Florida's controversial new law making it easier to obtain licenses to carry concealed firearms will trigger anti-gun sentiment nationwide, says Sarah Brady, vice-chairwoman of Washington-based Handgun Control, Inc. ``Ultimately, it will help us,'' says the wife of James S. Brady, Ronald Reagan's press secretary. Mr. Brady was seriously wounded in an assassination attempt on the President in 1981. ``Once people see what a folly the law is,'' Mrs. Brady continues, ``they will back common-sense measures to control handguns.''
Her sentiment is echoed by other gun-control groups, as well as spokesmen for several national law-enforcement organizations.
``The gun lobbyists lost a lot,'' says Hubert Williams, president of the Police Foundation in Washington, D.C. ``I don't think they'll be able to get as far as they've gotten in Florida.''
The Florida bill preempted all local gun laws, and set in place a standardized statewide law that made it much easier for city dwellers to get a license to carry a concealed weapon.
It also provided that Floridians could carry unconcealed firearms without having to obtain licenses.
Although the open carrying of guns has long been legal in Florida and 32 others state, according to a National Rifle Association spokesman, the publicity over the new state law created a wave of protest against the open-carry provision in addition to the opposition to the law's licensing provisions.
Late last week the state legislature passed an amendment, which the governor signed, striking the open-carry provision.
Short-term, the Florida law undid three years' work on the part of the National Coalition to Ban Handguns, says executive director Michael Beard: ``We were making some real strides in Florida, and we got wiped out'' by the bill. Tough local gun laws in three largely urban counties were superseded by the state statute.
``It was a classic lobby,'' Mr. Beard says of the NRA's strategy. ``You fight in the arena in which you can win.''
Gun control is not popular in rural areas, Beard says, and Florida has a large rural population. Urban dwellers were outvoted in the legislature.
It will take two years adequately to gauge the impact of the new law, Beard predicts.
``Local law enforcement is better able to decide who should carry [a concealed weapon] and who should not,'' says Brady.
She cites Virginia as one state with lax handgun laws. There is no waiting period for purchasing a gun and no limit to how many guns one can purchase, she explains. And though there is a law saying that gun buyers in Virginia must be residents of the state, ``it's not enforced.''
``Law-abiding people should be able to purchase and own handguns,'' Brady adds, explaining that what she objects to is proliferation of handguns.
Twelve states already have gun legislation similar to Florida's. But the largest of these, Georgia, has a population only about half that of Florida's, the nation's sixth most populous state. Another Florida-type bill will be taken up by Pennsylvania this fall, says NRA spokesman James Baker. That state has a large rural population in addition to big urban centers like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It ranks fourth in population nationwide.
Similar legislation was defeated in the Texas legislature last term, but will be reintroduced next term, he says.
Fear of crime is widely seen as the motivation for liberalizing concealed-weapon laws.
``I have no doubt,'' says Joe Friend, executive director of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, ``that there would be less crime if more law-abiding people had guns and used those guns correctly.'
```The more arms you have, the less violence you have' speaks for itself,'' says Mrs. Brady. ``If that were true, we'd be the most peaceful nation on earth.''
While the state-by-state battles over gun laws are still fierce, the national scene is fairly quiet.
Both sides say that the gun bills now in congress address ``fringe'' issues. Two measures are now in committee: a bill to ban the manufacture of hard-to-detect ``plastic'' handguns (none have been commercially produced so far), and a proposal that would institute a nationwide seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases. A similar bill was defeated last session. Handgun control groups are also watching for an initiative to rescind the freeze on the manufacture and sale of machine guns to private citizens. The freeze was instituted last year.
Police organizations, typically pro-NRA in the past, are increasingly on the side of handgun-control advocates.
``The Florida situation has only served to illustrate law enforcement's very serious concern with the NRA's leadership,'' says Jerald R. Vaughn, executive director of the International Association of Chiefs of Police. His organization was one of 13 major law enforcement groups that banded together to oppose last year's McClure-Volkmer Act, which undid much of what the 1968 Gun Control Act had done.
It was the NRA's backing of armor-piercing ammunition (the so-called ``cop killer'' bullets) in 1982 that first ``shocked'' the law-enforcement community, says Mr. Vaughn.
Then came the association's advocacy of plastic handguns, machine guns for private citizens, and their effort to ``systematically dismantle local gun-control ordinances.''
``With friends like that, you don't need many enemies,'' Vaughn concludes.