For real gun-control action, watch the states

In a post-Littleton rush, some state legislators push gun laws much

In statehouses across America, lawmakers disturbed by recent school shootings are ushering in a new age of gun control - one that goes beyond what Congress has attempted.

While action in Washington has grabbed most of the attention, the shift in sentiment on gun rights is even more pronounced in America's hinterland. In the past month, about a dozen states have enacted laws to regulate gun sales or shelved legislation backed by the National Rifle Association.

The votes are significant because states are a traditional stronghold of the NRA, although the influence of the gun-rights lobby has begun to wane in recent years.

As a result, "gun-control legislation is definitely easier to pass at the state level," says Jon Vernick of Johns Hopkins University's Center for Gun Policy and Research in Baltimore.

While the Senate has "mustered the will to close the loophole on one type of sale - at gun shows," a number of states already go further, he says.

Even before this new round of gun controls, Maryland and California, for instance, required background checks on handgun transactions, including private sales.

In the five weeks since two students killed 13 others and themselves at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., activity in state capitals suggests legislators are viewing the gun debate through the lens of that tragedy.

*Illinois lawmakers passed a law requiring safe storage of guns - a measure that had stalled for years.

*The New Jersey Senate is moving on a measure to require that every gun sold in the state be equipped with a child-proof trigger lock. It is being pushed by Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

*Arizona lawmakers abandoned a proposal to prevent cities from imposing local gun-control ordinances.

*In Florida, Ohio, and Colorado, Republicans backed away from bills that would have prohibited cities from suing gun manufacturers.

*In California, a bill that makes it illegal to purchase more than one handgun per month passed the Assembly by one vote. The deciding vote was cast by a lawmaker who confessed that he had trouble sleeping after Columbine.

*Republican lawmakers in Colorado withdrew two pro-gun measures that, until the Littleton incident, were headed for passage. The bills were considered a barometer of the nation's gun-control climate and were intensely lobbied by the NRA.

"In times like this, people don't want to hear about more guns on the street," says Kelly Anders, a policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. In the past, she reflects, school shootings were viewed as tragic, but not necessarily as a national epidemic.

Now, "it stands to reason that people have stopped thinking that these things are all aberrations," she says.

Some analysts say the NRA had already lost some ground in the gun-control war, even before the school shootings. Since 1996, efforts to pass concealed-weapons laws in nine states all failed. And the defeat earlier this year of an NRA-backed concealed-weapons referendum in Missouri came as a blow to gun lobbyists.

What's different now is that legislative developments are being driven by the public's heightened sensitivity to gun-control issues - not by politicians, says Joe Sudbay, director of state legislatures and outreach for Handgun Control Inc., in Washington. "What's happening is that now there's an intensity to people's desire for stricter gun control," he says. "And state legislatures are closer to their constituents [than Congress is]."

The NRA declined to comment on the issue. But in a May 7 communique to members, the organization said the Clinton administration is "acting shamelessly to exploit the tragedy at Columbine High School in order to further its antigun agenda."

Rep. Robert Barr (R) of Georgia, an NRA board member, also took a critical view of the unfolding political debate. "It really pulls us away from addressing the more fundamental issue of what caused this," he said. "It's not a gun-control problem. It's a culture control problem."

Mr. Vernick, at Johns Hopkins, suggests the political evolution now reflects what polls have demonstrated for years: that a majority of citizens favors tougher gun-control measures.

"In my view, the real story is the significant divide between what people say they want and what we seem to get for gun legislation," he says.

The current political shift, however, may not last. NRA officer Wayne LaPierre has said the setback is temporary. He predicts a rebound during the 2000 election campaign.

Others suspect otherwise.

"My sense is that there is a sea change in the population," says John Head, a Denver lawyer who recently started a bipartisan gun-control group in Colorado called Sane Alternatives to the Firearms Epidemic (SAFE).

Within days of its founding, SAFE had received hundreds of calls of support, he says. The group, with leadership from Colorado's former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm and former Republican Gov. John Love, will support "reasonable" gun-control restrictions - and intends to exceed NRA's membership and campaign fund-raising in Colorado.

"The NRA represents a legitimate point of view, but my sense is that they're not the majority," says Mr. Head. "Up to this point, they have prevailed because they haven't been challenged."

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