Gun law is a step in the right direction


BILL CLINTON came to Annapolis on Tuesday to celebrate the signing of a gun safety measure with which everyone but the die-hards of the National Rifle Association can feel comfortable and to remember Kathleen Kennedy Townsend's father. Bobby Kennedy has been gone for 32 years, the victim of a crazed man with a gun. The NRA remembers Bobby. It's been trying to silence his ghost since 1968.

In ceremonies at the State House, the president said Bobby would have been proud of his daughter. The lieutenant governor of Maryland nodded her head slightly and said a quiet, "Thank you." Thank you for remembering. But some things we forget.

In that summer of 1968, in the aftermath of Sirhan Sirhan in that hotel pantry and the snub-nosed .22-caliber revolver that ended Bobby Kennedy's life, there was Lyndon Johnson, the accidental president by way of cowboy Texas, the man with no more political races to run and nothing left to salvage but his conscience, imploring Congress "in the name of sanity ELLIPSIS in the name of safety and in the name of an aroused nation, to give America the gun control it needs."

Johnson couldn't persuade Congress, nor could those who followed him to the White House. The NRA wraps itself in misleading constitutional rhetoric to cover its profit motives, and plants itself in the pockets of the right politicians, and tries to sever all rational connection between the easy access to guns and the number of murders in the United States.

No, Maryland's new law would not have saved Bobby Kennedy. The legislation signed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening this week is far too modest to have done that -- and its modesty, and the ceremony surrounding it, and the appearance of the president of the United States to validate its importance, reminds us how difficult the struggle has been to push through the simplest gun measures.

The new law -- the first of its kind in the nation -- requires built-in locks on all handguns sold in the state. Does this protect us from the armed crack dealer looking to monopolize his turf? Of course not. But it protects the child who reaches for the gun as a plaything, or the teen-ager who has gone berserk, and it makes meaningless the gun stolen from a house or a car.

So it's a tiny wedge of sanity, which we need. Last year in Maryland, a breathtaking 33,038 people tried to buy handguns. That's a 19 percent jump over the previous year. In Baltimore, famous for its killings, the homicides not only reached 310 last year, but they included one child roughly every 10 days.

According to Handgun Control, a group that lobbies for stricter gun laws, more Americans were killed with guns from 1979 to 1997 (651,697) than were killed in battle in all wars since 1775 (650,858.)

The NRA's response to this is twofold: the denial and the giggle. It denies the connection between the availability of guns and the homicides committed with those guns, and it giggles through its new raffle games around rural Maryland -- buy a ticket, win a gun and ignore the latest body count -- and through its television commercials.

The last one backfired. As Glendening attempted to maneuver a gun lock, he was all fumbles and clumsiness. His lieutenant governor looked a little embarrassed for him. The NRA, missing the point entirely, pitched this as a sign that gun owners wouldn't be able to remove the locks in time to stop intruders.

What they did, instead, was show precisely how it protects a child, or a self-destructive teen, from doing damage.

But the point about intruders obviously resonates. Sane, rational people are infuriated over gun control talk simply because they are frightened. They live in tough neighborhoods, or they worry about armed criminals driving out to their suburban homes and breaking in, and they envision heroic Clint Eastwood confrontations in which they annihilate the intruders.

That such a scenario is exceedingly rare is a matter of arithmetic. But we are a nation with jangled nerves and exaggerated proportions.

On the same day Glendening signed Maryland's gun safety bill, a national report (with special focus on Maryland and Massachusetts) issued by the Justice Policy Institute declared that a "cloud of fear" has swept the country since the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado -- but that the fear belies the statistics: A child's chances of being killed at school are 1 in 2 million.

Why do our fears outstrip certain realities? Because, in so many venues, the killing continues. On so many nights, television brings us gunplay that is real and dramatized. Those kids at Columbine could have used safety locks.

And, for the past three decades, as so many have argued for gun sanity, we have had the NRA plucking at our fears, haunting us with visions of intruders, blocking all attempts to civilize a self-destructive culture -- and winning so often that, in Annapolis this week, a tiny safety gadget brought the president all the way in from Washington.

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