IT'S TIME to face up to violence by firearms and do something realistic about it. The new vogue in armed robberies in Baltimore reminds us what hell it is to go about our ordinary business expecting an encounter with a gunman.
Of course, murder is such a staple of popular entertainment and political neglect that the question must be raised whether we really disapprove of it. We still punish killers, but there's a sense in which police chases, courtrooms and prisons serve to intensify the drama and the excitement. Add to this the carnival that attends every attempt to impose capital punishment.
"America's Most Wanted" performs a useful function, but it also makes one look forward to the next horror. What becomes of a society that depends on murder for entertainment?
The main reason for violent crime doesn't call for much philosophical puzzlement -- it's in our face. There are so many firearms in circulation in the United States that any disgruntled, media-intoxicated 12-year-old can get a real weapon to act out his fantasies.
Gun control is an issue that screams for national leadership. It is also an issue from which both political parties are in full retreat. President Bush sends a crime bill to Congress with little suggestion that the proliferation of firearms has anything to do do with the subject at hand. The Democrat-controlled Maryland Senate can't get a bill banning assault-style semiautomatic weapons out of committee.
Bush is in instinctive, if not reasoned, agreement with the position of the National Rifle Association: Gun laws won't prevent gun crimes; if we try to take guns away, only criminals will have them. Someone needs to remind the president that drug laws aren't exactly preventing drug crimes, either. The gun issue is not Bush's finest intellectual hour.
Yet the position of the garden-variety Democratic politician is even more contemptible. It is pure cowardice. The gathered wisdom of the Democratic Party is that you can't beat the NRA -- so why take a bloody nose and maybe lose your seat in trying?
The gun issue elicits the same flight from responsibility that racial segregation once did. The current situation is felt to be appalling, but no one will risk actually doing anything about it.
If Democratic politicians had just one-twentieth the guts on gun control that blacks did who boycotted the Montgomery buses and sat at the whites-only lunch counters in Greensboro and marched up to the courthouses in rural Mississippi demanding to be enrolled as voters, then we might be getting somewhere.
The Democrats ought to yoke their sure-loser candidate in 1992 to the cause of gun control. They may as well go down fighting for something worthwhile instead of me-tooing George Bush. And moving gun control to stage center in a presidential campaign makes the idea more thinkable in the years to come.
Let's be clear that what we're talking about is firearms confiscation. What we say to the NRA is very simple: Because of guns, it's open season on humankind in the United States. The right to hunt animals and to target-shoot is not equivalent to the right to come and go without fear of giving up your life to a gunman. Morally there is no balance in that equation whatsoever. What we crave are a few political leaders with the brains and guts to say so.
The invincibility of the NRA was proved a myth in Maryland in 1988 when the voters approved a very mild handgun control law that had been targeted for destruction by the gun fondlers. If the pols will get up on tiptoe to look over the heads of the NRA lobbyists, they will see an awful lot of Americans ready to support the confiscation of firearms.
Otherwise it will probably take a wildly notorious murder to shake us up. Another perforated president, perhaps, or a dead movie star.
How about a shoot-in at NRA headquarters? Now there's a scenario that's more appealing.
Baltimorean Hal Riedl has been writing about crime and politics since 1981.