Buying a Little Protection in a Violent World

ELLEN GOODMAN

April 20, 1993|By ELLEN GOODMAN

Boston. -- I bought a gun today. I bought another one for my husband. And one for my daughter. And one for my mother.

I can't say that I feel safer than I did yesterday. Not yet. But there are times when it seems important to do something, to pursue some protection in a violent world.

But let me explain. I'm not suddenly joining the National Rifle Association. I'm not contributing to the handgun sales figures that jumped in the anxious atmosphere after one Los Angeles riot and in fear of another. You won't find me standing in line at the Shooter's Paradise range.

I have not become a gun owner. Just a buyer.

I made my purchase at a small office on a busy Boston street that is housing a program called Buyback Boston. A group of people, working down the hall from a Fred Astaire Dance Studio and one floor below a Kung Fu teacher, are collecting money to buy back guns from the streets and the homes of the city. Retail, one by one, $50 a pop.

They are hoping to raise between $25,000 and $50,000 by mid-June. That would take about 500 to 1,000 guns out of circulation.

This is not their original idea. Buyback Boston is modeled after programs in St. Louis, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, and San Francisco. Altogether buybacks have removed some 25,000 guns -- and that's not counting the toy guns they bought for 50 cents apiece in one city. The Brookings Institution has recommended a federal buyback to the new administration.

I can't say how much difference my small purchase will make. There are 200 million guns in this country. There were 24,000 handgun murders in 1991 alone. Hardened criminals are not about to turn in the tools of their trade. A gun can always be replaced. But it seems to me that there are many ways to measure a ''difference.''

Katherine Mainzer, who is helping run the Boston buyback through Citizens for Safety, has chosen to measure it in small increments. She knows how easy it is to get overwhelmed thinking about violence. When a 14-year-old boy was shot in her daughter's school playground, she remembers, ''I flipped out. I think it is outrageous that I have to worry that my child might be killed by taking a bus to school.''

But when you consider violence in all its gore from child abuse to mass murder, anyone can become paralyzed. ''It's one example of a problem that looks so big,'' she says, ''you have to break it down to one step at a time.'' Two weeks since the buyback was announced, the group has collected over $10,000, much of it tucked into notes that read, ''If it saves one life . . . ''

No one knows how many lives a buyback will save. Other cities have reported a drop in homicides during or after their buyouts, but there is no rigorous research.

As Deborah Prothrow-Stith, the assistant dean of the Harvard School of Public Health and author of ''Deadly Consequences,'' says: ''The buyback is not the solution to violence.'' But it should be considered, she adds, ''not just in terms of fewer homicides, but by its impact on attitudes and the sense of helplessness.''

And maybe that's the way you measure ''difference.''

Today, feelings of helplessness are pervasive. Some people fight the feeling by buying guns. Others fight it by buying them back. To buy back a gun is to place yourself squarely with those who see weapons as part of the problem, not the solution. It's to choose sides with violence prevention. That's no small step.

It took 30 years for professionals to have an impact on smoking. It took just a handful of years for ordinary citizens to have an impact on drinking and driving. Maybe these things grow faster when they start at the grass roots.

In public health, they say that you can try to save the bodies floating down the river, but at some time you have to move upstream to deal with the cause. In violence you can watch the victims floating across the television screen and the front page or you can move upstream.

Sooner or later you have to go further upstream from thinking about the gun to thinking about the seller, the manufacturer, the lawmaker. You have to go upstream to the family, the neighborhood, the television, the culture.

But first you have to begin. This is one way. One gun at a time. One less gun at a time.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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