A perplexing backward step

DON'T imagine for a moment that the gun lobby has relaxed for an instant its pressure to reverse gun control legislation since it was passed 18 years ago. This week it almost succeeded in repealing prohibitions on the interstate sale and transport of handguns. But it did ease record-keeping rules for dealers, and it won House approval of transportation of rifles and shotguns in interstate commerce. Much of the original law stays in place. But the House vote nonetheless takes a perplexing step backward.

The original law was passed after the assassinations -- by guns -- of three national leaders as the nation was watching its cities go up in smoke and there was widespread concern over maintaining the fabric of American society. What is different today?

Little that would seem to justify changing the law. There was no effort afoot to make more stringent the controls that would affect, say, sportsmen. The general public still approves of limitations on gun ownership. If the concerns about crime are genuine, the spread of more concealable weapons designed chiefly to kill human beings would not make sense. If there is worry that law enforcement officials should have greater support in their work, the appeals of such officials to maintain current curbs should be heeded. If terrorism in the skies and abroad merits the attention it is getting, it hardly follows that acquiring the instruments for private acts of terror in our communities should be made easier. Some of these concerns were met in the House compromise result.

Many Americans continue to resent any abridgment of their individual liberties, whether having to wear a seat belt when driving or having to follow prescribed rules in buying weapons. Others may feel that owning a gun offers them some measure of protection against crime in an era of violence -- despite evidence that owners or their families are the chief victims of their own weapons.

There is no evidence that Americans want to return to vigilantism -- although Washington's impatience to blast back at terrorists or their sponsors, or to introduce armed force in Central America, may tend to induce such feelings.

It was a mixed outcome. The House held the line against handguns, and it won a prohibition against ownership of machine guns. But it yielded on the long guns that are sportsmen's main concern.

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