As the gun total mounts . . . and mounts

AN important drama is being played out in the United States House of Representatives which, depending on the outcome, could have a far-reaching effect on the purchase and sale of firearms. Efforts are under way simultaneously to ease restrictions of current laws and to see whether a middle-ground proposal can be drawn up that will satisfy the concerns both of gun owners and of law enforcement personnel -- often at odds over the firearms issue. The congressional activity comes against a backdrop of an almost omnipresent image of weaponry displayed before the public in America, in substantial part because of the effect of proliferation of guns on TV shows and because of the emergence of Rambo and similar gun-firing heroes in the movies. The glorification of guns in these visual worlds may or may not spawn acts of violence. But it does reflect what people are led to think about, and that of itself is disturbing when there are so many constructiv e matters to consider and act upon.

The number of guns in private hands across the United States, estimated at some 100 million, continues to rise. The public is understandably concerned about the criminal misuse of these weapons; over the years public opinion, as measured by national polls, has consistently favored some form of gun control.

But to many Americans the issue pits rights in conflict: the rights of city dwellers to be freed of the fear of handgun assault, of law-abiding Americans to own and lawfully use rifles and handguns, of police to trace weapons through records of their sales, and of gun dealers to be freed of burdensome record-keeping that is not generally helpful in solving crimes.

An effort is afoot in the House of Representatives to obtain the support of a majority of members for a vote, on the floor of the House, on a Senate-approved bill that would weaken existing gun law in two important ways. This approach, called a discharge petition, is unwise:

First, proper procedure calls for careful consideration of the issue by the House Judiciary Committee; its crime subcommittee is now conducting hearings on the issue and should be allowed to proceed in an orderly manner, without being preempted.

Second, among other features the Senate measure would permit persons who are not licensed gun dealers to trade weapons without requiring a record of the transaction. And it would enable dealers to sell weapons to out-of-state residents who appear in person.

Current federal law -- passed in 1968 in the wake of the assassinations of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy -- can certainly be improved. The issue came to public awareness 22 years ago this week, with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy with a mail-order rifle.

At the very least, the House ought to be able to come up with a middle-ground bill to amend the measure in a way that meets the concerns of city dwellers, law enforcement officials, and sportsmen.

One such effort is under way: Rep. William Hughes (D) of New Jersey says he wants to put together a measure that would end record-keeping on ammunition sales but retain it for gun sales, ban future sale or possession of machine guns and silencers, and require a 15-day wait for a record check of all persons who apply to buy weapons, to make sure they have no criminal records.

The concept has appeal. The discharge petition ought not to be adopted; instead, the House should wait for the Hughes measure to emerge. At the same time, there should be no foot-dragging, as proponents of the discharge petition charge Mr. Hughes is doing, and which he denies. Representative Hughes, for his part, should move expeditiously in his conduct of future hearings, and in drawing up his final measure. The American people deserve a carefully considered bill. ----30--{et

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