I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT of it as "common sense." Western Europeans think of it as "common sense." A growing number of Americans now think of it as "common sense." Now even Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator of that which otherwise is most common and makes least sense, has called it "common sense."
The "it" is, of course, the reasoning behind the controversial Brady Bill. The bill proposes a seven-day waiting period during which the arms dealers of the nation can check the records of potential clients for evidence of mental illness or criminal activity. The bill is named after James Brady, the Reagan press aide who was paralyzed in the 1981 Hinckley shooting and has been a leading advocate for handgun control ever since.
The surprise conversion of the former president to "common sense" came in a speech at George Washington University on March 28. The speech created quite a stir in Congress, which is now considering the bill for a second time. Never mind the fact that it took 10 years--and the deaths of more than 250,000 Americans by firearms--for the effects of the wound to the former president's body to reach his mind and persuade him of the necessity of imposing some limitation on the sale of guns. At least he's on board now.
REAGAN'S CONVERSION was a pleasant surprise for those who wish to limit the availability of guns. For hardcore NRA members, it was nothing less than a betrayal. One of the latter suffered a disappointment of Biblical proportions, quoting to The New York Times the 146th Psalm on the unreliability of "princes." Another expressed his sense of abandonment thusly: "He's just another politician after all...there was a feelingthat he was a cut above the average politician."
Whether or not Reagan has now reached the level of "average politician," he has by supporting the Brady Bill created an important opening for a restriction on the otherwise unhindered availability of guns in this country. The bill was voted out of the 1988 anti-drug bill by a 228-182 House vote, but was given a more promising hearing on April 10 of this year.
The immediate prospects of the bill's passing are quite good. Several important foes of gun control, including Les AuCoin (R--Oregon), rallying to its support. Even the White House, with lifetime NRA member George Bush at the helm, is said to be rejoicing at the opportunity to support the bill, under the cover of Reagan and within the framework of Bush's own crime bill.
The obvious questions to be asked, then, are why this bill hasn't passed before, why it is still possible for ordinary (and not so ordinary) citizens to buy not only handguns, but also the deadlier semi-automatic weapons and indeed, why Americans are allowed to buy guns at all.
The explanations for Congressional acquiescence range widely. Perhaps a few politicians do base their voting record on the Second Amendment, which asserts that "A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of people to keep and bear arms, shall not be in fringed. Maybe the everyone-to-himself mentality inherent in the American psyche has something to do with it as well.
But one has to start with the descent of American politics into a corrupt bazaar of special interest groups vying for power. The first and most important obstacle to Congressional approval of gun control legislation is the three million-member National Rifle Association, which, in the case of the Brady Bill, was able to kill a bill that enjoyed 95 percent approval in public opinion polls.
THROUGH THE NRA's eyes, the Second Amendment translates into the right of civilians to acquire Uzis and AK-47s, which can release 30 rounds within seconds and have no legitimate hunting purpose whatsoever. The result has been case upon case inwhich the wrath of a lunatic has led to the death of scores of innocent civilians, many of whom would have been alive today if their assailants had been limited to an ordinary revolver, or no gun at all.
The NRA answer to the above "problem" is the familiar line that "guns don't kill people--people kill people." Yeah, right. The inescapable reality of violent incidents is that, with every increase in the ferocity of the assailant's weapon, from knife to revolver to semiautomatic weapon, the death toll rises exponentially.
The consequence of the NRA's lobbying power has been appalling carnage in our streets. Guns have claimed more than 30,000 lives a year for the past several years, and the figures are rising. Think of this in terms of the apocalyptic visions of the Gulf War, the predictions that 20,000 American lives would be lost, and one is made aware of the unconscionable oversight of urban death taking place every day as we refuse to confront this problem.
The Brady Bill will most certainly limit the numbers of unnecessary deaths through accidents and suicides (which, incidentally, account for almost half of all deaths by firearms). But what is necessary at a more fundamental level is the awakening of the American psyche to the conditions in our streets, where the hunted are human beings, and the hunters are violent criminals. Meanwhile, police officers find themselves increasingly outgunned by drug dealers and other thugs.
THERE MUST BE a recognition that civil society entails the surrendering of the right to vigilante justice, that the social contract places a monopoly of coercive powers in the hands of a democratic government.
Handguns, semi-automatic and automatic weapons have only one use, and that is the taking of another human life. Therefore, they should be unavailable (and unacceptable) to us all. The right to own a shotgun should be limited to certified hunters, whose criminal records must be spotless. Only then can the mayhem in our towns and cities end, and only then can America call itself civilized in the 21st century.