Guns chilling effects don't fit on a bumper sticker

August 15, 1994|By Steven O'Connor

THERE'S a bumper crop of bumper stickers out there. "Gun Control = People Control," presumably from the "Guns don't kill, people do," think tank, has to be my least favorite. And although I've never been one for figuring equations, that's one I don't want to see go unchallenged.

As usual, the right-to-bear-arms lobby is ringing the personal liberty bell. National Rifle Association members like to cast themselves as patriots and freedom fighters, using bumper stickers to make their assertions clear. Increasingly, though, it's the NRA's particular constitutional obsession that limits American freedom.

On a recent weekend, my roommate, Mark, and a couple of his friends went bowling. That night in the bowling alley's parking lot two intoxicated thugs slapped and kicked one of Mark's buddies around. Mark's instinct was to intervene -- by force if necessary -- then leave. But instead, he and his friends, all powerful young men, simply sucked it up, repeatedly declaring they wouldn't fight and eventually driving away, humiliated but unharmed.

Their prudence was reasonable enough -- the thugs might have had a gun. But they were angry. Angry with the thugs, angry and frustrated with themselves. They weren't cowards. The risk left them simply unfree to act as they should. Gun-logic coerced them.

Mark did the reasonable thing. Some months ago in a Greenbelt movie theater I did a reckless thing, telling four persistently loud and obnoxious men to keep quiet. At first I didn't appreciate my foolhardiness -- I just walked to the back where the shouting came from and discovered four sneering young men aggressively occupying 14 seats. They were surprised, and for a moment didn't know whether to look sheepish or mean. After two minutes, they decided on mean and started making noise again.

Retreating to my seat, I was more distracted than before. My girlfriend whispered that if she'd known I was bent on heroics she would've stopped me. I regretted, then despised my bravado. In my imagination I heard the ominous testimony; "He looked at me funny; he didn't show no respect." I remembered that a friend's brother was shot by a complete stranger leaving a bar. A case of mistaken identity, as it happened, but another American equation in the making.

When the movie ended we studied the credits till the bad guys had gone, and I survived to tell the tale. But that's not the point. The point is that very often you can't afford to express yourself freely or vent honest reactions.

And I'm not just talking about the freedom to deal with obvious public nuisances. I'm talking about being comfortable in society. About the fear of maybe antagonizing that guy on the highway -- the one with the belligerent bumper sticker: "Fight Crime: Shoot Back," and the handy peacekeeper in the glove compartment. Perhaps certain people relish the prospect of living like vigilantes, holed up behind barricades and bumper stickers, rights intact, lives in limbo.

But surely these are lives like loaded guns, to murder a line of Emily Dickinson's: half-cocked, combat ready, safety-latch down. A strange kind of freedom. A freedom in which citizens are effectively confined by the firepower of their neighbors. In which whole neighborhoods suffer the steady encroachment of a war zone, and a whole culture, for the most part, simply sucks it up. A freedom that flies the white flag of social surrender and has the nerve to call itself patriotic.

Mark should not have been angry at himself. He had to put up with the abuse he took in that parking lot. But Americans as a whole have a choice. They don't have to be intimidated.

Armed with a vote, they can pull the trigger on arms proliferation, show that they have what it takes to take control, and step out of the bunker. Sorry to come off like a bumper sticker, but isn't that the way freedom lies?

Steven O'Connor writes from Baltimore.

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