New Guns, Old Problems

On April 6, the Monitor published two articles about firearms. "Guns that a 'Grunt' Would Love" extols high-tech military weapons, using impersonal, technological descriptions of killing. The article never questions the enormous resources expended to create more ingenious ways to destroy people. Apparently, guns in the military for high-tech killing are okay.

Conversely, "How to Keep Firearms Out of Children's Hands" implies that firearms in the home are unsafe, and that gun owners are collectively responsible for the appalling Jonesboro shootings. This article states that guns in homes are "dramatically increasing the risk of child fatalities." Apparently, guns in the home for self defense are not okay.

I find it ironic that the framers of the Constitution espoused exactly the opposite philosophy regarding firearms. The right to keep arms in the home was sacred, while standing armies were viewed with suspicion. The newspeak of the '90s seems to be propelling us in the direction of those old concerns.

National Safety Council statistics prove that the fatal firearm accident rate has been decreasing this century. The annual number of fatal firearm accidents per 100,000 of population in 1903 was 3.5. In 1995, the rate was 0.5. NSC data show that the risk of child fatalities are far greater for non-firearm related accidents: motor vehicles (16.7 per 100,000), falls (4.8), poisoning (4.0), drowning (1.7), fires (1.6), and choking (1.1).

Let's dispense with the gun-control political agenda that's riding on the coattails of a national tragedy, and try to understand what's different in our society today. Most important, why do parents shirk the responsibility of teaching values to their children?

James Wilson

North Bend, Wash.

"Guns That a 'Grunt' Would Love" is full of the best-case, wishful thinking typical of purveyors of high-tech weaponry. To sell a product, they put on rose-colored glasses, predict that all technical obstacles will be overcome, and believe that everything will work as advertised.

Hype like this convinced the Pentagon to buy the Patriot missile, which missed every Iraqi Scud launched during the Gulf War; the Bradley "stealth" tank, which could be heard approaching 10 miles away; heat-seeking missiles, which the Viet Cong tricked by simply hanging buckets of urine in trees; and "smart" radar technology, which misidentified an Iranian airliner as an attacking fighter-bomber.

Sound planning requires balancing rosy scenarios with less-rosy ones. Let's deconstruct some of the hype. First, how will the new Army rifle's "built-in laser range finder gauge the distance to the hiding place" if the enemy is hiding behind a corner or wall? As with autofocus cameras, the range finder must be aimed at an object. If the enemy is around a corner or behind a wall, what would the soldier aim at?

Second, how will the shells "know" when they've traveled the proper distance, so they can explode and rain shrapnel upon the enemy? Shells cannot measure how far they have traveled; they can only measure how much time has elapsed since they were fired. They estimate how far they've traveled based on their velocity, which is itself an estimate. Many things can affect the velocity of a fired shell - air pressure, wind, variations in the gunpowder that fired the shell. I foresee soldiers in combat cursing their guns as the shells repeatedly explode too early or late.

The real beneficiaries of high-tech weapons are the companies that sell them, not the soldiers that use them. But the saddest thing about the article is that, for the people interviewed, best-case, wishful thinking is about better ways to kill people, rather than about ways to avoid killing.

Jeff Johnson

San Francisco

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