With violent crime so widespread, it is encouraging that the Justice Department has come out against a piece of legislation in Congress which would relax restrictions on gun sales. Reports have it that even such lawmakers as Sen. Paul Laxalt, who are not known as gun control advocates, are irate over the tactics used by the National Rifle Association to lobby the bill.
Under the proposed Firearms Owner Protection Act, small dealers would no longer have to obtain a federal license and keep records of their sales; interstate gun sales and transfers would be permitted; dealers could sell their personal firearms without keeping records; and proof would be required that a defendant knew he was breaking the law in order to convict him for violating the Gun Control Act. In its memo to the White House, the Justice Department said the bill would make it easier for convicted felons to obtain firearms, complicate the tracing of guns, and might lift the current ban on importing cheap handguns known as Saturday night specials or ''snubbies.''
In the interests of holding the line against efforts to erode law enforcement , it is to be hoped that the administration will back the Justice position as well as the amendments to the bill proposed by Senator Kennedy. These amendments include applying the easing of restrictions only to long guns, requiring a 21-day waiting period for the sale or transfer of handguns, and banning importation of parts for Saturday night specials (which means they could not be assembled any more).
This is a fitting time, one year after the attempt on Mr. Reagan's life, to be reminded that it was a ''snubbie'' which was used on that occasion. Surely it would be unseemly for the White House to support a bill that would weaken control of such weapons. Instead, it should be toughening gun control laws in accordance with the recommendations of the attorney general's own task force last year. The NRA is putting up its usual fierce resistance, but the President need not be swayed. Support for stronger gun control laws is growing across the nation; Chicago only recently adopted an ordinance banning new handguns, and Milwaukee and other communities are considering similar action.
Clearly the majority of the American people believe that 60 million handguns now in circulation in the US are enough and that access to such guns must be curbed. The President has an opportunity to show that, despite his concern about abuses in federal enforcement of gun control laws, he is responsive to the mounting public concern.