Washington — An attempt on a president's life "creates a constituency" -- a public mood that demands some legislative or other action to ease it, say experts on assassinations and violence in the United States.
The danger is that "remedies" may miss needed areas of reform and fix on irrelevant or regressive issues instead -- a call for more capital punishment and harsher treatment of criminals generally, hastily drawn curbs on guns that might forestall more well-thought-out measures, or even restraints on rights of speech and movement.
"Americans are becoming more and more in fear of crime," says William Webster , director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The FBI's index of violent crime shows a 13 percent increase in the past year -- "figures," says Mr. Webster, that can't be concealed."
As with Franklin D. Roosevelt's attempt to lift the nation out of a depression psychology by attacking "fear," the current fear of violent crime -- not just the violence itself --must be addressed, Webster says.
The shooting of President Reagan underscores the need for at least two reforms, says William J. Crotty, a member of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (NCCPV), formed in 1968 after the assassinations of the Kennedy brothers.
Mr. Crotty, a Northwestern University political scientist and author of "Assassinations and the Public Order" (Harper & Row), says Congress should decide how to keep a firm hand on the helm of the US government in the first 24 or 48 hours after an assassination attempt. The tendency of White House staff members, he adds, is to put the best light on events.
The new law might simply be "the statement [that] the vice-president takes over immediately, if he's within US borders," Crotty says. "Or in the absence of that, the Cabinet acting as a collective body, or in consultation with the speaker of the House and president pro tempore of the Senate, will speak for a period of time for the government. There needs to be some agreed-upon system, so there is a sense of continuity and unity that minimizes the options for fringe behavior."
To head off the lingering rumors of conspiracy or unfollowed leads, he advocates that Congress set up a staff or agency -- outside the FBI or Secret Service -- to investigate the potential for conspiracy in an assassination attempt.
"Tremendous feelings are let loose in society by an assassination or attempted assassination -- feelings of anger and frustration," says Crotty. "You have a unified constituency in the country, sympathetic with the President and angry he's been attacked. Politicians are going to use that constituency. It must be mollified in some way."
The political response may bear little relation to the assassination problem itself. After the assassination of President Kennedy, public sentiment resulted in social legislation like medicare and civil rights legislation.
John Shattuck, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Washington office, anticipates, in the wake of the Reagan shooting, another attempt to link the general question of violence in society, assassination, and the death penalty.
"We oppose the death penalty on constitutional and practical grounds," he says, and reinstituting it "would do nothing to advance the control of violence in society."
The last election had already changed the complexion of Congress substantially on civil liberties and civil rights issues, with the successful political targeting by groups like Moral Majority and anti-abortionists, Shattuck says. An assassination attempt heightens the climate of reaction.
"To the extent it becomes fashionable to call for restrictions on speech, for toning down debate, and deciding who has a right to speak, then all our First Amendment rights are in jeopardy," he says. "We don't think that would contribute to the problem of violence in our society."
Banning the import of "Saturday night special" gun parts, which are assembled in the US, could be one of the token acts to mollify the public, says Crotty. Sen. Strom Thurmond (E) of South Carolina already is proposing such a step.
Or there could be greater assertion of the theory that society is too easy on criminals and that penalties must be more severe -- regardless of evidence, says Crotty, that assassins act without regard to such penalties.
Increased infringement of civil liberties could be the outcome, he concludes, adding: "I had a guy call me and say what we really need in this country is a securities czar to take over the FB I and the Secret Service."