The Editors

Last fall’s sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area brought gun control briefly back into the national consciousness. In the wake of those attacks, the Maryland Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend—who holds an impressive track record on gun safety—made the issue a significant part of her campaign. Had she been successful, another advocate would still be in a position of influence, and such advocates are needed now more than ever. Why? Because we have a Republican-dominated Congress that has never looked favorably on gun control and an administration that shows little taste for stricter measures.

 

There are, however, some reasons for hope in this direction. One of them has to do with the ban on assault weapons of the very kind used by the sniper. Kristen Rand, an attorney who is legislative director at the Violence Policy Center in Washington, told America that the ban, which expires in 2004, “will force a debate over its renewal, and we have already started organizing with gun control supporters in the House and the Senate to draft legislation that will not only renew the ban, but also significantly strengthen it.” The need to strengthen the present legislation is illustrated, she said, by the fact that the weapon used by the sniper, a Bushmaster XM15, which is a civilian version of a military rifle, the M-16, was specially designed to evade the provisions of the existing ban. In fact, she said, its manufacturer advertises the weapon as a “post-ban carbine.” By making a few alterations, the maker was able to keep this death-dealing weapon, which has no legitimate sporting purpose, on the market. “Its only purpose is to kill,” Ms. Rand said, adding that the assault weapons issue is one the public understands. Polls show that people favor strong controls on firearms of this kind.

Lawsuits have also offered hope of curbing the gun industry’s power. One that was decided last fall was brought by the widow of a Florida public school teacher, Barry Grunow, against the Valor Corporation. Two years ago, a 13-year-old student, Nathaniel Brazill, shot and killed Mr. Grunow in a classroom, using a cheap Saturday night special distributed by Valor—the Raven .25, a weapon associated with many gun-related crimes. The case revolved around whether the distributor was culpably negligent in not including safety features. According to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which provided legal assistance in the suit, the verdict against the Valor Corporation was the first against a gun seller for distributing so-called junk guns lacking the kinds of features that might have prevented its use by children or other unauthorized persons.

Another proactive step was taken in California in September, when Governor Gray Davis signed into law several gun-safety measures, including a statute that would remove the gun industry’s immunity to liability suits—an immunity that had been in effect for two decades. Unfortunately, though, a bill now pending in Congress could in effect nullify the California legislation’s impact and stop any future efforts to hold gunmakers and distributors accountable by barring such suits. The bill has received much support in the House, and when taken up in the Senate in the new Congress, support is to be expected there as well. Had the Grunow case not already been won, under the proposed federal legislation a positive outcome would not have been possible.

Also offering hope are initiatives aimed at establishing a national database of ballistic imaging that would allow law enforcement officials to trace crime-scene bullets back to the weapons that fired them. Under this system, gun and rifle manufacturers would be obliged to test-fire their products before selling them. Each firing would produce a set of markings, like fingerprints, that would be entered into the database. Two states have already enacted legislation aimed at establishing statewide databases, and California is considering similar legislation. Groups like the National Rifle Association adamantly oppose such a system, fearing that it might lead to a national registry of gun owners. Although there are some technical hurdles, Ms. Rand and other advocates believe that in time a federal system will be developed and accepted by Congress.

The U.S. bishops have long spoken out against gun-related violence. Over a quarter of a century ago, they issued a statement called Handgun Violence: A Threat to Life. It endorses a series of steps aimed at regulating the use and sale of handguns. These include a ban on Saturday night specials (like the one that killed Barry Grunow) and the mandatory registration of handguns “that would tell us how many...there are and who owns them.” These sensible measures are yet to be taken, but they should be enacted—along with far tighter restrictions on assault weapons.

Comments

Fr. Roland Calvert, OSFS | 2/4/2003 - 3:11pm
Thank you for the editorial on gun control. It is a sign of the insanity of our time that the limited and common sense measures you mention have not been passed years ago. The National Rifle Association has the best politicians money can buy in the Congress, the White House and the Justice Department. Ashcroft and others in this administration don't merely support gun nuts. They are mouthpieces for Wayne LaPierre and the paranoiacs of the NRA. LaPierre bragged that the NRA would operate out of the Oval Office if Bush were elected. That is exactly what has happened. La Pierre and his group have convinced a gullible minority of Americans that any move toward gun control is an effort to take away all guns. People like Charlton Heston can then proclaim that the evil authorities will have to take the guns from his "cold, dead hands." This minority is highly financed and can tip elections and scare politicans, most of whom are not noted for their backbone. Ultimately, if we ever get a more sane attitude toward guns, the NRA will be recognized as the evil institution that it is. Thank you for the words about the need of gun control, qualified as they were.

