With Washington Stalled On Guns, Youth Take Action

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"March Madness" took on a new meaning with last month's hard-edged gun law rhetoric from President Clinton and the National Rifle Association, the issuing of a new Justice Department report on gun-related juvenile deaths, and Smith & Wesson's agreement to put safety locks on its firearms.

It seems like madness to Houston's Brett Chisholm, 18, head of the Young Texans Against Gun Violence Advocacy Committee - which isn't waiting for Washington or gun-makers to act. "We're going to pass out free safety locks at upcoming gun shows," Chisholm announced.

The Young Texans made those plans in the midst of an especially hot deadlock between the White House, Congressional Republicans and the NRA, with NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre saying Clinton "has blood on his hands" because the U.S. does not fully enforce existing gun laws. His comments came as Clinton pushed Congress to pass gun legislation this term (like criminal background checks at gun shows), but a White House meeting with Congressional Republicans produced little hope for movement. "We're poles apart," Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) told reporters on the White House lawn.

The gun proposals were latched onto the juvenile crime bill last year, which now sits in a House-Senate conference committee, chaired by Sen. Hatch, that is not even meeting to discuss a compromise to be voted on.

In an effort to turn up the heat, Clinton released a Justice Department report, "Kids and Guns," which said that increases in juvenile homicides and suicides are due largely to increases in juvenile access to guns. The report said the number of juveniles murdered with guns increased 65 percent between 1987 and 1993, while other types of homicide remained constant. Between 1980 and 1997, nearly 38,000 juveniles were murdered.

The report also said teen homicides are more likely than adult homicides to involve guns, and that guns are the weapon of choice for juvenile homicide offenders.

The access is easy in Texas, where guns can be sold at garage sales, Chisholm noted. "Texas has more gun shows than there are days in the year," he said. "The gun law loopholes are really loopy. For instance, it is not illegal to sell a gun to a minor, but it is illegal for a minor to buy a gun."

Alluding to the stalled gun and juvenile crime legislation in Washington, Chisholm said his 210-member group (along with a 100-member Dallas chapter) is "sick of lawmakers saying things and not doing anything."

The Young Texans, a youth-run offshoot of Texans Against Gun Violence, wants to change the debate from "the NRA and politicians fear-tactic focus on random violence to what it really is - a public health issue," Chisholm said. He cited statistical forecasts that more than 4,000 youths under age 19 will die this year from gun violence.

Having staged a rally this year in Austin, the state's capital, to protest lax gun laws, the Young Texans have decided on a new spring agenda - giving out the gun locks at gun shows. They'll be mostly symbolic because they'll be plastic and cheap, he said. The plastic locks will cost between "25 to 50 cents," while the more durable steel locks "will run you six to seven dollars."

Meanwhile, youth concerns had an impact on the nation's largest gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, which struck a deal with the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Treasury Department, and several state and local officials. In return, lawsuits filed against the company by those entities will be dropped.

The lawsuits argued, among other things, that the gun maker was not taking available steps to cut down on the ease with which its products end up in the hands of youths, and was not making design changes to make it far more difficult for young children to pull gun triggers.

The company agreed to a "code of conduct" for the sale and distribution of its handguns, including:

      *External locking devices must be included in all the company's handguns within 60 days.

      *Internal locking devices must be on all guns within 24 months.

      *Within 12 months, handguns must be designed so they cannot be readily operated by a child under six.

      *A dealer or distributor would have its contract with the company terminated if "a disproportionate number" of crimes were traced back to an outlet.

"A lot of the pressure on Smith & Wesson came because guns are ending up in the hands of young people," said Desmond Riley, spokesman for the D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. The coalition is not supporting the deal, saying that some of the steps are not new, and that there is no enforcement mechanism if Smith & Wesson doesn't comply.

President Clinton said he hopes other manufacturers follow Smith & Wesson's lead. Chisholm and the Young Texans don't plan to wait.