Baltimore as Beirut

July 11, 1991

A few years ago, the term "mushrooms" made its way into the journalistic lingo to refer to innocent bystanders who pop up unexpectedly in the midst of drug-related gun battles. This week, separate incidents on the same day in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., served as a tragic reminder of just how commonplace such incidents have become.

In Baltimore, a 6-year-old girl was the victim, shot to death by gun-toting thugs firing at each other over the length of a city block. In Washington, a mother of three was killed by a bullet that entered her car as she was driving her children home. In both cases, the assailants' intended victims -- presumably rival drug dealers -- either escaped unharmed or suffered relatively minor injuries.

Can there be any doubt that this epidemic of urban violence is fueled by the twin scourges of drugs and the ready availability of powerful semiautomatic handguns that can spray up to 15 shots without pause for reloading? These are now criminals' weapons of choice; worse, the increased firepower of these weapons has occasioned a revival of the tactics of indiscriminate mayhem reminiscent of the Chicago-style gangland wars of the '20s.

Yet the powerful U.S. gun lobby and its captive lawmakers stubbornly block even such modest measures as requiring a two-week waiting period for the purchase of handguns outlined in the Brady bill passed by Congress. How many more "mushrooms" must we read of before the realization sinks in that no society can afford to allow the unchecked proliferation of what are essentially paramilitary weapons without turning Baltimore into a version of Beirut -- a city that literally let itself be shot to pieces by criminal violence?

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