After a Record Year for Murder, Baltimore Considers the Crime Epidemic The Vacuum of Leadership

January 13, 1993|By HAL RIEDL

This morning we're going to talk about dereliction of duty, among those not often accused of it -- Senators Barbara Mikulski and Paul Sarbanes, and Congressmen Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume. The subject is death by shooting -- of gross indifference to it: Je les accuse!

We take notice of a record number of murders last year in Baltimore. Each year approximately 34,000 Americans -- nearly as many as those who die in traffic accidents -- are shot to death. The vast majority of them are not career criminals.

A shooting hits us hard when we know the victim, or she seems especially innocent and vulnerable. But we cannot afford very often to be moved very much. We have grown carapaces against too much sorrow or too much rage. Too much sorrow might mean that life does not go on, as we are taught it must. Too much rage is very dangerous; when we become too angry, we discover that our system of government is doing absolutely nothing to prevent the slaughter.

The Maryland legislature cannot even bring to a vote a bill to outlaw assault weapons, which have no function but assassination. The best the Congress of the United States can ** do is to pass the Brady Bill, most recently torpedoed last October by a Republican filibuster in the Senate. All the Brady Bill amounts to is a five-day waiting period during handgun purchases. It is a fatuous measure used by federal legislators as a sop to gun-control advocates.

It's true that drying up firearms in the U.S. will take years. But a start must be made. The weapons are worthless without ammunition. We can do much more to restrict severely the legal possession of handguns, as Canada has done with considerable success.

To be sure, public opinion is divided and even self-contradictory on the subject of gun control. We believe that the Second Amendment, which applies to militias, enshrines in natural law -- the personal right to bear arms. We know perfectly well that our daily feast of death is due to too many persons bearing guns, but we also believe that if we try to reduce the supply, only criminals will have guns.

So it is our own mental paralysis that is faithfully reflected by our do-nothing government. But I will not endorse this diffusion of responsibility. Our national representatives proclaim with every commercial that they are paragons of courageous leadership, not political Xerox machines. They have convinced us of the quality of their leadership: Lady Mikulski and Lords Sarbanes, Cardin and Mfume are always re-elected with near-Stalinist majorities. They are invincible.

Which makes their silence about violence all the more amazing. These are four experts in government who could afford to spend a little of their political capital to protect us from death by (P shooting. They might recall why they first entered public life in the first place, and decide to gamble a little, with so much innocent life at stake. But precious experience has taught them not to risk any of their political capital without the assurance of a good return. So they nestle safely in the cowardice of wise counsel.

We are losing our capacity for outrage, and our best politicians have lost their capacity for courage.

Senator Mikulski, She Who is Never Photographed with Her Mouth Closed, speaks often in high dudgeon and affected compassion. She says nothing about violence. Senator Sarbanes has not taken a genuine political risk since he first stood for the Senate in 1976. One would think that death by firearms would rate a mention as much as laboratories that screw up cancer tests for women or the sale of ambassadorships by the Republican party.

Gathering dust in the Senate is a piece of legislation that Lady Mikulski and Lord Sarbanes could consider. It is S. 2913, zTC introduced by Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island, a bill to prohibit the sale, manufacture or possession of handguns, with certain common-sense exceptions. It would be good to know what our Senate royalty at least thinks of such a bill. But if you inquire, you will be thanked for your interest and referred to their support for the Brady Bill.

Their equivocation is contemptible.

Congressman Cardin is a deeply serious pol who simply will not associate himself with a dead-up loser of an issue.

Congressman Mfume is no stranger to quixotic causes, and with homicide the leading cause of death among his younger constituents, he ought to be leading a march every week. But he's learned well from his senior colleagues: Build your power, and don't squander it on fights you can't win.

If this were 1950 our quartet of federal statesmen would be telling Martin Luther King why segregation, however deplorable, may be forever.

Hal Riedl is a Baltimore free lance.

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