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'Sea change' on handguns

The American Academy of Pediatrics, hardly a radical group bent on curbing civil liberties, is working to remove handguns from American homes. Figures from the National Center for Health Statistics show that almost 5,000 of the 1990 gun fatalities involved victims under 19 years of age. In comparison, as one pediatrician pointed out in a recent interview with the New York Times, 3,000 people died at the height of the polio epidemic in 1952. That year is still remembered as a time of unprecedented fear for the nation's children.

Unlike so many public health dangers, today's deadly epidemic has a causative agent that can be bought, traded or _ the doctors hope _ permanently retired.

For the first time, a majority of Americans seem to agree. According to a recent Louis Harris poll, 52 percent of 1,250 adults surveyed agreed that the possession of handguns should be banned. A much larger majority agrees that easy access to guns makes life more dangerous for American children, and 75 percent agreed that most children are not growing up in safe neighborhoods.

Opinion polls are rough gauges, and 52 percent is a slim majority. His own survey is not the only marker of what Louis Harris has dubbed a "sea change" in the nation's attitude toward guns, however. There is strong support for the Brady bill, for instance, a measure that would impose a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases nationwide. President Clinton has agreed to sign the bill should it reach his desk, and increasing numbers of voters want lawmakers to see that it does.

The old cliche that "guns don't kill, people do" wears thinner with every new report of a drive-by shooting or someone killed for a piece of clothing or an offhand remark. Encounters that would normally end in a stalemate become brutally one-sided when a handgun is involved. A ban on concealable weapons designed solely for use against humans would in no way interfere with sporting enthusiasts' right to collect and use traditional hunting rifles.

Recently in a New York City park, four adolescent boys accosted a 42-year-old school teacher who was out for a bicycle ride. Three of the teens had bikes of their own. When the teacher refused to surrender his bike to the fourth and started riding away, he was fatally shot. Perhaps handgun industry lobbyists would like to try the "guns don't kill" argument on the wife and children he left behind.

Some law enforcement officials say that removing handguns from circulation would be the single most effective strategy for reducing violent crime. Guns won't disappear from the nation's streets overnight, but that's all the more reason to start curbing the problem now.