Guns and emotion -- a grim mix

May 22, 1992

In an emotional response to the Los Angeles riots, Californians are rushing to gun stores. State law makes them wait 15 days before completing weapons purchases, so buyers have even made a run on World War II rifles, for which there is no waiting period. L.A. gun shops have reported 50-percent, even 100-percent sales increases. People in other states are also rushing to buy guns. (There's no telling how bad it is here. Maryland State Police figures for April and May gun-permit applications won't be available before June.)

The National Rifle Association, the country's No. 1 gun promoter, thinks the run on guns is fine. Some 58 percent of the 21 million Americans who have bought handguns did so to protect themselves, the NRA says. And, according to its figures, 645,000 gun owners use firearms to fend off aggressors each year. This proves the point about self-protection for the NRA and, by extension, all the frightened suburbanites filling out the forms at gun shops.

Or does it? Even accepting the NRA's totals, that works out to 3 percent of the 21 million gun-owners. Comparing that NRA figure with the 200 million firearms experts say Americans own, the percentage drops to just three-tenths of 1 percent.

The carnage caused by all those weapons is another story. In 1991, the year before the riots, more Angelenos died by gunfire than in auto accidents. According to the Los Angeles Times, in 1970, before the proliferation of weapons, 1,154 Angelenos died in auto accidents, but only 464 in gunshot homicides. In 1991, L.A. County recorded 1,215 vehicular deaths, but 1,554 gunshot homicides. That's starkly different from the nationwide results: 5 gunshot homicides per 100,000 people in 1970, 5.2 per 100,000 in 1991. In armed-to-the-teeth L.A., the gun death rate per 100,000 jumped from 6.6 in 1970 to 17.5 in 1991.

During the Watts riots of 1965, 23 of 31 shooting deaths were the result of police or soldiers' gunfire. But of the more than 50 people who died in the April 1992 L.A. outbreak, authorities say more than three-quarters were slain by someone other than the officers of the law. One, Northern California businessman Howard Epstein, flew to L.A. on the second day of rioting, nervous about a machine shop he owned in the South Central area. Police found him shot to death in the car he drove from the airport, a holster on his belt. Officers suspected he had tried to scare away rioters with a gun, but got shot instead.

Such carnage has occurred in a county in which 84 percent of residents responding to a poll said no one in their households had been victimized by violent crime over the last two years. It should give pause to all those people thinking they should buy weapons to "protect" themselves. Emotions may say firearms are the solution to fear of crime, but the owners are becoming part of the problem.

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