Lennon tragedy stokes fires in handgun debate

The words "gun control" mean passionately different things to different Americans. So deep is the cleavage that it caused angry charges in the Carter-Reagan presidential election. Now the issue has burst to the foreground again in the murder of popular singer-songwriter John Lennon, whose killer used a snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver.

Here are two aspects of the debate:

* A newspaper editor sighs as he slits open a letter attacking his recent support of gun control. The editor remembers that his father gave him a .22 caliber Stevens rifle on his 12th birthday; he still has it, up in the attic somewhere. The letter cites the Second Amendment to the US Constitution guaranteeing citizens the "right to bear arms." Doesn't the editor know, asks the irate subscriber, that millions of Americans living in smaller communities have rifles and shotguns for sporting purposes?

* The other aspect deals with opinion polls. A Harris poll, released August 1979, showed 78 percent of Americans favored federal registration of all handguns. A Gallup poll in February 1980 showed 75 percent favored firearms licenses for persons carrying guns outside the home. Cambridge Report (Patrick Cadell's organization) indicated in June 1978 that 82 percent favored licenses to purchase handguns, 84 percent favored registration of handguns at time of purchase, 88 percent favored a waiting period to allow for a criminal records check.

The National Rifle Association (NRA), at the organizational center of the antigun-control lobby, in September endorsed Ronald Reagan, the first presidential endorsement in the organization's 109 year history. Mr. Reagan is "totally committed to the principles which form the common bond of our 1.8 million members" declared the American Rifleman and American Hunter, two of the NRA's periodicals. As to President Carter, the periodicals denied that he is sympathetic to hunters. His administration, charged the articles, is guilty of a "brutal crusade against the civil liberties of firearms owners."

The editorial declared: "Especially during the past four years we have been victimized by an arrogant federal bureaucracy rejecting the right of individual citizens to own and use firearms for lawful purposes. . . . With a Reagan administration, we will see the end of the abusive practices of the federal gun police -- the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms."

President-elect Reagan said he does not think gun control is the answer to preventing murders such as John Lennon's.

"If somebody commits a crime and carries a gun when he's doing it, add 5 to 15 years to the prison sentence," he said. He favors tougher crime rather than gun-control laws.

The suspect in the Lennon slaying bought a handgun in his home state of Hawaii, after receiving a handgun permit from local police. He had no criminal record, although he had a history of mental problems. But authorities declared him cured. Some states now require proof of need or competence. The number of US handgun murders was 10,728 last year, with a higher figure expected this year.

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