Here are the arguments for: Gun ownership is an inalienable right guaranteed by the Constitution. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. Illegal firearms will always find their way into the hands of criminals. Guns are big business. The rights of hunters and recreational target shooters must not be infringed. The best defense against a gun is another gun.
And here are the arguments against: 35,000 Americans killed by firearms annually.
The choice is a simple one: life or death. Until now America has steadfastly chosen death. And because of that we have been witness to an endless procession of preventable tragedy: children shooting children, gang members gunning down rivals, felons murdering innocent victims.
After every tragedy, we decry our nation's obsession with guns, the violence that infects our movies and TV, video games and music, the public policy that allows such easy access to deadly weapons. Yet we do little or nothing to restrict that access. Following each tragedy the same arguments are marshalled - the right to life versus the right to purchase, possess, and fire guns - both sides make the statistics dance, huge sums of money change hands, enormous political influence is brought to bear, and in the end death wins - every time.
But why? What do we stand to lose by relinquishing our guns? What presumed loss of freedom outweighs this carnage, this devastating loss of life? Why is the death of a single American soldier on a battlefield in Kosovo or Iraq considered one casualty too many yet 35,000 annual domestic fatalities acceptable? Why is it easier to obtain a pistol permit than a driver's license?
In innumerable ways America has taken steps to make life less perilous: Hazardous work conditions are addressed, dangerous products redesigned. Even activities long thought invulnerable to public policy - drinking, smoking, spousal abuse, sexual discrimination - are subject to legislation. Yet we are unable to legislate even the most minor safety modifications to firearms.
None of our freedoms are absolute. Even our most cherished right - free speech - admits constraint: Expressions of racial, religious, and ethnic hatred, character defamation, threats to public safety are all enjoined for the common good. Yet the greatest threat to that safety, the 200 million firearms in private hands, goes unchecked. As a nation we've been fatally irresponsible, refusing to recognize that rights must not supersede responsibility.
In countries where gun ownership is severely curtailed, the number of gun-related homicides annually is reckoned in the low hundreds, not the tens of thousands. Like speed-intoxicated drivers, denying or indifferent to the deadly relationship of cause and effect, we declare that if the price for the right to own guns is a slaughter of the innocents, of cities rendered uninhabitable, of 1 million gun-related crimes annually, then so be it.
How can this be when the majority of Americans favor strict gun control? National Rifle Association membership numbers fewer than 4 million, yet it determines public policy on an issue that affects us all, undermining the security of everyone. Why do we permit it?
Guns are designed to kill. That they do kill should come as no surprise. The more guns we produce and possess, the more deaths we reap. The fewer guns in circulation, the safer we'll all be.
America is viewed by many in the world as the most violent of societies. Apologists insist that danger is inherent in democracy, violence the price we pay for freedom. It is not. Violence is the price we pay for our unwillingness to accept restraint, a restraint that is not only compatible with freedom but enhances it. We owe it to our children and grandchildren to sweep the land clear of these deadly mines; we owe it to ourselves. America, choose life.
*Steve Schnur teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, N.Y. He wrote 'The Koufax Dilemma,' (Morrow, 1997).