At the time, some said the only thing the act did was aid the large American gun manufacturers because it has a clause that restricts the importation of cheap handguns. Even in this respect the act failed, because by 1972 imports were again up to pre-1968 levels.
In spite of the poor track record of Congress, both sides agree that gun legislation capable of preventing hard-core crime can only come at the national level. "Only the federal government can pass meaningful controls," sayd George Sacco, whose law firm will help GOAL in its lobbying at the State House this year. "Otherwise, guns will still come flooding in from out of state."
In one sense, then, gun lovers are right when they argue, "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." Even Diane Litsas, director of People vs. Handguns, agrees. "To take guns away from the hard core criminal, gun control would have to go national, and right now there's no national movement," she says.
However, Litsas says that even legal handguns kill in accidents and crimes of passion. "Our focus is on the gun in the home," she says. "There's usually little to stop a curious child from shooting himself by accident.
"More importantly, people aren't rational all the time, and very, very often if the gun is there they will use it, whether it be in a family argument or a drunken brawl," she adds. The Eisenhower Commission report bolsters her position with the conclusion that the victim knows his attacker in nearly 80 per cent of all homicides.
Last winter, Dr. Gerald Wohlberg, a psychiatrist at Boston State Hospital, was doing a routine day's work when a patient of his burst in with a handgun and shot him in the head. His wife Janet watched with her children as Wohlberg, in a coma for weeks, died a slow death. "It was such a small wound," she said at a press conference announcing the formation of People vs. Handguns, which she helped found. "But it blinded and deafened, then paralyzed him, and finally it stopped his respiration and suffocated him."
"My children think that a gun must be an enormous thing because of what it did to their father," she said. "But a handgun is a small thing that shoots a small bullet that can do terrible damage."
Janet Wohlberg has joined with Litsas, Backman, Buckley and others in combating what they call America's "gun culture." They are reacting against values that have a lot to do with the lingering myth of the "frontier spirit" but little to do with modern urban society. "Our country has changed since the days of the wild, wild, west when men wore a six-gun strapped to their hip for protection," Buckley says.
Peter D. Nichols, an aide to Buckley and another founder of People vs. Handguns, says, "It's the kind of thing that will take years. If we banned handguns, there would be no immediate effect, but most people obey most laws, so hopefully young people would grow up used to the idea of living without guns."
However, gun owners, particularly members of gun clubs and sportsmen's associations, say that guns, if used properly, are a part of a healthy tradition. "Each year I go up north deer hunting," Cassidy says. "I enjoy going off, being in the woods.
"But then I get back and everyone looks at me and says, 'You're still doing that?' like I'm old fashioned or something. But it would be perfectly normal to them if I went on one of those buses to Foxboro every weekend to watch 22 men beat each other up for a couple of hours, and to have a few pops, scream and yell, and then come home," Cassidy adds.
The use of handguns rather than rifles for hunting or for sporting purposes is limited, however, forcing gun lovers to resort to "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" arguments. Cassidy says pressure for handgun controls is a "charade" and the "people who want to get rid of guns entirely are just starting on handguns. After that they'll go much further."
Litsas says that "fanatic" gun supporters often display a "paranoid reaction" to any kind of effort at gun control. "They know that the handgun has no social purpose, that it's only made to kill," she says. "But people who are very much the sportsmen fear a reaction to guns in general, and that pretty soon all their guns will be taken away."
Some gun owners are just as afraid of stricter licensing and registration laws, which would give the government a chance to put together lists of gun owners that could be used for other purposes than the control of illegal firearms. Dwight Perkins, Jr., a vice president of GOAL, says, "There's an important danger in registration. Look what people have been able to do with the Internal Revenue Service."
When forced into a corner, however, a surprising number of gun owners admit that controls upon handguns and in some cases prohibition could be beneficial. But this concession only provides a springboard from which they leap into their favorite argument. "We just don't have judges with enough guts to impose the kind of sentences allowed by gun laws already on the books," says State Rep. Ralph E. Siriani Jr. (D-Winthrop). Siriani is chairman of the Committee on Public Safety, which holds hearings every year and reports on gun control bills before the legislature.
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