Battle over handguns moves from Washington to state capitals in 1981

Gun control advocates from Massachusetts to California are taking aim anew at their familiar target. Generally convinced that a national handgun control law is unlikely to be enacted by the 97th Congress, they are marshaling forces at the state level to attack handgun abuse.

Measures ranging from bans on handgun sales to tougher penalties for the illegal possession of handguns are being readied or have already been filed in more than a dozen states. And leaders of the gun control movement anticipate similar proposals will surface during the next few weeks.

The recent, well-publicized slayings of ex-Beatle John Lennon and prominent Washington D. C., physician Michael J. Halberstram are the latest incidents to rally support for stronger handgun laws.

"All kinds of people are coming forth wanting to know what they can do to help," reports Kathy Zartman of the Chicago Committee for Handgun Control. Similar response is noted by leaders of parallel efforts in other major cities from coast to coast.

Despite the current wave of enthusiasm for stricter gun laws, longtime antihandgun activists such as John J. Buckley, a county sheriff who spearheaded gun control efforts in Massachusetts for nearly a decade, anticipate tough going in getting new laws passed.

"We are still up against a well-organized and heavily financed opposition," he says, recalling how his side was substantially outspent by gun advocates in an attempt to place a virtual ban on privately owned handguns in Massachusetts in 1976. The initiative was beaten by better than 2 to 1.

Nevertheless, Mr. Buckley and others committed to that cause in Massachusetts are discussing another ballot drive for 1982.

Handgun foes in California have all but decided on a similar initiative in that state. That move was under consideration before the Lennon slaying and stems in part from the November 1978 shooting of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone.

The Los Angeles-based Handgun Coalition for Southern California is lining up volunteers for a possible signature drive to get the question on the statewide ballot. Meanwhile, leaders of the sister Handgun Control Coalition for Northern California (HCCNC) are shaping a measure for legislative consideration early next year.

"I think we should go all the way and push for a law which would prohibit the sale of handguns, similar to what they have in Washington, D. C.," asserts Marilyn Borovoy, HCCNC secretary-treasurer.

The District of Columbia measure, on the books since 1977 is considered the toughest of its kind. According to a US Conference of Mayors study last spring, the law has led to a 26 percent reduction in handgun-related homicides during its first two years on the books. Handgun assaults in the nation's capital were reduced 10.5 percent and robberies with such weapons dropped 22.5 percent.

Similar legislation is being proposed in at least two other states -- Massachusetts and Michigan.

Much of the handgun control legislation will zero in on stiffer penalties and making it harder to buy or obtain a license to carry such small firearms.

Every state except New Mexico have at least some gun control laws on their books. In many state, however, the restriction covers little more than outlawing the carrying of a concealed gun, says Edward D. Jonmes III, senior economist for the US Department of Justice who has just completed a soon-to-be-released study of gun laws around the nation.

Only Illinois and Massachusetts require the presentation of identification cards for the purchase of handguns. Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, and New York, plus the District of Columbia, require licenses to carry such weapons.

Those convicted of crimes while armed with a handgun face mandatory prison sentences in Delaware, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Washington.

The nation's latest gun control law, enacted last summer in New York, provides for mandatory imprisonment for anyone convicted of carrying an unlicensed handgun who had been convicted of a serious felony within the previous five years. An even stiffer measure, on the Massachusetts books since 1975, requires a one-year sentence for carrying a gun without a license.

Critics of that law, under which illegal handgun possession convictions dropped from 41 percent in 1974 to 17 percent in 1976, question its effectiveness. They suggest that juries are now more reluctant to convict those accused of illegal possession, knowing the accused if found guilty will face a year in jail, without possibility of parole or furlough.

In Maryland, State Sen. J. Joseph Curran, a Baltimore Democrat, is leading the effort to require those seeking to purchase handguns to take a needs and competency test. The test would be identical to the one given in order to acquire a license to carry such firearms.

A similar measure nearly passed the state senate earlier this year. Gun control advocates in Maryland also seek tougher penalties for convictions under Maryland's 1972 law imposing a maximum five year imprisonment for use of a handgun in commission of a crime.

Illinois gun control champions, including State Rep. Barbara Currie, are readying a proposal that would make anyone trying to buy a handgun in another community subject to the same restrictions as imposed in his or her home town. Gun control measures also are being drafted for the next seession of the Connecticut, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Virginia legislatures.

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