EVERY time a madman enters a school yard and sprays children with bullets, we see affirmation of the unfettered right to bear arms - the principle for which the National Rifle Association spends millions each year to influence votes in Congress. In response to those who are appalled at the ease with which even mentally unstable criminals like Patrick Edward Purdy can obtain arms (including military assault weapons), advocates of gun ownership trot out the old saw: ``When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.''
Of course, laws will always be violated. But the imperfection of human nature gives society no excuse for failing to create laws that reflect the behaviors we aspire to.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) puts forward three arguments against gun control: The first is constitutional, the second based on the perceived need to defend home and family, and the third political. None holds up to scrutiny.
The constitutional argument: In a 1939 case involving the use of a sawed-off shotgun, the Supreme Court declared unanimously: ``In the absence of any evidence showing that possession or use of [the sawed-off shotgun] has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.'' Constitutional scholars point to this as the clearest statement the court has made on the meaning of the Second Amendment.
Former US Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., a moderate (who also happens to be a rifle-owning hunter), gave a speech in August to the Criminal Justice Section of the American Bar Association. ``Much scholarly debate,'' he said, ``has centered on the extent to which the Second Amendment applies to private ownership of arms, or is restricted to the need for a `well regulated militia.' With respect to handguns, however - as opposed to sporting rifles and shotguns - it is not easy to understand why the Second Amendment, or the notion of liberty, would be viewed as creating a right to own and carry a weapon that contributes so directly to the shocking number of murders in our country.''
The self-protection argument: The medical community has begun to see Americans' high rate of gun-related deaths as a public health issue. The New England Journal of Medicine last spring published an article comparing how often a gun was used successfully in slaying an intruder with how often a privately owned gun was responsible for suicides, accidents, or murders among family members and acquaintances. The findings: A gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill or injure the homeowner or a family member than it is to kill an intruder.
The political argument: For decades, conventional wisdom has held that it is political suicide for a politician to support gun control. This belief grew out of several well publicized political defeats, engineered and financed by the NRA. Sen. Joseph Tydings of Maryland was a notable example, forever held up, of the inevitable defeat awaiting any politician who took on the NRA.
But, though the myth lives on, it no longer corresponds to reality. The NRA has suffered a number of defeats around the country during the last year or so. Although it spent $6 million to the opposition's $500,000, the NRA lost in its effort to repeal the new Maryland law banning the sale and manufacture of Saturday night specials. In Minnesota, some courageous legislators drew on strong citizen opposition to turn what looked like certain NRA victory on a ``right-to-bear-arms'' amendment to the state constitution into defeat.
A Minnesota poll of one year ago highlighted the fact that 80 percent of Minnesotans, including 77 percent of gun owners, support stronger gun control. A recent Gallop Poll showed that 91 percent of all Americans favor a seven-day waiting period for handgun purchases, and 84 percent favor federal licensing of gun owners. It would hardly take political courage to support gun control in today's climate.
Politicians often follow public opinion rather than lead it. My seatmate on a recent flight was a young military intelligence officer with a shirt full of ribbons and, above them, a combat infantryman's badge. In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, he told me that he used to belong to the NRA but had quit in disgust over its irresponsible positions on gun control. When will our politicians begin to catch up with such wisdom?
In the wake of yet another school-yard slaughter, I feel outrage at those who say that their right to shoot at targets is greater than the right of small children to live free from the perils that result from our lack of safeguards over who may own guns and how they may be used. I feel outrage at the politicians who fail to prohibit the sale of assault weapons and at those who voted against the Brady Amendment, which would have mandated a seven-day waiting period before any handgun purchase. And I feel outrage at the NRA for equating God, the Constitution, apple pie, and freedom with the unregulated ownership of firearms.
I believe that every politician whose vote has been influenced by fear of the NRA or indebtedness to huge NRA campaign contributions must take some responsibility for the tragedy in Stockton, Calif.