Counting the Shots

ON the corner of 47th Street and 7th Avenue in New York, a three-and-a-half-story-high electronic billboard is being built containing a digital clock. At midnight on New Year's Eve the clock will start ticking, showing first the number of guns in circulation in the United States, currently 210 million. Elsewhere the clock will display the number of deaths from gunfire, starting with the first moment of 1994. The original zero, alas, will not long remain if January 1994 continues the grisly record of December 1993.

``The death clock is an ugly name,'' concedes its sponsor, Robert E. Brennan, a New Jersey businessman.

At a time when people wielding guns are finding their victims everywhere - in the inner cities, in malls, in fast-food restaurants, in offices, on commuter trains, in courtrooms - it may seem hard to overstate or overdramatize a message against violence.

Yet fear-based messages about firearms, however well-meaning, can have an unintended effect: A recent rise in handgun sales has been prompted in large part by the fear of firearms in the hands of others. And often buried within aggregate ownership and death statistics are trends and themes about crime rates and firearms use that deserve at least as much focus as the overall numbers do.

New solutions to violence-by-bullet seem to be proposed daily. It has been recommended that gun owners be licensed, like automobile operators. Salt Lake City and several dozen other municipalities have tried buying back guns. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D) of New York would like to see a 50 percent tax on ammunition for handguns. In the private sector, Wal-Mart announced last week that it no longer will offer handguns at the stores in its chain that sell firearms.

All of these strategies and more may be necessary. It will not be a quick or simple matter to control 210 million guns or the people who fire them. But in the haste to ``do something about it,'' the truth should not be forgotten: No amount of legislation or deployment of police can heal the culture of violence that has exploded in the '90s. Little will be accomplished over the long term if the anger of violence is met only by the anger of counterforce. The root causes of violence have to be addressed. To do this there must be some compassion in the heart as well as peace in the street. A negative symbol like the death clock, however well-meaning, is not our style. It needs a counterpart tallying actions that affirm the value of every human being.

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