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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Coming to clarity about guns

Are we witnessing a cultural shift that says gunmakers are to blame?

By Lance Morrow

April 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:33 a.m. EDT (1533 GMT)

TIME magazine

An item neglected in the rush of the week's news: it was revealed that Russell Eugene Weston Jr., who stormed the U.S. Capitol last summer, killing two police officers, did it because he feared being contaminated by "Black Heva," a blight that he considered "the deadliest disease known to mankind." Black Heva (which exists only in Weston's mind) spreads by way of the rotting flesh of cannibals' victims; Weston shot the policemen because they were cannibals preventing him from getting to the "ruby satellite," a device that is the key to halting Heva-breeding cannibalism.

Evil on paper looks impressive (one of mankind's most important words, invested with the dignity of mystery and theology). But evil in actuality, when it touches down on earth like a tornado for a moment--as it did in Weston's visit to the Capitol, or last week in Littleton--may have a style so tacky, so moronic or so indelibly crazy that it gives off a radiant tabloid weirdness. This almost novelistic sheen of the loony makes the tragedies curiously hard to evaluate. The evil effect is evident--innocent blood everywhere; the cause, in the case of Littleton anyway, remains obscure. Evil is, after all, a mystery. The uniqueness of individual evils owes something to chaos theory. Perhaps we should not try to explain something like the shootings but should sit very still, and pray, and await the arrival of clarity.

Nah. We all begin chattering at once: American society in the late '90s is a busy chat room set up for just this kind of thing (Oklahoma City, O.J.), with noisy experts on tap, interrupting one another from different quadrants of the screen. We round up the usual suspects--in the current case, our cretinous popular culture; the Internet, with its rancid cul-de-sacs; violent movies; idiot television; vicious rap; ubiquitous sex. One high school counselor cast a wide net on MSNBC: "It's all those things, ekcedra, ekcedra, ekcedra." The "ekcedra" includes adolescence itself, a form of temporary insanity that in America is rendered even crazier by all of the above.

But the massacre in Colorado did raise a serious issue, yet again: gun control. Newspapers all over the world published sanctimonious editorials about the "American gun culture." The National Rifle Association went on sensitivity alert; in a rare moment of self-effacement it canceled the festive public events and gun show planned around its annual meeting, but not the meeting itself, which by coincidence is scheduled for this week in Denver.

The anti-gun forces took some energy from public outrage over the shootings. California's assembly approved a bill designed to limit handgun sales. The gun lobby in Colorado had been expecting to get passage of three bills (to loosen restrictions on concealed-weapons permits, to ban local lawsuits against manufacturers and to pre-empt local ordinances on firearms). State legislators quickly withdrew two of them, and Governor Bill Owens promised to veto the third. Earlier in April, Missouri voters defeated a referendum to lift a constitutional ban on concealed weapons. So far this year, New Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska have defeated bills that would allow concealed weapons. The struggle goes on, state by state.

We may be witnessing the beginning of one of those tectonic shifts in our culture and morality: the terror haunting the gun industry is the precedent of tobacco. At some point in the last couple of generations, smoking became disreputable in American life--a sort of moral consensus formed. If juries were to start awarding damages to cities, or to individual gunshot victims, extracting millions from gun manufacturers, or at least forcing them to mount expensive defenses in hundreds of suits, then it is possible that the N.R.A. and other defenders of the gun might abandon their cold-dead-hand absolutism and begin to compromise a little. At least one Brooklyn jury has already issued a warning: last February it ordered three gun companies to pay a young gunshot victim $500,000 after finding that they had engaged in the "negligent distribution" of their product.

If N.R.A. president Charlton Heston had a cannier sense of public relations, he would knock himself out campaigning to stop the sale of semiautomatic weapons, ban armor-piercing bullets and do all possible to keep firearms away from criminals, children and psychotics. He would legitimize his own case by pre-empting the best ideas of the other side.

I live on a farm and own four long guns. I learned to shoot when I was 10 years old, under the tutelage of the N.R.A. It was not a flawless education: when I was 13, I nearly blew a friend's head off, by accident, with his father's .38 revolver. (I was lucky enough to be permitted to learn a lesson the hard way; my friend was plain lucky.) I find that I sympathize with both the gun culture and the anti-gun culture. I do wish the gun culture were a lot more intelligent.


Cover Date: May 2, 1999

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