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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Get rid of the damned things

By Roger Rosenblatt

August 2, 1999
Web posted at: 11:46 a.m. EDT (1546 GMT)

TIME magazine

As terrible as last week's shooting in Atlanta was, as terrible as all the gun killings of the past few months have been, one has the almost satisfying feeling that the country is going through the literal death throes of a barbaric era and that mercifully soon, one of these monstrous episodes will be the last. High time. My guess, in fact, is that the hour has come and gone--that the great majority of Americans are saying they favor gun control when they really mean gun banishment. Trigger locks, waiting periods, purchase limitations, which may seem important corrections at the moment, will soon be seen as mere tinkering with a machine that is as good as obsolete. Marshall McLuhan said that by the time one notices a cultural phenomenon, it has already happened. I think the country has long been ready to restrict the use of guns, except for hunting rifles and shotguns, and now I think we're prepared to get rid of the damned things entirely--the handguns, the semis and the automatics.

Those who claim otherwise tend to cite America's enduring love affair with guns, but there never was one. The image of shoot-'em-up America was mainly the invention of gunmaker Samuel Colt, who managed to convince a malleable 19th century public that no household was complete without a firearm--"an armed society is a peaceful society." This ludicrous aphorism, says historian Michael Bellesiles of Emory University, turned 200 years of Western tradition on its ear. Until 1850, fewer than 10% of U.S. citizens had guns. Only 15% of violent deaths between 1800 and 1845 were caused by guns. Reputedly wide-open Western towns, such as Dodge City and Tombstone, had strict gun-control laws; guns were confiscated at the Dodge City limits.

If the myth of a gun-loving America is merely the product of gun salesmen, dime-store novels, movies and the National Rifle Association (NRA)--which, incidentally, was not opposed to gun control until the 1960s, when gun buying sharply increased--it would seem that creating a gun-free society would be fairly easy. But the culture itself has retarded such progress by creating and embellishing an absurd though appealing connection among guns, personal power, freedom and beauty. The old western novels established a cowboy corollary to the Declaration of Independence by depicting the cowboy as a moral loner who preserves the peace and his own honor by shooting faster and surer than the competition. The old gangster movies gave us opposite versions of the same character. Little Caesar is simply an illegal Lone Ranger, with the added element of success in the free market. In more recent movies, guns are displayed as art objects, people die in balletic slow motion, and right prevails if you own "the most powerful handgun in the world." I doubt that any of this nonsense causes violence, but after decades of repetition, it does invoke boredom. And while I can't prove it, I would bet that gun-violence entertainment will soon pass too, because people have had too much of it and because it is patently false.

Before one celebrates the prospect of disarmament, it should be acknowledged that gun control is one of those issues that are simultaneously both simpler and more complicated than it appears. Advocates usually point to Britain, Australia and Japan as their models, where guns are restricted and crime is reduced. They do not point to Switzerland, where there is a gun in every home and crime is practically nonexistent. Nor do they cite as sources criminology professor Gary Kleck of Florida State University, whose studies have shown that gun ownership reduces crime when gun owners defend themselves, or Professor John R. Lott Jr. of the University of Chicago Law School, whose research has indicated that gun regulation actually encourages crime.

The constitutional questions raised by gun control are serious as well. In a way, the anti-gun movement mirrors the humanitarian movement in international politics. Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda have suggested that the West, the U.S. in particular, is heading toward a politics of human rights that supersedes the politics of established frontiers and, in some cases, laws. Substitute private property for frontiers and the Second Amendment for laws, and one begins to see that the politics of humanitarianism requires a trade-off involving the essential underpinnings of American life. To tell Americans what they can or cannot own and do in their homes is always a tricky business. As for the Second Amendment, it may pose an inconvenience for gun-control advocates, but no more an inconvenience than the First Amendment offers those who blame violence on movies and television.

Gun-control forces also ought not to make reform an implicit or explicit attack on people who like and own guns. Urban liberals ought to be especially alert to the cultural bigotry that categorizes such people as hicks, racists, psychotics and so forth. For one thing, a false moral superiority is impractical and incites a backlash among people otherwise sympathetic to sensible gun control, much like the backlash the pro-abortion rights forces incurred once their years of political suasion had ebbed. And the demonizing of gun owners or even the NRA is simply wrong. The majority of gun owners are as dutiful, responsible and sophisticated as most of their taunters.

