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The handgun used to shoot President Reagan entered the...

By ROBERT S. MCNEILL

WASHINGTON -- The handgun used to shoot President Reagan entered the country through a loophole in the federal act that was passed after the 1968 slayings of Bobby Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Now, in the wake of the attempted assassination of Reagan, Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, R-S.C., wants to plug the gap.

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Thurmond said Tuesday he will introduce legislation to prohibit the importation of parts for so-called 'Saturday Night Specials,' an inexpensive handgun.

The federal Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits importation of these guns, but manufacturers have sidestepped the law by shipping parts for these weapons to the United States, where they are assembled and sold.

The gun used to shoot Reagan was manufactured in Germany, shipped in pieces to Miami, reassembled and then sold by a Dallas pawn shop last October to John Hinckley, 25, of Evergreen, Colo. The price was $47.95.

Hinckley, a college dropout who had been receiving psychiatric care, was charged Monday with the attempted murder of Reagan and with shooting White House press secretary Jim Brady and two lawmen.

The short-barreled .22-caliber revolver, described by authorities as a Rohm R.G.14, is an unlikely choice for a would-be assassin.

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The six-shot revolver is chambered for the .22 rimfire cartridge -- the smallest and least powerful commercially made ammunition.

It is not only the smallest but also the oldest, dating back almost to the middle of the last century when breech loaders replaced muzzle loaders.

The .22-caliber rimfire ammunition is found the world over. Weapons chambered for it are legion, but most are inexpensive rifles used for hunting small game and killing pests.

Although the .22 caliber is small and lacks the power for reliable killing of large game, it can be manufactured to extremely high accuracy levels.

It is the standard caliber for international small-bore target shooting, indoors and out, and when used in the finest Olympic-grade rifles its accuracy within 100 yards can be exceptional.

But the West German-made revolver taken from Hinckley was no such weapon. A marksman cannot buy much of a pistol for $47.95. Good pistols cost well over $100 and up.

Not only is quality reflected in price, but reliability is reflected in quality. A policeman whose life depends on the functioning of his weapon would have no part of a cheap 'Saturday Night Special.'

Nor would he choose a .22-caliber weapon, more suitable for hunting squirrels. The fact the bullet struck Reagan and pierced his lung without his realization is testament to the .22's lack of power.

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Not only is the .22-caliber itself a 'weak' cartridge when compared with other pistol calibers, but the R.G.-14 taken from Hinckley had a barrel that measured only 1.4 inches long. Even a .22-caliber bullet needs more space than that to develop maximum speed.

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