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Reagan's law-reform plan: latest assault on persistent US crime problem

The FBI reported 22,516 murders in the United States last year - about half of them by handguns. By contrast, the British Isles had only 55 handgun murders, and the all of Canada only 52. Both of those countries have strict handgun laws.

In a strongly worded message to Congress this week, President Reagan asked for criminal law reform and implied that legal technicalities have overburdened American courts and undermined faith in the nation's criminal justice system.

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Even as Mr. Reagan wrote Congress, presidential assailant John W. Hinckley Jr. reminded the public that he was acquitted from his assassination attempt ''by reason of insanity.'' He wrote a letter to a newspaper denying that he suffered from delusions.

From all parts of the country came continued evidence of growing national anxiety over crime and a feeling that something is amiss in American law enforcement procedures. Some quoted Dr. Milton Eisenhower's 1969 study of the problem, ''Every civilized nation of the world, other than our own, has comprehensive national policies of gun control.'' President Reagan's own three-part crime package for Congress did not deal with gun control, but did take up other specific reforms. These, he said, if enacted, would ''deliver a serious blow to the criminal elements of our society.''

The three elements in the Reagan package: the virtual elimination of the insanity defense; softening rules that now exclude tainted police evidence in trials (and thus act as a brake on the use of third-degree pressure by police); and limiting use of the habeus corpus process through which appeals are often taken from state to federal courts.

Recent statistics indicate that about one in five American families have been touched in recent years by violent crime. Evidence from respected sources like the FBI and the National Crime Survey of the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicate that there is no crime ''wave'' but a steady and chronic situation that may mark a difference in the approach in the United States and in European countries.

All the major US news magazines have run cover stories on crime during the past year. In these and other periodicals over the decades America has explored its uniqueness in relation to crime - spurred on by numerous studies of the problem from the Wickersham Commission under Herbert Hoover to the present. And, meanwhile, crime statistics remain high.

An eight-member ''Task Force on Violent Crime'' under Attorney General William French Smith (Aug. 17, 1981) urged various reforms including stronger control of firearms. President Reagan, however, has omitted gun control. Instead , he has repeated recommendations he made before the International Association of Chiefs of Police in New Orleans a year ago. He would deal chiefly with procedural juridical matters.

Gun control is opposed by an influential single-interest lobbying group in Washington, the National Rifle Association, on the grounds that it would indiscriminately restrict hunters.

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Asked why stricter gun control had been excluded from the anticrime package, David R. Gergen, communications director for the President, indicated that Reagan believed sterner sentences for criminals who use guns, together with fewer technicalities hampering police, would serve the same purpose.

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