While many Americans tout the Brady Bill and the ban on semiautomatic weapons as victories against gun-toting maniacs, other citizens see them as an all-out assault on their constitutional rights.
The only thing Americans seem to want more than they want guns is gun control. In May, after furious infighting and dramatic last-minute reversals, the House of Representatives passed by only two votes a ban on the manufacture and importation of semiautomatic assault weapons. Just months earlier, after a battle, Congress passed the Brady Bill, which requires a waiting period and background check for the purchase of handguns. The gun-heaven state of Virginia (which once held the dubious distinction of being the gun supplier to East Coast criminals) has enacted a law limiting handgun purchases to one per month. All this, despite massive lobbying efforts by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups.
In the wake of recent mass murders such as those committed on the Long Island Rail Road, where Colin Ferguson killed six people aboard a commuter train, and in San Francisco, where Gian Luigi Ferri stormed a downtown law office and gunned down eight people, public opinion has grown increasingly in favor of gun control. In fact, according to a 1993 Gallup Poll, more than 70 percent of Americans - including a majority of gun owners - like the idea.
This is bad news for gun-ownership advocates, who see their rights being chipped away a little at a time. Civil libertarians - some of whom do not use or own guns - nonetheless are up in arms about erosions of Second Amendment rights. The subject of gun control has even emerged in internal debates among members of the American Civil Liberties Union, which has never come out in full force for the Second Amendment.
Concurrently, gun sales upswing - by as much as 50 percent since 1985, according to some estimates. People who own guns are holding tightly to them as more and more Americans, gripped by a mounting fear of crime, decide to take their safety into their own hands.
There are 200 million legally purchased firearms in the United States; nearly half of all American households contain at least one gun. And a significant number of these are handguns: affordable, concealable, easy-to-use - and the center of the firestorm behind the Brady Bill and other gun-control proposals.
"Handguns are disproportionately used in gun violence," asserts Jeff Muchnick, legislative director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which advocates a ban on the manufacture, sale and purchase of guns by and to the general public.
Do handguns deserve their dark reputation? Every year, more than 600,000 Americans - mostly young, black, urban males - face a handgun-wielding criminal. Given the level of violence in most U.S. cities, though, that number represents only a fraction of all crimes. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, handgun crimes represent about 10 percent of all violent crimes and 27 percent of crimes by armed criminals. Less than half of all murders are committed by handgun-wielding assailants, and handguns are used in approximately 7 percent of all rapes, 8 percent of all assaults and 18 percent of all robberies.
Antigun groups call handguns a key element in domestic slayings, accidental deaths and suicides; pro-gun groups call them a decisive factor in preserving life, limb and property. But the figures cited by both sides are hotly contested. For every harrowing anecdote that Washington-based Handgun Control Inc., or HCI, produces about a child being killed by a gun left lying around the house, the NRA can offer a heroic story about a woman defending her children or herself from a violent intruder.
Many of the commonly accepted "facts" in this debate are open to interpretation. The National Center for Health Statistics, for example, says that more people between the ages of 15 and 24 die as a result of handgun use than as a result of all natural causes combined. But, wonder the pro-gun groups, what "natural causes" affect individuals in that age group, for whom almost any death would be "unnatural"? And while the number of guns owned has increased during the last five decades, the number of accidental gun deaths in the same period has decreased by more than 50 percent. Gun deaths among children - facts used as powerful emotional tools by antigun groups - have been cut in half in 40 years.
Edgar Suter, chairman of Doctors for Integrity in Research and Public Policy, wrote a scathing review of gun-control studies for the Journal of the Medical Association of Georgia. Says Suter, "Errors of fact, design and interpretation abound in the medical literature on guns and violence."
Suter found that studies purporting to show the dangers of gun ownership actually listed owning guns far down the scale of risk factors for violence - well well below alcoholism, living alone and family turbulence.
But no statistic is trumpeted as loudly as the dictum that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to be used to kill a friend or family member than a criminal. Based on a 1986 study by Arthur Kellerman and Donald Reay for the New England Journal of medicine, the 43-to-1 ratio is quoted often, appearing in publications by the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as in the popular press.
There's just one problem, say critics. "The ratio is correct; the problem is that it doesn't mean anything," says Gary Kleck, professor of criminology at Florida State University and author of Point Blank: Guns and Violence in America.
The study's fatal flaw, says Kleck, is that it only compared actual deaths: the killing of a family member vs. the killing of an intruder. "And killing a criminal is not the only benefit that should be considered - in fact, it's not a benefit at all. It's a nightmare," he says. "Killing someone, even in self-defense, is horrible even for a trained police officer, let alone a civilian." (Criminals are killed in only about one of every 1,000 defensive uses of guns.)
