Democrat's bill targets 'junk' handguns

A prominent Chicago Democrat will propose legislation this week designed to ban the production of low-quality handguns, known informally as "Saturday night specials."

Although Washington's gun-control debate has focused largely on more imposing weapons, like military-style assault rifles, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) is going after the handguns that are used much more frequently by violent criminals — particularly in urban settings like his hometown, where shootings are a daily plague.

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"I am concerned about the assault weapons and high-capacity magazines. But I am also concerned by the 'slow-moving massacre' that is occurring every day with handguns," Gutierrez, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, said Monday in Chicago while announcing his bill.

The congressional debate over gun violence was spurred by December's shooting massacre in Newtown, Conn., where a lone gunman killed 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School, including 20 young children. As a result, much of the talk on Capitol Hill this year has focused on preventing mass killings like that rampage.

Gutierrez is quick to note that lower-profile shootings claim many more lives each year than the mass killings that generate broad media attention, and that handguns — not assault rifles — are most often used in those murders. In 2011, for instance, 97 percent of Chicago's 362 gun murders involved handguns. Not one of them spurred a congressional hearing.

Under current federal law, foreign-made handguns that fail to meet certain safety criteria outlined by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are not allowed into the United States. In determining whether a handgun is legal for import, the ATF weighs features like firing-pin locks, loaded-chamber indicators, the quality of grip and what type of metal was used in construction.

But the same standards to do not apply to handguns produced domestically. In fact, the Consumer Product Safety Act explicitly exempts firearms and ammunition from its consumer-safety rules.

The gun lobby and other supporters of the current law say the smaller, lighter handguns are ideal for self-defense, and that efforts to apply tougher standards on manufacturers are misguided.

Critics like Gutierrez counter that current law allows U.S. gun manufacturers to make cheaper guns by using weaker metals and excluding safety features — two practices that can contribute to more accidents and misfires.

"In spite of being widely considered unsuitable for self-defense or sporting, they are very popular crime guns," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez's bill would expand the ATF's safety requirements for imported handguns to those manufactured domestically. It would also make it a federal crime to possess so-called "junk" handguns, or transfer them to others.

"When we regulate cars and cribs and a whole host of products to ensure they are safe for public consumption, how does it not makes sense that we have basic safety standards for dangerous handguns?” he asked. "Now is the time to remove the most unsafe handguns from the market."