Cover-story crime

It takes the news magazines four or five weeks to prepare a take-out cover story, and Chief Justice Burger made his startling speech on crime before the American Bar Association in Houston on Feb. 8. Time and Newsweek had their simultaneous articles rediscovering crime on the newsstands March 16, predated to March 23. They were embarrassingly alike.

If you bought Newsweek you were facing an ugly five-caliber handgun aimed right at you under the title "The Epidemic of Violent Crime." If you bought Time you confronted an even scarier picture -- a futuristic masked manikin with another snub-nosed revolver --labeled "The Curse of Violent Crime." Were the magazines in collusion? Does Time tell Newsweek? There must have been editorial chagrin at the similarity of the products.

Both magazines referred to Mr. Justice Burger, the essence of whose warning was that America's "capability of maintaining elementary security on streets, in schools and for the homes of our people, is in doubt." What with the chief justice and the weeklies I guess it can be said that violent crime has been rediscovered. Maybe it's even a "crisis."

In my career I have covered four federal crime commissions and it begins to look as though I will have one more. The first was the Wickersham Commission ( 1931) and the latest Milton Eisenhower's (1969). Attorney General William French Smith has now appointed an advisory committee to study the problem and advise the government what to do. I sense a crime commission coming up.

I wasn't satisfied with the weeklies' stories on the problem. Neither appeared to have studied past investigations. Newsweek said crime "warps US life," a mouth-filling phrase. Time agreed that "a pervasive fear of robbery and mayhem threatens the way America lives." True, of course, but that's just language; what are we going to do about it? The magazines' researchers hadn't discovered the melancholy common theme of past studies; the reports of commissioners that, yes, violent crime is a shame and disgrace; yes, America is worse than other countries, and that --well, probably not much will be done about it.

Newsweek dismissed the American handgun problem briefly. It said at one point, "It is clear that there are too many guns on the street. Houston police estimate that one-third of the city's motorists are armed." I defy the editors to read those sentences in France, West Germany, England, Japan, Canada -- without being overwhelmed by the astonishment and indignation of the foreigners. The US lets handguns be sold promiscuously? No wonder it has such disgraceful murder rates!

Time, by contrast, devotes a page to "The Duel Over Gun Control." Polls show, it says, that the public wants handguns controlled. But it explains that Congress won't vote it. "As long as that is the case," it adds lamely, "America will have to live with one of the world's worst murder records." Quite so. Comparative murder statistics per 100,000: Japan 1.6; Britain 1.3; West Germany 1.3; the US 9.7. I don't see how you can take seriously the protest over America's shameful violent crime rate when those protesting won't go along in urging registration of handguns.

Commissions over 50 years have urged handgun control. Dr. Milton Eisenhower wrote in his subsequent book, "The President Is Calling": "Every civilized nation of the world, other than our own, has comprehensive national policies of gun control." He added that when he urged gun control "vitriolic mail at once poured into my office, nearly all of it instigated by form letters and cards distributed nationally by the rich and powerful National Rifle Association."

Poll director George Gallup on Feb. 3 summarized findings of his organization: "The public is overwhelmingly of the opinion that laws concerning the sale of handguns should be made stricter. As early as 1938 Americans favored more stringent control on handguns."

Some 50 million handguns may be in possession of Americans. How many American s want a new crime study?

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