Opinions differ, but few Shore residents think gun control bill will affect crime

May 05, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Sun Staff Correspondent

EASTON — A photo caption accompanying an article in Sunday's Maryland section about a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases was incorrect. Pictured was former Representative Harley O. Staggers Sr., D-W.Va., rather than the man who introduced the measure: his son, Representative Harley O. Staggers Jr., D-W.Va.

The Sun regrets the errors.

EASTON -- The contentious debate that's likely to dominate Congress this week has already started at the breakfast counter of the H&G Restaurant here.

Lou Hedderch of Caroline County mulls over a seven-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns -- as proposed in the so-called Brady bill.


"Yuh, I think that's a good idea," he says, as he finishes his French toast. "It gives them a chance to check them out."

"I think it's a bunch of trash," interrupts his friend, William Kirby of Easton. "If a person wants a gun for an illegal purpose, he's going to get it."

Many people who live on the Eastern Shore own guns and are opposed to most gun-control measures. But reaction is split here on the Brady bill, which the House is tentatively scheduled to debate on Wednesday. Under the measure, local law enforcement authorities would be permitted, but not required, during that seven-day period to complete a background check on potential handgun buyers, weeding out felons, drug abusers and the mentally ill who are barred from owning guns.

"I think it's a good idea . . . I don't oppose it at all," said Ron Gehring, 47, a Caroline County poultry worker who owns a "half dozen" handguns. But like many of those interviewed on both sides of the issue, Mr. Gehring believes it will have little effect on crime.

"Personally I don't think it's going to make a damn bit of difference," he said, as a steaming plate of ham and eggs was placed before him. "It's just going to make those who legally want to buy a gun wait longer."

Former President Reagan has endorsed the Brady bill, named for his former press spokesman James Brady, who was shot with a handgun and crippled during the abortive assassination of Mr. Reagan in 1981. But while Mr. Reagan carried the Shore by wide margins, gun control has always been suspect here.

The successful 1988 state referendum designed to prohibit Saturday Night specials, was soundly defeated in this region. Gov. William Donald Schaefer who campaigned aggressively on behalf of the state ban, lost several Shore counties in his &L successful re-election bid last year.

Many people interviewed here seemed unimpressed by Mr. Reagan's support for the Brady bill.

"That doesn't mean much to me," said a 34-year-old man interviewed near the courthouse square in Centreville, who said he voted for the former president. "Laws concerning handguns are only going to be for people who abide laws," said the man, who asked that his name not be used.

Bob Price, 38, a Queenstown lawyer, said he favors the measure but believes many in the area are against it.

"Don't quote me too liberally," he said with a smile, strolling away, "my clients don't like it either."

"You hear a lot about [the Brady bill] around here because most people are against it," said Susan Dukes at Durham's Market in Secretary, a small town near the Choptank River in Dorchester County. "They think anything that has to do [with gun control] is going to infringe on their rights."

Bob Durham, who owns the market, noted that Maryland already has the waiting-period law. "It doesn't bother anybody," he said, recalling that he had to wait a week for a background check when he purchased a pistol about a year ago. "We've learned to live with it."

The National Rifle Association, which spent millions of dollars in an attempt to defeat the Saturday night special ban in Maryland, sent out mass mailings in mid-April to members in Maryland and across the country.

The letters urge the members to ask their congressman to support the Staggers amendment, an alternative to the Brady bill.

Sponsored by Representative Harley O. Staggers, D-W.Va., the measure would require states to set up an instant-check system within six months.

Gun dealers could tell with a telephone call whether a purchaser has a criminal record.

"Staggers is an effective approach," said Joe Phillips, federal liaison with the NRA. The Brady bill "is going to have the greatest impact on law-abiding citizens and have no impact on crime or criminals."

Law enforcement officials estimate that upward of 85 percent of guns are illegally obtained. But those same officials say such an instant-check system is years away and

many states do not have the capability to put their records on computer for use by gun dealers.

For this reason, Representative Wayne T. Gilchrest, R-Md.-1st, who represents the sprawling Eastern Shore, said he will back the Brady Bill.

"I will not support the Staggers bill, as it is not realistic," wrote Mr. Gilchrest, in a letter to constituents on the gun control measures.

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