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State legislatures weigh handgun bans; opposition remains strong

Lawmakers in more than a dozen states from Massachusetts to Hawaii are weighing tough new measures to deter violent crimes. Proposals range from banning the private possession of handguns to mandatory prison sentences for the commission of a crime while armed.

While most of such measures appear to face continued stiff opposition, their backers hold that public support is building and that, in the wake of the shooting of President Reagan, prospects for passage may have improved.

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In New Jersey, for example, a measure to outlaw the purchase and possession of handguns, filed by state Senate president Joseph Merlino, was aired Tuesday (March 31) before a legislative committee.

The proposal, if approved, would be the second major measure passed there this year. In February Gov. Brendan T. Byrne signed into law a measure providing mandatory sentences, without parole, for those convicted of committing violent street crimes with guns -- such as armed robbery, assault, and homocide.

Despite considerable effort in recent years by groups favoring handgun controls, only Washington, D.C., has a law banning outright the private possession of such firearms.

Among the 50 states only Massachusetts and New York impose mandatory sentences for persons carrying an unlicensed handgun regardless of whether involved in the commission of a felony.

Those who pushed for the Bay State statute maintain it has been effective in preventing violent crimes in the six years since it was enacted. The New York law was approved only last summer.

Prior to passage of the New Jersey handgun law, at least 19 states provided for some form of mandatory sentencing for various gun-related violent crimes. They are Alaska, California, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Washington.

In California, where handgun proposals in the past have failed to make it through the legislature, a citizen coalition is preparing for a statewide drive to palce a referendum measure on next year's ballot.

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A stiff handgun-ban proposal, similar to that of the District of Columbia, had been filed earlier this year in the California legislature, but in the face of mounting heavy opposition from handgun advocates it was withdrawn last week. One of the cosponsors of that bill, Assemblyman Howard Berman, has had a similar proposal and an alternative one drafted and is considering filing one of them.

A measure to ban the sale of handguns in Hawaii cleared a state Senate committee earlier this year, but still faces several more lawmaker hurdles. The measure calls for a five-year mandatory sentence for violators.

Similar gun-ban proposals in Illinois and Maryland failed to gain committee approval in recent weeks and were subsequently rejected by the legislatures.

In Illinois, however, several other handgun-control measures that are less strict still are pending. One of them seeks a home-rule arrangement under which a purchaser would be subject to local regulations in the place where he or she lives rather than the city where the weapon is for sale.

Passage of this statute would "make it extremely difficult for residents of Chicago, which has the strictest gun laws in Illinois, to buy guns anywhere in the state," explains Kathy Zartman of the Illinoi Committee for Handgun Control.

Her group is supporting the legislation and at the same time resisting proposals to weaken control of weapons ownership in the state. One such measure would abolish the present licensing of gun owners. Sponsors of the legislation argue that it is poorly enforced and ineffective.

While agreeing the handgun permit arrangement has its shortcoming, Miss Zartman contends its administration could be improved and that "getting rid of it would be a step in the wrong direction."

Gun-control boosters are getting more vocal, but they still appear to be considerably less well-organized at the state level than gun proponents.

Critics of mandatory-sentence laws argue that by depriving judges of discretion in sentencing they often encourage plea bargaining under which gun-carrying charges are dropped.

States with mandatory imprisonment measures now pending or expected to be filed shortly include Arizona, Connecticut, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.

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