A real measure, Kleck says, would be to count as "benefits" events such as deflecting a burglar from the home, stopping a rape attempt, scaring someone off and holding on to property - in other words, crime prevention. Kellerman and Reay acknowledged that this factor was an important element missing from their research. Kleck, who embarked upon a related study hoping to bolster his staunch antigun position, uncovered results that changed his mind entirely.
According to even conservative estimates, Kleck found that handguns were being used to prevent about 400,000 crimes from occurring every year - a ratio of 75 halted crimes for every accidental gun death.
"The majority of defensive gun uses don't involve firing a gun at all," says Paul Blackman, research coordinator for the NRA in Fairfax, Va. Blackman, who says he once scared off a would-be burglar just by loading his gun, notes, "The sound of a round being chambered can stop someone cold."
As to why these findings largely have been ignored in debates on gun control, Kleck asks, "Is it incompetence or bias - who knows? Certainly, Kellerman and Reay conceded that even they were aware of problems in their own study, but didn't address them; that's suggestive of a certain bias."
"Kleck's findings have never been corroborated," retorts Muchnick. "They have never been verified; everyone else in the health community knows that guns are a hazard." An HCI spokeswoman bolsters that contention, calling Kleck's studies "inconclusive." But Kleck points out that his findings have been corroborated in at least 10 studies, and that independent reviews have supplied "one confirmation after another" of his results.
Another piece of conventional wisdom maintains that guns are more likely to be taken from civilians and used against them. To underscore this notion, antigun groups point out that 14 percent of police officer slayings are committed with the officers' own guns. Critics agree that this percentage is correct, but argue that the implication - that if it can happen to trained police officers, it can happen more easily to civilians - is misleading. First of all, the numbers are very small. There are about 60 cop killings a year (the murder of a police officer is still a crime of which most criminals are leery), and of the 14 percent killed with their own guns, most happened when the criminal stole a gun from a police car or pulled one from an officers holster. "In fact:" says Kleck, "when it happens, it's because the police officer pull his gun out, because he wasn't using it defensively - almost the opposite of what the gun-controllers want you to believe."
The idea that armed and trained civilians are less skilled at handling their weapons is one that rubs most gun owners the wrong way. Indeed, surveys by the Justice Department indicate that where civilians have intervened in crimes, their record of leaving innocent bystanders unharmed is superior - by about a 1 -to 5 ratio 5 - to that of the police.
The idea also is sexist, according to Payton Quigley, a personal-protection specialist who teaches handgun shooting to women. "People especially love to scare women with that line," she says. "I don't know of any woman who has had her gun taken away by someone she was fending off. The fact is, there is just no evidence that this happens. Why don't they tell you about the women who have defended themselves with guns.?"
Charmaine Klaus could tell you. The Detroit-area woman, who always carries a .38 Smith and Wesson revolver with her, was managing a convenience store in a rough neighborhood where break-ins - often including hostage situations and rapes - had become frequent. One night, Klaus and her 21-year-old coworker were in the store when an armed, masked intruder broke in.
"We were trapped," Klaus recalls. "There was no back exit. It all happened so fast, but I do remember thinking that even if we were to die, he was going to get one of my bullets in him." Klaus managed to shoot and wound the intruder even though Klaus herself had been shot. (He fled and later was arrested and sentenced to life in prison.) Klaus's young coworker was less fortunate. The robber killed her with a bullet to the head.
About other forms of self-defense, Klaus is dismissive. "Gun controllers tell people to carry a baseball bat. What good would that have done me in this situation? Zero." She adds: "In many situations you're alone. Who's going to help you? You have to help yourself. I don't ever want to be an unarmed, helpless victim."
The refusal to be victimized is strong among gun owners, but to many, the enemy is less the street criminal than the Washington politician. "Gun ownership ought to be mandatory just to keep the government nervous,"says Larry Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va. "The gun-control movement is a Tory movement. The people are the militia and should be armed. It's a check on the government."
"A government will be leery of misbehaving if the people are armed," agrees Blackman. "Look at England. They have stiff gun control and the government is running rampant over people's civil rights; just ask the people in Northern Ireland."
Muchnick of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence disagrees. "This part of the gun debate is steeped in paranoia," he says. "We're not free because we're well armed - we lack basic freedoms because we live in fear. People need to be vigilant against infringements on our rights - but with our minds, not our guns."
Pacifist poppycock, retorts Aaron Zelman, founder and executive director of Milwaukee's Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership Inc., which takes a stance diametrically opposed to that of major Jewish organizations. The primary belief behind JPFO can be summed up simply - in Zelman's words, "a well-armed citizenry is the only way to prevent another Schindler's List."
