Area law enforcement officials joined their colleagues from across the nation yesterday in blasting legislation that would remove a ban on interstate gun sales that has been in effect since 1968.
"It would have a devastating effect on law enforcement efforts," Alexandria Police Chief Charles T. Strobel said at a Capitol Hill news conference on the bill, which the Senate is scheduled to begin debating today.
"The ability to carry out our duties is greatly put in jeopardy by this bill," said Baltimore County Police Chief Neil Behan, speaking on behalf of the Police Executive Research Forum, which analyzes police procedures. Behan said that hundreds of police officers are killed with handguns each year.
But a National Rifle Association spokesman disagreed with the law enforcement representatives. "It's pretty obvious that none of them has read the legislation or they could not possibly have come to those conclusions," said John Acquilino, director of public education for the NRA.
The bill, which is sponsored by Sen. James A. McClure (R-Idaho), is the latest in a series of attempts by the gun lobby to lift controversial restrictions that Congress placed on gun purchases with the 1968 Gun Control Act, which was passed after the assassinations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
Gun control advocates yesterday cited a recent Gallup poll, which found that a vast majority of Americans support gun control. But gun lobby groups are nevertheless optimistic this year.
The McClure legislation has 54 cosponsors in the Senate, which Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio), an opponent of the measure, has attributed to the influence of the NRA, a 3 million-member association that has aggressively pushed for an easing of gun control laws and the defeat of gun control advocates in Congress.
The McClure bill would remove the ban on interstate gun sales. A gun merchant would be allowed to make face-to-face firearms sales to out-of-state customers, if the sale does not violate the laws of either the seller's or buyer's state.
"We have to expose the bill for what it is . . . an anti law-and-order bill," said Metzenbaum. "It's not a firearms-rights bill. It is a gun-for-criminals bill."
Law enforcement associations including the International Association of Police Chiefs, Fraternal Order of Police, National Troopers Coalition and the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives have sent a letter to each senator, maintaining that the measure would circumvent state and local handgun laws. Because local laws can vary, it would be impossible for a gun dealer to check all these laws, they contend.
"Why would the Senate . . . limit our ability to keep guns out of the hands of people who must cross state lines to get them?" Strobel asked.
The NRA's Acquilino responded that the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms prints a book of every state and local gun control law in the country, which would be easy for gun dealers to use.
Gun control advocates are pushing several amendments to the legislation. Two of those would retain the current law prohibiting the interstate sale of handguns and require a 14-day waiting period for the purchase of handguns.
John J. Norton, vice president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said such a waiting period would enable police to screen prospective purchasers and would also provide a "cooling off" period, so that a gun could not be purchased in the heat of a disagreement.