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Gun control proposal triggers strong reactions

April 28, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

President Clinton's Tuesday proposal to expand gun control in the wake of the April 20 school shootings in Littleton, Colo., have sparked strong reactions from supporters and opponents of stronger gun laws.

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"It's an exercise in futility. It's going to accomplish nothing," said Paul G.H. Wolber, Maryland director of the Izaak Walton League and past president of the Washington County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. "They don't enforce the laws we have now."

Advocates said tighter restrictions on gun ownership will cut down on murders.

"When people say 'Guns don't kill, people kill,' I say, '"Yes, but handguns make it a whole lot easier,'" said Jim Surkamp, of Shepherdstown, W.Va., founder and coordinator of the Grief Support Network.

Clinton's proposal, which came a week to the day after two students killed 13 people at Columbine High School in suburban Denver and then took their own lives, included:

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- Mandatory child-safety locks on all guns sold.

- Extension of an existing ban on juvenile possession of handguns to include semiautomatic assault rifles; also a ban on importation of all ammunition magazines that hold more than 10 rounds, an extension of current law banning imports of those made since 1994.

- Background checks on buyers for all gun-show sales.

- A lifetime ban on gun ownership for people who commit violent crimes as juveniles.

- A three-day waiting period for all handgun purchases, with an additional two days if law officers need them to complete their investigation.

- Mandatory prison sentences of three to 10 years and $10,000 fines for adults, including parents, who "knowingly or recklessly" allow children to commit gun crimes.

Tri-State area law enforcement officials and gun sellers have varied opinions on the local impact of those proposals.

Steve Palmer, president of the Washington County sportsmen's organization, criticized Clinton for exploiting the tragedy at Columbine High.

"Obviously, I'm not in favor of it. It goes to the same type of politicization of these unfortunate events," he said. "If this law were in place, could it stop this? Of course not."

Palmer, who owns Appalachian Mountain Products in Keedysville, said many of the provisions in Clinton's proposal are already in effect in Maryland. For instance, handgun purchases are limited to one a month. And juveniles cannot purchase ammunition, he said.

Pennsylvania, too, places restrictions on gun ownership not covered by federal law.

Franklin County Sheriff Robert Wollyung said the minimum age to possess handguns is 21, which Clinton proposed as a federal standard.

Wollyung, whose office used to conduct background checks on people wanting to buy guns, said he believes the new Instant Check System is working well. Gun buyers are instantly checked by seven different computer systems for criminal records, mental health problems and military records.

Before the instant system was in place, law enforcement officials did background checks. Clinton has proposed adding a three-day waiting period for handgun purchases.

Wollyung said the manual checks were time-consuming and that a waiting period would be a nuisance for buyers who already had been cleared. On the other hand, he said, waiting a few days is not a great burden.

"We're not talking about McDonald's here," he said.

One part of Clinton's plan drew support from gun owners and gun opponents alike - imposing a lifetime ban on gun ownership for juveniles who commit violent crimes.

"They should never have a gun - or a knife for that matter," said Maugansville resident Mary Reid, whose granddaughter was stabbed to death about five years ago. "We need some kind of regulation."

Reid also agreed with Clinton's call to hold parents criminally responsible for some crimes involving guns committed by juveniles.

Part of society's ills result from parents failing to set standards of behavior, Reid said. When her son stole a pack of gum once, she said she marched him back to the market and made him apologize.

"They don't make children responsible (now)," she said. "Truthfully, most of it has to start in the home."

Waynesboro, (Pa.) Police Chief Glenn R. Phenicie said he has no problem with holding parents accountable, in theory. But he cautioned that it would be difficult for police to determine what constituted "reckless."

"Kids do a lot of things their parents don't know about," he said.

Phenicie said he favors closing a loophole that allow people to purchase weapons at gun shows more easily than at gun shops.

"You can pretty much get anything you want there, unregulated," he said. "If you're going to do it, you've got to do it 100 percent."

Wolber said gun laws will inconvenience law-abiding citizens and add to the list of laws criminals break. He said laws should focus on requiring more training.

Palmer said the evidence shows gun laws have not worked.

"With all the laws over the last 30 years, have you seen a dramatic reduction in crime? The answer is no," he said.

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