In New Jersey, Virginia and Texas, they're fighting over guns. In Washington. Detroit and L.A. they're fighting with guns. As homicide rates soar, the battle over who should be able to own what kind of gun continues, with no winner in sight. Just a lot of losers.
The killings in our cities demand a solution. The current squabbles over gun control show that allowing each state to have its own policy does not offer that solution.
Last month, the New Jersey state senate rejected an effort to gut gun control legislation passed a year earlier. The 1990 law had banned semi-automatic weapons capable of carrying 15 round magazines. Sounds reasonable, right? Not much big game in New Jersey. Anyone who needs 15 bullets for hunting probably shouldn't be hunting in the first place.
The clash between liberty and restrictions
The National Rifle Association disagreed. NRA lobbyists claimed that banning these weapons would create a serious inconvenience for hunters and collectors. They then mounted a ferocious campaign to elect legislators who opposed the ban. Their efforts paid off when both houses passed an amendment that would have left the law weak and powerless. Gov. Jim Florio vetoed the amendment and though the lower house overrode his veto, the senate sustained it, keeping the ban intact. The NRA has vowed to continue the fight.
Revelations that weapons from Virginia were flooding Washington, D.C. and New York streets prompted Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder to action. He proposed a bill that would limit an individual to one handgun purchase per month--with a waiver for serious collectors. It seems a matter of common sense; why would an individual need more than 12 handguns a year?
Again NRA leaders opposed the measure. What would happen, they wondered, if someone's handgun were lost or stolen? Would that person have to wait an entire month to get a new one? Such an inconvenience, they felt, was intolerable.
In Texas, the NRA finally found legislation it could support: a state legislator's plan to legalize the possession of concealed weapons. Gov. Anne Richards will undoubtedly veto the measure, and the fight will erupt when the state legislature tries to override her veto.
It's not difficult to caricature the NRA's positions. Nearly all of the gun control measures they oppose seem eminently reasonable. Yet painting the NRA as a collection of fanatics and kooks, though very tempting--and kinda fun--is not accurate or productive. NRA members believe they are fighting for the constitutionally protected right to gun ownership. They will meet any attempt to limit that right with quick suspicion and hostility.
This hostility often makes them look ridiculous, just as the American Civil Liberties Union often looks ridiculous defending the Ku Klux Klan and similar fringe groups. Both groups see themselves as crusaders for liberty, and both are.
Those who favor gun control can only win the battle by showing convincingly that the time has come to curb that liberty. Hysterically labeling the NRA as nuts will only cause a backlash and jeopardize sensible gun control.
The NRA is correct--the right to own a gun is constitutionally protected, for the purpose of maintaining a well-regulated militia. In the early days of the United States, an armed populace was vital to the raising of an army in an emergency. An armed population could also defend itself if the government began to encroach on its liberties.
Today the situation is very different. The United States has a large standing army for its defense; unless citizens begin acquiring F-16's and antitank missiles, popular unrest will not be very effective against the national military. Individual gun ownership is no longer necessary for maintaining the safety of the country.
But controlling guns is. Annually, more U.S. citizens die from murder in our cities than in war-torn Northen Ireland every year. Police are finding themselves outgunned by criminals armed with automatic weapons. Schools are installing metal detectors to prevent children from bringing handguns into classes. Strict gun control will not completely solve these problems; guns will still reach the streets illegally. But gun control will help. Making guns more difficult to obtain is worth the effort.
Maintaining a society always requires a compromise between liberties and restrictions: liberty whenever possible, restrictions whenever necessary. The United States has reached the point at which this particular liberty must be severely limited, and limited nationwide. Washington has strict gun control laws--and one of the highest murder rates in the country. District residents easily acquire guns from other states.
National gun legislation should go even farther than the gun control proposals with which so many states are currently wrestling. Any nationwide bill should include the prohibition of all assault-type weapons and most types of handguns. Congress should finally pass the seven-day waiting period proposed in the Brady bill to eliminate heat-of-the-moment purchases.
There is no doubt these more stringent measures will inconvenience many honest citizens, forcing them to sacrifice for the good of society. But all citizens make these kind of sacrifices every day. And as sacrifices go, gun control makes more sense than most.