Boston — Gun-control advocates, buoyed by a recent victory in tiny Morton Grove, Ill., are poised to capitalize on what they see as an antigun mood percolating across the country.
Yet the group could bump into some harsh realities when it comes time to push their wishes through a conservative Congress.
In fact, some congressional watchers say the immediate challenge facing gun-control advocates is to keep the firearm laws already on the books from being swept away.
The current strengths of the two sides could be tested in a battle now shaping up over two diametrically opposed handgun bills. The one would weaken existing gun-control laws. The other would strengthen them.
The first bill is sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho and Rep. Harold L. Volkmer (D) of Missouri; the second, by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D) of New Jersey. And while the two bills made their debuts during the previous Congress, many observers say this is the year to watch.
They point to the McClure-Volkmer bill, heavily supported by the National Rifle Association (NRA), as the more significant piece of legislation. Critics contend it will nearly wipe out all existing gun-control legislation. But the bill has already gained formidable congressional support. It currently lists 58 cosponsors in the Senate alone. And while the House battle looks to be tougher, NRA proponents are far from pessimistic.
Meanwhile, gun-control lobbyists, enthusiastic over Morton Grove's citywide ban on handguns, are pushing hard for their own handgun crime-control bill sponsored by Senator Kennedy and Representative Rodino - a measure that would strengthen existing law by requiring a waiting period on handgun purchases as well as halting the manufacture and sale of so-called Saturday night specials. Other provisions in the bill include many of the same recommendations made by the administration's Task Force on Violent Crime.
But the administration itself has thus far thrown its crucial support in the direction of the McClure-Volkmer bill. Both gun-control advocates and the NRA say the administration has given tacit approval to the proposed measure. In addition, the recent dismantling of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) is perceived as a nod in the NRA's direction, although the group says it has never lobbied for the bureau's demise.
''We had nothing to do with the dismantling of the BATF,'' says NRA spokesman John Adkins. ''Our only intention was to publicize the abuses under current law. Reform of the law has always been our key concern.''
Gun-control advocates, such as Michael Beard, president of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, agree. ''McClure-Volkmer is what (the NRA) is really after. They were only using the BATF issue to get at it.''
While the NRA and fellow progun groups contend the bill only clarifies existing law, Mr. Beard and other gun-control advocates fear it could wipe out existing law entirely. ''(It) would yank out the few, modest teeth of the 1968 Gun Control Act and make it harder for law-enforcement officials to deal with crime that is related to the use of guns,'' he says. Beard says the proposed bill would:
* Allow felons to possess and obtain firearms more easily, by turning current law inside out and placing the burden of proof on the federal government.
* Provide a procedural advantage to those charged with violating current firearm law. (No longer could a civil charge be brought against those violators found innocent of a criminal charge.)
* Permit a return to out-of-state, mail-order gun purchases so common before passage of the 1968 firearm laws.
* Prevent routine searches of licensed gun dealers by the enforcement agency, allowed under current law.
Other provisions, he says, would force the federal government to pay attorney fees in those firearm cases it loses, as well as require authorities to prove that violators intended to break the law.
NRA proponents, not surprisingly, disagree. They contend that the proposed changes would make it more, not less, difficult for felons to obtain and operate firearms, and that the changes are needed to provide protection for those law-abiding, gun-owning citizens who have suffered ''abuses of civil liberties'' in the past due to current law.
But gun-control groups say there have been no abuses by the BATF for at least five years and that such a defense is out of date if nothing else. They point to recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearings as just a tired roadshow of old witnesses and no new debate.
''I think support for the bill is a mile wide and half an inch deep,'' says Don Fraher, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc. ''It has fewer cosponsors this year than it did last year when it was first brought up.'' Claiming that many senators went along with the proposed measure for political reasons, he adds, ''I don't see how a senator can be in favor of allowing convicted felons to obtain firearms easier. We're finding more and more objections to the bill on the Hill every day.''