The political struggle over the right to own and use firearms has taken a troubling youthful turn.
The recent fatal shootings by young people at schools in Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., Pearl, Miss., and last Friday at a school dance in Edinboro, Pa., are fueling a renewed effort by gun-control advocates to target manufacturers, who, they say, bear at least some responsibility for these deaths.
This Saturday, activists will hold "silent march" protests outside the headquarters of eight major gunmakers across the US. The event, endorsed by a coalition of health, religious, and pro-gun control groups, is meant to highlight their concerns over gun designs, as well as the regulations governing the distribution and marketing of firearms.
"Children's teddy bears are subject to more safety regulations than the handguns that kill children," says Ellen Freudenheim of Brooklyn, N.Y., national organizer of the protest. Firearms are exempt from regulation by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
Under pressure from state officials considering new regulations, gunmakers are responding with efforts they say will help keep firearms out of the hands of young people. For example, manufacturers have begun to take such steps as including locking devices with all new handguns they sell.
"We really started that process before children became the headline issue," says Ken Jorgensen, a spokesman for Springfield, Mass.-based Smith & Wesson, the world's largest maker of handguns.
The company estimates that about 40 percent of its customers are first-time buyers without prior experience in keeping their weapons out of the hands of children.
"Our concern was that these people have some way to secure their firearm when it wasn't under their control," says Mr. Jorgensen. (In Jonesboro, the two boys charged with killing a teacher and four students and wounding 11 others, allegedly took the guns they used from a relative's home.)
But trigger locks alone are not enough to satisfy critics, who note that more than 5,000 minors are killed by firearms every year in the United States - either through murder, suicide, or accident. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported this month that the US has the highest rate of gun-deaths among the 36 richest nations.
WHEN it confronts industry officials this week, the "silent march" coalition will push for safety changes in gun designs - such as child-resistant triggers and guns that will fire only if held by the owner. They also want stricter licensing of gun dealers and a record - similar to the title transfer in a car sale - when guns are sold.
Especially troubling to these critics are the ads in gun catalogs and magazines that show children using handguns. "Those sure were the good times - just you, Dad, and his Smith & Wesson," reads the photo caption in a company catalog showing a man and a boy target-shooting.
Manufacturers and such gun-support groups as the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America say their efforts are meant to teach youngsters to respect and safely handle firearms. The NRA's "Eddie Eagle Gun Safety Program" (featuring a cartoon mascot) warns kids who find a firearm in the home to "Stop! Don't touch. Leave the area. Tell an adult."
But that does not leave critics satisfied.
"There are at least 200 million firearms in the US today," says "silent march" organizer Tina Johnstone of Staten Island, N.Y., whose husband was killed by a 16 year-old with a handgun. "How many more do we need?"
In several cases around the country, those injured in gun attacks have tried to tie liability to gun manufacturers. But judges and juries have rejected such claims.
For example, a Utah woman sued Smith & Wesson when her former husband shot her with a handgun, an attack that left her paralyzed. But a federal appeals court last month ruled that she "was not harmed by the manufacturing of the Smith & Wesson .38, but by the use of it to shoot her."
While gun manufacturers may thus be relatively secure in the knowledge that the courts (and a generally supportive Congress) will not hold them liable for the actions of anyone who uses their product to kill or injure someone, they cannot be so sure about state officials.
Some attorneys general have begun pursuing gunmakers in much the same way they have the tobacco industry. The most aggressive has been Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, who intends to apply state consumer-protection laws to the manufacture and sale of handguns. Mr. Harshbarger (who is running for governor) stresses the child-safety aspect of his campaign.
But gunmakers say Harshbarger is running roughshod over the Constitution and have filed suit to stop him. "The real agenda here appears to be a back-door approach to gun prohibition by the bureaucratic expediency of regulatory fiat," says Richard Feldman of the American Shooting Sports Council, a gun-industry trade group. "These regulations will virtually ban the sale of handguns in the Commonwealth."