Putting a legal lid on handguns, martial-arts weapons. Gun control given a judicial boost as advocates develop new strategies

The battle over handgun control in the United States is escalating as advocates of stricter regulation try new tactics in the long-running conflict. In addition to traditional lobbying efforts for tougher controls on handguns, those seeking to regulate or eliminate such weapons are now experimenting with three new approaches:

Product-liability suits against manufacturers and distributors of ``Saturday-night specials,'' (small, inexpensive handguns) used in the commission of crimes.

Stronger public education programs that present alternatives other than handguns for protection of individuals and their property.

Cooperation with health-care professionals in an effort to have handguns declared a public health problem.

The issue in this debate is the long-accepted right of US citizens to own and use handguns with a minimum of government interference. Handgun proponents base their arguments on the Second Amendment to the US Constitution: ``A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.''

Gun-control activists, however, say the need to regulate a device that is responsible for an average 60 deaths a day in the US (murder, accident, and suicide) transcends what they perceive to be a dubious interpretation of the Constitution.

The most recent victory by gun-control advocates came in a unanimous ruling by the Maryland state court of appeals this fall. The decision affirmed the right of anyone wounded by a Saturday-night special during the commission of a crime to sue the manufacturer and distributer of the weapon. In summarizing the court's findings, Judge John C. Eldridge said the ``cheap-quality materials, poor manufacture, inaccuracy, and unreliability'' of Saturday-night specials rendered them ``virtually useless for legit imate purposes of law enforcement, sport, and protection of persons, property, and businesses.''

David Warner, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association (NRA), the most effective lobby for gun owners, says the ``Maryland court of appeals ruling violates a gun owner's constitutional rights to due process and equal treatment under the law,'' particularly because the definition of Saturday-night special is so vague.

Randy Reynolds, manager of Atlantic Guns, a retail outlet in Silver Springs, Md., agrees with the NRA. ``We have always tried to carry quality products. We live here and have always been concerned for the community,'' he says. Mr. Reynolds also observes that the appeals-court ruling ``leaves us wide open'' to liability suits.

Michael Hancock, president of the Foundation for Handgun Education, likes the ruling. He says, ``Heretofore, the manufacturers have accepted no responsibility for who bought their products.'' Now ``every time there is a handgun crime there is a potential for a lawsuit.''

Josh Sugarmann, communications director of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, is also enthusiastic about the Maryland court ruling and makes no secret of his organization's long-range goals. ``We are working to have the standards applied to all handguns. We would like to shut these people down.'' Mr. Sugarmann says the long range intent of this litigation, beyond obtaining justice for the plantiffs, is to make it difficult for handgun manufacturers and distributors to obtain liability insurance at affordable prices.

Public education is an activity in which the NRA is very active. Spokesman Warner observes, for example, that the NRA urges all gun owners to participate in safety training and that ``approximately 90 percent of the people who do such training are NRA certified.'' But, says Mr. Warner, NRA opposes the mandatory training advocated by gun-control organizations, ``because it can be used to preclude people from owning guns.'' He cites excessively difficult tests, high prices for courses, and inco nvenient times for training as methods by which safety tests might be used to unjustly restrict gun ownership.

To present their point of view, the Foundation for Handgun Education has recently produced a film, ``Handguns are not the answer,'' which offers alternatives to handguns for those who feel threatened by crime and community violence. Mr. Hancock says the message is that ``guns are a placebo, they are not an effective deterrent to crime.'' He says, ``30 percent of those who do not own handguns have considered buying one, that's the group we want to get to.''

Natalie Roy, spokeswoman for Citizens for Handgun Control, says that public education efforts are ``not converting [gun enthusiasts] but are strengthening people already biased against guns.'' She is encouraged that such efforts in Boston have resulted in a growth in membership for her organization from 200 in 1983 to 3,000 in 1985.

Equally encouraging to handgun-control advocates is a move by public health associations to consider handgun deaths a national public health issue. Although public health groups vary in their support and efforts toward this goal, they are adamant that handguns are a valid public health issue because of the huge toll the weapons take on human life in the US.

The Center for Disease Control's Violence and Epidemiology branch is now doing research on handgun deaths, some 22,000 annually. According to spokesman Mark Rosenburg, the center focuses on research that will help them understand how to prevent death by handguns.

The NRA, according to Warner, has not entered the public health debate. But he is quick to point out that the NRA is sincerely concerned with the impact of handguns on the community, particularly those wielded by criminals. The NRA supports mandatory sentences for the use of handguns in the commission of a crime.

The NRA is also highly critical of the sluggish way in which the US judicial system deals with violent criminals, feeling that punishment should be sure and swift to properly deter those inclined to use firearms against others.

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