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Putting a legal lid on handguns, martial-arts weapons. `Ninja' movies, mail-order loophole help martial-arts weapons to spread

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Forty cents and a stamp. That's all it takes for youngsters to buy the latest badge of courage -- one of the lethal ``throwing stars'' advertised in many comic books and martial arts magazines. And in Massachusetts, that's all it takes to evade a state law prohibiting the possession of several weapons associated with an obscure martial-art form known as ninjitsu. The one-two punch of ``ninja mania'' and the mail-order loophole has prompted Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts to introduce a federal bill that would make it illegal to mail throwing stars, fighting chains, and nunchucks (two short clubs connected by a chain) to states that already regulate their sale and transfer.

While the bill is designed only to protect laws already in place in 12 states, it may deliver a crushing karate kick to the martial-arts industry. And true to its name, the industry, which feels unfairly threatened by a possible chain reaction of laws banning martial-arts weapons, is fighting back in self-defense.

``The bill would cripple the big suppliers,'' says Larry Kelley, a karate instructor from Amherst, Mass., who has staged a year-long crusade against mail-order ninja weapons. He says it would stop suppliers from sending weapons to their three biggest markets -- California, New York, and Massachusetts. And ``if a law gets passed,'' he adds, ``the other 38 states [without laws against martial-arts weapons] may realize how serious the problem is and pass their own state laws.''

Mr. Kelley's grass-roots campaign began when he saw mail-order weapons start seeping into his affluent community over a year ago.

``I found out from a seven-year-old student of mine that shurikens [throwing stars] were showing up in the grade schools,'' Kelley says, explaining that anyone who can throw a Frisbee could puncture a car door with the jagged metal stars. ``I thought, `If it's going on here, what . . . is going on in tougher areas?' '' Martial-arts instructors and police chiefs around the country confirmed his hunch that ``the problem was widespread.''

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