Maybe `Mothers Against Guns?'

March 19, 2001|By Helen Thomas

WASHINGTON -- President Bush called the school shooting in Santee, Calif., "a disgraceful act of cowardice."

His choice of words is bizarre. He needs a new speechwriter.

The shooting allegedly by 15-year-old Charles Andrew Williams was another shocking tragedy in the nation's saga of school violence. Two classmates were killed and 13 others wounded.

Mr. Bush went on to urge parents to teach their children "right from wrong" and to explain to them that "life is precious." No one would disagree.

When asked what could be done to prevent such violence in the future, the president replied that "all of us must be mindful of the fact that some people may decide to act out their aggressions or their pain and hurt somebody else."

He did not mention tougher gun control laws. No, you are not going to hear that from this president, who is on record against gun control. You also won't hear it from the leaders in Congress who are scared off by the political power of the gun lobby.

One reason for this failure of our political leadership is the foggy interpretations that have gradually swamped the meaning of the Second Amendment. The time has come for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule -- once and for all -- on the meaning of that amendment.

This is what the Second Amendment says, complete with the original punctuation and capitalization: "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."

Does this mean that any citizen has the right to bear arms? Or does the amendment apply only to a well-regulated militia? Or does it mean that only members of a state's militia should have the right to bear arms?

The high court has dodged opportunities to clarify the meaning of this language. So far, we have had to live mostly with the National Rifle Association's interpretation that the amendment assures citizens the right to own guns.

When the court someday takes up a Second Amendment case, I hope it proclaims that the language refers to arming militias, not individuals. This would be a great boon to our society and would open the way for tougher gun control laws.

I'm not very optimistic that this court would do that, given the court's conservative slant. In 1995, the justices ruled that Congress had exceeded its authority when it banned guns near public schools. In that case, the court said Congress had relied on its power to regulate interstate commerce in order to enact the gun law. But the court said Congress had failed to show how commerce was involved in areas near local schools.

Funny thing about the Supreme Court: When it decided last year to intervene in the presidential election for the first time in 200-plus years of our history, it found a law that could suit its purposes. But somehow the court could not find a legal justification for keeping guns a block away from schools.

The time has come for the court to help guide our national debate on guns.

These are not encouraging times for advocates of gun control. After all, Mr. Bush -- when he was governor of Texas -- signed a bill allowing concealed weapons, even in church.

Supporters of gun control should take heart from some recent legislative victories that prove that a long campaign can sometimes produce success.

Take the case of former White House press secretary Jim Brady, who was shot and wounded during the 1981 assassination attempt on former President Ronald Reagan. Mr. Brady and his wife, Sarah, lobbied for several years and helped win passage of the law requiring gun buyers to register and undergo a five-day waiting period for a license. Their long slog proved successful.

Look at the success of the Mothers Against Drunk Driving Campaign. And how about the campaign for smoke-free restaurants, airlines, theaters and everywhere else where tobacco has been banned? No one thought that would succeed as well as it did.

Federal statistics show 10 to 13 children are killed every day from guns in the United States.

How long can our society tolerate those tragic numbers? How many more school shootings does this country need to hear the wake up call?

Helen Thomas is a syndicated columnist and can be reached at 202-298-6920 or at the e-mail address helent@hearstdc.com).

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