Here's the thing about the good old US of A: In this country, you have no right to a job, no right to a pension, no right to health care, and no right to higher education. But you do have a right to a gun. Boy, do you have a right to a gun. Rifle, shotgun, handgun or assault weapon, the choice is yours. And in Virginia, site of the latest mass murder with a firearm, you don't even need a permit to get it.
Virginia Sen. John Warner (R) called April's Virginia Tech shooting "incomprehensible." It's not, senator. You represent a state that requires no licensing or registration of guns, no waiting period for their initial purchase and no training in their safe use. Virtually anyone in the Old Dominion can get armed to the teeth in no time at all, even psychiatric outpatients. That includes sociopaths like Seung-Hui Cho. The only thing that slowed him down was a 30-day waiting period for a second semi-automatic pistol to do the job right; he was only entitled to buy one gun a month.
Virginia is hardly exceptional among the various states. The gun is becoming the all-purpose American tool for solving problems. Trouble with a neighbor? Grab your revolver. Lost your job? Lock and load. Having a bad day? Go postal. The US gun industry is here to help you, and the federal government will see to it that there are no inconvenient restrictions on your weapons purchases. Shop 'til you drop, or until you're equipped to drop a few fellow citizens.
According to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, there are now roughly 192 million privately owned firearms in the US, 65 million of them handguns. That's two weapons for every three Americans. In 1998, a typical year, licensed gun dealers sold 4.4 million guns nationwide, including 1.7 million side arms, while another 1 to 3 million weapons were exchanged in the shadowy so-called secondary market.
The results have been predictable. In 2004, close to 30,000 Americans died from firearm-related causes, approximately the number that died in the Korean War. Nearly 12,000 of those deaths were murders; the rest were suicides or accidents. By comparison, firearms were used that year to murder just 184 people in Canada, 56 in Australia, 73 in the United Kingdom, and 37 in Sweden. No other country in the civilized world tolerates the gun deaths the US does on a year-in, year-out basis. The land of the free is a virtual shooting gallery. While we spend our time obsessing about foreign terrorists, it turns out that, as Pogo said, 'We have met the enemy and he is us."
Meanwhile, as concerns the Virginia case, the country's political establishment passes the buck, calling for "prayer," but pointedly ignoring any suggestion that greater control of the guns that kill 80 Americans a day might be part of a solution. The president, who himself appealed to the good offices of the Almighty, is especially culpable. It was on his watch and with his tacit approval that the Republican Congress allowed the federal law banning assault weapons to lapse in 2004; if still in effect, it would have outlawed the sort of high-capacity cartridge magazines purchased by the Virginia Tech killer.
Nevertheless, when asked if new gun legislation warranted consideration in the wake of the latest armed outrage, the Decider allowed as how it was too soon. Rather, he said, it was time to reflect and remember the victims. Left unsaid was that the passage of time will allow the public anger to subside and permit the NRA to ramp up its lobbying machinery to head off any limits on the sacred right to bear arms. Cooler heads must, at all costs, be allowed to prevail.
And what of the Democrats? The party that's so solicitous of the public's welfare when it comes to other issues is nowhere to be seen or heard, preferring to heed the reputed gun-control advice of one of its own political operatives prior to the last election, to wit: "Shut the hell up." The national Democrats have made their pact with the Devil, which requires them to avoid mentioning the Second Amendment or anything related to it, in exchange for access to those red-state votes.
Unfortunately, politics as usual won't cut it with blood running in the streets. Nothing is expected of the Republicans; they're in bed with the gun lobby. The Democrats, however, need to replace their moral cowardice with some profiles in courage. No one is calling for a total ban on guns, even in a country where only 6% of the public still holds hunting licenses. But there's no reason not to re-enact the late ban on assault weapons and strengthen it to effectively eliminate all guns deliberately designed for conversion to rapid firing.
Seung-Hui Cho performed his evil deed primarily with a Glock 9mm semi-automatic pistol containing a multi-shot clip, a weapon of choice for military and police forces worldwide. It has no business being available to ordinary citizens, because its only purpose is to kill or disable human beings. That goes double for semi-automatic repeating rifles, such as the now-legal AK47, which can fire 600 rounds per minute using magazines holding up to 75 bullets each. Only urban gang members and perhaps incompetent game hunters like Dick Cheney need or want such weaponry.
Limiting private gun ownership to mechanically loaded, non-automatic weapons is an essential step toward a saner America that would reduce our horrendous firearms fatality rate without harming legitimate hunting and target-shooting interests. The initial assault-weapons ban did exactly that between its enactment in 1994 and its expiration in 2004, during which time annual gun homicides dropped by better than a third. Since then, however, the grisly trend has been upward once more, rising by more than 2,000 shooting deaths a year.
Adam Gopnik of The New Yorker had it about right when he noted, following the Virginia massacre, that all countries harbor psychopathic killers like Seung-Hui Cho. The difference is that only in the US is it made easy for them to arm themselves. In the end, it may not be possible to stop all the madmen bent on mayhem, but we don't have to bend over backwards to enable them.
Wayne O'Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine.
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