Put down your guns before someone else gets killed

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 June, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 June, 1993, 12:00am

MY father, a professor of music, loves guns. From derringers to Colt 45s, from flintlocks to high-powered hunting rifles, he has an arsenal big enough to arm at least one platoon, maybe two. He even owns a glass-encased commemorative Thompson sub-machine gun.

True, he doesn't use his fire arms very often. Once in a while he'll pull a couple of 12-gauge shot guns off the rack and coax one of his sons to join him shooting clay pigeons. Hunting expeditions are even rarer. Indeed, the only game he has bagged are a turkey and rattle snake. (The turkey was scrumptious.) Without doubt, my father is more of a collector than a cowboy.

But challenge his right to buy a gun on demand; suggest that handgun purchases should be subject to delay pending a background check on the purchaser; tell him that the proliferation of guns is responsible for the proliferation of violence in American society - do any of these things, and one will quickly discover why gun control remains one of the hot-button issues of American politics.

Like 3.2 million other card-carrying members of the National Rifle Association, my father feels strongly that owning guns is an inalienable right. Infringe on that right, and he will take it personally.

This passionate American romance with guns, backed by the mighty lobbying power of the NRA, has long held most attempts at gun-control legislation at bay. Open opposition to the NRA has helped to end the careers of more than one politician, especially from rural areas where guns are a way of life.

For the first time, however, the barriers to legislation erected by the gun lobby are beginning to crumble. The politics of gun control are rapidly shifting as more and more Americans become alarmed by an escalating spiral of violence.

Earlier this month - after dramatic, intensely waged battles - state assemblies in Connecticut and New York voted to ban the sale and possession of semi-automatic assault rifles, the kind designed for warfare and favoured by drug dealers. In New York, the measure still has to pass the state senate, which seems unlikely at the moment. But Connecticut has now joined New Jersey and California as the first states to outlaw whole categories of once-available guns.

Also gathering momentum is the Brady Bill, a modest measure that would require a 5-day waiting period for the purchase of a concealable firearm. If passed, the bill - named after a presidential press secretary who was shot in the head during an assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan - would be the first national gun-control legislation in a quarter of a century.

Why the sudden change in attitude? Consider the numbers. Approximately 100 people die every day in the United States from gunshots. That's one life taken every 15 minutes, a rate unequalled in any nation not ravaged by external or civil war. By comparison, the frequency of US fatalities during the war in Vietnam was six or seven times lower.

Many of those killed, moreover, are children, some by accident, some on purpose. The outrageous slaughter of innocents, more than anything else, has shocked otherwise indifferent people into taking a stand in favour of stricter controls.

The NRA argues that making it harder to buy guns only inconveniences law-abiding citizens, and does nothing to discourage criminals, who can buy their guns on the black market. If that is true, then why do New York's underground arms merchants routinely and openly buy their inventory in other states - where laws are more lax - and then bring them back home for resale? But even if the NRA is right about criminals, the fact remains that most hand-gun deaths stem from domestic violence and accidents, not criminal activity. Granted, people kill, not guns. But if husband and wife are at each other's throats one night, one or both are far more likely to die if there is a gun in the house than if not. Having a six-shooter around makes it that much easier to turn an argument into a funeral.

The NRA has also weakened its own position by shooting itself in the foot. Accustomed to unchallenged political influence, the gun lobby staked out extreme positions that alienated once loyal supporters.

Many law enforcement agencies and police departments broke ranks, for example, when the NRA refused to oppose the sale and distribution of armour-piercing bullets that can penetrate otherwise bullet-proof vests. Nor would the NRA, in its arrogance, takea stand against the import of foreign-made assault weapons, such as the Chinese AK-47.

Recent polls show that nine out of 10 Americans now favour the Brady Bill, and the almost half favour an outright ban on certain kinds of hand-guns. If accurate, such sentiment represents a sea-change in attitudes. New legislation is likely to follow soon, though Congress - ever fearful of the NRA's power - is still reluctant to bring the Brady Bill to a vote.

There will always be tension between the demand for public safety and the constitutional right to bear arms. But increases in violent and random crime, as well as the spectacle of shoot-outs like the one near Waco, are rapidly pushing public opinion in the direction of gun control.

Sorry, Dad, but it's about time.