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Banning 'Junk Guns'

It was a disappointing decision: California Gov. Pete Wilson recently vetoed legislation to ban the manufacture and sale of Saturday Night Specials, or junk guns. He said he worried the measure would deny poor people guns for self-defense.

That's faulty reasoning. The name "junk gun" says it all. The inexpensive, poorly made handguns are easily obtained and easily concealed. A study conducted in 1995 by Boston police and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms found that the often-defective Saturday Night Specials accounted for 7 out of 10 guns traced in criminal cases in the US. Because of their price (typically less than $100), they are particularly appealing to young people.

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The ban would have had a significant impact throughout the country: Most Saturday Night Specials are manufactured in California.

As gun-control advocates ask, how is it that we we have safety standards for everything from fireworks to baby rattles but not for guns? The California measure would have applied the same standards for guns imported to the US (under the Gun Control Act of 1968) to those manufactured in this country: pistols at least four inches high and six inches long; safety locks to prevent the guns from accidentally firing; and a mandatory test to ensure they don't discharge when dropped from a height of three feet. Those requirements effectively would have outlawed the junk guns.

If Mr. Wilson hasn't taken the safety issue seriously enough, others have. Massachusetts Attorney General Scott Harshbarger recently issued regulations requiring safety locks on every handgun sold in his state. Smith and Wesson, the world's leading handgun manufacturer, last month said it would include safety locks on its new handguns.

President Clinton is another advocate of safety locks. He included a similar provision in his juvenile justice bill - but it was omitted from the version passed by the House. National Rifle Association lobbyists clearly have the ear of many in Congress, as well as in California. But this issue won't go away. Wilson likely will have another chance to do the right thing.

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