The arguments keep firing away

GUNS IN AMERICA Edited by Jan Dizard, Robert Merrill Muth, and Stephen Andrews New York University Press 517 pp., $24.95

This volume could hardly be more timely, with the Littleton, Colo., school tragedy fresh in our minds. The national soul-searching in the aftermath of that event has reached far beyond the gun issue. But guns, and their regulation, are a major part of the discussion.

In the political realm, as always, few subjects are more fraught with emotion. Just witness the recent bobbing and feinting in the US Senate over the common-sense step of imposing background checks on those who purchase weapons at gun shows.

Many of the essays in this collection explore why gun possession in the United States is wrapped in emotion. The editors of "Guns in America" usually stand back and let the sides in this controversy have at it. They do, however, contribute scene-setting introductions to the four major subdivisions in this lengthy work.

Opening a section on "The Rise of Gun Culture in America," for example, the editors capsulize the pro-gun ethos: "Guns embody the pioneering spirit, the love of liberty, individualism, and self-reliance. From this vantage point, anyone who would jeopardize gun ownership must not appreciate democracy and the need to defend individual rights."

This theme - that guns are as much a cultural emblem as a political issue - resurfaces often. The message is hard to miss: If you don't understand the depth of feeling on the pro-gun side, you're never going to grasp why this issue defies easy resolution.

If one side asserts, "Guns kill," and the other intones, "Guns defend and protect," where's the space for a compromise solution, such as reasonable controls that allow gun ownership while recognizing society's interest in regulating commerce in a potentially lethal commodity?

Writers from the National Rifle Association to Handgun Control make their cases. There is extensive analysis of the role of guns in crime and crime prevention.

The number of guns in circulation - more than 200 million, or nearly one for every person in the country - is seen from one perspective as inherently negative, the volatile fuel of violence. From another, the plentiful supply of guns is evidence of a people ready to defend itself - against crime, invasion, and not least, a tyrannical government. Indeed, a number of writers argue that gun possession is a major deterrent to crime, not a cause of it. Nothing is more frightening to a would-be criminal, they say, than armed citizens.

The counterpoint of that, of course, is that nothing is more hazardous to citizens than an armed citizenry. Just look at the number of gun suicides, or at the family members hurt or killed, accidentally or intentionally, by guns in the home.

This tour through the gun landscape shows that for every antigun argument there's a pro-gun rebuttal. As a rule, one side's points make little sense to the other. What can't be forgotten, however, is that millions of Americans occupy the middle ground. They don't object to their fellow citizens owning weapons for peaceful purposes. On the other hand, they see no good in a largely unregulated flow of military-style guns or concealable weapons. They'd be perfectly willing to see compromise.

The concluding section of the book, indeed, tries to examine some ways out of the interminable controversy. One writer suggests that, given the number of guns in America, the most reasonable approach is widely available safety and marksmanship training. Another reassesses the Second Amendment and concludes that the right to bear arms undermines community and trust.

Readers of this "reader" will not be left with much hope for a quick end to the American gun debate. But they will be left with a better grasp of the concerns, arguments, and emotions on both sides. And, down the road, that just may boost the chances for reasonable national policies.

Two ends of the same barrel

"We can prevent needless tragedy. We can make it more difficult for criminals to get handguns. I hope that the day will come when no American family has to go through what my family has suffered. Again, I ask, do you really believe that a convicted felon should be able to walk into a gun store and instantly purchase a handgun?"

- Sarah Brady, Handgun Control Inc.

"Bill Clinton's cultural warriors want a penitential cleansing of all firearms. That's what's literally under way right now, in England and Australia. Lines of submissive citizens, walking in lock step, threatened with imprisonment, are bitterly surrendering family heirlooms, guns that won their freedom, to the blast furnace. If that fact doesn't unsettle you, then you are already anesthetized, you are already a victim of the cultural war."

- Charlton Heston, National Rifle Association

- From 'Guns in America'

*Keith Henderson is on the Monitor staff.

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