The trouble with Goods for Guns

January 07, 1994|By Michelle Malkin

FERNANDO Mateo, the East Coast entrepreneur who organized a "Toys for Guns" exchange in Washington Heights, N.Y., last month, bought a few extra minutes of Warholian fame by taking his project to California and renaming it "Goods for Guns."

With 15 television camera crews in tow, Mr. Mateo toured South Central Los Angeles and held a City Hall news conference on Tuesday with local and national members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"We're going to exchange death for hope," Mr. Mateo declared.

"If this will work in the Washington Heights section of New York, it will work in Los Angeles," NAACP executive director Benjamin Chavis predicted.

But the trouble with "Goods for Guns," the latest trend in urban crime prevention, is just that -- it's a fleeting trend, a transitory media event, a distraction. And most observers on the street, at the mall and in the ivory tower already know that.

As Gary Kleck, a criminologist at Florida State University, observes: "There is no reason to believe any violent people are disarmed. These are just 'feel-good' measures that make people feel like they are doing something."

Even William F. Gibson, the NAACP's national board chairman, readily admits that the gun swap concept is no "panacea for the problems of urban America."

Still, Mr. Chavis insists: "This is really spreading. Every gun taken off the street represents a life potentially saved. It's a very practical solution to a very complicated problem." Well, not really. Mr. Mateo, Toys R Us, Ticketmaster, the NAACP and other gun-swap sponsors throughout the country certainly deserve some measure of praise for their initiative and media savvy. And a positive consequence of such efforts is the collaboration between merchants and police that may lead to more effective and relevant anti-violence efforts.

But as past exchanges in San Francisco, Baltimore, Denver, Dallas and Los Angeles (just two weeks ago) have demonstrated, most of the guns collected "off the street" through such programs are broken and unusable firearms. Police note that most came from the closets and attics of responsible citizens, not criminals and reckless youths. Supporters of Ticketmaster's "Tickets for Guns," which netted 412 firearms in L.A., argue that there are now 412 fewer guns to worry about -- and that this should be viewed as success. But we didn't have to worry about most of those guns, anyway.

Mr. Mateo was inspired by his 14-year-old son, and I do believe that his public display of commitment to children and family should be properly honored. But trading teddy bears and Janet Jackson tickets for guns should also be properly viewed as a child's solution to the "very complicated problem" of urban violence and criminal behavior. Gun-swapping Santas who wave Air Jordans and Nintendo sets under the noses of fledgling criminals will have little, if any, lasting effects on the youngsters' underlying criminal behavior and abysmal disrespect for life.

The gun swappers have gotten their due. Now it's time to turn our eyes and ears -- and keep them focused -- on those who have been speaking more loudly and clearly about the criminals behind the guns, knives, baseball bats and simple bare-fisted terror.

We can't be distracted for too long by inanimate objects and complaints like Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen's that "We have over 200 million guns (in the United States). Every 10 seconds a gun rolls off an assembly line. All these guns, yet we haven't had a war going on inside this country for 129 years."

What about the war in Southeast Washington, D.C., or South Central Los Angeles?

Loyal readers will know that I'm no cheerleader for the Rev. Jesse Jackson. But recently, Mr. Jackson has spoken out against the "code of silence" in urban America -- that cowering acceptance of human slaughter, especially black-on-black homicide. He's sponsoring a plan called "Reclaim Our Youth" that stresses personal involvement and responsibility as a way to end drug abuse, teen sex, illegitimate births and rampant violence. As Mr. Jackson noted at a high school in Kansas: "More blacks kill each other annually than the sum total of lynchings in this country. When it's black on black there seems to be a zone of permissiveness about crime. That has got to stop."

This is a plea that deserves more attention. And it must be a running theme in any effective anti-violence effort in the inner cities. "Goods for Guns" may be a nice sideshow, but it will not stop the slaughter.

A lesson for all: In the fight against urban violence, you must pick your weapons carefully.

Michelle Malkin is a columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.

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