Published on Wednesday, April 19, 2000 in the Los Angeles Times
Gun-Control Movement Split by Ambition to Ban Handguns
by Eric Lichtblau and Richard Simon
For all the recent talk of "smart" guns, trigger locks and other innovations in weapons safety, an increasingly vocal minority in the gun-control community is arguing that nothing short of a ban on handguns will stem gun violence. They maintain that the current array of half-step advances in gun-safety technology could actually fuel violence.
The gun-control movement has achieved only sporadic legislative victories in the last year. Yet the mere mention of a much more ambitious agenda--a handgun ban--has expanded the national debate and generated both enthusiasm and division within a gun-control community that is enjoying unprecedented visibility and financial backing in the year since Columbine.
"Historically, if you talked about banning handguns, it was political suicide. I don't think that's true anymore," said Eric Gorovitz, policy coordinator in San Francisco for the Bell Campaign, a new victims-rights group that has taken no position on a handgun ban.
"There's a split in the gun-control movement about it," Gorovitz said. "There's some resistance to even talking about bans because it's been taboo for so long. But [backers] sense that there's momentum now that wasn't there even a couple of years ago, and they want to take advantage of that."
One leading advocate of a handgun ban, the Washington-based Violence Policy Center, warns that technology such as "smart" weapons, whose development has been pushed by President Clinton, will increase gun sales.
They cite a survey by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which found that among people unlikely to buy a standard gun, one-third would consider purchasing a "smart" weapon--one that can only be fired by its authorized user. Gun maker Colt estimates that "smart" guns could add 60 million new firearms owners.
"After the horror of Columbine, for gun-control advocates from the White House on down to say [safety reforms such as trigger locks and smart guns] would have any real effect is laughable," said Josh Sugarmann, head of the Violence Policy Center. "Not only will smart guns have little effect on decreasing gun deaths and injury, we think it will actually increase gun deaths. It will put more guns on the street."
Moreover, Sugarmann said his research shows that the "smart" gun
initiative is misguided because it would do nothing to prevent the large
numbers of gun deaths caused by people firing their own weapons--often
spouses in domestic disputes, for instance, or suicides.
Talk of Bans Seen as Folly by Some
The National Rifle Assn. contends that the new push for a handgun ban reflects a dangerous affront to the 2nd Amendment and the hidden agenda of the gun-control movement.
Even some leaders in the gun-control community say that advocating a handgun ban is political folly. Congress has been deadlocked for more than eight months over much more modest gun-control measures, such as expanding background checks at gun shows and requiring trigger locks on new handguns. And, although polls consistently show a majority of Americans back tougher gun laws, only about a third want an outright ban on handguns.
Some also dispute the notion that smart or personalized guns will lead to increased firearms sales and more deaths. "Sure, some people will bring a gun into the home who wouldn't have," said Jon S. Vernick, associate director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research. "But we believe that, on balance, if you have to have a gun in your home, a personalized gun is the safer alternative."
But advocates of a ban say activists need to seize the momentum generated by Columbine and other shootings, including the attack on a Los Angeles Jewish day care center last August.
Columbine was a defining moment in the gun debate, a number of experts said.
The tragedy last April 20 in Colorado, which claimed the lives of 12 students, a teacher and the two teenage gunmen, has permeated the public consciousness well beyond the political arena. An Internet company pulled a television ad that showed a computer blasted by gunfire. And Sears stopped selling "the villain," a gun-toting action figure dressed in a black trench coat.
Since the shooting, gun violence has gained unrivaled attention, from the presidential candidates down to the mayors of towns such as Waterloo, Iowa, whose Republican mayor recently traveled to Washington to support a Clinton administration plan to steer police gun purchases to "responsible" gun makers.
But Sugarmann decries what he called the "cautionary movement" in the gun-control community.
More moderate activists, he said, "are really afraid to face some of the hard truths" about what needs to be done. And the unwillingness among some moderates to debate a handgun ban "has hurt the movement in that, all too often, many in the gun-control movement are willing to trade the perception of short-term political success for long-term public policy goals."
A few cities, most notably Washington and Chicago, already have bans or severe restrictions on private ownership of handguns, and the Maryland attorney general embraced the idea of a "farewell to arms" last October. Other groups have begun talking up the idea in recent months as well, but the gun-control movement's most visible player, Handgun Control Inc., doesn't think a ban is necessary.
Joe Sudbay, the group's political director, downplayed any divisions over the handgun-ban issue. "It's a growing movement and there's going to be debate within the movement." The important thing is, he said, that gun-control advocates, whatever their differences, work together to elect lawmakers who are in favor of gun control.
While the gun-control movement is still well behind the gun lobby in political and financial muscle, observers said that it is becoming an influential force.
Gun-control supporters in the last year have generated more money than ever before for research, violence prevention and advocacy, including tens of millions in grants from philanthropic groups such as George Soros' Open Society Institute, the San Francisco-based Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation.
At Handgun Control Inc., membership has surged nearly 20% in the last year to about 475,000, and the "Million Mom March" for gun control, set for next month in Washington, is expected to draw more attention to the issue.
"What changed after Columbine was that people who long believed we should do something started to speak out," said Gorovitz of the Bell Campaign.
But with the NRA mobilizing a strong counterattack in recent months--its membership has soared to a record 3.5 million--the legislative results have been mixed.
"There has been more talk than action," said Kelly Anders of the
National Conference of State Legislatures. "You can overhear people
talking about gun control just about everywhere, on elevators, in the
Legislature, on television. But when it comes to actual laws that are
passed as a result of these concerns, they are minuscule."
States Approve Few Firearms-Related Bills
Anders estimated that about 1,100 firearms-related bills were introduced in statehouses last year. Fewer than 150 passed and most of those dealt with administrative issues such as whether a sheriff could keep his gun when he retires.
There have been key victories for gun-control advocates in states, including California and Maryland. Massachusetts this month began regulating guns as consumer products, a move with far-reaching implications.
But a new study released last week by the pro-gun-control Open Society Institute found a "striking . . . lack of uniformity" in state firearms laws.
The study concluded that 42 states "fall below minimum standards for public safety, since they lack basic gun laws such as licensing and registration."
Even in California, where gun-control advocates pride themselves on the state's get-tough gun laws banning assault weapons and limiting handgun purchases to one a month, the study found that the state lacks basic licensing and registration of rifles and handguns.
The state ranked third in the study's analysis, well behind Massachusetts and Hawaii. "There are some crucial measures missing," said study director Rebecca Peters.
"It's an indictment of the rest of the country that California is considered to have strict gun laws," Gorovitz said, "because everyone else is so weak."
Copyright 2000 Los Angeles Times