Handguns claim the well-known and the unknown


December 12, 1990|By ROGER SIMON

Does the name Linda Greenwood ring a bell? How about David Burnell or Joshua Brown? No? Well, how about John Lennon?

Ahh. Him you've heard of. Caught four slugs from a .38 10 years ago and died. There was quite a to-do at the time, as I recall.

There were candle-lighting ceremonies in which people stood and bowed their heads for 10 minutes of silence. And there were lots of stories. Lots and lots of stories about the Beatle who got killed.

Linda Greenwood and those other people I mentioned were gunned down the same day John Lennon was. But there was no to-do over them.

How could there be? More than five dozen people are killed with handguns every day in this country. And if we stopped to light candles to all of them, well, we could hardly get anything done, could we?

Even though the number of homicides is soaring in America this year, it is often hard to find much information on the victims. It is sometimes hard even to find their names.

Some names, however, will always be easier to find than others. Take Jay Bias.

Ahh. Another name you've probably heard of. He was the brother of Len Bias, the University of Maryland basketball superstar, who in 1986 celebrated his new contract with the Boston Celtics by ingesting enough cocaine to kill himself.

And this was certainly enough to make us care about the fate of his younger brother. Who was gunned down outside a shopping mall last week, an apparent innocent victim and the 113th homicide victim this year in Prince George's County.

All the elements of a good story were there. There was a celebrity. There was a family touched twice by tragedy. And there was an upbeat note: Jay Bias' father, James, has decided to fight for handgun control now that his son is dead, just like his wife dedicated her life to fighting drugs after Len died.

James Bias announced he would form a coalition with Jesse Jackson, no less, "to fight for gun control and to educate youths on alternatives to violence."

"This is something I've been feeling for years but have not acted on it," James Bias said. "I feel grief, but I feel if I don't act now, your child . . . could be next."

One wishes him well. His pain is genuine and his intentions sincere.

But if one acts on one's feelings about handgun violence only after one's own son is killed, then the price is too high. And the problem will never be solved.

This week, I looked up the column I did 10 years ago on the death of John Lennon. I guess I was in a pretty bad mood. All around me people were lighting candles and singing "Give Peace a Chance" and pledging to make their grief "meaningful."

But I kind of doubted it.

"I am not one of those who believes [Lennon's] death will so shock us, so devastate us, that we will really achieve gun control in this country," I wrote. "Successful politicians stay successful by giving the people what they want. And if there really were enormous support for gun control in this country, the politicians would fall over themselves providing it. But lighting candles for John Lennon isn't going to cause that to happen.

"How come people can't get effective gun control laws passed? Maybe it's because they don't stay passionate long enough. Maybe it's because those people who were silent for 10 minutes for John Lennon are going to stay silent for the next 10 years."

Well, it's 10 years later, folks. And we don't have effective gun control legislation yet. And the slaughter goes on. You may have seen the story the other day: More than a dozen U.S. cities, including eight of the 20 largest cities, already have broken their homicide records with still a month left in the year.

Yet this is the same year that the Brady bill never even came to a vote before the House of Representatives. The Brady bill (named for President Reagan's press secretary, who was wounded in the assassination attempt on Reagan) is mild as far as gun control goes.

All it would do is require a seven-day waiting period before a person could buy a handgun from a gun dealer. That's all. It doesn't even require a background check.

Just a seven-day waiting period so if you get angry at your boss in the morning, you can't buy a handgun on your lunch hour and shoot him that same afternoon. Don't laugh. It happens.

The Brady bill passed the House Judiciary Committee by a vote of 27-9 this year, but it was never called for a vote before the full House. And so it died.

And so in 1991 its supporters will have to begin again at the beginning. They will begin again to find out how many people still care.

If we had had such a bill 10 years ago, would John Lennon and Jay Bias and tens of thousands of others still be alive? I cannot say. I can only say it would have been worth a try.

It is easy to care about the death of a celebrity. It is easy, though painful, to care about the death of a loved one.

But the trick is to care about those whose names you never read and faces you never see.

The real trick is to care about those thousands who are slaughtered simply because it is too easy to get a handgun in this country.

And when we can bring ourselves finally to care about them, gun control in America may become a reality.

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