Regulating Weapons, Saving Lives

EVERY gunshot is a shot heard around the world for the family and friends of the victim. In the after-echo, the senselessness of the deed hangs in the air along with the sadness even a stranger can share.

When a student and a professor were killed and four others wounded in a random shooting on a quiet college campus in Massachusetts just 10 days before Christmas, the catastrophe seemed particularly preventable. An 18-year-old student from out of state - a gifted classical violinist - received bullets from a mail-order catalog in the morning mail and that afternoon went to a sporting-goods store, where he purchased a Chinese-made semiautomatic weapon. Within a matter of hours he strolled across the campus

and pulled his trigger, automatically reloading after each round fired. No better explanation could be given than the logo on his sweat shirt: "Sick of it all."

But what excuse can be offered by a society that wrings its hands after the carnage but makes it easier for an 18-year-old to buy an assault weapon than to obtain a driver's license?

Meanwhile, the deplorable statistics grow. The number of murders committed by juveniles with guns has risen by 79 percent in the past decade. For 3 out of 4 young murderers, like the violinist-gunman, guns are the preferred weapons. It is also worth noting in this instance that the killer was, in fact, educated and accomplished - far from the stereotype of inner-city drug dealer.

The estimated 13,000 murders a year committed by gunfire in the United States constitute too large a disaster to fob off with casual insistence on the guaranteed right of an individual to carry an Uzi in his pickup on the interstate.

Still, let the hunters and those who claim the need for self-defense - an argument not supported by many policemen - make their best case. The fact remains that neither hunters nor defenders of their homes, and least of all teenagers, require assault weapons designed for combat troops. Nor are gun owners entitled to procure their arsenal as easily as they rent a video.

If the 99 out of 100 gun owners who are prudent and responsible are destined to be tangled in red tape, that is a better fate than lying in the snow on a college campus. Gun control by nature must be arbitrary and full of split-hair definitions. But more must be done to restrain and regulate weapons that grow simultaneously more destructive and more accessible.

In Virginia, Gov. Douglas Wilder is endorsing with all his political clout proposed legislation that will limit an individual to purchasing only one handgun a month - one gun a month! Virginia's loose control of gun sales has made it a magnet for out-of-staters who stock up and then illegally resell handguns elsewhere. If passed, this minimal legislation will be hailed as a significant victory.

Such is the unequal present state of gun control, where bullets speed and regulation creeps.

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