Latest gun restrictions will have effect if they lead to tougher laws.

April 09, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Driving to Annapolis from Baltimore the other day, the man on my car radio was talking about guns. So naturally I changed the station. The talk show man is always talking about guns, so I'm always hitting the dial. The talk show man treasures his weapons and wants to hold onto them. But Maryland's legislators have told him: Tough luck.

Before wrapping up business last night, the General Assembly had taken measures to infuriate the talk show man. They voted to limit handgun purchases to one a month, and to put new restrictions on private handgun transactions.

Everybody who voted for the measures feels pretty good today. They feel as if they've struck a blow against gun-related crime, whose latest headline manifestation was the shooting, 2: 30 Monday morning, of an off-duty Baltimore County policeman who happened to venture into the city of Baltimore. The two guys who nailed him were more heavily armed than the cop, a fact that no longer surprises anyone.

This is why the legislature voted the way it did. Somewhere, we have to draw a line, even if the radio talk show man sounds as if he spends sleepless nights fretting that he won't be able to add more than one new handgun a month to his personal arsenal. He says politicians are taking away our last chance to defend ourselves against invading hordes.

I wish to call the talk show man and tell him to stop watching so many Charles Bronson movies. Instead, I do what I always do. I change the station.

So here's today's message to the man on the radio, and also to those in the legislature patting themselves on the back: The new measures, for all their noble intentions, will probably have almost no immediate effect on the thing they're supposed to change, which is the gun-related crime in our lives.

And yet, it's still comforting to get such laws passed.

We think we're changing the course of events by limiting handgun sales to one a month? That's 12 new handguns a year. Per person. Which does nothing to keep all other guns out of the hands of criminals -- or all those who buy guns mistakenly thinking they're defending themselves. Do these frightened souls imagine themselves barricaded, like Fess Parker at the Alamo, holding off Santa Anna until the cops arrive? Is that why they need more than one gun in their homes?

The man on the radio warns his listeners, this is only the beginning of gun limits. They're talking about one handgun a month now, he says, but later they'll throw gun licensing at us, and mandatory gun training, and then more restrictions on what we can buy.

And he's right.

I hope.

If all goes well, this is absolutely only the beginning. In 1992 in Great Britain, there were 33 handgun murders. In the little city of Baltimore, where the population flees, we have almost that many in a routine month. In Canada, they had 128 handgun murders. That sounds like the little state of Maryland. In two to three months.

In America, we negotiate at the edges. In guns and elsewhere. Companies do it when they bargain with labor unions. Politicians do it when they fight over issues. You take an extreme position and work your way toward the middle. It's what's happened over the past decade with the guns.

One gun lobby group sent out a list to its members of "101 Reasons Why You Need an 'Assault Firearm.' " Among the astonishing reasons: "To help defend the country from a foreign invasion. To help defend the country from an internal takeover. To defend your boat. As an investment and a hedge against inflation. To own a firearm used in Olympic competition. To appreciate the mechanical genius of firearm designers. To protect yourself against a pack of feral dogs. To avoid a Tiananmen Square in the U.S. To own a firearm that can be frozen solid and still function. To exercise your constitutional rights."

Constitutional rights. In the city of Baltimore, as of yesterday, we had 81 homicides in the new year. This puts us five ahead of last year's April 8 rate, when we finished the year with 325 homicides. Most were committed with guns. Nobody mentioned constitutional rights to the dead.

So let's talk about defending against foreign invasion with our little popguns, and let's talk about attacks by feral dogs, and let's talk about Tiananmen Square when the reality is: We are shooting, and frightening, ourselves to death.

Do the anti-gun people bend our own truth? Yes. We bend it when we get a gun law passed by implying this is all we want, we won't ask for any more, just give us this measure and we'll be happy. The truth: We'll only be happy for the moment. We do want more. We're lying about settling for small measures.

Each side, seeing intransigence in the opposition, works the fringes. One day we'll get to middle ground, to safe ground. In the meantime, we do our best: not only reducing the arms race a little here, a little there, but aiming for a symbolic victory which is, perhaps, a preview of better things to come.

Pub Date: 4/09/96

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