A silent message amid gunfire and the screams of ghosts

THIS JUST IN . . .

August 31, 1994|By DAN RODRICKS

Those who decry gun control of any scope or form -- the ones who never seem to give an intellectual inch in the political battle over handguns, in particular -- are starkly silent on those rare occasions when the ghosts scream in their faces. There are ghosts in the eyes of literally millions of men, women and children whose loved ones have been killed with guns. And yet, they could all line up and tell their stories and light candles, and those who oppose gun laws would note the emotional ravings, then assert as higher principle the absolute right to bear arms.

The personalization of the consequences of any social problem -- anecdotal evidence, we call it -- makes us uncomfortable, especially when it challenges our most firmly held beliefs. It's crass to argue when someone else is crying. And besides, when ghosts scream, no one can hear you anyway.

Therein lies the potential power of a demonstration now forming in the nation's capital. The Silent March, scheduled for Sept. 20, promises to be simple and stark: One pair of shoes for every man, woman and child killed by a gun in a single year in the United States.

Such a display makes words unnecessary -- and philosophical arguments against gun control irrelevant. But indeed, there are words, and you find them written on small pieces of paper and slipped inside the shoes.

Attached to a pair of satin-covered heels: "My daughter, Casey, was shot and killed October 3, 1993. She was only 16. She wore these shoes the day she stood as my maid of honor 3 1/2 months before she died."

Attached to combat boots: "These belonged to William C.

Ruxton, a former Marine, who was shot and killed on December 8, 1990 while resisting an attempted robbery."

Attached to kiddie Stride Rites: "Last month there was a random shooting at my neighborhood pool. A 4-year-old was killed as he played. I am scared. I am sad."

Attached to Etonics: "I would like to cry to everybody. I implore of the Congress to stop the crime. Yes, the gun control. Please do it quickly. We cannot wait more." The note was written by Faina Vaynerman. You know her son from his photograph, printed in this newspaper and framed inside TV sets several times since his death Aug. 10 during a robbery in Pimlico. He had been in the United States only 18 months. It was his first night as a pizza deliveryman. Igor Berenshteyn was 23 years old when he was shot to death.

Now, his athletic shoes have been passed along to the Silent March. Lois Hess, a woman who lost her only son to gun violence two decades ago, visited Faina Vaynerman; among all the things discussed was the American market and appetite for handguns. There are millions of them in circulation. They are the tool of choice among criminals, easily concealed and deadly. They don't cause crime; they aid it. They don't provoke violence; they escalate it. In the United States, half of all deaths by guns of all varieties are suicides. Guns don't cause suicide; they make it easier.

And so Faina Vaynerman has enlisted in that growing corps of men and women who try to turn the power of pain on the gun extremists who fight tooth and nail to keep the American gun market wide open. The gun proponents, represented by the National Rifle Association, don't see gun control as part of the general effort to fight crime across the country and, in particular, in cities; they see it simply as the taking away of a fundamental right. They still have the support of too many politicians who, far removed from the realities of life, can't hear the cries of people like Faina Vaynerman.

And so, to press the point for more restrictions on handguns, we have this:

Empty shoes.

A pile of 708 pairs, amassed to form Maryland's entry in the national death toll from gun violence in 1991, has been shipped to Washington in preparation for the Silent March. Nearly 40,000 pairs of shoes, representing each American gun death in 1991 -- from homicide, suicide and accident -- will be placed by the Reflecting Pool and in front of the Capitol. There will be no march. No speeches. No words.

Seeing just a fraction of so many empty shoes, tagged with the names of the men and women who once wore them, is overpowering; it renders you still, as if frozen by your own consciousness in the midst of people who died before their time. This is what I mean by ghosts screaming.

I speak from the experience of having spent just a few quiet moments examining the pile of shoes in Lois Hess's kitchen in Baltimore County the other day. Hess has been one of the most determined and passionate advocates of gun control for years. She and Maria Pica have served as Maryland coordinators for the Silent March. They had no problem gathering the necessary number of shoes for the state's entry, and they did it with no press attention, simply by spreading the word and distributing fliers.

The Silent March itself is supported by no national gun-control group with headquarters and staff. Its roots are in the grass. Five people get the credit for coming up with the idea this past winter and, with assistance from a broad spectrum of organizations, they are on the verge of making the first Silent March a reality in time for Congress to see it. In all the years of vigils and demonstrations, none might send as powerful a message as this one. Anyone who has seen the pile of empty shoes at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum would agree. The symbolism makes words irrelevant.

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