The auditorium at the State House was jammed with nearly a thousand people, most of them sporting lapel buttons that said, "Stick to your Guns!" There were hundreds of burly men, young and old, wearing red hunting jackets decorated with patches that identified gun clubs and sportsmen's associations from all over the state.
When a young man with a crew cut got up and spread out a banner that declared, "I will give up my gun when they pry my cold dead fingers from around it," the crowd stood up and roared its approval with cheers, applause and foot-stamping. The ovation set the tone for the rest of the day's hearings on gun control bills before the state legislature's Committee on Public Safety.
After the hearings last February, the legislature killed the bills, squashing any hopes that the state would even make a start in 1974 toward outlawing the possession of handguns. This year people working for the elimination of handguns are trying again, and though their chances still seem slin, they have more support than ever from influential leaders and organizations.
State Sen. Jack H. Backman (D-Brookline), who is sponsoring legislation similar to last year's which would ban any gun with a barrel shorter than ten inches, once again has the support of Boston Police Commissioner Robert J. di Grazia and Middlesex County Sheriff John J. Buckley, whose narrow victory in the last election has been interpreted as a victory for gun control.
This year Backman also has the support of a new organization called People vs. Handguns, which boasts over 2000 members, as well as the Massachusetts chapter of the League of Women Voters.
Gun lovers have responded to this threat with a new organization of their own called the Gun Owners Action League (GOAL). Clifford Levi, a founder of GOAL, says, "We needed an organization that could reach out to the mass of unorganized gun owners." He says that its membership, now well over 3000, is "growing like crazy."
Warren Cassidy Sr., a member of GOAL, says that in spite of last year's showing of strength at the state hearings, sources of opposition to gun control bills have barely been tapped. "You know the type of man who likes to go up into the woods alone with his dog to do some hunting or fishing--it's hard to get him aroused, or to join a group. But we're finally getting him to come around," Cassidy says.
The new strength of both gun owners and gun control advocates should make the battle in the state legislature even more vicious this year. Given the repeated failure of attempts at pushing gun control measures through Congress, which is beset by lobbyists from the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA) and large gun manufacturers, the state legislatures have been receiving more attention recently.
Massachusetts, which already has some of the strictest licensing and registration laws in the country, has gotten so much of this attention that even the American Rifleman Magazine, the mouthpiece of the NRA, last spring called Boston the "center" of a growing movement bent on doing away with the right to bear arms by attacking gun owners at the state level.
Many gun owners say this "right" to carry a handgun is guaranteed by the second amendment to the Constitution, which speaks of the states' rights to support a militia. But the Supreme Court has ruled time and time again that the second amendment has nothing to do with the individual's right to bear arms.
Even so, owners of handguns say that Supreme Court or no Supreme Court, citizens do have the right to carry a gun both for sporting purposes and, in an increasingly violent and crime-ridden society, for self-defense.
"There's a legitimate place for the handgun in self-defense, because there are a lot of cases where only very violent methods of self-defense are sufficient," Cassidy, an ex-marine, says. "In most violent crimes, the victim is older, less vicious and weaker than the attacker. You've got to remember that originally, guns came into effect as equalizers."
However, gun control advocates have long been citing statistics showing that when the victim of a crime is carrying a handgun, the odds are better than six to one that his assailant will use it against him. As long ago as 1968 a report by the Eisenhower Commission on Firearms and Violence concluded that nationally, the use of guns had thwarted only about two per cent of burglaries and home robberies.
The Eisenhower Commission was the result of a growing furor that arose after easily acquired rifles had killed President Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and after Robert F. Kennedy was killed by a handgun a child could have bought.
Both sides agree that the resulting 1968 Gun Control Act, which outlawed mail order sales and required records to be kept of purchases of guns and ammunition, has done virtually nothing to reduce killings and other crimes committed with guns.
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