HERE'S a film of five low-lifers beating and robbing a man in the street. One of the five filmed it himself with a video camera. It shows how far people will go nowadays to get on television.
The film was shown in a Washington courtroom where the cinematographer and his cast are on trial for assault and robbery. Fragments of it shown on TV stations there featured a punch to the jaw that left one pedestrian unconscious and a brief sequence in which one assailant urinated on the fallen man's face.
This last ran just long enough to provide good television but not quite long enough to be utterly tasteless. As I watched it, my first reaction was to look in the background for Charlton Heston, the voice of the National Rifle Association.
The scene seemed ideal for a Heston commercial. Studying the squalor, he would look us straight in the eye and, with that fine, gentle decency he projects, lament that there were people, believe it or not, right here in this deadly dangerous nation's capital of ours who wanted to subject us to these mean streets after taking away our right to own guns.
Heston's message from the NRA is that in a violent city man's best friend is his gun. In the video of real-life Washington street violence, the victims were unarmed, so we are tempted to say, "Right on, Heston." Yet if they had had guns, the mayhem might have been ghastly.
The typical armed amateur is not Henry Fonda playing Wyatt Earp. He is W.C. Fields playing "The Bank Dick," though less amusingly once real bullets start puncturing the neighborhood at random.
Like many American cities, Washington already has neighborhoods so heavily armed that everybody, child and adult, lives at constant risk of being shot by randomly flying bullets discharged in the quarrels of strangers. Instead of Charlton Heston pitching for higher levels of armament, someone ought to be crying, "Not one gun more, I prithee!'
Peter Jennings's ABC News show reports that in Chicago, at least, somebody is indeed saying it. There, apparently, some housing projects have concentrations of firepower reminiscent of old World War I movie about the Western Front: entire populations, men, women and children, falling like flies.
So there's political pressure for sweeps that would confiscate every gun that can be found. The National Rifle Association is opposed.
This produced a rare expression of old-fashioned common-man common sense on the Jennings show. A man who knows those murderous projects suggested that since the NRA was so pleased about people living in heavily armed digs, it might want some of its members to live there. If one wanted to move in, he suggested, he would be willing to pay the rent.
He wasn't speaking of Heston, of course, but his offer raised a question that is never quite adequately answered in the usual news accounts of the NRA's powerful lobbying muscle and its ability to strike terror in the hearts of politicians: to wit, who is the NRA? Aside from Charlton Heston, it has no human face.
Unlike the IRS, which aims to terrorize all society, the NRA seems to terrorize only politicians. Its purpose appears to be to prevent any restraint on firearms marketing, which suggests that it's a business lobby dedicated to helping the gun industry do well.
But who is the gun industry? The Pentagon's government-subsidized armorers would surely look on automatic pistols and assault weapons for the public as small-bore stuff, wouldn't they? Yet the NRA's most zealously pursued goal is to frustrate every effort at stopping the spread of this street-killer armament that makes places like Washington such effective backgrounds for Charlton Heston commercials.
I am reminded of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." Who are those guys anyhow?