Armed and dangerous

July 30, 2002

IN THE MOVIES, when the crotchety old man blows his stack and pumps some lead into the young punks who have been terrorizing his neighborhood, it's a feel-good moment. Revenge, we think. Good for him.

But when it happens in real life, as may have occurred twice in the past month on the streets of Baltimore, the reaction can't exactly be the same. Or at least it shouldn't be.

This is scary stuff, the idea that otherwise law-abiding Baltimoreans are resorting to pistols and shotguns as the solutions to the city's crime problem. It's even scarier that they feel the need to pack heat because the police and the parents of the thugs doing the terrorizing have become such ineffectual authorities.

This, dear citizens, has all the markings of impending disaster.

For years, Baltimore criminals have had excessively easy access to guns - more so than their counterparts in similar-sized cities. But the incidents of pistol-wielding angry citizens reveal a different side of the city's gun culture, and point to far deeper problems. They suggest that acceptance of and access to guns spreads far beyond the criminal element to include citizens who just want peace and quiet.

The trouble is that legal guns stored in houses pose as much potential threat as those in the hands of criminals on the streets. They rarely wind up preventing crime, but instead contribute to raising the overall level of violence.

Whatever you think of William Banks, who is charged with shooting three young loiterers Sunday, or Edward Day, accused of gunning down an apparent bike thief earlier this month, their alleged actions have only heightened fear and tension in city streets.

At the same time, the frustration that Mr. Banks and Mr. Day felt is palpable, and enraging. Both had been repeated victims. Both had called police incessantly, and had gotten little response. Sadly, that's no surprise.

In a town where murder so dominates police time, drug dealing, theft and trespassing attain the level of tolerable nuisance. How, after all, can the cops keep up with the petty crime that stems from bad upbringing - or no upbringing at all?

Even in a city rife with poverty, drug addiction and hopelessness, parents must still be held responsible for teaching their children not only the limits of the law but the tenets of civil behavior. Parents have to do their jobs - just like the cops and the courts.

That ought to be the starting point in any discussion that might lead to solutions, which will be long-term and costly.

The city's leadership must waste no time getting that discussion started. A surge in vigilante justice is a startling reflection of a breakdown in the structures that normally work together to make a city livable.

Those structures are not just failing Baltimore's children. They're also failing people like Edward Day and Billy Banks, who have been unfairly left to fend for themselves.

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