Pols take stand on guns

November 16, 1998|By Warren Buckler

FOR YEARS, I wondered when the public would finally turn against guns, just as it turned against cigarettes and other lethal tobacco products.

For as long as I can remember, I have been perplexed as to why citizens were reluctant to rise in wrath against dunderheaded politicians who rejected even modest limits on certain kinds of people-killer firearms, the kind commonly used to blow away spouses, playmates, cops, members of opposing gangs or people on the street who look ripe for mugging.

And I was enraged when legislators in many states voted, at the behest of the gun lobby, to make local gun ordinances all but impossible to enact.

Finally -- finally! -- I detect a ray of hope. On Thursday, Chicago and Cook County filed a $433 million lawsuit against the gun industry, charging that the industry causes a "public nuisance" by creating excess costs for Chicago's police and fire departments and public hospitals.

Some 22 manufacturers, 12 stores and four distributors are named in the suit. Other cities, including Baltimore, are watching this Illinois case and may file similar suits.

Growing trend

What's most exhilarating is that the trend is not just in the Northeast, where gun control sentiment has long had a following, but right here in the heartland. Congress must not have been paying attention last summer when it killed a bill calling for child-proof storage of guns.

First, let me acknowledge that the guns/tobacco analogy is not precise. Guns do have constructive uses. Some people, for instance, enjoy shooting sports and manage to do so safely, except maybe from the dove's or the duck's point of view. And, yes, guns can be used sucessfully for self-defense. Cigarettes yield no known social or safety benefits.

Still, there are indisputable similarities. Both do a great deal of harm to human health. It's true that cigarettes are blamed for illnesses that cause hundreds of thousands of deaths every year while in 1996, firearms figured in about 34,040 homicides, suicides and fatal accidents, a small price to pay, some would argue, for the delights of widespread gun ownership.

Still, that's a lot of dead folks. And many Americans are wounded by bullets, some the victims of deliberate crime, others, often children, caught in the crossfire of gang warfare or other popular forms of gunplay. The cost of caring for sick smokers and gunshot victims adds huge sums to the American health budget.

Even so, both long enjoyed a high degree of social acceptance. These days, anyone who pulls out a cigarette in a crowded place becomes an instant pariah. The handgun and assault-rifle fancier is headed, I think, for the same lowly status. It can't happen soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

Gun deaths have declined, to be sure, along with violent crime in many communities. Still, the Chicago news broadcast that wakes us up every morning here in northwest Indiana begins with a recitation of the savage shootings that turned citizens into corpses the day before.

After a time, one comes to accept some level of slaughter as TTC normal, just as many of us accepted other people's cigarette smoke as an unavoidable part of everyday life. Then came the schoolhouse killings, in which guns wielded by children took 11 lives and grievously wounded 47 others. Gun violence had clearly gone beyond what can be dismissed as normal, even in America.

Are people finally ready to stand up and declare "enough's enough"? Congress, legislatures and especially conservative Republicans may be behind the curve on this one, judging from some recent indicators.

A pre-election Chicago Tribune poll found that 65 percent of citizens across the state, including 49 percent way down there where Illinois bumps into Kentucky and Missouri, favor more gun restrictions.

Tough on firearms

These findings, not surprisingly, were reflected in the positions of candidates for the two major statewide offices up for grabs in Illinois this year, governor and U.S. senator. Indeed, politicians here were falling all over themselves to sound tough on guns.

Right before the election, a local television newscaster only somewhat overstated the situation when she asserted that "you have to be 100 percent for gun control to have a chance in statewide races this year."

Democratic incumbent Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, a longtime supporter of gun-control meansures, was defeated by wealthy right-wing Republican Peter Fitzgerald, who got religion on the Brady Bill and the assault-weapons ban, though he had the bad judgment to join an unsuccessful fight in the state Senate to liberalize rules on carrying concealed weapons.

In the race for governor, victorious Republican George Ryan could claim to have seen the light early. In the late 1980s, while serving as lieutenant governor, he called for a ban on certain assault guns, albeit without success. But that assured him the moral high ground and much praise for "courage" this year.

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