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CHARLES WHITMAN may have been unusual in having a dozen guns at his disposal, but he was by no means unique. Americans have always been a gun-toting people. Guns enabled the first settlers to protect and feed themselves in a hostile land, made later colonists a nation of rifle men capable of winning their freedom in the American Revolution. The West was tamed with guns, and frontier justice became synonymous with them. From the nation's earliest days, the gun has been the delight of collectors and sportsmen. Today, the U.S. has the world's largest civilian cache: some 100 million handguns, rifles and shotguns in private hands. Every year, more than 1,000,000 "dangerous weapons" are sold by mail order in the U.S., and another million or so imported.

Behind those numbers is a remarkable dearth of effective legal controls over the purchase and possession of guns. Federal law curbs a few things, such as traffic in machine guns, sawed-off shotguns and silencers, but the regulation of firearms has been left largely to cities and states, which have built a crazy quilt of laws, few of them stringent. Until New Jersey enacted a new gun statute last week, no state (and only Philadelphia among U.S. cities) required police permits for buying, keeping, or even roaming Main Street with a shotgun or rifle. Only seven states and a handful of municipalities require permits for handguns.

Such leniency shows up in crime statistics. The FBI reports that 57% of the 9,850 homicides in the U.S. last year were committed with firearms, and that all but one of the 53 police officers killed on duty were gunshot victims. In Dallas, where firearm regulations are practically nonexistent (as throughout all of Texas), 72% of all homicides were committed with guns v. 25% in New York City, where the state's tough 55-year-old Sullivan Law requires police permits for the mere possession of handguns. Says J. Edgar Hoover: "Those who claim that the availability of firearms is not a factor in murders in this country are not facing reality."

Most foreign countries have much stricter controls than the U.S., and some virtually outlaw guns. Given the American passion for guns, however, it would be unthinkable to ban firearm sales outright in the U.S., an action that would eliminate such legitimate uses as hunting, target shooting and, in some cases anyway, self-defense. But the Justice Department, bar associations and most U.S. police officials feel that much tighter gun controls are called for.

The Austin slaughter breathed new life into a bill now before Congress, sponsored by Connecticut's Senator Thomas Dodd, which would 1) severely limit interstate mail-order handgun shipments; 2) limit the inflow of military-surplus firearms from abroad; 3) ban over-the-counter handgun sales to out-of-state buyers and anybody under 21; and 4) prohibit longarm sales to persons under 18. Invoking the "shocking tragedy" in Austin, President Johnson urged speedy passage "to help prevent the wrong persons from obtaining firearms." Of course, recognizing the "wrong person" is not always possible; Whitman would probably have qualified for his guns even under strict controls.

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