Sniper exposes a need for real gun regulation

October 24, 2002|By Cheryl Hystad and Susan Peschin

THE SNIPER attacks in the Washington area and Virginia have all of us on edge and many wondering if there is anything we can do as individuals in response to this ongoing tragedy.

The feeling of helplessness is nearly worse than the fear generated by the attacks.

Is there something we can do besides canceling our children's soccer games and field trips?

There is no question that the one or more individuals who have committed these random killings should be held responsible and brought to justice. But we are missing the mark if we continue to focus only on the perpetrator.

According to research by the Violence Policy Center, the sniper is a predictable consequence of a gun industry bent on marketing military and military-style weapons to consumers in an effort to revive sales. This mass marketing includes sniper rifles that are radically different from standard hunting rifles yet are easier to buy than handguns. Industry marketing also has fueled a sniper subculture that glorifies the "one shot, one kill" technique used over and over again by this sniper.

Most Americans are surprised to learn that firearms, one of the most lethal consumer products, are not regulated for health and safety. That means there's no way to track manufacturers who distribute to unscrupulous dealers, no way to collect data on manufacture and use and no way to ban products that pose an unreasonable threat to public safety.

Imagine if automobile manufacturers could introduce cars with no seat belts, if drug companies could sell untested drugs at will, or if there were no requirements for the safety and inspection of meats. The freedom from regulation is a free ride that we have given to America's gun industry, and it has become the source of our terror.

While Maryland has adopted strong laws to reduce gun violence, only comprehensive federal legislation can rein in such reckless indifference to public safety. The Firearms Safety and Consumer Protection Act, pending in Congress, would end the gun industry's immunity from health and safety regulation.

Much criticism has been registered about attempts to "politicize" the sniper shootings. Usually those making such claims are, at best, supporting the status quo and, at worst, aiming to repeal current gun control laws.

There's no more appropriate time to discuss action than now. As consumer advocates, we know that if this were any other product, lawmakers would be searching for solutions.

For those of us who live and work in the Washington metropolitan area, the sniper attacks have made us realize that we are all potential victims of random gun violence. We must do more than cower in our homes watching the television news. We need to demand action from our elected officials. If not now, when?

The Consumer Federation of America and the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition are two of more than 120 organizations across America, including the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Bar Association, that support the federal regulation of guns as consumer products.

Cheryl Hystad is executive director of the Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition in Baltimore, and Susan Peschin is firearms project director for the Consumer Federation of America in Washington.

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