Gun-control support grows with each tragedy

This Just In...

March 03, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

NOTED FOR its sad irony: Two days after Carroll County Republicans staged a pep rally for handgun ownership -- and raffled a 9 mm Beretta -- a Carroll teen-ager died from an accidental bullet to the head. The young woman's parents were away on a weeklong Christian mission to Central America when the shooting occurred in their house near Finksburg. They received word of their daughter's death while in transit from Costa Rica. She was only 18.

What an unspeakable horror for a family.

According to police, two of the young woman's friends, one 20 and one 19, were near the kitchen table when the shooting occurred about 2:45 Monday morning. The victim was pronounced dead nine hours later at Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

After an initial investigation, state police in Westminster said the shooting appeared to have been an accident. They released no further details. "It was a handgun and was recovered from inside the victim's home," said Lt. Terry L. Katz, commander of the barracks at Westminster. "We have learned it generally was stored in an area that was not readily accessible."

But somehow someone got the gun.

And so another family in our community tumbles into tragedy. Parents lose a child. Friends feel shock and sorrow. They'll attend the funeral tomorrow in Reisterstown.

In Michigan, it's a 6-year-old who uses a gun on another 6-year-old. Near Pittsburgh, it's two dead and three wounded by a man with a revolver.

Pessimistic that any of this could change hearts and minds on the matter of handgun control in America?

Don't be so certain that such events aren't shaping opinions.

In Maryland, with an attorney general courageous enough to say that handguns cause more harm than good -- and to withstand the caustic backfire from gun fanatics -- a new poll shows 54 percent of likely Maryland voters favoring an outright ban on handgun sales. A ban. Not further controls. A ban.

This sentiment obviously comes from men and women -- mostly women -- who live in parts of the state where handguns are used frequently in crimes and suicides, and are sometimes involved in accidents in the home.

Perhaps those who support a ban have experienced a personal tragedy involving a handgun. Certainly, they've heard all the arguments. They've listened to the paranoia of pro-gun, male-dominated talk radio. They've heard the loony caterwauling about the wonders of handgun ownership. And yet, look -- more than half of 1,000 Marylanders surveyed last weekend by Potomac Survey Research of Bethesda favor banning the sale of handguns in the state.

Of course, sentiments were different on the Eastern Shore and in Western Maryland. In those areas, where the crime rates are much lower than in major population centers, more than half of those in the survey said they'd oppose a ban on handgun sales.

Carroll County is obviously one of those places. Handguns are embraced with patriotic fervor there. (Do you think that's something the Chamber of Commerce will be mentioning on its Web site?) Last Saturday, a 66-year-old woman from Keymar won the Beretta in a raffle that raised thousands of dollars for the local Republican State Central Committee. Good ole boy Larry Haines, the state senator, was right in the middle of it. "We're not going to let anyone shame us into anything," he said. "What we've done here is very, very honorable."

Making a mockery of efforts to control handguns and make them safer -- very honorable. Offending countless other Marylanders who have lost friends and relatives to gun violence -- very honorable.

Bringing in a speaker to make gun owners comfortable with their twisted beliefs that an armed society is a safer society -- very honorable.

To their festivities Carroll Republicans invited a leading proponent of that claim. John R. Lott Jr., a Yale professor, advocates the arming of the American citizenry, and he has asserted -- on the op-ed page of this newspaper, among other places -- that the benefits of a household handgun surpass the disadvantages. To support his beliefs, he notes the low number of accidental gun deaths among children and the relatively low rate of crime in states with liberal gun ownership laws.

"Americans use guns defensively more than 2 million times each year," Lott stated in an essay in The Sun on Feb. 25, without noting a source for that number.

My sources include the state medical examiner's office. That's where all the bodies go.

In Maryland, from 1994 through 1998, there were 23 accidental deaths due to firearms. But far more often guns were used to intentionally cause death. From 1994 through 1998, guns were involved in 1,937 Maryland homicides and 1,524 suicides. As Dr. John Smialek, chief medical examiner, has pointed out, in Maryland we have the specter of young African-American men killing each other with guns, and young white men killing themselves with guns. (In some years, up to 80 percent of victims of suicide by gun were white males ages 20 to 35.)

A few years ago, the New England Journal of Medicine -- the last I checked, a credible journal trusted by doctors and researchers around the world -- concluded that having a handgun in the home increases the risk of homicide significantly. And the shooter usually is a family member or intimate acquaintance.

In 1986, a University of Tennessee study, also published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that a handgun in the home is 43 times more likely to be involved in a homicide, suicide or accidental death than to be used against a criminal intruder.

I'll put these numbers against Professor Lott's any day.

But still, they are just that -- numbers for an argument.

What's changing minds is real life -- flesh and blood, guns and death, everywhere and close to home.

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