Gun deaths are a warning shot for our society

DAN RODRICKS

January 09, 1993|By DAN RODRICKS

Dr. John Smialek, chief medical examiner, slides a sheet of paper filled with names and notes across a table. It is the overnight sheet from Jan. 5, 1993. It lists the 12 freshest cases -- grim scientific mysteries of varying degree -- that require forensic investigation. "This was an average day in the state of Maryland," Smialek says.

White male, 36, Montgomery County, collapses: Cause unknown. . . . Black female, 25, Prince George's County, collapses: Chronic alcohol abuser; bruises on body. . . . Black male, 62, Baltimore, collapses: Longtime heroin addict. . . . White female, 2, Prince George's County: Suffocated, allegedly by schizophrenic father.

Black male, 60, Baltimore, collapses: Alcoholic. . . . Black female, 41, Baltimore, stabbed to death. . . . Black female, 4 months old, Baltimore: Possible crib death; both parents HIV-positive. . . . White female, 17, Montgomery County: Car accident . . . .

Black female, 34, Dorchester County: Found face down in ditch by state roads worker. . . . White male, 58, of Baltimore, collapses: Death could be related to injuries sustained in car accident some months ago; family wants to know. . . . Black male, 41, Baltimore, collapses in alley: Alcoholic. . . . Black male, 24, Baltimore: Shot several times in alley.

Last but hardly least, right?

Young black men of Baltimore killing each other, most often in drug battles, almost always with guns -- that particular type of homicide was responsible for the record carnage in Baltimore in 1992.

Drugs, young men, guns.

Statewide, Smialek's office recorded 621 homicides in 1992. (Note: Police standards for homicides are different from those of the medical examiner. Smialek's office rules homicide in any death caused by another human being, even if accidental. The police, of course, are more discerning for purposes of criminal prosecution. While the city police said there were 335 homicides in 1992, Smialek ruled homicide in Baltimore in at least 20 more cases.)

Four hundred fifty-four of the state's 621 homicides involved guns. One hundred ninety-four homicide victims were between the ages of 18 and 26. Another 76 of Maryland's homicide victims were under 18.

"In this job," Smialek says, "you can't help but become overwhelmed by the waste of life, especially young lives, that is occurring in our society."

He has before him the completed report on one such case, photographs included. The victim was 20 years old, black, of Baltimore. He was killed one day last October. "Front seat of a Nissan Maxima," Smialek says, describing the crime scene from the police report.

The photographs show a tall, lean, muscular man-child, in hooded sweat shirt and jeans, laid out on a coroner's shroud. "They are, almost all of them, physically perfect specimens of good health," Smialek says. "Except for the little hole in their body."

In this case, eight holes.

"We have," Smialek says, "in our society today, young black men killing each other, and young white men killing themselves."

If, as Smialek and many of his colleagues do, we look at the wide availability of guns, especially handguns, as a public health threat, then suicide must be included in the argument.

In 1992 in Maryland, there were 723 deaths from gunshot wounds, according to Smialek. That includes 454 homicides, plus 258 suicides, 80 percent of which were white men between the ages of 20 and 35. There were 10 gunshot deaths of "undetermined" nature and one instance in which a person accidentally killed himself with his own weapon.

In 1992, total gunshot deaths surpassed traffic deaths (659), the first time in recent years that has happened.

As chief medical examiner, Smialek is final witness to our extreme social tragedies: death caused by alcoholism, drug abuse, spousal abuse, child abuse and all other human evils that sprout in the sad landscape of poverty, ignorance, greed and mental illness. Smialek's is far from the field of preventive medicine. Still, after a record-setting year for violence, he is asked what can be done.

A Baltimore City councilman seems to think a new police commissioner is part of the solution to murder and violent crime. But that almost trivializes the problem. Crime -- in particular, the homicide rate -- is a staggering, complicated problem that sends fear from city to suburb. What do we do?

Smialek keeps coming back to guns.

"Look at the numbers, this waste of life, the homicide rate among young black men, the suicide rate among young whites. What would be the difference if you subtracted the gun from the equation? The number of guns heightens the threat to all of us."

It is fact: People with guns kill more frequently and more efficiently than people without guns. Lovers kill each other, drunk husbands kill their wives, drug dealers kill innocent bystanders, depressed and impulsive teen-agers kill themselves. That's what Smialek sees -- from week to week on the examination tables, and at year's end when he looks at the statistics. "This," he says, "is the price we pay for establishing a culture of guns in America."

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