Guns: Britain's Example

"Lord these guns have caused too much pain ... We ask, please, never again." These words in a new version of a Bob Dylan song are part of a British campaign for a total ban on handguns.

It is led by people in Dunblane, Scotland, where a handgun massacre of schoolchildren took place in March. They want more than the strengthening of Britain's already tough gun laws proposed last week by the Conservative government. Their mood is like that in some Western US communities seeking to control handguns by local ordinance in the absence of adequate national laws.

Britain outlawed automatic and semiautomatic rifles after a gun enthusiast killed 15 people and himself in 1987. But handguns - including rapid-fire semi-automatics like those of the Dunblane killer - could be legally owned with police certification. Under proposed law, civilians could possess no handguns except target pistols kept at strictly licensed gun clubs.

Surely this is the wave of the future, as more governments catch up to Britain and other Commonwealth countries with firm firearms control. Japan has gone further and simply banned handgun ownership.

Even the US, known for liberal gun laws, has made strengthening gestures, such as the Brady bill, requiring background checks on handgun purchasers. After it was signed, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 74 percent of respondents agreed that "the law is good but more is needed."

More is indeed needed, and not only in gun control. The new British proposals include such elements as increased security for schools. The 1994 US ban on assault weapons was part of a crime bill with measures to strengthen prevention and punishment. Ultimately, the enlightened thought and behavior of individual citizens add up to the security that government can foster but not guarantee.

Principled opponents of gun control on both sides of the Atlantic sound remarkably the same: The problem is not guns but people who use them illegally. Law-abiding gun owners should not be deprived because others commit crimes. Enforcement is difficult if not impossible. Banning handguns leads to limits on hunting rifles and gun hobbies.

Such points don't persuade people in Dunblane. They know their children were massacred by a legal possessor of guns under existing law. Britain has begun to listen to their "never again," and so should everyone.

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