Even `Wild West' States Draw a Bead On Unrestricted Use of Guns by Minors

GUNS, as much a part of the culture and mythology of the American West as chaps and spurs, are coming under new assault.

Stung by random shootings and an increase in urban violence, a growing number of states in the region are adopting anticrime measures that include restrictions on gun use - mainly for minors.

This fall, Colorado and Utah passed laws limiting possession of handguns by juveniles. Now Arizona and even New Mexico - which some consider one of the last ``Wild West'' states for its lax laws - are considering new restrictions.

The moves revive an old debate over whether controlling access to guns reduces crime. They also raise questions about the identity and perceptions of a region whose most-enduring symbol, in the eyes of many, is the Colt .45.

``There is this myth that the real Westerner lives in wide open spaces and is forever on horseback,'' says Patricia Nelson Limerick, professor of history at the University of Colorado. ``Most of us aren't on horseback. How come we still have to be acting out the politics of being on horseback?''

The moves in the region mirror what has been a trend nationwide. In the face of mounting public restiveness, politicians from coast to coast are scrambling to find ways to reduce crime.

Some of the anticrime packages have contained new gun laws. Connecticut, for instance, this year outlawed the sale and possession of more than 60 types of assault weapons, including one made by a local manufacturer.

At the federal level, a seemingly interminable effort to impose a five-day waiting period on buying handguns was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last week, though the ``Brady bill'' still faces stiff opposition in Congress.

Gun control for minors may fare better. A measure outlawing the sale and possession of handguns by those under 18 is expected to be taken up by the US Senate this week, and even the National Rifle Association (NRA), the fabled gun lobby, has been working with sponsors of it.

In all, 18 states have put various limits on use of guns by youths - with the most recent activity in the West.

Colorado's law was passed in a special session in September. It makes firearms illegal in the hands of juveniles, except for legitimate reasons like hunting and target practice. Utah followed in October by barring the sale of firearms to minors who are unaccompanied by adults.

Now Arizona is debating whether to go beyond controls it adopted last legislative session.

State Attorney General Grant Woods (D) wants a total ban on handgun possession for those under 18, even if with an adult. While critics accuse him of political grandstanding - and Gov. Fife Symington (R) is pitching an anti-crime program for Arizona with less restrictive gun measures - pistols remain a hot topic in a state with towns like legendary Tombstone.

``If it was the general public voting on the ban, it might be approved,'' says Earl de Berge, research director for the Rocky Mountain Poll in Phoenix.

``But I doubt it will get through the legislature,'' he adds.

In New Mexico, where Gov. Bruce King (D) has appointed a task force to study youth violence, some controls on kids are expected to emerge.

Currently, youths can't go hunting in the state unless they have taken a firearms safety course. But there is nothing to stop a teen from walking downtown Santa Fe with a handgun.

``The governor is a longtime supporter of the NRA,'' says John McKean, a gubernatorial aide. ``But he feels that people have just about had it with misuse'' of firearms, particularly by children.

That gun laws are popping up in the West should not be surprising. The region is the nation's most urbanized - island cities surrounded by vast empty spaces.

Police blotters in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Phoenix bulge with entries of teen violence, a disturbing amount of it gang-related. Nor is there automatic antipathy to limiting kids' access to weapons. The NRA has backed many of the states' efforts. Throughout the history of the West, moreover, some have snubbed the Winchester culture as much as others have embraced it.

``Check your guns at the door is an old Western tradition,'' says Ms. Limerick.

Still, there is plenty of chafing over the new laws.

Many gun owners and sellers oppose any restrictions. They would prefer to see teen violence handled by other kinds of juvenile justice reforms - not, as one NRA lobbyist put it, by ``treating every kid like a Crip or Blood.''

The more sweeping bans, such as Mr. Woods's in Arizona, will spur high-noon legislative showdowns.

``We have less than 1 percent of the kids causing all the problems,'' says Landis Aden, legislative liaison for the Arizona Rifle and Pistol Association. ``Why should we punish every kid in the state?''

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