A sensible shot against guns

MARYLAND voters may have paved the way for a reasonable approach to gun control - as well as an eventual Supreme Court test of the limits of the Second Amendment guarantee of the ``right of the people to keep and bear Arms.'' Up to now, the issue has been muddied. Sportsmen and other gun advocates insisted the Constitution gave them broad license to tote weapons. And they warned that restrictions on ownership and use would only take guns out of the hands of law-abiding citizens and give them to criminals. Opponents stressed, on the other hand, that the availability of guns, particularly cheap handguns, was directly contributing to murder, armed robbery, and other violent crime in the United States.

As is often the case, the situation is resolved in the short run by dollars, rather than sense. Well-financed state and national campaigns by the National Rifle Association (NRA) effectively warded off legislative attempts at gun control and rebuffed ballot efforts of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH) and other citizens groups.

In September, NRA waged a successful $4 million campaign against a congressional proposal to tighten existing federal laws on the sale of handguns. This measure would have required gun dealers to wait seven days before completing a sale, giving police a chance to determine whether the buyer was a convicted felon, a drug user, a mental patient, or an illegal alien. Despite broad support for this legislation - including that of 11 national police groups - it failed to muster sufficient votes in the House of Representatives.

Many believed that with the presidential election coming up, congressmen could not afford to offend the powerful NRA and its supporters.

On election day, however, Maryland voters had no such reservations. By 58 percent to 42 percent, they upheld a state law banning certain pistols, mainly cheap, concealable handguns, so-called ``Saturday night specials.''

In so doing, the majority of Marylanders ignored a multimillion-dollar media campaign by the NRA that wrongly suggested the law constituted a total handgun ban rather than a partial restriction.

This paves the way for a state law to go into effect that establishes a panel to determine guidelines on which guns may be used for sports and self-defense and which ones should be outlawed as dangerous to public safety.

The Maryland measure may well be challenged in the courts by the NRA and others as unconstitutional. It does send a message, however, that a reasonable approach to handgun control will be welcomed by voters.

Other states are closely examining the Maryland model with a view toward crafting their own legislation. NCBH says lawmakers in California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Ohio are studying this law. Meanwhile, a ``Florida Cool It'' group is lobbying for a seven-day waiting period. And a measure has been introduced in New Jersey to ban future sale and ownership of most handguns.

Former Supreme Court Associate Justice Lewis Powell Jr. pointed out recently that there is no constitutional right to own handguns.

Justice Powell, a political moderate but often a hard-liner on crime, cited FBI statistics indicating that almost 60 percent of the more than 20,000 murders in the United States last year were committed with guns.

The retired judge points out that private ownership of handguns is strictly controlled in other Western democracies, which have lower murder rates than the US does.

In Britain, for example, would-be gun owners are required to apply for a special license and convince police that their possession of a weapon would not pose a risk to public safety.

Again, the Maryland law appears to be a step in the right direction toward sensible gun control at the state level in the US. It could also help frame a passable national law.

``There is room for reason, compromise, good sense - and good law - in this national debate,'' the Washington Post editorialized. ``Marylanders have helped by telling the current NRA leaders in Washington to butt out - and allow a reasonable proposal to work.''

Thoughtful reasoning is always a good idea!

A Thursday column

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