Guns. Exactly. And herein lies the heart of the matter. The attempt to repeal the assault weapons ban is really part of the overall effort of the gun lobby to chip away at gun control in general, including the Brady Law. On Feb. 28, the first anniversary of its enactment, Rep. Charles E. Schumer of New York spoke of what he termed our “anti-gun control Congress,” which, he said, is poised to reverse not only the assault weapons ban, but also the Brady Law. The latter mandates a five-day waiting period for background checks before the purchase of firearms; it is aimed at weeding out convicted felons, mentally disturbed people and several other categories of persons. So far, thanks to the Brady Law, 45,000 gun applications have been denied because of these background checks.
Whether Saturday night specials (cheap handguns that have no sporting purpose) or assault weapons, firearms of this kind are part of the culture of violence that the U.S. bishops have described as pervading American society. In the statement they issued after last November’s annual meeting in Washington, entitled “Confronting a Culture of Violence,” the bishops cite a series of facts from the National Center for Health Statistics that should shock us all. Between 1950 and 1990, for example, the number of handguns in the United States quadrupled from 54 million to 200 million. And in the dozen years from 1979 to 1991 approximately 50,000 children and teen-agers died from gunshot wounds–nearly matching the number of Americans who died in Vietnam.
The bishops also observe that 13 children die every day because of guns. Some of these children die not on city streets, but in their own middle-class homes through tragic accidents. Ironically, despite home fatalities around the country, the gun lobby continues to promote gun sales by arguing that a home with a gun is safer. Yet the Federal Centers for Disease Control has reported that the presence of a gun in a household actually increases the risk of homicide by nearly three times, and the risk of suicide five times.
Unfortunately, the gun lobby’s contention that possessing a gun heightens personal safety strikes a responsive chord in many Americans. A number of states, like Virginia, Florida and Texas, have passed legislation allowing their citizens to carry concealed weapons. But as a recent editorial in The Washington Post on Virginia’s law noted, “The real effect of this legislation will be to put a handgun at the ready reach of people who may not have the slightest idea of how to use one properly.” And, as the editorial adds, “it can only complicate the work of the police.”
Canada’s central Government has been far more aggressive in pressing for gun control than our own. National registration for handguns has been required there since 1934; in the United States it is mandated only in certain localities. Currently, the Canadian Government is seeking an outright ban on all Saturday night specials. Opinion polls show that a majority of Americans, too, favor a more restrictive approach. At the sentencing last month of Colin Ferguson, who was convicted of the shooting deaths of six people on the Long Island Railroad in 1993, family members of some of the victims argued in their courtroom statements for just such a restrictive stance.
ONE SURVIVOR, moreover, asked that the manufacturers of handguns be held more accountable for injuries like his. A beginning in this direction has already been made. Following lawsuits filed by the Center to Prevent Handgun Violence on behalf of survivors and families of the victims of a similar shooting rampage in a San Francisco law office the same year, a state court judge in California ruled on April 10 that the maker of the guns used in the shooting could be sued for the deaths.
Starts like this in the direction of effective gun control are important. Along with the assault weapons ban and the Brady Law, they represent first steps that should be built upon by those who believe, as do the bishops, that the ongoing proliferation of handguns in the United States can only pull us deeper into the culture of violence. With the assault weapons ban itself and the very spirit of the Brady Law under attack, now is the time for supporters of gun control to make their voices heard over the relatively small (3.5 million) but vocal membership of the National Rifle Association.