The Cultural Conflict over Gun Control

February 10, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace.-- Here we go again. The Maryland legislature, hammering away happily on the gun-control wedge, is deepening ancient rifts and alienating great groups of Marylanders one from the other. The same process is going on in other states.

Perhaps more than any other issue on the political agenda, even including abortion, gun control divides Americans by culture. This makes for colorful demagoguery and exciting debates, adds vitality to public life, and eventually may strengthen the country. But like all cross-cultural frictions it's disturbing in the short run because it emphasizes fundamental differences.

Remember those deplorable T-shirts -- ''It's a black thing. You wouldn't understand'' -- that were briefly fashionable? To the distress of those who believed otherwise, they suggested that interracial understanding was impossible. Today, the cultural gulf dividing the two sides on the gun issue is almost as daunting.

Rural people, who are often raised with firearms, not only tend to oppose gun-control laws, they're likely to view them as an affront. If your father or your grandfather showed you how to shoot and clean a .22 or a .410, and drilled you on the principles of safe gun-handling until they became instinctive, you're likely to take a dim view of the government declaring you unfit to own a weapon.

But in today's Maryland, such an upbringing is no longer the norm. To a college-educated professional person who grew up around one of the Beltways and did not serve in the military, a gun is likely to be viewed as a foreign object -- something dangerous no civilized person would want to touch. That a ban on guns could even be controversial seems, to many such sincere people, inconceivable.

This lack of common experience is one reason the gun-control debate is so frustrating; the two sides simply don't speak the same language. And there's an unspoken element of snobbery present too, which fuels the antagonism.

In many circles where support for gun control is the reigning intellectual dogma, any familiarity with firearms suggests an association with the lower orders. No one would say such a thing openly, but it's certainly understood; criminals, Vietnam veterans, liquor-store owners, police officers, working-class people who hunt deer for sport -- they're all part of the democratic American tapestry, of course, but not really the sort one would like one's daughter to marry.

This animus is one of many reasons why, if this year's Annapolis gun-control circus continues as it has begun, only more bitterness will come of it. The present choice appears to be between foolish legislation and none at all; either result will simply continue the debate on into the summer's election campaign and beyond. But a compromise might be possible, if both sides would give it a try.

A common-sense approach is suggested by Jacob Sullam in the March issue of Reason magazine. It's so logical it's astounding no one has proposed it before, and it seems to me something that gun buffs and gun haters could both, with a gulp, support.

We license cars, say gun-control advocates, so why not license guns? Because it would be unconstitutional and confiscatory, retort their adversaries with a snarl. But wait, says Mr. Sullam, intervening in the dogfight. That's not a bad example to follow, if you draw out the parallel fully. Remember, we don't license car ownership. We license the right to drive a car on the public streets.

What if Maryland expressly recognized the right to own firearms, but required licenses for those who wished to carry them off their own property? Such licenses should be restrictive, but not extremely so. Perhaps applicants should be at least 21, have a clean criminal record, complete a state-approved safety course, and pay a high but not exorbitant license fee -- say $100 a year.

Those with licenses could then legally carry a specific, registered weapon in public in Maryland. Those without licenses could own all the guns they wanted, and shoot them at home or on private property, but couldn't carry them in public. They would face serious criminal charges if they did.

That should satisfy those who want to see the state do something regulatory. It's true licensing, after all, which is what they've been after for years, and perhaps worth a try. Yet it should also reassure those who don't want their right to own guns in any way infringed, and appeal to law-abiding people who would like to carry a gun legally for self-protection.

This approach would require good faith; the licensing requirements would have to be reasonable enough to win broad public support, as do the licensing requirements for driving a car. And it would not, of course, satisfy the zealots who believe it possible to eliminate firearms entirely from American life, or the constitutional crazies who think any form of state regulation of firearms signifies the collapse of the republic.

With enemies like those on either side, however, it might well appeal to the great majority of reasonable people in between, and offer a way to end the interminable cultural conflict over guns.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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