A less charitable person might argue that the knee-jerk, bleeding-heart liberals demanding more gun control are trying to make firearms the scapegoat for the failure of their own social policies. But that wouldn't be fair to the progun reactionaries whose political policies created a lot of those social problems in the first place.
I'm prepared to concede that the U.S. has a serious violence problem and that guns play a major role in it. But let's try to put that problem in perspective. The homicide rate today is about the same as it was in the early Thirties, when there were few gun laws, and the same as it was in the late Seventies, after thousands of gun laws had been passed. And, bad as it seems, today's urban violence is pretty tame compared with a century ago, when no one ventured forth after dark without a knife or pistol.
More people are getting killed these days because there are a lot more people—and we're more aware of their deaths because television brings them into our living rooms. In spite of the drive-by shootings and the rampages of the deranged, the mortality rate for the dreaded handgun remains around five per 100,000. Nearly all the killing occurs in a few high-crime neighborhoods in our largest cities. The average U.S. citizen is more likely to be killed by one of the 200 million cars in this country than by one of the 200 million guns.
The knee-jerk response to this is usually that any gun law that saves even one life is a good law. If saving lives is really the goal of (continued on page 52)Bearing Arms continued from page 49 gun-control advocates, why don't they spend more time worrying about automobiles? It's not lives they want to save, it's guns they want to abolish—through the passing of laws that demonstrate their moral superiority but have no effect on the problem.
Progun people know that all those laws against gun sales or gun ownership billed as "a step in the right direction" won't work. They also know that guns are found in more than half of the country's households and that almost all gun violence is caused by a tiny percentage of gun owners already outside the gun-control loop. Declaring martial law and conducting house-to-house searches would still leave the streets unsafe. The uselessness of most gun laws appears so obvious that the incessant demands for more laws seem simply a desire to prohibit guns. Or punish gun owners. Or both.
Ask the National Rifle Association, as I have, if guns should be sold to minors or criminals, and the answer is "No." Ask if a gun dealer should be liable for damages resulting from an illegal sale, and the answer is "Certainly." Ask if everyone should be allowed to carry guns, and the answer is "What are you, some kind of nut?"
So, contrary to the image the NRA unwittingly projects and the statements it makes, the so-called Washington gun lobby in fact supports all kinds of restrictions on, and responsibilities for, gun sales, ownership and use. It does, however, loudly protest gun control— maybe that's why editorial cartoonists Herblock and Oliphant depict the NRA as evil and gun owners as maniacs and gun dealers as merchants of death.
Or perhaps the cartoonists, and most people for that matter, don't know that the murder rate, after reaching a record high of 10.7 per 100,000 people in 1980 (up from 9.7 in 1933), dropped about 20 percent over the next few years despite an increase of weapons in the national firearms population. How would they know? No political candidate or social reformer gets votes or funds by acknowledging crime and violence as intractable problems.
But then most people don't understand that when the criminal community is already armed, you can write or repeal a thousand gun laws without affecting the availability of guns. Today, as always, anybody who wants a gun can get one at taverns or pool halls in the crummier parts of town, with no bothersome paperwork or waiting period. Or maybe not just anybody. The seller would want to be fairly sure he was dealing with a streetwise gang member, drug dealer or robber and not some law-abiding citizen who might do something stupid and get him in trouble.
The antigun people don't want to think about this because it means their fancy gun laws are meaningless to the people most likely to misuse guns. The progun people don't like this because it argues against guns in the home, where they can be stolen, and argues for stricter controls in states where guns can be bought by the ton and smuggled to cities where their ownership is banned. Not that limiting the number of legal transactions would solve the problem. Like the Brady Bill's waiting period, such laws look sensible on paper, but as a practical matter they only antagonize legitimate owners and collectors into resisting more sophisticated measures that might do some good.
In the public's mind, the sacred conviction remains that fewer guns, even in law-abiding hands, would at least reduce accidents and fatal domestic violence. But that is wrong, too: The firearm accident rate has steadily declined since the late Sixties, even though the national firearms population doubled, and the domestic quarrel is statistical nonsense. The FBI created this nonsense by lumping murder among family members, relatives and acquaintances into one supposedly relevant statistic. From this number, the antigun people paint tragic pictures of Archie Bunker drilling Edith, or the death of a little girl whose lifeblood soaks into the deep-pile carpet of her nice suburban home. The fact is, the majority of family and acquaintance murder victims, as well as their killers, have spent plenty of time in the local police station already, and the arguments that lead to killings of acquaintances are usually among gang members or dope dealers warring over their turf.
Finally, let's compare guns and alcohol. We know that Prohibition reduced social drinking without touching the problem of drunkenness. In fact, it transformed drunkenness from a working-class ill into a symbol of middle-class rebellion. What makes antigun activists think it would work for firearms? Gun prohibition, even if it could disarm all law-abiding gun owners, would not take the pistol from some punk's jacket pocket.
© 1982 "Women & Guns"
© 1993 "Chicago Sun-Times"
© 1993 "Chicago Sun-Times"