A Mr. Larry Pratt writes to the editor of this newspaper with a gun at my head.
Figuratively speaking, of course.
Mr. Pratt asserts that he and I disagree over the killing of Charles "Eddie" Scheuerman, the Belair Road gun shop owner who was shot to death while surrounded by weapons of his own which he could not reach.
Mr. Pratt declares himself sensitive and saddened by the shooting. For public consumption, he declares me full of delight over it.
On this, he is revoltingly wrong and knows it.
Mr. Pratt also thinks he and I disagree in general about the need for gun control in America. Mr. Pratt thinks people should arm themselves. He believes I wish to control the spread of guns.
On this disagreement, he is right and we both know it.
Mr. Pratt, it should be noted, has what is known in the trade as a vested interest.
He is executive director of Gun Owners of America.
This is a national gun lobbying group. Mr. Pratt says Gun Owners of America has about 100,000 members, many of whom are gun shop owners.
When Maryland wrestled with anti-handgun legislation a few years back, Gun Owners of America had people here testifying against it. A few months ago, they organized a lobbying seminar for gun activists in the state, in the eventuality that Maryland's legislators once more summon the courage to take on the gun control issue.
Mr. Pratt and the other gun aficionados are upset with me because I am public in my dislike of weapons. This has to do not only with the crime rate around here but with the anxiety level as well. One builds on the other. Currently, we have a community building toward a bunker mentality.
Those such as Mr. Pratt are aware of this and are not shy about exploiting it. Eddie Scheuerman's death was a tragedy, multiplied by the hundreds like it each year in Baltimore and by the thousands across the country.
The gun lobbyists send explicit messages designed to jangle our nerves: Buy a gun and defend yourself. Yet, two weeks ago, here was Eddie Scheuerman, surrounded by an arsenal in his gun store and yet unable to defend himself.
Surely, the irony was not lost on Mr. Pratt. If an arsenal does not protect Eddie Scheuerman, then what chance do ordinary citizens have with their pathetic weapons tucked into their night table drawers?
It makes no sense to believe in the power of the gun when the bad guys are buying all the guns they want. The answer is to make it tougher to get them, not easier, and the death of Eddie Scheuerman paints this picture in Technicolor.
To this, Mr. Pratt writes, "Michael Olesker's column all but says . . . Eddie Scheuerman deserved to die."
Is that lovely? In a sentence, Larry Pratt moves from the issue of assassination to one of character assassination. You don't like the message, go after the messenger. If Scheuerman deserved to die, Pratt says -- a claim, of course, I never made -- then, as he puts it:
"I look forward to reading future Olesker columns in which the wardrobe and background of rape victims are dragged out as an excuse for rapists and dead crack dealers are callously used as an argument for more drug laws."
As Pratt has lost me here, I call him in Springfield, Va., home of Gun Owners of America. He says he is happy to hear from me. I tell him he has written a letter full of lies.
"It's like the [international] arms race," he says. "When the good guys out-armed the bad guys, the bad guys collapsed."
This is oversimplification of the Soviet crisis to a fault ludicrous enough that I let it pass.
"If criminals met an armed citizen more often, then criminals would have to reconsider their behavior," Pratt says. "They're evil, they're not irrational. The risks are tolerable, so they commit crimes. That's why every law-abiding citizen should have the opportunity to be armed."
If that's the case, then why stop with opportunity? Why not simply pass out arms to every law-abiding citizen -- if, in fact, Pratt can figure out in advance which citizens are law-abiding and which are not.
"It would help a great deal," Pratt says. "You can't cure crime with gun laws. Police can't protect citizens. It's not the police officer's job to protect citizens."
This will come as distressing news to those hearing the words "police protection" who assumed it was more than the empty connecting of words.
"No," says Pratt, "the policeman's job is to be a cleanup crew after a crime has been committed. It's our job to defend ourselves. The gun store owners make it possible to help resist the thugs."
The temptation is to say that Larry Pratt knows better, but maybe I give him too much credit. Police chiefs across the country cry out for gun control, but the gun lobbyists shout them down. Prosecutors across the nation say we can't go on like this, but the sale of guns goes on.
All year, the newspapers have carried stories involving the shooting of children. Across America, one child a day is killed by a gun and 10 more are injured.
Larry Pratt knows parents couldn't have protected these children with guns. In many cases, in fact, it was the children themselves who found the weapons and mistakenly brandished them like playthings.
That's what makes his letter so galling. It's not bad enough the gun lobbyists play on people's fears. Now they've lost Eddie Scheuerman, and they want to cash in on him, too.