The war in Baltimore

December 26, 1990

For residents of the inner city of Baltimore, daily life has become a nightmare, with the possibility of violent death lurking around every corner. The newest statistics show 1990 has earned the dubious distinction as the most violent year here in decades. On Christmas Eve, the number of slayings in Baltimore hit nearly 300. It is not just criminals, either, who are victims; innocent bystanders, even children, are being gunned down in the streets routinely.

For all intents and purposes, the people of the inner city are living in a war zone. Ten times as many people died in Baltimore by homicide this year, for instance, than than in the entire nation of Sweden. Of course Baltimore is not alone; more than a dozen U.S. cities have experienced a record number of homicides this year -- though that fact should be of little consolation.

Officials attribute the increased violence here, and elsewhere, to two things: burgeoning inner-city drug use and the proliferation of guns, particularly semiautomatic handguns, which gained notoriety after the 1988 killing of five schoolchildren in Stockton, Ca., by a drifter armed with a Chinese made AK-47 semiautomatic rifle. The federal government responded with a lukewarm ban on the import of five makes of assault rifles popular among drug dealers. Still, there are more than 50 military-style assault weapons, and clearly they are finding their way into the streets.

To fill the gaps left by the federal ban, California enacted its own legislation, which requires registration of all military-style semiautomatic weapons. But zealots are refusing to comply; many calling their defiance an act of civil disobedience inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. That the name of the nation's greatest proponent of non-violence would be exploited for the proliferation of weapons that riddle cities with violence shows only how skewed and perverse the debate has become.

In Maryland, which enacted a landmark handgun control law, the widespread use of war weapons in the streets presents a moral as well as a political mandate. Governor Schaefer has indicated that he will support more stringent gun control legislation when the General Assembly convenes next month. That dictum, along with the huge number of deaths in Baltimore city this year should be sufficient to persuade lawmakers to act.

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