Handgun control movement may be a driving political force of the '90s


Drive-by shootings and gang violence sweeping cities across the nation are inciting new support for gun control laws, powering a movement that backers say could make owning firearms as unpopular as drunken driving or smoking in crowded restaurants.

Over the last year officials in nearly a dozen states have approved or proposed new restrictions on gun ownership -- signaling that gun control may be an issue whose time is at hand.

So deep is the concern over teen-age shootings and spreading urban mayhem that even Western states such as Utah and Colorado, where gun ownership by minors is often considered a rite of passage, have taken bold action to stop young people from shooting one another.

"When you hear that a state like Utah has to call a special session of the Legislature to deal with the problem of kids and guns, you know it's become a top national issue," said Cheryl Brolin of Handgun Control Inc., the organization galvanized by the shooting of former presidential press secretary James Brady.

In Washington, where drug-inspired shootings involving teen-agers are a fixture of daily life, the national reaction to an epidemic of gang violence is striking a responsive chord. President Clinton routinely draws strong applause during speeches in which he chastises lobbyists who oppose gun control.

And Congress, which has long thwarted gun control proposals as a matter of course, is expected to consider the "Brady bill" before the end of the year. The bill, supported by mayors and police officials across the country, would require a five-day waiting period for buyers of handguns.

By taking up the gun control debate, national policy makers are reflecting a widely held belief that violence committed with guns will soon vie for center stage in the nation's political discourse.

For example, in Virginia and New Jersey, the only states electing governors this year, Democratic candidates are touting their support for restrictions on the ownership of assault weapons and hand guns.

[In Maryland, a statewide coalition -- Marylanders Against Handgun Abuse -- is pushing a proposal that would give #F Maryland one of the strictest gun laws in the nation.]

[The proposal, which is certain to face stiff opposition in Annapolis, would require a Marylander to pass a safety test and acquire a license before buying a handgun or handgun ammunition.]

Robert Blendon, who tracks national public opinion surveys at Harvard University's School of Public Health, said the new eagerness of politicians to champion gun control should come as no surprise, because national polls show that concern about street shootings is rising to unprecedented levels.

"Right now the economy is far ahead as the No. 1 issue. But health care and crime are tied for No. 2," Mr. Blendon said. "I predict that in the 1994 elections crime and violence will be up there right after the economy as a leading issue."

Mr. Blendon, however, said that mounting concern over street violence and the number of dead teen-agers on city streets will not necessarily translate into greater support for gun control. Indeed, some polls show that as gang violence spreads, more Americans are seeking to protect themselves by buying guns.

"What you have is a shift in the number of people who believe that we have to do something. But there's no firm idea of exactly what that something ought to be," Mr. Blendon said.

Officials at the National Rifle Association, long the leader of opposition to gun control, agree.

Susan Lamson, the organization's director of federal affairs, said that although fear of crime may push gun control to the top of the nation's political agenda, voters in the long run will act to preserve their right to own firearms and instead push for stronger anti-crime measures, such as stiffer prison sentences for repeat felons.

"What you're seeing in states where guns control is passing is not a weakening of the NRA's position but a massive response to the problem of crime and a willingness to grasp at anything -- whether it works or not," Ms. Lamson said.

Meanwhile, Democratic gubernatorial candidates in Virginia and New Jersey have made gun control centerpieces in their campaigns.

Mary Sue Terry, the Virginia attorney general running for governor, is touting a proposed five-day waiting period for handgun buyers. She is also highlighting her support for an earlier law designed to erase Virginia's reputation as a gunrunning state by limiting purchasers of handguns to one gun per month.

In New Jersey, Gov. Jim Florio is advertising his ground-breaking drive for a ban on assault weapons, which he won shortly after winning office four years ago despite stiff opposition to the ban from the NRA.

Back then, Mr. Florio's gambit was deemed so politically risky that it was cited by the Kennedy Library Foundation when it awarded him its Profile in Courage Award this year.

But times change. Said Carl Van Horn, a one-time Florio aide now acting director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, "When the governor came out with the ban it was courageous. Now it's not a huge risk -- just very astute."

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