Gun-control backers press their efforts at the local level

Gun-control forces - more determined than ever but perhaps still underarmed - have their 1982 sights set on some potentially crucial targets.

Buoyed by a Dec. 29 federal district court decision upholding the constitutionality of an Illinois community's handgun ban, these individuals and groups are aiming for:

* Strict gun-curb measures in at least two dozen cities and towns from Massachusetts to California, including Chicago and San Francisco.

* Tougher handgun regulations in at least a half dozen states.

* Statutes banning so-called ''snubbies,'' easily concealable firearms with barrel lengths of three inches or less.

While cautiously optimistic about their prospects, some gun-control activists are apprehensive about the outcome of the Illinois litigation involving the village of Morton Grove, where challenges are pending on two fronts.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other foes of the stiff gun-control ordinance, approved last June and slated to go into effect Feb. 1, are attempting to block the measure in the state courts. A circuit court ruling is expected Jan. 26 or shortly thereafter.

At the same time, a Dec. 29 ruling by US District Court Judge Bernard M. Decker, upholding the ordinance on both state and federal constitutional grounds , is being appealed.

The issues may not be resolved for months, or even years. Both sides indicate that if they lose the next round, at either the state or federal level, they are prepared to carry the battle to the US Supreme Court.

Regardless of the outcome of the Morton Grove case, gun-control advocates across the United States, including John J. Buckley, a longtime leader of the movement in Massachusetts, agree it has given a boost to their cause.

''Until now the effort has been at the federal or state level where it has been relatively easy for the well-organized opposition to fight it,'' explains Mr. Buckley. Such resistance ''will be a lot harder at the local level.'' With so many moves to pass ordinances, he asserts, ''We are bound to win some.''

Buckley, a former Middlesex County sheriff who in 1976 led an unsuccessful statewide referendum drive to put a tough handgun-control statute on the books, has traveled widely in recent years in support of similar efforts elsewhere.

Currently he is working with handgun-control activists in two Bay State towns - Acton and Brookline -- in an effort to shape local ordinances restricting the sale or possession of these weapons.

They are among at least 20 cities and towns in six states where moves are afoot or being discussed in the wake of the Morton Grove decision, according to Don Laackman, of the National Coalition Against Handguns. Besides Massachusetts, California, and Illinois, these communities are located in Maryland, Ohio, and Texas.

In Chicago, for example, Mayor Jane Byrne on Jan. 14 proposed an ordinance that would limit the number of handguns owned in the city to the present approximately 430,000. Annual licensing of all guns would be mandated to provide tighter screening of owners. Unlike Morton Grove, which is 12 miles to the north and also in Cook County, Chicagoans who own handguns could keep them.

A similar measure to freeze the number of such weapons is being considered in San Francisco, where Mayor Diane Feinstein, whose predecessor, George Moscone, was gunned down in his office in 1978, supports gun control.

Also under way in California is a statewide signature drive to place a gun-control initiative on next November's ballot. The proposal, which needs the support of at least 346,119 citizens to go before the people, would impose strict registration requirements and keep the number of such weapons in the state at the current level, now estimated to be 4 million. Anyone found guilty of unlawful possession of a handgun would face a mandatory six-month sentence.

The NRA, the Washington State-based Second Amendment Foundation, and other foes of such measures make it clear they are no less opposed to these proposals, because the main thrust is to outlaw or greatly restrict handgun ownership.

''They put the burden of proof on law-abiding citizens while criminals continue to have whatever guns they want,'' maintains NRA spokesman John Adkins.

In Massachusetts, backers of strict gun controls have again filed their familiar proposals to end private ownership of handguns. A major effort is expected to try to ban the sale of ''snubbies,'' or ''Saturday night specials'' as small-barreled firearms are sometimes called. Steve Masters, New England field organizer for the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, anticipates similar moves ''in at least a few other state, including Connecticut.''

He and others gun-control advocates say they hope lawmakers will be more receptive to such measures, noting that about three-quarters of all crimes committed with handguns involve this type of weapon.

Besides Morton Grove, at least two other communities have, within the past eight months, moved on their own to at least restrict possession of concealable firearms.

On Jan. 1 a new ordinance went into effect in East St. Louis, Ill., banning the sale or transfer of handguns in the city. Owners can retain such weapons, but they must keep them in their homes or businesses.

Meanwhile, in Friendship Heights, Md., a new measure put on the books late in 1981 outlaws the sale or possession of handgun bullets.

The Morton Grove-inspired local gun-control proposal being readied in Brookline, Mass., by town meeting member Zvi A. Sesling is directed toward the May 11 annual town meeting. If approved, it would go on to the state Legislature as a home-rule petition.

In November 1976 when the statewide gun-control initiative petition was rejected by better than 2 to 1, Brookline residents favored such a measure 15, 834 to 10,349.

But in Acton, where former town moderator John Putnam is heading the current handgun-ordinance effort, the stiffer statewide proposal of six years ago was rejected 5,274 to 3,202. Mr. Putnam hopes his proposal will make the April 6 town ballot as a nonbinding question. If approved then, the town meeting could consider the matter and shape the home-rule petition necessary to enact a gun-control ordinance.

About half the states, including Massachusetts, forbid local measures that are tougher than those in effect statewide, without specific approval by statute.

Illinois has no such restrictions. But antigun-control forces there are expected to press for such a ban at this year's legislative sitting. Were such a statute to pass, the Morton Grove ordinance would be wiped out, according to Martin Ashman, the village's corporation lawyer, who has spent considerable time fighting off the various legal attacks on the ordinance.

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