Philadelphia Mayor Bridges Gun-Control Divide in Unusual Show of Unity, Gun Foes and NRA Back Effort to Crack Down on Illegal Firearms

Article excerpt

Efforts to regulate the way guns in America are purchased and stored come up against the obvious: The nation is awash in guns.

Even if all gun manufacturing were halted immediately, more than 200 million guns still exist in homes across the country.

In the face of that practical reality, and amid growing concern over firearm violence, gun advocates and gun foes - usually mortal enemies - are laying aside their long-standing animosity in a few experimental efforts to make communities safer.

"This is not an ideological struggle, it's a gritty attempt to reduce gun violence," says Philadelphia Mayor Edward Rendell, who is on the cutting edge of fostering such cooperation.

Mayor Rendell's proposal to create a metrowide zero-tolerance zone for illegal firearms has won praise from both the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Handgun Control Inc. The plan is modeled after a Richmond, Va., program that aggressively prosecutes firearm violations using federal statutes in addition to state and local ones. By using federal statutes, prosecutors on average have been winning five-year terms for gun-law violators. Serious offenders rarely get bail, and there is no reduction in sentence.

"Homicide by firearms is down almost 66 percent," Dave Schiller, an assistant US attorney in Richmond, says of the year-old program. In its first year, the program snared 363 guns. Of 251 people arrested, 191 were convicted. Previous felons, prohibited from possessing firearms, were the most common group of gun offenders. The second largest group was drug traffickers. The third was those possessing illegally modified weapons, particularly guns with serial numbers filed off.

Three cheers from NRA

The NRA is downright enthusiastic about Rendell's proposal for the City of Brotherly Love. "If we can get it off the ground and running in Philadelphia, with the right kind of attention, it's something everyone in America ought to look at," says NRA spokesman Bill Powers.

The White House supports the concept in principle, but it has not given Rendell a solid endorsement.

"What we support is more money for more agents to enforce gun laws, and more money for special prosecutors to try these cases," says White House spokesman Joe Lockhart. Rendell is expected to meet with senior White House staff next week to lobby for support.

The quest for solutions has been heightened by the spate of school shootings that began last fall. This week, President Clinton lent support to several proposals aimed at preventing youth access to firearms. Standing next to Suzann Wilson, who lost her daughter, Brittheny Varner, in the Jonesboro, Ark. …