Gun control forces are shifting tactics. Instead of concentrating on passage of federal and state laws banning possession of concealable firearms, they are setting their sights on local controls.
Massachusetts is the first state in which a community-by-community effort is being mounted to cut down drastically on the number of handgun licenses issued. The National Coalition to Ban Handguns (NCBH) in Washington, D.C., is teaming with Massachusetts Citizens for Handgun Control (MCHC) and local support groups to press Bay State municipal officials to enact tough, uniform guidelines for issuing gun-carrying permits. Cities and towns are being encouraged to limit by occupation those who could legally carry handguns outside their homes or places of business. The campaign was launched in mid-November.
If successful, the Massachusetts drive could be a model for other states where municipal officials similarly lack the authority to impose outright bans on the sale or possession of firearms. In some states, local governments do have that authority. In Illinois several communities, starting with the village of Morton Grove in 1981, have adopted such ordinances.
Much may hinge on whether the National Rifle Association, the Gun Owners Action League, and other opponents of gun controls register opposition, and how vigorously.
Except for a 1975 statute prescribing a mandatory one-year prison term for anyone carrying a handgun without a license within the commonwealth, Massachusetts lawmakers have been unwilling either to enact handgun controls or empower cities and towns to do it themselves.
Last year home-rule petitions by the towns of Brookline and Lincoln seeking permission to regulate the possession of such small firearms were ignored by the state legislature.
But state lawmaker approval is not required in determining who should be granted gun-carrying permits, explains Natalie Roy of the MCHC. She cites an August 1983 state appeals court decision upholding the authority of local police chiefs in that respect.
Within the past several months the city councils of Cambridge and Boston have adopted resolutions urging the issuance of handgun-carrying licenses only to those in certain occupations requiring their being armed. Such moves are little more than advisory, since the decision as to whether a permit is issued rests with the municipal police chief.
Stiffer licensing guidelines would not guarantee that fewer individuals would be carrying handguns, which account for some 23,000 deaths annually across the United States. But Michael K. Beard, NCBH executive director, holds such policies would ''deter handgun sales, help keep handguns off the streets, and thus save lives.''
The Boston resolution, adopted on a voice vote without debate in October, states that ''to be considered a suitable person for the purpose of obtaining a license to carry firearms . . . an applicant must be employed in an occupation that necessitates the carrying of a handgun in the course of that work.'' Such eligibility would be restricted specifically to ''messengers of banks or express companies; employees of correctional institutions; licensed security guards; or any other occupation determined by the city council to necessitate the carrying of a handgun. . . .'' Councilor Albert L. O'Neil, who has a license and carries a handgun, has moved to rescind the resolution.
Besides reducing the number of people carrying handguns, adoption by local officials of strict guidelines for permits ''would send a strong message to the legislature that the cities and towns of Massachusetts want handguns controlled, '' Mr. Beard asserts.
The Massachusetts drive to let individual communities go as far as they can in restricting handguns comes in the wake of an Oct. 19 Illinois Supreme Court ruling upholding the authority of Morton Grove to outlaw sale and possession of handguns in that village.
Earlier, federal courts rejected gun-lobby challenges based on the basis of the right to bear arms guaranteed in the Second Amendment to the US Constitution.
Gun-control advocates also are pressing for strengthening Bay State laws to require applicants for gun permits to successfully complete a firearms safety training program.