Both sides in the gun control debate lose when hateful words poison compromise

March 19, 2000|By MICHAEL OLESKER

WHAT A brilliant and shameless man is this Wayne LaPierre, the toilet-tongue of the National Rifle Association. He has people hating him now with such a fervor, and others defending him, that we miss the important thing that he did: He kept everybody clinging to the outer reaches of the gun argument, instead of reaching for common ground.

A week ago, on national television, the NRA's executive vice president said, "I've come to believe that [President Clinton] needs a certain level of violence in this country. He's willing to accept a certain level of killing to further his political agenda, and his vice president, too."

This forced many in this country, who are frightened by the proliferation of guns, to reach for our supply of adjectives to describe LaPierre. Begin with "execrable." Then hold your tongue, and your composure, because to reach further is merely to find yourself sputtering, and to play into LaPierre's hands.

For those who defend the guns, and who believe themselves part of a larger mission, LaPierre's remarks put them in a familiar position: standing by the most vile charges about this president, and his imagined homicidal motives, and distancing themselves from any sane and civil middle ground.

That's where the gun arguments have now put us: on opposite sides of a great chasm, in which neither side fully listens to the other shouting across the din. And why should we, since so much of the shouting consists of scurrilous name-calling? In Annapolis these days, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has made safer handguns the emotional centerpiece of his legislative agenda. He wants to push the gun industry to develop safety technologies, and wants to require "smart gun" safety devices before they can be sold.

In the aftermath of so many dreadful killings -- children accidentally killing children, out-of-their-mind adolescents slaughtering their classmates -- is this not a no-brainer?

Well, no. Chairing the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee is Sen. Walter M. Baker of Cecil County, a smart and sarcastic fellow who owns a gun and intimidates fellow legislators merely by the twitch of his heavy eyebrows. Any gun bill has to get through Baker's committee. He is unimpressed, he says, by the governor's efforts to prod the gun industry. Wait until the technology is developed, Baker says, before requiring its use.

Then we had the manhunt for Joseph C. Palczynski, suspected in the shooting deaths of four people. In eastern Baltimore County last week, as helicopters, police dogs and scores of officers searched the area, anxious people huddled in their homes and made certain their guns were within reach.

Many figure the pro-gun argument is solidified by Palczynski. In such a perilous moment, they needed to protect themselves from him. And those who would ban gun sales would threaten them in a way that transcends any piddly philosophical arguments.

To which the natural response is: If so many guns weren't in such terrible profusion, maybe Palczynski wouldn't have ended those four lives in the first place.

And the truth is: Neither side knows for certain the strength of its argument. Those who buy guns and imagine themselves defending their homes are playing a long shot. Ironically, the physical presence of a gun probably increases their fears -- "If I have a gun, there must really be trouble" -- but the fears are not based on any mathematical likelihood of a shootout with an intruder.

They come from jangled nerves grown out of a generation of television images -- mothers weeping over fallen children -- and from raw police homicide statistics that don't distinguish the overwhelming number of killings that relate not to civilians but to drug war combatants.

On the other hand: Those of us who fear guns, and would like to remove them from our communities, know that a ban on gun sales wouldn't end the shooting. Because there are too many guns out there already, and there aren't going to be millions of people turning those guns in.

So what we're really talking about is the direction of our culture. Do we continue to choose up sides around an instrument of killing, and fight bitterly over the smallest amendments, and call each other names -- or reach for compromise?

The argument is now so bitter, and the battle lines so intransigent, that when George W. Bush, the Republican presidential candidate, heard about LaPierre's hideous remarks about the president of the United States, all Bush would say was, "I would hope that we can have an open and honest discussion about gun enforcement without calling names."

Heaven forbid Bush should alienate the NRA. Heaven forbid he should dry up any of their campaign money. Heaven forbid he should offend LaPierre, who slandered the president and set off a new round of national rage, and thus declares: Mission accomplished.

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