Wednesday, November 20, 1996

Opinion: Gun control vs. crime control

Published in the Mountainview

On NBC's "Meet the Press" this morning, November 10, 1996, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) said that gun control was an issue he would like to bring up again in the next session of Congress. His primary reason for this, he said, is that people need guns to protect themselves.

Aside from the oft-quoted statistic that people are more likely to be hurt with their own firearms than to use the successfully in self-defense, there are serious flaws with Sen. Lott's opinion.

But if people "need" these weapons to defend themselves, and "to feel safe" (which was his second reason for reducing legal controls on guns), we must explore the reasons for this. Why do people feel unsafe in their own homes? I will assume for the moment that large numbers of Americans are at this moment cowering behind sofas, with stereos blasting, attempting to allay their fears that "jackbooted thugs" are about to kick in the door.

People feel unsafe in their own homes because they are unsafe in their own homes. News report after news report warns us that convicted killers are on the loose (as was true after a northern New York prison break this summer). We also hear of burglary rings, shootings like the sobering and saddening accident last spring at the Otterside Apartments in Middlebury, and drug problems. Read even the police blotter in the Addison County Independent and you will see all of these problems are prevalent in Vermont as well as many other areas of the country.

Bob Dole contributed his idea for the legalization of guns. "Instant Check" was the name of his system of doing immediate background checks on prospective gun buyers. At present, this process takes seven days. Dole suggested that anyone who wanted a weapon should be able to buy one and leave the story with it immediately, as if he had purchased a gallon of milk. His proposal ignored the black market for firearms which relieves criminals of their need to buy guns from legal gun dealers. This black market prevents criminals from facing a background check at all, and provides them access to weapons only U.S. military personnel can carry legally.

Neither of these men - the current and immediate past Senate majority leaders - have come up with any other ways to make people feel safe in their own homes. Neither has suggested that President Clinton's idea to put 100,000 more police on America's streets was an effective crime-fighting initiative. Neither has suggested that we take the money we would spend on gun lobbying and implementing gun controls, and interdict illegal weapons shipments into and around the country. The New York Times reported last year that over three-quarters of America's illegal weapons are transported on "the Iron Road," Interstate 95 between Washington, D.C. and Boston.

We could spend less money more effectively fighting illegal gun traffic than we can implementing a legal system for gun purchase. We are very far behind the rest of our trade partners in this arena. This autumn, the United Kingdom, in response to last year's massacre of schoolchildren in Dunblane, Scotland, made it nearly imposible for any adult to own firearms. U.K. police need special permits and intensive training to carry weapons, even in the execution of their professional duties.

We are in a country where the police are heavily armed, ambulance crews purchase their own bulletproof vests as self-insurance, and where the people are still afraid in their own homes. With the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill, we have created a functioning national system which ensures that anyone who attempts to buy a gun legally will undergo proper scrutiny before being allowed to leave a gun shop with weapons. We now need to take on this issue of illegal weapons. We need national leadership against criminal use of weapons and against weapons smuggling. The intransigence of the national leadership to recognize this shortfall in American domestic crime policy is staggering.