Proponents of guns have misguided opinions

March 29, 2001|By Michael Olesker

THE LAST TIME I heard Ron Smith's voice on the radio, he was coming out of breaking news about one more kid with a weapon taking out his troubles on his classmates. With his customary sensitivity and insight on these matters, Smith said he knew what our problem was. He said we were paying too much attention to stories about guns and killing, and we should stop reporting them so much.

"But I guess that isn't gonna happen," Smith said sadly.

Well, no.

In California, they're still mopping up the blood in the schoolyards. In classrooms in places such as Colorado and Arkansas, and Florida and Texas, and Pennsylvania and Georgia, the memory of schoolhouse shootings will linger in children's heads for the rest of their lives.

In places such as Baltimore, where Smith's voice carries over WBAL radio's 50,000 watts, we're dragging the bodies of wounded policemen out of the streets. The drug dealers are using weapons that the city police commissioner, Edward T. Norris, refers to as "cannons," because why in the world should criminals buy something small-caliber when they have access to much more murderous stuff?

And in Annapolis, they've been wrestling with a bill to teach gun safety in schools. The bill is named after John Joseph Price, a 13-year-old Baltimore County boy killed by a 9-year-old playing with a handgun. The bill is in trouble because the National Rifle Association couldn't resist trying to cash in on it.

But Ron Smith thinks we're paying too much attention to such matters.

And he should because, as much as anyone in town, he has made himself the point man for the gun runners. He is the broadcast voice arguing against any conceivable measure of gun sanity, even with the sound of gunfire all around him. And every time he defends the casual sale of the killing machines, every time he reduces the argument over guns to simplistic name-calling (the constant McCarthyesque tossing of the "liberal" buzz word, a Smith shorthand specialty on all matters), every time he insists, as he has for years, that the guns have not contributed to our national fears, have not coarsened the culture and have nothing to do with the violence that has terrified entire neighborhoods - then he has every reason to wish we wouldn't pay attention to such stories or to his defense of the open gun market.

Because he's on the wrong side of the argument, and he's exposed in public every time some child, or some cop, or some other innocent gets hit by someone who had no problem at all getting access to a gun.

That 9-year-old kid in Baltimore County, for example. You can make the argument that the gun he accidentally fired should have been locked away, but we live in a culture where, in some people's homes, the guns are just another piece of household hardware that you stop focusing on after a while.

And some kid - a 9-year-old or maybe a high school student who's ticked off because his classmates are picking on him - finds it, and decides to settle matters the way he's seen them settled in the movies, in the TV dramas - and on the radio talk shows, where guns are seen as an entitlement instead of a danger.

And so, in Annapolis, we have this bill to teach gun safety in schools. Its intentions are understandable. They say: Since we live in a culture where the guns are so prevalent, let's make sure our kids know how to handle them safely. Whatever its good intentions, though, the bill has two problems, not including the heavy hand of the NRA.

The first problem: A lot of us do not allow guns into our lives, or the lives of our families, and do not want our kids handling them - at all. The second problem: By introducing guns in schools, we make them seem acceptable when they are not.(And I can hear the arguments out there now, from people who fought sex education and think the situations are parallel. Why are we forced to have discussion of condoms in schools when so many of us think that's unacceptable? The short answer: In a time of killer sexually transmitted diseases, condoms are life-savers. Guns are life destroyers.)

In any event, the school gun-safety bill is in trouble because the NRA tried to get its smiling mascot, Eddie Eagle, involved. This gets us closer to gun proponents' true ambitions on the bill. It's not the education of kids. It's the creation of a huge new marketing tool, a previously untapped audience sitting captive in every school classroom. It's the establishment of a brand-new zone of comfort for kids who have never had any need, or desire, to be exposed to weapons of destruction.

Meanwhile, we have two more police officers taken down in East Baltimore. The local drug dealers, feeling crowded, express their unease with guns. Whatever weapons the police have, the criminals can match them. So where do we go from here - upping the arms race in the streets, both sides going to heavier arsenals? Or some kind of sane gun control so we don't have fallen police, and we don't have fallen children in our school yards?

At such times, the gun proponents would rather talk about something else.

So maybe we should ask the cops how they feel about guns. Or maybe we should ask the kids.

If they're still among the living.

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