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Gun Control: Debate Begins Again

By David A. Copithorne

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.

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.

Like Siriani, Perkins blames the judicial system. "All the legislation in the world will be of no avail unless it's enforced, and the enforcement is extremely poor," he says. "I don't blame the officer on the street for that either." Massachusetts judges too often fail to impose sentences on criminals who have been caught carrying unlicensed handguns, Perkins says.

Robert S. Kukla, a midwestern director of the NRA who flew into Boston for last year's hearinns on gun control, said in his testimony that "gun control constitutes a monumental hoax upon the American public. It is merely a diversion from concentration on the laws, regulations and procedures by which criminals should be incarcerated."

"Incarceration" is a favorite word among gun lovers, particularly those with impatience for "soft" modern penal reform and a fondness for mandatory sentencing of criminals who break current gun laws.

"While I have all the sympathy in the world for Jan Wohlberg, I don't believe her husband's death had anything to do with a handgun," Cassidy says. "It was really a failure of medical science because the man who did it shouldn't have been put under psychiatric care in the first place. Obviously psychiatry didn't work. Handcuffs might have worked."

"The prime problem is that the issue deludes people," Cassidy continues. "You find that the same people who advocate gun control are calling for almost unlimited parole and probation. They just don't realize that it's not the gun but the person behind it who is responsible."

Meanwhile, gun control advocates like Buckley are working for an increased emphasis on furloughs and rehabilitiation outside prison walls in further penal and judicial reforms, which they say will help remedy the social and economic problems behind the man "responsible" for misusing the gun.

Buckley holds out the hope that social changes can reduce both the use of handguns and the need for them. Many gun owners, on the other hand, say that since crime is inevitable, the only way to make society safe is to lock the criminals away and, of course, to tote a handgun--the great "equalizer"--for self-defense.

And as the debate goes on, other gun control advocates like Wohlberg and Litsas continue working to get rid of what they say is the most immediate cause of the problem--the handgun that is so readily available and easy to use, but which so often inflicts terrible and irreversible damage.

Gun control advocates 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 a man wore a six-gun strapped to his hip for protection," one advocate said.

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