The bloody results of America's bizarre love affair with guns

April 09, 2007|By CYNTHIA PARKER

ATLANTA -- Last Tuesday, a man followed a woman into a downtown Atlanta hotel - in the same complex as CNN's headquarters - and shot her in the face and upper body, leaving her fatally wounded. He, in turn, was shot by a security guard and remained hospitalized late last week. The victim, Clara Riddles, worked at the hotel, but the rage that radiated from her assailant, Arthur Mann, was apparently personal. Family members say the two had been dating, but Ms. Riddles had recently broken it off.

What propelled the shooting into national headlines was that it happened in the same building occupied by hundreds of CNN staffers, and it was also near a major sports venue where college basketball's Final Four tournament had ended the night before. Every week in this country, men shoot their wives, workers shoot their bosses, gang members shoot their rivals. Most of those crimes barely merit a mention in the day's news mix.

Gun assaults are rising, but you're unlikely to hear anything from the top-tier presidential candidates about improving gun safety laws. Republicans, of course, are wholly owned by the National Rifle Association. Democrats, meanwhile, have been convinced that gun safety is the suicide bomb of domestic politics.

So this folly will continue, fueled by a perplexing cultural ethos that worships individual gun ownership. A century from now, anthropologists will look back and wonder what in the world this was all about. They'll wonder how a highly advanced and sophisticated culture allowed unchecked personal gun ownership despite the carnage. No other country on the planet shares our fascination with guns.

After years during which creative policies and lucky demographics combined to produce major drops in violent crime, law enforcement officials are reporting a rise in violence - fueled by the gun. Violent crime peaked nationally in 1992, then began falling drastically over the next several years. But in 2005, police officials began to see an uptick. With months' worth of data since then, they fear the increase is a trend, not an aberration.

A report released in March by the Police Executive Research Forum stated that the murder rate had jumped by more than 10 percent since 2004 in dozens of large cities across the country. Police attribute the increase to several factors, including an epidemic of methamphetamine, a casual acceptance of violence among a subset of aimless young men and a flood of illegal guns.

Since 9/11, the FBI has begun to devote more resources to terrorism and fewer to local crimes, including gun felonies. But the bigger problem is the influence of an irrational gun lobby that insists that there should be no laws regulating gun use.

In 2005, Congress handed firearms manufacturers a huge gift when it passed a law that shields the industry from virtually all liability lawsuits. But the gun lobby is never satisfied. Now, its members are miffed that New York City authorities were able to prove that out-of-state gun dealers were flouting laws that mandate background checks and limit the number of firearms purchased by a single buyer. After New York's Republican mayor, Michael R. Bloomberg, took action against several Georgia gun shops, the NRA starting lobbying Congress to prevent the release of the gun trace information that helped New York police make their case.

It's not just illegal guns that kill the innocent, and it's not only hardened felons who pick up a gun and wreak havoc. A surfeit of guns gives gloomy adolescents a handy tool for suicide and turns harried fathers, angry and stressed over traffic, into road-rage killers.

Sorting through this insanity will no doubt inspire reams of literature by anthropologists and social historians a century from now. Perhaps by then the American love affair with the gun will be a curious moment in history; for now, it's a lethal and inexplicable reality.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun. Her e-mail is

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