Murderers at One Remove

September 06, 1994|By GARRY WILLS

Chicago -- Whenever, traveling abroad, I am asked where I come from, my response -- ''Chicago'' -- sends people into their best rat-a-tat imitation of a tommy gun, that signature weapon of the '20s gangs.

Now my city is in world headlines again -- for the rat-a-tat of a semi-automatic gun that rained bullets on a gathering of children, killing a 14-year-old girl. The gun was wielded by an 11-year-old, who has now been found shot himself. The boy was a hardened criminal, used by gangs that put juveniles up to acts they cannot be punished for as adults.

A new biography of Al Capone is getting a lot of attention now -- Laurence Bergreen's ''Capone: The Man and the Era'' (Simon and Schuster). The Brooklyn in which Capone grew up was similar to the Chicago of today's blighted child killer. Capone was a criminal by the age of 13, running numbers and carrying payments for mob brothels. It is true that he did not shoot a man dead until he was 20; but he had the means and occasion earlier, and it was an accident that his first murder occurred so late.

Capone was already suffering the teen-age case of syphilis that would turn him, literally, into a mad killer. He added cocaine addiction to the volatile mixture of his young life in crime. (He was only in his mid-20s when he ruled Chicago's killers.)

It was not until Capone got to Chicago that murder became as indiscriminate as it is today, thanks to the clever invention of John Taliaferro Thompson. The Thompson submachine gun was created as a weapon of war -- Thompson was an Army ordnance officer, a brigadier general. The gun was offered as a ''broom to sweep trenches'' clean of life.

A company called the Auto-Ordnance Corp. tried to peddle the gun to non-military buyers, beginning with police forces. But the police did not want a weapon that could fire up to 800 rounds a minute, kicking and bruising its wielder so much as to prevent careful aim.

The criminals stepped in, and made the tommy gun the basis of their Prohibition-era arsenal. Capone shouted ''That's the gun'' when he saw it demonstrated. The police had to get their own, then, to even the odds; and bullets went flying and zinging about the Chicago streets.

The tommy gun was the evil ancestor of our current, even deadlier assault weapons, those guns the National Rifle Association loves so much that it is trying to end the congressional careers of men and women brave enough to vote against them.

Why does the NRA, which likes to present itself as a band of hunters and peaceful outdoorsmen, defend guns that are meant -- and only meant -- to kill people rapidly? The answer is that the organization caves into its nut element, which believes that the citizenry must be armed against its own government. Only if people have guns are they protected from tyranny.

Obviously, if that is your attitude, then assault weapons are much better than hunting rifles or shotguns. In fact, missiles and nukes are what the argument logically calls for. If your target is the sole remaining superpower in the world, then all the assault weapons on our streets are not of any real use.

Therefore, in order to protect the citizens' right to carry guns against the government, the NRA defends the situation that puts guns of immediate destruction in the hands of children, thugs and psychopaths. We detest the drug pushers, who hook kids on dope. Why don't we have the same attitude toward gun pushers, who hook them on assault weapons?

An 18-year-old from the neighborhood where the 11-year-old shot the 14-year-old told the papers: ''You can't just point at the boy. You've got to point the finger at the grown-ups who put the gun in his hands.'' Right. The gun pushers are complicitous in all the murders that make our streets the most dangerous in the world. NRA members are murderers at one remove. The 11-year-old was both their tool and their victim.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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