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That Shiny Little Killer in the Closet : Even in friendly hands, the handgun is an unspeakable menace to American families

November 03, 1994

It's on the ballot in Milwaukee, not Los Angeles, but it concerns an issue that sadly has found a home in almost every U.S. city: the threat posed by the seemingly endless river of firearms that flows through American society. Residents of the Wisconsin city will vote next week on a proposal to ban the sale and possession of handguns within municipal limits. We urge them to approve it.

A ban there--and in Los Angeles and perhaps every other major metropolitan area--makes sense. Such a prohibition might have spared an Orange County family and a New Hampshire family tragedies this week.

In Aliso Viejo a 16-year-old boy said by friends to be distraught over breaking up with a girlfriend went home Monday, got a .45-caliber handgun from a chest that he unlocked, took it to school and shot himself before two dozen students, including the girl, in a classroom. Remarkably, hospital officials say the youth will recover, although he will need extensive reconstructive surgery.

In New Hampshire, Herbert Kershaw, 59, a clergyman who had bought five guns since September because he thought Congress might pass more gun control laws, accidentally shot himself to death Sunday while showing one of the weapons to family members. Kershaw had attended a firearms safety course that day to learn how to use his new .45-caliber pistol. He was demonstrating the pistol's safety features when the weapon went off.

These incidents underscore the mortal danger posed by handguns even in friendly hands: A gun in the home is more likely to kill a family member than it is to stop a burglar. Every eight hours a child commits suicide using a handgun. Research published last year found that homes with guns are almost three times more likely to be the scene of a homicide than homes without guns.

Milwaukee's proposed handgun ban could help slow the slaughter. It would permit gun dealers to sell only shotguns, rifles and the few pistols that have barrels longer than 10 inches. Handgun owners would be urged to turn their pistols over to city police for destruction (30% indicate they are willing to do so). Handguns would be confiscated when they turned up during arrests or traffic stops, and residents could face misdemeanor convictions for repeated violations of the law against possession.

It's too bad that a beneficial ban of this sort cannot be put before the voters of Los Angeles; the California Constitution forbids local gun control measures that are more restrictive than those passed by the Legislature. Ending this preemption should be a priority entry on the 1995 "to do" list of gun control advocates in the California Legislature.

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