They shall beat their guns into snowplows

February 06, 1997|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE DE GRACE -- All right, says Baltimore's earnest mayor, Kurt Schmoke, here's $100,000 we happen to have lying around. Let's use it to buy guns and create a safer city. Bullseye!

So in a few hours, the city is the proud owner of 1,000 junky guns for which it paid $100 apiece, the city treasury is $100,000 poorer, and of course everybody feels much safer with all those weapons off the street, which is a figure of speech because they really weren't on the street to begin with.

The idea implicit in the program was that at least some bad people, who use guns to do bad things, would bring their guns in, collect their $100, and then go back to their lives unarmed and therefore less dangerous. But the bad people didn't show up. They may have been too busy doing bad things.

As the mayor conceded, most of the participating gun-sellers were what he called ''law-abiding folks.'' He seemed a little stunned that there were so many of them, all quite willing to take advantage of the city's generous offer to buy cheap and easily replaceable firearms at well above their market value. Maybe, he must have wondered, musing over the mysteries of supply and demand, he could have acquired 2,000 guns at $50 apiece, or 400,000 at a quarter.

It's hard to say with any assurance just who these law-abiding Baltimore gun-sellers were, as they were afforded anonymity, but there's a good bet that most fell into one of several categories.

Many presumably did it for the money. And as selling a gun for $100 seemed a pretty good morning's work, it's likely that quite a few went prudently out and acquired several more shortly afterward, so as to be ready in case the too-good-to-be-true offer were ever renewed.

But loftier motives may have been involved, too. There were probably some right-minded citizens who just wanted to join their mayor in making an anti-crime gesture, expressing their defiance of the enemy in a symbolic way. Years ago, those who gave away their metal toys and lawn furniture to be made into bombs to be dropped on the Japanese probably felt a similar thrill, even without the $100.

Fervent recyclers

And it's likely there were a few fervent recyclers at the gunfest, seeing in the mayoral anti-crime program a new leap forward for the green revolution, and imagining that the collected guns would be beaten into city snowplows, or at least into new bars for the windows of Baltimore's public buildings.

Some of the those who produced weapons for the mayor may have been motivated by nothing more than mundane housekeeping considerations, such as a need to clear more space in the pistols-and-screwdrivers drawer in the kitchen.

And the pressures of pride may have played a part. To the well-armed urban family, equipped with modern Glocks, Berettas, and perhaps an Uzi or an accurized sniper rifle, Grandpa's rusty old single-action .38 might be a source of embarrassment when the snooty Joneses visit from next door. Better to sell it to the mayor and be rid of it.

No, crime is not a joke, and I do not suggest otherwise.

It is no laughing matter that Mr. Schmoke's city is full of armed criminals taking a life a day, more or less, year in and year out. It is no laughing matter that the mayor can't bring himself to accept the kind of tough anti-crime measures that have worked in other cities, but settles instead for two-bit public-relations fiascoes. It is performances like the Great Gun Buy that are the joke. But luckily for the mayor, not everyone gets it yet.

Hardly had the last $100 set aside for guns been spent when a young Baltimore husband, whose pregnant wife had recently been robbed at gunpoint on Bolton Hill, came forward to offer $20,000 more. It was money from an inheritance, he said, which he had been saving for a family vacation in Europe. But now he proposes to spend it buying $50 guns instead.

With all respect to the well-intended philanthropist, who's had a bad experience and obviously cares deeply about the problems of the city, this is madness. He might as well take his $20,000 and toss it from the top of the World Trade Center.

The classy thing for Kurt Schmoke to do would be to refuse the money, which the donor will certainly need -- for insurance, private schools, burglar alarms -- if he stays the course and raises his family in the city. ''My friend,'' the mayor should say to him kindly, ''we need people like you in Baltimore. But the gun-buy program was my mistake, and I can't in good conscience allow you to make it your mistake, too.''

If he did say that, some 400 owners of rickety guns would lose $50 apiece. But he'd strike a belated blow for common sense, which is where public safety really begins.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 2/06/97

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