Time to act tough as well as talk tough on guns

February 10, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

ANNAPOLIS -- On Jan. 13, the day William Donald Schaefer gave his final State of the State address, his General Assembly, sniffing the prevailing winds, roused its collective energy to interrupt him with serious applause exactly one time.

"An overwhelming number of Marylanders want tougher gun laws," the governor declared. "Read your newspapers. Talk to people."

And suddenly, eight pages into his speech, maybe 15 minutes after he'd begun talking, there finally came the sound of hands beating together, the sense that his words had at last hit a nerve, and there was passion in the air.

Sometimes, even politicians get the message.

People are frightened. The echo of gunplay reaches everywhere now. About a thousand citizens came here Monday evening, from all over the state, to launch a bill that would require licensing of handgun owners, restrict handgun purchases to two per person per year and ban high-capacity ammunition magazines.

But the bill doesn't go far enough. It only chips away at the edges of the problem, allowing the guns to proliferate and, thus, the crime. And it still plays politics more than it pays attention to logic.

The politics are simple: Against the perceived power of the gun lobbyists, who are among the great forces of darkness in America, no one dares aim too high. All assume they'll intimidate legislators into voting against any bill that seeks real gun control and so, in the face of this, legislation is offered that compromises heavily and therefore gains exactly nothing.

Around here, everybody points to the murder rate, which is more chilling than the weather. But it's not only the homicides that are killing us. Across the state, about 600 people are murdered each year, mostly by handguns, but this figure is dwarfed by the more casual gunplay committed by the thousands: the assaults, the holdups, the enforcement of drug trafficking, the sense of dread that now fills entire communities once considered safe.

"We all know somebody who's been a gun victim," Del. Kurt Anderson was saying the evening of the gun rally. "We've all had to go to services for somebody who's been killed."

Whatever poignancy you find in his words, folks who wish to buy and keep guns make one argument that's at least as poignant. It's about self-protection, about taking matters into their own hands that seem beyond the abilities of police.

Now, make the distinction here: There's a difference between the gun lobbyists, the National Rifle Association types who fight the gun control laws for economic motives, and those frightened citizens who buy into the gun lobby's babble.

The argument about self-protection has a certain allure at its surface: Gotta get a gun, in case somebody breaks into the house one night when everybody's vulnerable, gotta protect the family.

Who could argue with such a sentiment?

Except for this: It's one of the great, destructive myths of our time. Once a year or so, you hear about such a thing actually happening. In fact, it's such an unusual story that it gets marvelous play all over the country, and the NRA types use it to make their point.

But it's the exception that proves the rule. We're fascinated by the story precisely because we so rarely see such a thing.

But the thing that happens day after day, by the hundreds and thousands, is the act of people committing criminal acts because they have access to guns. And this leads us to the great illogic of the gun proponents' argument: It makes no sense for law-abiding people to arm themselves strictly for a day that's not likely ever to arrive, when the other side, the lawbreakers, are arming themselves specifically so they can commit crimes every day.

It's an automatically self-destructive position: Why argue for the use of guns, when only lawbreakers use guns? What America needs to do is take handguns entirely out of the hands of private citizens.

It's taken a long time for legislators here to understand any of this, or to consider staring down the gun lobby types. They cheered when William Donald Schaefer talked tough. Maybe they'll show their own toughness now by voting for real self-protection.

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