Clinton backs stalled bill aimed at keeping guns from children He also praises Maryland for becoming first in nation to expand gun probes

July 09, 1998|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Responding to a wave of highly publicized school shootings, President Clinton urged states and Congress yesterday to support measures that would punish adults whose guns are used by children to commit violent crimes.

"We can't shrug our shoulders and say accidents will happen, or some children are beyond hope," Clinton said. "That is a cop-out."

He was accompanied by Suzann Wilson, whose 11-year-old daughter was among four girl students and a teacher shot to death in March by two boy students at a school in Jonesboro, Ark.

The president has spoken of the need to curb gun violence among youths, most emphatically after each of six fatal school shootings in recent months.

Clinton last month visited Springfield, Ore., after two students were slain and 22 wounded in a school shooting, to endorse a federal bill mandating that students caught with guns be held and evaluated for 72 hours.

Yesterday, Clinton used the White House forum to showcase three anti-gun-violence initiatives, including a Maryland program aimed at curbing gun-trafficking by tracing weapons to their supplier.

The other measures endorsed by the president were bipartisan legislation to crack down on those who are careless about securing firearms, and new Treasury Department regulations, based on a directive Clinton issued in June 1997, requiring gun dealers to display signs stressing that it is illegal for minors to possess guns.

Wilson said that while she is haunted by tragic memories of her slain daughter, it is time to act aggressively.

"When she left that day, I didn't know it would be the last time I would see her," Wilson said, fighting tears. "But I'm not here seeking sympathy. Don't let your guns become an instrument of murder. Don't let what happened in Jonesboro happen in your town."

The boys suspected in the Jonesboro shootings had stolen rifles belonging to the grandfather of one of them, authorities say.

Under the new Maryland program praised by Clinton, all firearms recovered at crime scenes or during investigations will be traced by computer and analyzed by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday signed an executive order creating the program, the 1998 Maryland Gun Enforcement Initiative.

The governor's action expands tracing techniques already in place in Baltimore and 17 other cities. Maryland becomes the first in the nation to extend the scope of such a program to an entire state.

Once officials follow the trail to the source of an illegal firearm, they can try to cut off the supply by prosecuting individuals, black-market dealers or manufacturers whose guns have fallen into the wrong hands.

Police Chief J. D. Ervin of Pocomoke City said his town, which bills itself as the "friendliest town on the Eastern Shore," has been the source of weapons used in several homicides. His office is investigating the theft from a Pocomoke warehouse of seven semiautomatic pistols -- two of which have been linked to killings in Salisbury and Wilmington, Del.

Through the program, the Glendening administration hopes that by 2002 it can cut gun-related crime in Maryland by 50 percent.

"When you can shut down a gun house, you can make things safer," Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said yesterday.

But Jim Manown, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association, said that pursuing and prosecuting criminals is far more effective than tracing firearms.

"This is not a real good use of scarce law enforcement resources," Manown said. "All you are going to find out along the way is that the gun was stolen from a law-abiding gun user."

The legislation Clinton pushed yesterday was introduced by Sen. Richard J. Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, and Sen. John H. Chafee, the Rhode Island Republican.

Their bill would target careless adults whose firearms are taken by a child and used to kill or injure someone. Maryland is one of 15 states that already has such a law.

Despite its bipartisan support, gun lobbyists say the bill would implicate law-abiding citizens. "It's forcing burglary victims to face a year in jail and a $10,000 fine if their stolen property falls into the hand of a juvenile and is misused," said Manown of the NRA.

The bill is stalled in the Senate Judiciary Committee and is not expected to be taken up by Republican-led Congress before the November elections.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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