Taking Aim


If somebody like me can buy six Saturday-night specials (pistols) with case, there is something drastically wrong. I'm considering giving my support to the National Coalition to Ban Handguns. John Hinckley Jr.

AS OF THIS MONTH, that National Coalition has gone local. Undoubtably prompted by the recent reelection of National Rifle Association-endorsed, handgun victim President Reagan, the Coalition's director Michael Beard at a Massachusetts State House news conference announced a shift from national efforts to local campaigns against handguns. The new focus on local level politics will try to convince city and town governments to legislate against handguns. Natalie Roy, director of Massachusetts Citizens for Handgun Control, wants to prohibit citizens from taking guns outside their homes; local police would enforce the prohibition.

Reagan's outspoken pro-handgun stance and his support of the NRA seem an ironic turning of the other cheek, but the constitutional freedoms he invokes have hit home with voters, spelling major setbacks for advocates of gun control. If it was bleak for these activists after the 1980 conservative landslide, is it defeat after 1984's instant replay? Perhaps not, for two reasons. First, Reagan's short "coattails" did not produce a conservative sweep in the congressional races. Secondly, the repercussions of the victory have jolted handgun control activists into the daring shift toward local politics, a change that may save their cause. It is, however, not without its problems. At best, the Coalition's campaign for local legislation will mean fewer handgun-related killings; at worst, it will hamper the Coalition's national strategy and delay further the resolution of the issue by providing a target for what has proven to be a lethal sting--the counterattack of the NRA and other pro-gun groups.

This polarization of gun-lovers, those "who believe that God, Guns, and Guts Made US Great!," and gun-haters obscures the issue. The real opposition is, on one side, 10,000 handgun-related civilian deaths in 1983, and on the other side, the desire of a large number of Americans to own guns--not just the people in the NRA. We are talking on the order of a quarter of a billion guns, with two sold every 24 seconds. The problem is either with an idiosyncrasy of American values that makes us feel we must own a gun to be secure, or an overwhelming availability of guns (as the Coalition argues).

Reagan's reelection climaxed a streak of setbacks to handgun control activists that includes a series of stymied gun control bills introduced during the seventies by legislators such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy '54 (D-Mass.), Reagan's election in 1980, and the resounding defeat of California's handgun-restricting Proposition 15 in 1982. The NRA has shot down the activists on all fronts. Seemingly they have nowhere to turn.


IT TOOK the daring legislative move of a town in Illinois. Morton Groves, to teach the National Coalition to fight the NRA with its own weapons--at least on a legal front. Denied success at the federal and state levels, the Coalition has adopted Morton Groves' absolute ban on the sale and possession of handguns as a model for its legal campaign. The NRA has always sworn with its right hand on the Second Amendment wherever it takes its stand: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." Now, the gun control groups finally have a chance to make use of a 1939 U.S. Supreme Court decision interpreting the Second Amendment as pertaining only to the militia, not to an individual's right to bear arms. In other words, nothing in the Constitution prohibits gun control. In light of this, a 1982 U.S. Appeals Court decision upholding the Morton Groves ban has become the impetus for the Coalition's shift to local level politics.

Because opinion polls show public support for gun control laws in Massachusetts, the Coalition is aiming at eastern Massachusetts--liberal communities such as Brookline. Lincoln, and Acton. Boston and Cambridge city council resolutions calling for gun restrictions have encouraged the activists. Focusing on communities may address the differences in the needs and politics of, for example, a rural homeowner in New Mexico and an executive in a picture-window office of a Boston skyscraper--differences that have impeded national strategies. Public opinion and reaction can be predicted more easily in small communities; so perhaps the Coalition will be able to influence legislation precisely and effectively.

Yet this potential leverage does not necessarily translate into real gains in political clout or actual enforcement--a gap that threatens to turn the target communities into experimental guinea pigs, instead of the puzzle pieces that the Coalition wants to eventually fit into an overall plan. Given that the Coalition could persuade communities to restrict or ban handguns, they will be most valuable as test cases, both for the purposes of the activists, and for the understanding of the handgun problems. The results of such piecemeal bans may not support the goals of control advocates, but could shed light on the peculiarly American phenomenon of civilian-owned guns, on whether banning weapons reduces the number of deaths and is feasible to enforce.

However, the Coalition does not see itself as merely gathering data about the situation; the point is to change it. The question then becomes how effective local communities would be in placing together a national plan, or whether, instead, they would actually detract from an overall scheme. Switching to the local level, though not leaving national level plans in the drink, may limit broad strategies like the regulation of ammunition. Restricting ammunition sales, a controversial but intriguing overall solution, simply makes no sense in small communities. It is no great inconvenience to buy your bullets in a neighboring town; and, following this reasoning, why not your guns too? Prohibition within does not necessarily keep guns out.

The entire scheme rests on enforcability. Activist Roy says that police would prohibit citizens from taking handguns outside their homes. No easy matter, considering that one of the original problems is that a handgun fits nicely in a briefcase, a purse, a cost pocket. Furthermore, this answer leaves unaddressed the very real dangers of having a gun in the home: they cause an overwhelming number of accidents. More than half of the 10,000 people who were killed by handguns in 1983 were shot by relatives, friends, or acquaintances, according to the FBI. If a policeman were to transgress the rights of a homeowner in trying to enforce restrictions, the NRA would react like a whip, further polarizing the two factions and forcing an understanding or a solution back out the door. Since the communities are test cases, vulnerable to attack in a way that federal restrictions would not be once implemented, the Coalition's plan is a high risk venture.

BEHIND ALL of these problems looms the question of whether local efforts would remain test cases or would spread beyond a few isolated communities. To predict this would require weighing negative voting trends like the rejection of Proposition 15 and Reagan's reelection, against the public opinion polls that have supposedly supported handgun control. The weight of the negative voting trends has tipped the scales against the Coalition's plan. The shift to local level politics would create a vulnerable focus for the NRA's politically powerful, three million-membered, $52 million machine--a focus that would only grate on new nerves, and set back the possibility of coming to any real solution, not so much about handguns, but about saving human lives.

It is more than sobering to note that several towns have reacted to Morton Groves' handgun ban by swinging to the opposite extreme. A 1982 law in Kennesaw, Georgia, requires the head of every household to possess a gun and ammunition. In fact, the town went so far as to "supply just about any sort of firearm" to those who couldn't buy them. It is a wonder that they did not enact mandatory target practice. This law represents not just a legal response to local gun control, but an armed response. It is as if the NRA is readying itself for battle. Literally.