Guns for the Prudent


January 24, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace -- Some years ago, after her conviction for theft, a less-than-stable defendant in the Maryland courts decided to blame her legal and personal difficulties on me.

First she sent me hate mail. Then her court-appointed psychiatrist called to report that his patient, who at that time was free pending sentencing, was threatening violence against me, my wife and my children. I asked if she was to be taken seriously, and if so, what I should do. He said he couldn't comment further. It wouldn't be ethical, he said. But he felt obligated to warn me.

This posterior-covering shrink's conception of ethical behavior still astonishes me, but I didn't worry about it much at the time. First I alerted the sheriff's department. Then I got out my 12 gauge shotgun and gave my wife, Irna, a refresher course on how to load and fire it. We kept it handy until the source of the threats went off to jail.

Fortunately, there's not much more to the story. The woman served her term, got a better grip on reality and eventually left the state. The last I heard, she was faithfully making court-ordered restitution payments to the victim of her theft. The 12 gauge went back in the gun closet.

Keeping a firearm readily available during those few days after the warning telephone call seemed to me a prudent step. Many reasonable people, with different perspectives on the subject, will disagree about that. But as the General Assembly begins to tackle the issue of gun control for the umpteenth time, it'll be fooling itself if it ignores the link between gun ownership and prudence.

It's estimated that as many as half the households in the United States have at least one firearm. The idea that these weapons can be eliminated in any democratically acceptable way is far-fetched; little turn-in-your-guns programs like the one now under way in Baltimore are poignant in their ineffectiveness.

But equally far-fetched is the idea, embraced at least implicitly over the years by the National Rifle Association, that guns shouldn't be regulated at all. There is a place for regulation -- as long as it makes sense not only to those who would like to ban all guns, but to those who consider a firearm a tool with a legitimate place in a prudent person's household.

It would also be helpful if those making new gun laws, and testifying for or against them, would define their terms more clearly. What, for instance, are "assault rifles" or "assault pistols"? Most people, I suspect, would say that these are military-type weapons that fire bullets in a burst while the trigger is held down. And they'd be wrong. Such guns have been federally regulated for almost 60 years.

When I was in Vietnam, I acquired a Soviet-made AK-47 `f automatic rifle as a souvenir, but I couldn't bring it home. Since 1934, a federal license has been required to own such a weapon. What Maryland and other states want to ban are mostly semiautomatic weapons, which require a pull on the trigger for each bullet fired. Uzi pistols with carbine stocks and Kalashnikov AK-56 rifles are among the best-known examples of these.

Banning these specific weapons and others like them is a symbolic step at best. Certainly it's not a practical one. There are bolt-action sporting rifles on the market that can be fired just about as fast as the semiautomatics, and at close range a 12 gauge shotgun like mine is even more lethal. The main difference between the military and sporting weapons is cosmetic; the military ones have plastic stocks.

The safest society in which to live, I suppose, is one in which violent crime is low and the citizens feel no need for access to arms. There are such places in the world. But the second-safest society is one in which a significant portion of the law-abiding community is prepared to shoot back.

Remember the Killeen, Texas, massacre? In the fall of 1991, a psychotic gunman slaughtered 23 people in a cafeteria. One survivor, a doctor, owned a pistol and said she could have easily shot the gunman. But because of strict Texas laws against carrying a weapon on one's person, she had left it in her car.

Some weeks later, a similar horror appeared on the verge of unfolding in a restaurant in Anniston, Alabama. Two gunmen forced 20 people into a walk-in refrigerator. But one legally armed customer killed the bandits instead. He was slightly wounded, but no one else was hurt.

In Virginia, which has liberal gun laws, Governor Douglas Wilder has responded to national pressure and proposed a modest limit to handgun purchases: one gun per customer per month. It's hard to imagine how that can be effectively enforced, but in principle it's a reasonable idea prudent people can accept.

On the other hand, it's interesting that violent crime in Virginia doesn't come anywhere near the levels found in Baltimore, Washington and New York City -- three jurisdictions which for years have had strong gun laws. In Baltimore especially, which can't even keep its most notorious murderer of the decade in custody, it's laughable to think that any new gun law will lead to a safer city. When the Dontay Carters are off the streets once and for all, prudent folks might think differently about gun control. But that might be a while. As for me, while I'm waiting I plan to spend some of the time shooting clay pigeons.

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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