That said, I am pleased to report that the likelihood of sweeping and lasting changes in the matter of America and guns has never been higher. There comes a time in every civilization when people have had enough of a bad thing, and the difference between this moment and previous spasms of reform is that it springs from the grass roots and is not driven by politicians or legal institutions. Gun-control sentiment is everywhere in the country these days--in the White House, the presidential campaigns, the legislatures, the law courts and the gun industry itself. But it seems nowhere more conspicuous than in the villages, the houses of worship and the consensus of the kitchen.

Not surprisingly, the national legislature has done the least to represent the nation on this issue. After the passage of the 1994 crime bill and its ban on assault weapons, the Republican Congress of 1994 nearly overturned the assault-weapons provision of the bill. Until Columbine the issue remained moribund, and after Columbine, moribund began to look good to the gun lobby. Thanks to an alliance of House Republicans and a prominent Democrat, Michigan's John Dingell, the most modest of gun-control measures, which had barely limped wounded into the House from the Senate, was killed. "Guns have little or nothing to do with juvenile violence," said Tom Delay of Texas. Compared with his other assertions--that shootings are the product of day care, birth control and the teaching of evolution--that sounded almost persuasive.

A more representative representative of public feeling on this issue is New York's Carolyn McCarthy, whom gun violence brought into politics when her husband was killed and her son grievously wounded by a crazed shooter on a Long Island Rail Road train in 1993. McCarthy made an emotional, sensible and ultimately ineffectual speech in the House in an effort to get a stronger measure passed.

"When I gave that speech," she says, "I was talking more to the American people than to my colleagues. I could see that most of my colleagues had already made up their minds. I saw games being played. But this was not a game with me. I looked up in the balcony, and I saw people who had been with me all along on this issue. Victims and families of victims. We're the ones who know what it's like. We're the ones who know the pain."

Following upon Columbine, the most dramatic grass-roots effort has been the Bell Campaign. Modeled on Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the campaign plans to designate one day a year to toll bells all over the country for every victim of guns during the previous year. The aim of the Bell Campaign is to get guns off the streets and out of the hands of just about everyone except law officers and hunters. Andrew McGuire, executive director, whose cousin was killed by gunfire many years ago, wants gun owners to register and reregister every year. "I used to say that we'd get rid of most of the guns in 50 years," he tells me. "Now I say 25. And the reason for my optimism is that until now, we've had no grass-roots opposition to the NRA."

One must remember, however, that the NRA too is a grass-roots organization. A great deal of money and the face and voice of its president, Charlton Heston, may make it seem like something more grand and monumental, but its true effectiveness exists in small local communities where one or two thousand votes can swing an election. People who own guns and who ordinarily might never vote at all become convinced that their freedoms, their very being, will be jeopardized if they do not vote Smith in and Jones out. Once convinced, these folks in effect become the NRA in the shadows. They are the defense-oriented "little guys" of the American people, beset by Big Government, big laws and rich liberals who want to take away the only power they have.

They are convinced, I believe, of something wholly untrue--that the possession of weapons gives them stature, makes them more American. This idea too was a Colt-manufactured myth, indeed, an ad slogan: "God may have made men, but Samuel Colt made them equal." The notion of guns as instruments of equality ought to seem self-evidently crazy, but for a long time Hollywood--and thus we all--lived by it. Cultural historian Richard Slotkin of Wesleyan University debunks it forever in a recent essay, "Equalizer: The Cult of the Colt." "If we as individuals have to depend on our guns as equalizers," says Slotkin, "then what we will have is not a government of laws but a government of men--armed men."

Lasting social change usually occurs when people decide to do something they know they ought to have done long ago but have kept the knowledge private. This, I believe, is what happened with civil rights, and it is happening with guns. I doubt that it will be 25 years before we're rid of the things. In 10 years, even five, we could be looking back on the past three decades of gun violence in America the way one once looked back upon 18th century madhouses. I think we are already doing so but not saying so. Before Atlanta, before Columbine, at some quiet, unspecified moment in the past few years, America decided it was time to advance the civilization and do right by the ones who know what the killing and wounding are like, and who know the pain.


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Cover Date: August 9, 1999

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