Handgun lessons from overseas

As Americans grope with the issue of crime and gun control in the aftermath of the presidential assassination attempt, they might find it helpful to look at the experience of several other leading industrial nations. The lessons are instructive.

The US murder rate is now roughly 10 times the British rate. In Britain not even the police carry guns, except under unusual circumstances. By one count, British police fired weapons on only eight occasions last year. During 1980 London had 179 homicides, compared to 1,733 in New York City. The punishment for carrying an illegal firearm in Britain is six months in jail. If a gun is used in the commission of a crime, the penalty is 14 years in prison.

Does that inhibit gun use? British authorities note that guns were involved in only 750 robberies in London last year.

The tough British licensing and sentencing laws are not unique.Take West Germany. In 1979 there were 212 murders and attempted murders in the entire country; only 42 of them involved guns. By contrast, in the US, with a population roughly four times as large, the number of homicides that year was over 21,000 -- not four but one hundred times as many.

To obtain a firearm in West Germany a person must undergo both physical and mental tests and demonstrate need for the firearm. In Spain, Italy, and France, too, a citizen must prove need to obtain a gun. Spain, for example, conducts a background investigation of the purchaser. In 1980 only 8,000 persons bought weapons, out of a population of 35 million.

Italy requires permission of the police to buy a weapon.

In Japan possession of a gun without permission is a serious offense. In 1978, only six out of 68 bank robberies reported to police involved guns.

And in the United States? The assailant of President Reagan paid $47 each for two .22 caliber revolvers at a Dallas pawn shop after showing a driver's license and answering "no" when asked if he had been a felon, ha d ever been in a mental institution, or had used narcotics.

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