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By Most Standards, an Epidemic : Gun death toll is the foremost challenger to AIDS for a grim distinction

August 28, 1994

The federal Centers for Disease Control report that U.S. firearm deaths grew more rapidly between 1980 and 1991 than any other category except AIDS. By most standards, that would qualify gun violence as an epidemic, generating an aggressive, focused and sustained government response. For years few legislative remedies were forthcoming. But now, at long last, there are signs that the nation's lawmakers are recognizing the scope of the disease.

In the Senate late Thursday President Clinton won final passage of the crime bill and its crucial ban on assault weapons. Progress toward ridding the nation of these instruments of quick and easy death has been slow, but every small step forward has been worthwhile.

Since the explosion in gun violence, which began about 1980, Congress had been justifiably criticized for failing to turn back efforts by some legislators to kill or delay every major bill that addressed gun violence.

For a decade, a ban on Teflon-coated bullets signed by President Ronald Reagan and a limited ban on imported assault weapons approved by President George Bush were the most significant measures to become federal law. Now President Clinton successfully has tapped the burgeoning national revulsion against gun violence and has had the courage to press the issue on Capitol Hill.

In 1993, under Clinton's leadership, Congress passed the Brady bill after a seven-year push by its supporters. This welcome measure mandated a five-day period between purchase and delivery of handguns so buyers' backgrounds could be checked.

Critics insist the debate over assault weapons is much ado about nothing. They argue that semiautomatic firearms make up only a fraction of all gun crimes and that targeting them is a waste of time. Tell that to the families of the victims in last year's San Francisco law firm massacre.

There is no conceivable reason or justification for a civilian to possess a weapon with the capacity to fire off 30, 60 or even 100 rounds as fast as one can pull the trigger. It is that feature, above all others, that makes these weapons pernicious and a menace to society--whether used in 20 murders or in one.

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