the availability of small firearms, including the cheap, easily concealed variety -- the so-called "Saturday Night Specials."

A decision will be made by Mayor Officer late this year, says his executive assistant, Artis Talley.

Thus far only Washington, D.C., has outlawed the ownership of such weapons. Unlike Morton Grove, those handguns already in private ownership in 1977 when the measure went on the books were exempted from the ban.

The two new Connecticut statutes, signed into law in May and scheduled to go into effect on Oct. 1, provide for a five-year extra prison term for persons convicted of a felony while armed, and a one-year mandatory jail sentence for carrying an unlicensed handgun.

The latter is similar to a 1975 statute in Massachusetts and a 1980 measure enacted in New York State.

Similar measures are expected to be considered by law-makers in several other states against increasingly vigorous NRA opposition in 1982.

Critics of these measures contend that they have not been successful in reducing crime.

Charging that such states have not been successful, NRA spokesman Andy Kendzie notes that among the cities with populations in excess of 500,000 Boston led the nation in the rate of violent crime last year.

But in 1974, the year before the tough gun law went on the books in Massachusetts, Boston ranked fifth, he emphasized.

Gun-control advocates, however, discount allegations that the law has not been effective. They maintain that it has helped keep crime statistics from being even higher.

Hawaii's newly strengthened gun law requires a 10- to 15-day waiting period between the time a handgun is purchased and it is delivered. Sales are limited to those with a handgun permit. In addition, the state has toughened ownership regulations.

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