Clinton's shot in the dark

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 11 December, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 11 December, 1993, 12:00am

EVERY few minutes of every day across the United States, another person is shot dead; sometimes during a domestic fight, sometimes in a bar brawl, but more often because of a robbery, gang war or drug dispute.

So immune has the American public become to the daily roll call of violent death that most victims become just another statistic, meriting a few paragraphs in the local paper.

Occasionally however, there comes an incident so spectacular and gruesome that the whole nation wakes up, no longer anaesthetised by the river of blood on the evening news, and unites behind a rallying cry: ''Something has to be done about guns.'' Colin Ferguson, a loner armed with a Ruger P89 semi-automatic and a lot of grudges, provided just such an impetus on Tuesday night, when he calmly strolled through a Long Island commuter train, killing five people and injuring 18.

The horrific actions of the 35-year-old Jamaican, who appeared to harbour a paranoid degree of racial resentment, prompted an opinion poll finding in which 64 per cent of the public called for tougher gun laws. They also provoked the President into immediate action mode.

Not only did he urge Congress to hurry and pass an impending Crime Bill, which includes curbs on Ferguson's kind of assault weapon, but went one further.

The President looks like being the first with the will to tackle gun control head-on. He said the White House would start looking at mandating national registration for all handgun owners.

Attorney-General Janet Reno and FBI director Louis Freeh backed the new hardline stance.

Predictably, the National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the richest and most powerful lobby groups in the country, has launched a public relations counter-offensive.

This time, however, the tide may have turned against it for good, and the gun control debate - and, by extension, the fate of America's streets - may well hinge on whether legislators and Government officials finally have the fibre to stand firm.

The fight will not be a pretty one. The NRA, a largely right-wing grouping born of red-neck huntin'-and-shootin' values, has as its sole raison d'etre the preservation of the clause in the constitution which allows all citizens to bear arms.

No matter that the founding fathers could hardly have envisaged the crack-induced apocalypse razing the Bronx and South Central LA 200 years later; to the NRA, depriving any law-abiding citizen of his right to buy a firearm over the counter is tantamount to tearing up the Bill of Rights.

The association sees no link between more guns and more violence. Instead, it maintains that the only way to make the streets safe is for everybody to have one.

Its lobbying tentacles are long and sinister; a few weeks ago, it ran advertisements aimed at middle-class women, inviting them to take NRA self-defence classes (while denying it was encouraging applicants to buy guns); and when a string of Asian shopkeepers became the targets of robbery and murder in Washington DC during the autumn, it contacted Asian shops in the city inviting them to sign up. Next, critics say, it will start running adverts during re-runs of Sesame Street.

But it is in the corridors of the Capitol building that the NRA has proved most effective. The sole reason that the Brady Bill on gun control had been suppressed for over six years was the NRA's lobbying power in Congress.

In the Senate alone, the NRA has contributed US$576,000 to members since 1987.

Republican Paul Coverdell has received $95,000 of NRA cash, 15 colleagues got over $10,000 each, and 43 received less than $10,000. Most of these 59 Senators - a majority in the 100-seat chamber - have consistently voted against the Brady Bill, which calls for a five-day waiting period for handgun buyers.

They even succeeded in filibustering the Bill two weeks ago when it was finally expected to be passed.

Eventually it did - with the concession that an immediate computerised background checking system must be in place within four years, so the waiting period can be dropped.

With the Brady Bill in place, Congress is now looking to pass the tough Crime Bill, which puts 100,000 more policemen on the streets, places curbs on the sale of automatic handguns and ''assault weapons'', builds new prisons and toughens sentences on violent crime. Colin Ferguson's bloody crime will no doubt add impetus to its passage.

But does Ferguson fit the gun-control lobby's role model? Complicating the argument is that he bought his gun in a state, California, where laws are already much tougher than the Brady Bill provisions.

Ferguson travelled to the state and had to wait 15 days before he was cleared to take it home.

Because he had no criminal record, the Ruger, which fires 15 deadly rounds in one loading, was his for around US$300. Ferguson had already gone through two bullet clips before three brave passengers on the fated train had the chance to overpower him. He had 70 bullets left.

The NRA's response: had one person in that carriage been carrying a personal gun, the carnage could have ended much earlier.

The logic of the argument is cynical, but not unreasonable. Mass shootings like Ferguson's are often those of the unstable loner, who does not usually have a criminal record and is prepared to wait for the weapon to carry out his random crime.

Famous massacres stick in the memory: the San Isidro McDonalds in California, or the Luby's in Kileen, Texas. But they are far more common; apart from Ferguson there have been 11 major random shootings this year, claiming 30 deaths.

The gun lobby also claims that tougher laws do little to keep dangerous handguns out of the hands of the hardened criminals that dominate the drug dealing and armed robbery scene.

Handguns are banned in Washington, but in a recent court case, it was revealed how one of the city's biggest drug rings got a string of assault weapons from a perfectly law-abiding white middle-class man who went into Virginia every few weeks to buy a weapon over the counter, at intervals decent enough not to raise suspicion.

There is no doubt that the NRA and its friends have some of the facts on their side. They have also wagered that one year after the Brady law comes into force, America's violent crime figure will have seen no improvement.

On the side of gun control, the argument is more abstract, but no less convincing: people who have guns use them, whether on friends, families, crime victims, even themselves. There are, sadly, thousands of Colin Fergusons in the United States, but a Colin Ferguson without a gun is one who cannot wreck other people's lives.

Ultimately, the gun debate comes down to those who have a vested interest in maintaining that it is too late to turn back, and those who declare that while controls might be long overdue, there is still time to make a difference.

A recent Washington Post editorial, welcoming progress on the Crime Bill and its curbs on assault weapons, reasoned: ''They have often been used . . . any place where a cold-blooded killer is prepared to murder a lot of people he doesn't even know, just to avenge some grudge or other.'' Unless the President's intentions on gun control find their way on to the statute books sooner rather than later, it is a prophesy that will continue to come true with terrifying regularity.