Gun-law backers see new impetus as result of attack on President

Not satisfied with the handgun control law passed by the state legislature last summer, New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch and his criminal justice advisers are drafting proposals for an even tougher law.

A New Jersey legislative committee held a hearing March 31 on a proposal banning possession of all handguns by anyone other than law-enforcement authorities. The legislature recently enacted a law providing mandatory prison sentences for those who commit crimes with handguns -- joining Tennessee, Rhode Island, and at least six other states which have similar statutes.

A group of Californians is once again trying to get a referendum on handgun control on the ballot next November.

Across America, tighter restrictions on the sale and posession of handguns are being sought. Despite determined and well-financed opposition, more and more handgun control is being written into state statute books.

Much of the current gun-control momentum is the result of previous well-publicized shootings, including singer John Lennon's murder. Now there is much speculation as to what effect President Reagan's shooting will have on the drive limit handgun sales and possession.

One factor might be the President's own attitude on gun control. It is well-known that he has staunchly opposed virtually all proposals that would limit the right of Americans to possess guns.

At a legislative committee's hearing March 31 the president of the New Jersey Senate, Democrat Joseph Merlino, referred to Mr. Reagan's shooting as another dramatic example of why the legislature should enact a bill he is sponsoring to ban all future importation and sale of handguns.

Likewise, Mayor Koch pointed to the tragic shootings in Washington as reason for even tougher gun control in New York State. The current law provides a mandatory one-year jail term for anyone caught with an unlicensed, loaded gun. But, says the mayor, this law has two gaping loopholes; he is backing a new measure.

In an interview, the mayor's chief criminal justice aide, Robert Keating, said the current New York State law, hailed by some upon passage last summer as "the toughest in the nation," is not as effective as it should be because:

1. Criminal court judges have too much discretion under the statute is law. It permits them not to not hand down the mandatory one-year jail sentence if the gun carrier has not committed a felony in the past five years and the judge deems there are mitigating circumstances.

2. The courts are not taking swift enough action against violators of the law because there is a large backlog of other cases.

Mr. Keating said a very recent statistical survey of how the gun law is working showed said that of the 5,245 people arrested under this law since its enactment last August only 362 have gone to trial. And of the 362 only 192 were sentenced, and of the 192 sentenced only 124 people received the so-called "mandatory" one-year term. Fifty got probation and 18 received terms of less than one year.

"These figures show that justice under this law was neither swift nor sure," Keating says. "The percentage of people not receiving any sentence at all -- more than 35 percent -- is very, very high. You don't have the punishment that's swift and certain, and you have to have both these if you are to cut" crimes committed with handguns.

The Koch administration, he adds, is backing a bill to make the law more like the one in Massachusetts, which says flatly that anyone who is carrying an unlicensed gun, regardless of the circumstances or his or her record, gets a one-year sentence. Mayor Koch also is asking the state for more money for more criminal court judges.

Donald Fahre, legislative director of Handgun Control Inc., a lobbying organization in Washington, D.C., working for tougher federal handgun laws, says , "There's more momentum at the state than federal level" for tougher handgun control laws.

One reason for greater gun-control success at the state level is that the well-financed National Rifle Association, based in Wash ington, has largely aimed at derailing federal legislation.

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