The attempted assassination of the President comes on the heels of growing concern about violent crime in the United States. Just hours after the attempt on the President's life, the Federal Bureau of Investigation announced that incidents of major crimes jumped by 10 percent in 1980. FBI Director William H. Webster called it the biggest increase in five years and "a continuing cause for concern by law enforcement and the American people."
US Chief Justice Warren E. Burger grabbed the news headlines with his speech in February decrying crime.
And the Senate Judiciary Committee reports that letters are pouring in from citizens who are "very, very upset about safety in their neighborhoods."
Many people now are learning what criminologists have known for years: that the US has the highest crime rates among Western industrialized nations. The rate of reported offenses is "three or four times" that of similar countries, says Graeme Newman, professor of criminal justice at the State University of New York at Albany.
The murder rate for the first half of the 1970s was 9 per 100,000 in the US. Meanwhile, the corresponding rate for Canada was 2.4, for the United Kingdom 1.0 , and for Japan 2.
It's guns, say some observers. The private arsenals in American households now add up to 50 million handguns. Virtually every other Western industrialized country puts tight controls on guns.
Other experts blame race discrimination, the anonymity of big-city living, and the materialism of the culture.
Congress, which is traditionally expected to come up with instant solutions for such problems, is considering a stack of bills to deal with crime.
In the outrage and shock following this week's events, Capitol Hill is bracing itself for a renewed controversy over gun control. Thirteen years ago, it took the killings of Robert F. Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr. to force Congress to pass limited gun-control laws.
Now Rep. Peter Rodino (D) of New Jersey, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, is pledging to redouble his efforts to get a new, stiffer law.
His bill is expected to call for banning the so-called "Saturday night special," as small, inexpensive guns are sometimes called, and provide a 21-day waiting period for anyone wanting to buy a handgun, as well as require dealers to keep records of serial numbers for 10 years.
So far, Representative Rodino has had little success with his bill, which failed to make it to full committee consideration last year. Meanwhile, in the Senate, Sen. James A. McClure (R) of Idaho is reported to be almost ready to present a bill to cut back on enforcement of the 1968 law.
Congress is working on other bills that use the carrot-and-stick approach to fighting crime. Rodino wants a "victim compensation" law that would repay crime victims, but only if they cooperate with the police.
Sen. Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has introduced a bill aimed at keeping convicted felons in jail by cutting off access to federal courts. And two other bills in the Senate would require courts to consider evidence, even if police obtained it illegally.
The Senate also is considering a bill to set legally acceptable procedures for capital punishment.
President Reagan, now a victim of violence, had already pushed violent crime closer to the forefront by naming it as the top priority for the US Department of Justice. (President Carter had targeted white-collar crime.)
And Attorney General William French Smith has announced a special task force to recommend new federal laws to combat violent crime.
James Q. Wilson, a member of that task force and a professor of government at Harvard University, said that the assassination attempt would have little effect on the group's work. And he bristled at the idea that the crime against the President was an indictment of American society.
"It is intellectually shabby to say that when a single deranged person does something heinous, it is a commentary on society as a whole," said Professor Wilson in a telephone interview. He added that even in the 1830s American cities had high crime rates and that no "instant theories" will resolve the problem.
Despite the Reagan administration's pronouncements on violent crime, the proposed new budget shows no major spending plans in the area. In fact, the new budget for the Department of the Treasury, which enforces handgun laws, shows a big cut.
Firearms compliance inspections will be "deemphasized and phased down during fiscal year 1982," says a Treasury Departm ent budget document.