The Great American Killing Grounds

GARLAND L. THOMPSON

June 13, 1992|By GARLAND L. THOMPSON

Among the many alarm bells ringing these days is the chillingnews that gunshots are the second leading cause of death among high-school youth in America. This ought to be shocking, but it isn't. Too many terrible thresholds have been crossed for a thinking person to be shocked now.

Let's rephrase that. If you are shocked at the American Medical Association's report that gunfire is killing the country's youth, where have you been? It is to the doctors' credit that they, who daily struggle to save the lives of young people unfairly struck down, have colored in the picture of just how much carnage there is. It is damning that the rest of us, who live and work in the same cities and towns being turned into Wild West sets, needed the doctors' prodding to get shocked.

This is, after all, a country populated by 200 million civilian-owned firearms. Fifty million more and we'll make up a perverse democracy: one man, one gun.

This is a nation that reacted to the recent uprising in L.A. with sharp increases in handgun sales. People interviewed at gun shops spoke of ''protecting'' themselves. Callers to radio talk shows across the country were more graphic. There would ''really be a bloodbath'' if the rioters of L.A. or, more pointedly, blacks and Hispanics living closer by, ever brought riots to their neighborhoods.

A dose of reality should have come at the report that most of the people killed in L.A. were shot by people other than police. One Northern California businessman even was found wearing a holster, dead on arrival in the car he drove to South Central L.A. from the airport. Police theorize that he had taken a gun to the scene, bumbled into an unruly crowd and pulled his gun to scare the crowd away. His weapon was not recovered.

What probably surprises many people is the AMA's report on white deaths. Cherished assumptions say that inner-city (read black) young people are more likely than anyone to blow each other's brains out, and only the do-gooders care. Now the doctors' patient spadework shows that homicide rates in suburban areas, which had fallen from 1979 to 1984, rose 7 percent over the next three years and 23 percent between 1987 and 1989. As of that year, the latest data available, suburban youths' gunshot deaths stood at 5 per 100,000. And since the suburbs are the new population centers, that's a lot of killing.

The inner city is hardest hit by gun violence, to be sure. Homicide rates among young city dwellers fell between 1979 and 1984, too. Then between 1984 and 1987, inner-city homicide rates rose 10 percent. By 1989 the inner-city youngsters' death rates stood at 28 per 100,000, a 28-percent increase over 1987.

But there was still another surprise awaiting those who think it's just a black thing: Among white men and women in the inner cities, gunshot deaths rose 30 percent.

Gun ownership, for those who hadn't noticed, is more prevalent in white communities. Whites are the ones who keep a vast majority of those 200 million weapons; the better employed had the most to spend and the greatest fear of ''criminals.'' Now, who do you think is responsible for all those killings the doctors found in white communities in both large and small cities?

What we have here is a failure to communicate. It is having the most terrible of consequences.

So many gun owners, egged on by remorseless National Rifle Association propaganda, parrot the Angelenos about why they buy: ''protection from crime.'' The reality is that gun owners kill themselves and their family members 43 times as often as they shoot criminals invading their homes.

One big reason is that firearms escalate domestic violence. Guns are 12 times more likely to cause death than other weapons used in domestic fights. And since so many people buy guns to feel able to ''defend'' themselves, it's clear that once bought, the gun stays on the buyer's mind.

One result unexpected by the adults is that a third of high school students say they have easy access to handguns. The AMA says 6 percent of these young people take those guns to school. Another group of six-percenters, not necessarily all the same youngsters, reports owning handguns and of these, about a third have fired at someone.

It is time to recognize that the ills of violence black Americans have decried for years infect all Americans. The doctors prescribe aggressive licensure and public education for gun owners, similar to programs that cut auto fatalities, without banning or confiscation. But people don't ordinarily buy automobiles to ''protect'' themselves, nor go about resolved to run somebody over for being obnoxious. With guns, the implicit threat is always there.

But at least the doctors are proposing to do something. For the rest, failure to restrict the uses of those 200 million death machines is a prescription for misery. We can't stand much more.

L Garland L. Thompson writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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