Batman takes on the Virginia gun lobby: David Usborne visits the state which is the main source of guns used in crime in eastern America

THE latest episode in the uphill campaign to wean Americans from owning guns features a Batman comic and a hardly draconian proposal to limit Virginians to buying only one gun a month. Nothing in it, though, is meant as a joke.

Virginia has become the latest focus of the gun-control debate since the release last year of government statistics suggesting that one in four guns with traceable origins seized from the scene of crimes in New York City was bought in Virginian gun shops. In Washington DC, it was one in three.

The report has stirred Virginia's Governor, Douglas Wilder, to urge new gun-law proposals on state legislators in Richmond. 'Virginia is the No 1 source-state for handguns on the East Coast,' he said recently. 'We must stop the trafficking or become known as the Grim Reaper State.'

At the core of his plan is the proposal to impose on gun shops a sales ceiling of one handgun per customer per month. Though at first sight it may seem ludicrous as a serious measure, its supporters say it will be critical in stopping bulk sales to criminals who mean to sell the guns in the cities.

'They come into the state and go into a store and buy handguns by the dozens,' says David Cullen, a state attorney. 'Then they haul the guns north and sell them on the street for cash or drugs.' He points out that Virginian gun laws are more lax than in almost any other state. Anyone who can show a state driving licence can walk from a store with as many guns as they like.

Although Mr Wilder's Democratic colleagues have a large majority in the Richmond legislature, ensuring the passage of his bill is likely to be hard going. The US gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, is fighting back, denying there is any link between gun ownership and violent crime.

An unexpected factor in the controversy has been the release last week of a special issue of Batman in comic strip form. Published by DC Comics in New York, the edition, entitled 'Batman: Seduction of the Gun', tells the story of an evil gang in the fictional Gotham City arranging to take a ride to real-life Virginia to buy all the weapons needed for their deadly deeds.

One frame of the comic depicts a henchman of the gang leader, called Chaka Zulu, confronting Batman who is posing as a gun dealer named Freddie Lasker. 'You still got those connections down in Virginia?' asks the henchman. 'Chaka wants your butt down there and hook us up with some guns'.

The issue was a deliberate attempt to help expose the role of Virginia in gun-running and is dedicated to John Reisenbach, the son of an executive of Warner Brothers, which owns DC comics. Aged 33, Reisenbach was shot dead for no apparent reason on a Manhattan street in 1990.

For Mr Wilder, the comic and the publicity generated by its appearance seem like a gift. His office has wasted no time in drafting Batman and his sidekick, Robin, into supporting his gun bill campaign. 'The fact that the state has achieved this notoriety in a comic book strip should be an embarrassment to all Virginians,' said his spokesman, Glenn Davidson. 'If the statistics and the headlines don't make the point, this comic book will.'

However, gun retailers, in particular, refuse to be impressed. 'This is just another example of Virginia-bashing,' complains Bill Mitchell, manager of the Gun Shoppe, a virtual shack clad with security grilles and alarms, situated alongside Route 1 at Woodbridge in eastern Virginia. 'They're trying to blame us because they have no control of crime in DC.'

Mr Mitchell denies that his shop, crammed with glinting Colt and Beretta handguns and Uzi assault weapons, doubles as a supermarket for big-city criminals. He insists that he delays a sale whenever his suspicions are aroused and telephones the local gun control authorities. About six times a year, he says, officers arrive in time to pick up and question some such dubious customer.

But would it really matter if the public was asked to buy no more than one handgun a month? Absolutely it would, replies sales assistant Ernie. 'We have a customer who has six sons and buys each of them a handgun as presents every Christmas. And why shouldn't he?' he says indignantly. Funny, Bill at the Gun Shoppe had just such a customer, too, though that gentleman purportedly had seven boys. Almost unbelievable.

(Photographs omitted)

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