The group has produced exhaustively documented studies, detailed in Lethal Laws, a forthcoming publication coauthored by Zelman, which show that every genocide that has occurred in this century - from the massacre of Armenians by the Young Turks to the Nazi Holocaust to the killing fields of Cambodia - has been preceded by strict gun control laws. "Gun control is what makes genocide possible," Zelman says. "Gun control is a Nazi law."
Those may sound like fightin' words, but a document by Zelman and Jay Simkin titled Gun Control: Gateway to Tyranny - the Nazi Weapons Law supplies word-by-word translation and explanations of the 1938 Nazi Weapons Law. Its wording is almost identical to that of the original U.S. Gun Control Act of 1968, they found.
That might be coincidence, but an intriguing document the group unearthed suggests otherwise: a letter to then-Sen. Thomas Dodd of Connecticut from the Library of Congress regarding Dodd's request for a translation of the 1938 Nazi law. Dodd, who was instrumental in passing the 1968 legislation in the United States, was a member of the advisory committee at the Nuremberg war crime trials, which presumably was where he first saw copies of the Nazi law.
Muchnick responds that the German people could have prevented the Holocaust if they had wanted to, a notion to which Zelman takes serious offense. "The majority of Germans did not support the Holocaust," he says. "But what could they do? They registered their guns, and next thing they knew, they were gone. In fact, there were as many non-Jews as Jews killed by the Nazis. So it's not true that they could have stopped the Nazis. They were helpless, just as the Jews were."
Zelman's arguments may strike some as extreme, but gun advocates point to New York, which instituted gun registration in the late 1960s. Then, gun owners were called paranoid for believing that the next step would be confiscation; sure enough, 15 years later, guns were banned in New York City and gun owners were ordered to turn in their weapons. It now is nearly impossible to get a permit to own a gun in New York.
"We complied, you lied; that's the lesson of New York"' says Pratt. Gun advocates often point to Switzerland, a country in which adult males are required by law to own machine guns and report for regular weapons training. The notion of a civilian militia is taken literally, and crime and murder rates in the country are famously low.
You don't have to go overseas to find similar examples. Several test counties in the United States have found that where guns and, most importantly, permits to carry concealed weapons have been liberalized (and, crucially, where such information has been broadcast widely), levels of violent crime dropped dramatically, while national levels of violent crime continued to rise.
Handgun Control Inc., insists that its goal is not to disarm law-abiding citizens, but to make guns more to obtain and easier to keep an eye on. HCI supports licensing and registration, along with training in gun use and safety. "The car analogy is a good one," says spokeswoman Cheryl Brolin. "You have to be licensed to drive a car, to show you're proficient in using it. Cars have to be registered with the state. And cars are dangerous, yes, but more and more, manufacturers are making them safer and safer." There is one important difference, gun-control proponents add: Cars, used properly, don't kill anyone, whereas guns, used properly, do just that.
We don't want to take the choice of gun ownership away," says Brolin. "We do want people to be fully informed, to know the facts about guns."
But some gun proponents react furiously to any kind of conditions set on gun ownership. The NRA supports instant background checks and prohibiting gun sales to minors, convicted criminals, drug addicts and the mentally ill. The organization does not support mandatory testing for safety, but has completed extensive studies that show a correlation between its safety courses and a lowered accidental-shooting rate among hunters. Gun Owners of America opposes any kind of registration, licensing or waiting period.
Some gun advocates are skeptical of HCI's stance, saying that the accommodating talk is just a way of instituting disarmament a little at a time. They also argue that HCI's proposals and suggestions are ludicrous - for example, that gun owners should keep guns locked up, unloaded and out of reach. Some gun collectors do this as a matter of course, and for people with children, it still is considered the safest system. However, for childless adults, say gun advocates, the suggestion is laughable - and dangerous.
How can you use it that way?" fumes Pratt. "Look, your life is in danger - what do you want to reach for, your phone or your gun?"
These advocates also believe that with proper instruction, children can learn to stay away from guns. Some people reach further, saying that training children in safe gun use is the best way to guard against accidental shootings.
"Parents have certain responsibilities," says Jeff Cooper, a consultant to Gunsite Training Center, Inc., in Paulden, Ariz., "to teach their children manners, good hygiene, to do their schoolwork and how to shoot." Massad Ayoob, a captain at the Grantham Police Department in Grantham, N.H., owner of the Lethal Force Institute in Concord, N.H., and author of In the Gravest Extreme, goes a step further. Ayoob told Quigley during an interview for her book Armed & Female that he would trust his trained, pistol-packing, 9-year-old daughter to protect him better than he would most police officers.
But dramatic stories and colorful rhetoric have a tough time drowning out the almost monotonous ringing o gunfire that has many Americans fed up with crime. And while gun advocates argue that gun control is another in a line of pointless, dangerous experiments in prohibition, gun-control advocates say it's just common sense that reducing the presence of guns reduces the potential for killing.…