Shooting holes in gun controls

It is bad enough that neither Congress nor the Carter administration has had the political courage to stand up to the gun lobby's opposition to urgently needed, stricter handgun controls. Now a larage number of congressmen, ignoring national polls that consistently show the great majority of Americans want tougher gun controls, have lent their support to a misguided and potentially dangerous piece of legislation originally called the Gun Decontrol Act but now referred to as the Federal Firearms Law Reform Act. Backed by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the bill's so-called reforms would further weaken the existing loophole-filled federal controls enacted in 1968, which have proved woefully ineffective in curbing gun violence.

So far, 104 representatives and 44 senators have allowed their names to be attached as cosponsors to this ill-conceived bill which the gun lobby is trying to foist on the public and Congress to curb alleged harassment of gun-owners by the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. What the bill would do is reduce controls on the transfer of firearms, thereby making it easier for felons and others convicted of violent crimes to purchase guns. Not only would the bill loosen federal rules on interstate commerce in firearms; it would preempt state laws regulating the sale and transfer of guns within a state. It would remove the Treasury Department's authority to license manufacturers and dealers. This, in turn, would make it more difficult for law enforcement agencies to track down guns used in committing crimes. The overall impact of the bill would be to render the federal government largely incapable of maintaining even minimum oversight of handgun traffic.

There can be little doubt that the politically powerful NRA hopes to use the measure to detract attention from the pending Kennedy-Rodino handgun control bills. They would, among other things, ban the manufacture and sale of cheap concealable pistols, provide for a 21-day waiting or "cooling off" period between purchase and delivery, and make it harder for a person with a criminal record or a history of mental illness or drug addiction to acquire guns.

Even without the impetus Americans had been led to expect from President Carter on gun controls, the proposed curbs on gun trafficking introduced by Senator Kennedy and Representative Rodino of New Jersey have been steadily gaining support in Congress. They are expected to come up for public hearings in late June.

No hearings are scheduled on the gun lobby's bill to weaken controls, but attempts will be made to attach it to pending criminal code reforms legislation. Congress would do well to study carefully the combined impact of its provisions. Taken together, they would subject Americans to the threat of even greater gun violence than they already face. It is not too late for the Carter administration to provide the needed leadership on gun controls. At the very least, the White House should announce its support of the Kennedy-Rodino bills. While not as strong as some gun control advocates would like -- they stop short of requiring federal licensing o handgun owners, for instance -- they nevertheless are the only real "reform" measures before Congress.

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