One writer's journey from Homewood to heart of gun culture

May 11, 1994|By Scott Timberg | Scott Timberg,Contributing Writer

In late editions of yesterday's Today section, a headline incorrectly placed the home of author Erik Larson. He lives in Homeland. A caption accompanying the story incorrectly stated the nature of attacks on his home, which may have been random acts.

The Sun regrets the errors.

The tony homes and tree-lined drives of Homeland seem far from the city's violent crime crisis. But Erik Larson, whose recent book, "Lethal Passage," takes a critical look at America's gun dealers and firearm enthusiasts, has seen the crisis come, uninvited, to his doorstep.

While he was away promoting a book one night in January, his wife was taunted by two men shouting racial epithets and banging on the door, pretending to be delivering shirts. A few weeks later, while Mr. Larson was still touring, his nanny's car was stolen. Minutes after police left the house, his 6-year-old daughter asked her mother what those men were doing with her car.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

"One of my first thoughts was I wish my wife had a gun. With the caveat," he says, holding his index finger up, "that she knew how to use it."

This sort of radically split attitude about guns also characterizes Mr. Larson's most recent book, subtitled "How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis." He favors some handgun reform -- he'd like the sale of assault weapons restricted and feels that gun owners should prove their ability to handle a firearm, much as a driver must with a car. But he insists he's not a gun hater.

And he says he's sympathetic to those intimidated by the city's crime. Last year 353 murders were committed in Baltimore, a record. Seventy-three percent were committed with handguns. "I don't feel terribly sanguine about safety anywhere in this town," he says.

"I grew up with a fascination for guns," says Mr. Larson, 40, shrugging. "How could you not?" As a boy coming of age on Long Island, he was captivated by Westerns, "Gunsmoke," stories of Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson. Guns were alluring, forbidden fruit.

About five years ago, "I kept reading all these stories about drive-by shootings, but nobody talked about where the guns were coming from." Searching out the origins of America's handguns -- and the ethics of dealers who put the guns, directly or indirectly, in the hands of pushers, killers and kids -- became a full-time project.

To research his book, Mr. Larson acquired a gun dealer's license, visited gun shows, subscribed to gun magazines and catalogs, and drove to the Baltimore County Police Shooting Range in Towson. He found it "fun and a little chilling. It underscored for me the dissonance between the fun of shooting, the game of it, and what really happened when you shoot somebody."

Dressed in faded blue jeans, worn boat shoes and a white oxford open at the neck, Mr. Larson comes across more like a youngish Stanford history professor than the grizzled veteran of the gun wars who stares out from the book jacket.

Mr. Larson, a Wall Street Journal staffer who also writes for Harper's and the Atlantic Monthly, relishes a good story, a well-turned phrase. Storytelling is one of his book's strengths as well.

Using court records, interviews and newspaper clippings, "Lethal Passage" tells the story of a troubled 16-year-old named Nicholas Elliot, who bought a 32-round Cobray assault pistol with his cousin, asked his mother for ammunition, and opened fire on his Tidewater Virginia high school. Woven around that story are historical chapters describing the evolution of the National Rifle Association; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms; racial tensions; the new union of feminism and libertarian politics; and America's long love affair with handgun violence (Wild West myth, gangsta rap, old gangster movies, etc.).

"It's not really about Nicholas as much as it is how he got the gun, how he thought he could solve his problem with the gun, that his mother bought the bullets," says Mr. Larson.

So he looked at America's gun culture: television shows and movies that romanticize guns, the Wild West myth of regeneration through violence, dealers who sell to irresponsible kids and convicted felons, underground presses that hawk how-to books to assassins, and groups such as the NRA that view any attempt to regulate firearm use as an attack on America itself.

The book is available for $2 off to NRA members. "I wanted this book to be read by everybody, not just the choir to which I would be preaching.

"I'm as willing as the next guy to admit that most people in America who own guns aren't crazy, aren't felons, don't want to use that gun on the Long Island Rail Road," Mr. Larson continues. "But there are attitudes which, if taken to their extremes, lead to bloodshed."

Mr. Larson's critics disagree.

"He went out with his own theory and then set out to prove it," says Sanford N. Abrams, a dealer at the Valley Gun Shop and vice president of the Maryland Licensed Firearms Dealers Association.

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