LOS ANGELES — Los Angeles.-- I interviewed a dozen gun control experts and law enforcement officers last week for a year-end article on the slaughter in America's streets. We had more than 23,000 murders this year, most of them committed with handguns or assault weapons that have no other use or purpose than blowing out the insides of living human beings.
Obviously, American gun laws are insane. There are enough guns lying around that every three hours an American teen-ager commits suicide with a handgun. But we have all known that for a long time.
And the answers I got were not new, either. Actually I got only one answer, 12 times: ''The NRA.''
The National Rifle Association. Although I was once a member, I despise it -- or, rather, what it stands for and is doing.
I remember my NRA as being something like a grown-up Boy Scout troop, teaching gun safety in the way the American Red Cross teaches first aid and water safety.
New NRA leadership impresses me as Rambo-survivalist at best, making the organization into a lobbying arm of gun manufacturers.
The NRA's interpretation of the sanctity of the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution -- ''the right of the people to keep and bear arms'' -- is peculiarly egalitarian:
All men are created equal, with an equal right to bear any and all arms. The way to protect your right or my right to own a shotgun for hunting or a target pistol is to protect the right of drug dealers to carry submachine guns or 15-year-old psychopaths to carry handguns to make it more convenient to shoot folks at random during Saturday night cruising in the San Fernando Valley.
The question I was trying to answer was: What is it about us that has allowed this to happen? Every other civilized country in the world controls guns as if they were deadly weapons, while we treat them as a combination of patriotic icons and fashion accessories.
I realized that it was more than the NRA that planted that idea (or apathy about that idea) in the American brain. The gun lobby may be smart and powerful, but not that smart.
They have seized effectively on an often misunderstood fact at the center of democratic politics: Politicians are not in the business of making friends; their business is avoiding the making of enemies.
Elected officials are particularly frightened of enemies with money or mailing lists, and the NRA has both, plus a record of organizing direct-mail and call-in show campaigns against politicians who inadvertently murmur anything about keeping AK-47s out of junior high schools.
But they can go only so far with that kind of insanity. It is not the NRA or politicians who are allowing the United States to become an armed carnival. It is us.
We are the problem. We, the people, usually get what we are willing to work for in this democracy, and we don't much care about this.
We fantasize or tolerate the American daydream that we are still a frontier people, lone rangers blazing a trail across the continent through hostile Indians and wild animals.
Beyond that nod to myth, which was not all that true when it was happening 150 years ago, most of us are not much bothered if drug dealers and gang members and cops, too, are falling in bloody streets.
If we cared, or when we care, after a few more years of random killing, we would defeat a couple of pro-gun politicians. Then there would be the ''Wofford effect'' (after Sen. Harris Wofford, who defeated Richard Thornburgh by emphasizing the need for national health insurance with the rest of them following the voters' lead).
Once they realize that we, the people, mean it, our elected ''leaders'' would put up their hands.
Under organized voter pressure, they would amend the Constitution if that is what it takes.
We are talking, after all, about a document that defined the worth of black people as three-fifths of a white man and dictated that drinking beer or wine was a crime. But now all the real electoral pressure comes from gun goons.
So far it has not been worth the trouble for politicians or most of the rest of us to stand up and be counted.
It's one thing to agree that what is going on is a form of national insanity. But it is something of a higher order to commit personal energy and democratic power to keep guns away from the bad guys and the nutcakes.
We have the power but, really, who cares? We have to set priorities, and this does not rank very high. Drunk driving did a few years ago, and elected officials raced for the shelter of tougher laws and enforcement.
But with guns, so far it's mostly just ''them'' killing each other -- with a schoolyard or McDonald's massacre now and then -- and ''we'' have other, more pressing things on our minds than mobilizing the work, and paying the taxes, it would take to round up the guns and the shooters.
9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.
It is not the NRA or politicians who are allowing the United States to become an armed carnival. It is us.