MAYBE -- JUST MAYBE -- reason and accommodation could creep into the debate over what, if anything, this country should do about the gunning down of its citizens. If legitimate gun owners could believe that this effort is not the start of total disarmament of every household in America, and if the larger number of people who support stronger legislative protections against handgun abuses could acknowledge the concerns of sportsmen, hunters and gun collectors, there is room for some reason -- and for a moderate legislative attempt to curb criminal handgun violence.
Such movement toward compromise is not likely to begin with any of the groups whose high-noon showdowns tend to send politically jittery members of Congress ducking under the window sills and tables. But just in the last few days, some serious rethinking about the issue, and about possible compromise measures, has been coming from interesting corners. Bob Hope, longtime friend of President Reagan and hardly a gun control zealot, says the shooting of Mr. Reagan points up the desirability of some firearms registration that might assist in tracing weapons used in such shootings. Columnist James Kilpatrick also has suggested that some compromise legislation could be shaped and enacted this year.
Last week in the House, Rep. Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) also made a significant plea for a reasoned approach to make Americans safer on their streets and in their homes. Citing a moderate measure that he and 50 co-sponsors have introduced, Mr. Rodino noted that it would cost little in dollars "and nothing in terms of liberties." The legislation he seeks, like a companion bill introduced in the Senate by Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), would not outlaw handguns; it would not even require registration or licensing; and it would not disarm citizens who "believe they have a right and a necessity to have a handgun for protection."
What the bill would do is "tell handgun owners that, if they commit a crime with a handgun, they will lose their freedom. And it would make it more difficult and expensive for a criminal to get a handgun." The bill would 1) provide mandatory minimum sentences for anyone using or carrying a gun in the commission of a felony; 2) totally ban Saturday night specials, those cheap, concealable guns that no serious hunters or collectors care for, and that account for about 10 percent of the 2 million handguns assembled in the United States each year; 3) require a 21-day waiting period before the purchase of any other kind of handgun; and 4) ban the sale of handguns by pawnbrokers, control multiple purchases and require better record-keeping of sales, thefts and losses.
Don't these steps make sense? As Mr. Rodino says, "I do not believe that sportsmen, hunters and gun collectors are unyielding foes of handgun legislation. They are good and reasonable citizens. I understand the culture and heritage that make their guns their most prized possessions. I would join in opposing any effort to separate them from their guns. But can any of us oppose a law that would make it harder for the criminal, the sick, the would-be assassin to get a handgun?"