Better Gun Control

Attorney Gen. Scott Harshbarger wants Massachusetts to become the first state in the country to use its consumer-protection laws to issue regulations on handgun sales.

It makes sense to treat guns like other consumer goods that pose risks. As Mr. Harshbarger says, "We regulate the safety of caps for toy guns, fireworks, and everything from bicycles to baby rattles, but not handguns."

Under the proposal, the sale in Massachusetts of cheap handguns made of inferior materials - known as "Saturday Night Specials" - would be banned. All handguns for sale in the state would be required to carry improved, tamper-resistant serial numbers and to include child-proof features such as trigger locks or increased trigger pressure.

Harshbarger, gun-safety advocates, and others aren't saying consumer-protection regulations alone will solve the problem of gun violence in Massachusetts or any other state. They do believe, however, as we do, that such regulations, if part of a comprehensive gun-control effort, would be a small step in the right direction.

A study conducted last year by Boston police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms found that the often-defective Saturday Night Specials account for 7 out of 10 guns traced in criminal cases in the US. These guns are particularly appealing to young people.

The ATF and Boston police also found that nearly 1 in 4 guns seized from Boston street gangs between 1991 and '94 had obliterated serial numbers. Current law requires manufacturers to place a visible, imprinted serial number on all guns. The new regulations would require them to put an additional number on a nonvisible spot - inside the gun, for instance - that can't be easily located and obliterated by criminals. Clearly this would make tracing weapons easier.

Child-proofing handguns is another important - and common-sense - step. According to a recent poll, fewer than half of Americans who own guns take steps to keep those weapons from children. Child-proofing guns would not and should not absolve adults of their responsibility to keep guns out of the hands of children. But it would reduce the risks to young people and would send a message to manufacturers that they have a responsibility of their own.

Once public hearings on the proposal are held in Massachusetts this fall, the state could become the first to use its consumer-protection laws this way. We hope it won't be the last.

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