Monday, October 29, 2001
Front Page -- Local News - Pages 1A-2A

Staff Writer

State Rep. Henri Brooks says kids and guns frequently make for a deadly combination. She wants to do something about it.

Brooks heads a special committee that begins two days of meetings Wednesday at Legislative Plaza to try to determine what that something might be.

According to the state Health Department, nine children died in firearm accidents, 20 committed suicide with firearms and 19 were murdered with firearms in 1998, the last year for which figures are available.

''This is not about gun control,'' Brooks said of the committee's charge. ''This is about children and gun safety.''

Brooks, D-Memphis, and Sen. Thelma Harper, D-Nashville, are advocates of ''smart gun'' technology, which is still in the research stage. With such technology, a weapon could be fired only by the person designated to use it.

They have sponsored legislation that would prohibit the sale of weapons without the ''smart gun'' technology once it becomes available.

The legislation is strongly opposed by the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association.

The NRA says smart gun technology was first seriously studied a few years ago as a safety measure for police officers because about 17% of police officers killed in the line of duty are killed with their own firearms, usually when the gun is taken away during a confrontation.

Gun maker Taurus International of Miami and the New Jersey Institute of Technology announced in June that they were joining forces to develop smart gun technology. Researchers estimated that development of a reliable system would take at least three years and cost at least $5 million.

Brooks wants to hear from advocates on both sides of the issue. ''We can look at it and find out whether legislation is needed or whether we need to make some policy changes or what,'' she said.

Assistant Metro District Attorney General Jim Todd said penalties needed to be increased for people who give or sell guns to juveniles and for juveniles who possess guns.

Todd said that when Mayor Bill Purcell was in the legislature several years ago he helped Purcell make it a delinquency for a juvenile to possess a handgun.

''Up until that point you had to have intent to go armed, which meant if they weren't pointing a gun at anybody and if it wasn't loaded, then they didn't do anything wrong,'' Todd said. He said the penalty needed to be upgraded to provide that any juvenile caught with a handgun must serve jail time.

Giving or selling a handgun to a juvenile needs to be ''a serious crime in the mid-felony range,'' he said. Brooks says she wants as much input as she can get.

Other members of the study committee are Reps. Frank Buck, D-Dowelltown; Kim McMillan, D-Clarksville; Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet; and Chris Newton, R-Cleveland.

Buck, who is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, acknowledges that he is ''pretty much gun-oriented'' and says the problem lies with how children are reared and their exposure to a steady diet of violence on television.

''When we were growing up on the farm, we would see what guns do,'' Buck said. ''I grew up during a period when rabies was a problem. If a wild animal was around the old homestead he met Jesus if my daddy got hold of him. When you see what that will do to somebody or will do to an animal, you learn to respect it.''

Beavers and Newton said they did not see ''smart guns'' as the solution to reducing the number of children who are killed by firearms.

''I'm not so sure that some people don't want to ban guns completely, and that would be a first step,'' Beavers said.

Newton raised the issue of what happens when an intruder breaks into a home, the husband is away, the wife grabs her husband's pistol to defend herself but it will not fire because it can be fired only by the husband.

John Harris of the Tennessee Firearms Association was more blunt.

''Our theory on Henri Brooks is she doesn't like firearms, period,'' Harris said. ''She would like a perfect world where there is no cancer and birds don't poop on your car and no one has guns.''

Harris says the smart gun concept is beset with problems.

One argument he raises is that development of such weaponry would be discriminatory because guns would be so expensive that poor people could not buy them for self-defense. ''They are going to be more expensive. They have to be because they have more bells and whistles in terms of technology,'' he said.

Another argument is that the weapons would be more prone to failure because any device that uses electronics has problems with moisture and with batteries dying, he said.

Harris also raised the question of what would happen to weapons that do not have the technology. Owners could not trade them in because dealers could not resell them, he said.

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