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It was encouraging to see America's handgun manufacturers finally acknowledge last week in some small measure that their product is inherently dangerous, no matter whose hands it is in. Guns -- especially handguns -- do kill people.

Gathered at the White House, the top U.S. makers of pistols promise that from now on they would provide a safety lock with every new gun they sell. At least two of the larger companies are already doing so. The voluntary measure is one that President Clinton has been working on for some time, and represents a distinct, if small, victory in the drive to control the ever-growing plague of guns that afflicts this nation.

The locks are expected to help reduce the huge number of accidental shootings that occur every year. According to gun-control advocates, more than 1,500 children aged 14 and under are treated in hospital emergency rooms each year for unintentional gunshot wounds. Nearly 200 of those kids die.

The exact proportion of such accidents that will be prevented by the new locks depends on the gun owners, since the locks are a "passive" safety device and must be put on and locked. No one can predict how many parents and other owners will do so, but an active advertising campaign (which the National Rifle Association could easily join without compromising its rabid anti-control ideology) would certainly help. So would state laws holding gun owners liable for leaving their weapons unlocked. A few states already have such laws.

This modest and sensible safety measure, which will cover 80 percent of all new handguns made in the United States, did not come easily. Clinton has asked for a federal law requiring the locks in his State of the Union message, and in February issued an executive order requiring them on all guns issued to federal law enforcement agents. Still, the NRA and gun makers strongly resisted. The pro-gun lobby even tried to argue that the locks would raise the price of guns too high for "ordinary" people. The locks cost $5 to $10 each.

Let us hope that having won so easily this small victory, President Clinton will not ease up on the gun makers. These are the companies, and more specifically, the men and women, who are accomplices in the deaths of 40,000 Americans each year, in the more than one million crimes committed with guns annually. They don't pull the triggers, of course. Nor do they encourage criminals.

But by pouring 2.75 million new handguns each year into the already huge pool of weapons in America, by many times the largest such privately held collection ever to exist, they must bear a large portion of responsibility for the endemic violence in this society.

The gun makers can and do argue that their weapons are intended solely for legitimate purposes -- law enforcement, protection and sport. They are sold, they say, only to legitimate buyers, most of whom are subject to laws requiring background checks and waiting periods. It is not their fault if those laws are regularly violated, is it?

Nor can they be held accountable if many gun owners are a reckless, careless lot, easy fodder for thieves and burglars. There is no readily available figure for how many of those legitimately purchased guns end up being wielded by criminals. But, logically, wasn't every gun in criminal hands once sold to a legal buyer?

Guns don't wear quickly. A weapon made 50 years ago, even if used often, is quite serviceable today. So the vast collection of usable guns just keeps on growing and growing. And like the executives of the tobacco companies, the people who make and market this dangerous product are quite happy to keep on doing so as long as it can be sold, deliberately and willfully refusing to accept responsibility for the harm they are causing to individuals, including children, and to our society.

Whatever the validity of the NRA's Second Amendment-based arguments about the right of private persons to bear arms, there is no constitutional bar to controlling their manufacture. We regulate the manufacture of all sorts of products and devices for both the public's health and its safety.

No matter how much our police and courts crack down on violators of our present gun control laws, and no matter how many more such laws we pass, we cannot expect to have real peace and safety in our homes or our streets until we persuade or compel the people who make those millions of handguns each year to stop.

King Features Syndicate

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