WASHINGTON -- At first blush, the gun-control law just passed in Virginia may seem laughably weak -- limiting handgun purchases to one a month per person. It is obviously aimed, however, not at the occasional gun buyer but at gun traffickers who have made the state the prime source of handgun purchases in the nation.
The ready availability of handguns in Virginia, and the state's proximity to major centers of crime, including Washington and New York, have lured a steady stream of criminals to Virginia gun shops. The new law should at least force these traffickers to other states with lax gun laws or none at all.
While this result may seem a minimal one, it does send a message about the growing vulnerability of the National Rifle Association as one of the nation's most effective lobbyists. And it underscores the NRA's rigidity in the face of growing public concern about the number of handguns in circulation.
For the first time in 12 years, there is a president in the Oval Office committed to voting for the Brady Bill, which would require a five-day waiting period in every state before the purchase of a handgun. The waiting period is designed not only as a cooling-off period to counter shootings of passion but also to enable local police to check on the purchaser for any criminal record that would prohibit the purchase.
In a State of the Union address devoted almost exclusively to the problem of the national economy, President Clinton took time to challenge Congress to pass the Brady Bill, pledging to sign it. The fact that Congress did pass the bill in the last session, only to see it vetoed by President George Bush, is a strong indication of success this year.
In the meantime, the war over handgun controls goes on, with the NRA remaining on the offensive in several states. In Missouri and Texas, the gun lobby is pushing legislation that would permit the carrying of concealed weapons. And the legislature in New Jersey has just overridden a veto by Gov. James Florio of a bill weakening the state's restrictions on semiautomatic assault weapons.
The lobby is also fighting a successful movement for enactment of state laws holding adults criminally liable for gun injuries and deaths resulting from accidental shootings by children with guns left accessible to them in the home.
This so-called child accidental prevention legislation was originally passed in Florida in 1989 after an epidemic of such shootings. Ten other states now have similar laws and another nine in Border, Midwestern, Southern and Southwestern states where gun possession is particularly high have legislation pending.
While fighting gun control interests on this and various other fronts, the NRA continues to insist that Americans have a constitutional right to bear arms, relying on the Second Amendment, the second part of which says "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." But lower courts have ruled several times that the first part of the amendment, saying that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State," clearly means the right exists not as an individual one, but as a collective one, for the purpose stated.
The small Chicago suburb of Morton Grove, Ill., has had a total handgun ban on its books for nearly 12 years now. The NRA has declined to bring the issue to the Supreme Court -- fearful, NRA foes say, that the ban will be upheld and end once and for all the NRA's argument that the right to bear arms is an individual one protected by the Second Amendment.
The NRA professes to be the lobby of legitimate gun owners who use their weapons for hunting, target practice or just as collector's items. But the old NRA slogan, "Guns don't kill people, people kill people," has worn particularly thin with the advent of semiautomatic assault weapons that have no demonstrable use in hunting -- except the hunting of human beings in drive-by shootings and the like that have become a trademark of inner-city gang warfare.
The Virginia one-a-month law is only a step toward curtailing gun trafficking by criminals. But it is a step in a long uphill battle for rationality in dealing with this national menace.