Putting a legal lid on handguns, martial-arts weapons. `Ninja' movies, mail-order loophole help martial-arts weapons to spread

Forty cents and a stamp. That's all it takes for youngsters to buy the latest badge of courage -- one of the lethal ``throwing stars'' advertised in many comic books and martial arts magazines. And in Massachusetts, that's all it takes to evade a state law prohibiting the possession of several weapons associated with an obscure martial-art form known as ninjitsu. The one-two punch of ``ninja mania'' and the mail-order loophole has prompted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to introduce a federal bill that would make it illegal to mail throwing stars, fighting chains, and nunchucks (two short clubs connected by a chain) to states that already regulate their sale and transfer.

While the bill is designed only to protect laws already in place in 12 states, it may deliver a crushing karate kick to the martial-arts industry. And true to its name, the industry, which feels unfairly threatened by a possible chain reaction of laws banning martial-arts weapons, is fighting back in self-defense.

``The bill would cripple the big suppliers,'' says Larry Kelley, a karate instructor from Amherst, Mass., who has staged a year-long crusade against mail-order ninja weapons. He says it would stop suppliers from sending weapons to their three biggest markets -- California, New York, and Massachusetts. And ``if a law gets passed,'' he adds, ``the other 38 states [without laws against martial-arts weapons] may realize how serious the problem is and pass their own state laws.''

Mr. Kelley's grass-roots campaign began when he saw mail-order weapons start seeping into his affluent community over a year ago.

``I found out from a seven-year-old student of mine that shurikens [throwing stars] were showing up in the grade schools,'' Kelley says, explaining that anyone who can throw a Frisbee could puncture a car door with the jagged metal stars. ``I thought, `If it's going on here, what . . . is going on in tougher areas?' '' Martial-arts instructors and police chiefs around the country confirmed his hunch that ``the problem was widespread.''

The fad, fueled by a flurry of films popularizing and modernizing the violence of 14th-century ninja assassins, has ``taken the worst route possible'' during the past year by merging with the ``Rambo'' phenomenon, Kelley says. He cites one recent incident in Hanover, Mass., where several youths were arrested for stockpiling ninja- and Rambo-type weapons.

``This is just d'ej`a vu,'' he says, explaining that the 1958 Switchblade Act, which banned the mail-order sale of switchblade knives in every state, evolved out of a similar set of circumstances.

Michael James, publisher of three popular martial-arts magazines, sees the same trend, but doesn't think it's a problem. ``I have yet to hear of anyone holding up a liquor store with a nunchuck,'' he says. ``The real problem is that all this fighting over the bill is damaging the image of the martial arts. Ninjitsu is a martial-art form only -- a demonstration sport. . . . Show me some statistics so I can be more compassionate.''

Weapons have been confiscated in several instances. Two days ago, 300 blowguns were seized in Orange, Calif. In September, a student at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was arrested for carrying over 100 illegal martial-arts weapons, including 84 throwing stars.

But most evidence on weapons-related crimes in the martial arts, Kennedy aide Nicholas Allard concedes, is limited to scattered police reports that vaguely identify assailants as ninja warriors. Steve Schlesinger, director of the Bureau of Justice Statistics, says that ``the lack of data reflects only our current inability to obtain it and not the magnitude of the problem to society.''

Statistics are ``beside the point,'' Mr. Allard agrees. ``Our primary concern is, how many children need to suffer avoidable accidents before action is taken?''

To protect against such avoidable accidents, the proposed legislation would let the United States Postal Service require mail-order suppliers to explain the legality of each weapons shipment. As the bill sails through the Senate Judiciary Committee under its chairman, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, the bill's co-sponsor, that provision will likely be extended to the United Parcel Service and other carriers.

Karl J. Duff, a lawyer and black-belt martial artist from Woodstock, Ga., says he thinks that requiring suppliers to explain their actions is unfair because it ``presumes illegality.'' Mr. Duff, who considers the bill ``well-intentioned paternalism,'' says it would also restrict mail-order sales for states that have no laws against martial-arts weapons. ``I don't want to see children hurt either,'' Duff says. ``But if there is a problem, it can be addressed adequately at the state level.''

Industry backers are concerned that the proposed legislation could lead to laws banning martial-arts weapons altogether. To publisher James that would only deprive legitimate martial artists, for it would force ``the criminal element to resort to more dangerous weapons.''

``Legislation doesn't always stop trafficking,'' agrees Frank Hartman, executive director of the Program in Criminal Justice at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. ``But it does send a message to [Americans] saying it's unacceptable.''

Kelley saves a salvo for those who worry about the sports' decline. ``Sports are not the issue. There's little legitimate sports use for [these] weapons.'' For him, the issue centers on children. ``If you get kids carrying these weapons,'' he says, ``and a little altercation occurs -- boom -- the weapon is right there.''

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