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- April 27, 2000

To hear Al Gore tell it, George W. Bush is better qualified to be head of the Dalton gang than president of the United States.  Democrats think the governor is vulnerable on the issue of guns, mainly because he supported a law allowing trigger-happy Texans to keep their six-shooters close at hand wherever they go.  This record, Gore assumes, will not be appealing to suburban women who have reservations about letting their children play with water pistols.

"He overturned the 125-year-old ban on concealed weapons in Texas and then went back for another law to make sure that people could take them into churches and synagogues," Gore declared recently. "I think that's pretty out of touch with what most people want."

Maybe so. Recent mass shootings have increased the citizenry's receptiveness to certain gun-control measures. But there must be some public sentiment for "conceal-carry" laws, since 31 states have passed them. And there is a real danger to Gore in raising the issue: Voters may actually look at what's happened in Texas.

There, as elsewhere, opponents predicted an epidemic of gunplay as short-tempered citizens took to perforating each other over every minor disagreement. Gun-control advocates claim that experience has borne out their fears.

In an era of falling crime rates, says the group Handgun Control, crime has dropped faster in states that forbid concealed guns than in states that allow them. Yale University scholar John Lott, however, has found "strong evidence that concealed-handgun laws reduce violent crime."

The matter at hand, though, is not the effect of conceal-carry laws in general, but the effect of the one signed by Bush. In Texas, as Handgun Control's own data indicates, violent crime declined by 6.5 percent in the first year after the law was passed, compared with a mere 4.9 percent drop in states without conceal-carry laws. By the logic of gun-control supporters, Bush's law ranks as a success.

But for anyone who regards the law as dangerous and irresponsible, the crucial question is: What do people who are licensed to carry handguns do with them? The striking fact is not how much reckless behavior there has been but how little.

Currently, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety, 210,000 people have licenses to carry a concealed handgun. But in four years, only 1,053 licenses have been revoked--most of them for such offenses as drunken driving, tax delinquency, and assorted misdemeanors.

In a state that suffers more than 1,300 homicides a year, two conceal-carry licensees have been convicted of murder. Only 672 licenses have been cancelled for any sort of felony offense. Lott reports that in Texas, as in other conceal-carry states, "people who obtain permits tend to be extremely law-abiding."

This should not be a surprise. Gun permits are issued only to upstanding individuals--since applicants are rejected if they have any felony convictions, some types of misdemeanor convictions, a drug or alcohol dependency, any restraining orders, or any defaults on taxes, student loans or child support.

To get a license, you also have to complete a 10- to 15-hour safety training class, submit to fingerprinting and pay a fee of $140. Texas has among the toughest rules in the country for getting a gun permit. So people who are prone to aggression are mostly barred from the privilege of toting a weapon. Glenn White, president of the Dallas Police Association, lobbied against the proposal but now says, "I think it has worked out well . . . I am a convert."

The claim that Bush insisted on allowing guns in houses of worship is true but incomplete: Any church that doesn't want armed parishioners may post a sign to that effect, and anyone who disregards it can be arrested. But if you're the elderly pastor of a small church in a crime-ridden neighborhood, you might see the value of having an armed deacon around when you're counting the Sunday collection.

The assumption of conceal-carry opponents is that if you let law-abiding people arm themselves, they will stop being law-abiding people. Bush's view, however, is that if you let good citizens carry guns, they will behave responsibly--using their weapons to protect themselves or others, if at all.

That raises the question at the heart of gun control: Should our laws concentrate on frustrating and punishing violent criminals or limiting the privileges of responsible citizens?

Bush thinks law-abiding Americans should have a meaningful right to self-defense. The vice president disagrees and is eager to publicize his disagreement. But if the Texas law becomes an important issue in the campaign, Gore may find himself wishing it hadn't.