Raymond J. Schuerger, D.V.M. | 2/16/2003 - 12:13pm
Your gun control editorial engenders comments and questions.

According to the military, an assault weapon is a gun that will continue to fire as long as the trigger is held back. The firearm used in the Washington-area shootings was not an assault weapon. Please define what you mean by “assault weapon.”

Do you know that a Congress-mandated study found that “at best, the assault weapons ban can have a limited effect on total gun murders, because the banned weapons were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders?”

Why is it wrong to manufacture an item so that it meets government requirements, and to specify in advertisements that the item meets regulations?

Why, in what is normally an intellectual journal of opinion, are you using such an emotion-laded term as “death-dealing weapon?”

To claim this gun is a “death-dealing weapon” is to say that all guns are bad because they can all be construed as death-dealing weapons and should all be treated alike.

Why does a firearm have to have a sporting purpose? Who defines sporting purpose? Anyway, the Bushmaster is used in competitive rifle shooting; it does have a sporting purpose.

If I have a right to defend myself from serious injury or death, why do I not have a right to defend myself with a non-sporting use firearm?

You seem to be in favor of law suits against manufacturers when their products are misused. Should car manufacturers be sued when cars are used in the commission of a crime? MacDonald’s when their customers get obese?

The ballistic imaging database that you are in favor of has been shown by government agencies to be unworkable.

When the avowed objective of many anti-gun groups is total confiscation of guns, and when governments have used such databases to confiscate guns (California), the National Rifle Association has every right to oppose any type of gun registration. Why does the government need to know who owns firearms?

How will gun registration decrease the number of guns that will continue to be in the possession of criminals?

If there is a right to self defense, why are you in favor of prohibiting firearms that could be afforded by those in economically depressed areas, which happen to be the areas of highest violent crime? (I refer to your opposition of what you call “Saturday night specials.” By the way, what is your definition of that term?)

Are you aware of the great increase in violent crime, including gun-related crime, that has occurred in both Great Britain and in Australia since those countries outlawed private ownership of most types of guns? Are you aware of the findings in the sophisticated statistical studies in Professor John Lott’s book More Guns, Less Crime?

It is not unusual to read in the pages of America articles demonstrating the media bias against the Catholic Church. (You need look no further than Fr. Greeley’s article in the same issue.) Please consider the possibility that you have been shown only one side of the gun control issue and that you should research the other side before writing editorials.

Fr. Roland Calvert, OSFS | 2/4/2003 - 3:11pm
Thank you for the editorial on gun control. It is a sign of the insanity of our time that the limited and common sense measures you mention have not been passed years ago. The National Rifle Association has the best politicians money can buy in the Congress, the White House and the Justice Department. Ashcroft and others in this administration don't merely support gun nuts. They are mouthpieces for Wayne LaPierre and the paranoiacs of the NRA. LaPierre bragged that the NRA would operate out of the Oval Office if Bush were elected. That is exactly what has happened. La Pierre and his group have convinced a gullible minority of Americans that any move toward gun control is an effort to take away all guns. People like Charlton Heston can then proclaim that the evil authorities will have to take the guns from his "cold, dead hands." This minority is highly financed and can tip elections and scare politicans, most of whom are not noted for their backbone. Ultimately, if we ever get a more sane attitude toward guns, the NRA will be recognized as the evil institution that it is. Thank you for the words about the need of gun control, qualified as they were.

Raymond J. Schuerger, D.V.M. | 2/16/2003 - 12:13pm
Your gun control editorial engenders comments and questions.

According to the military, an assault weapon is a gun that will continue to fire as long as the trigger is held back. The firearm used in the Washington-area shootings was not an assault weapon. Please define what you mean by “assault weapon.”

Do you know that a Congress-mandated study found that “at best, the assault weapons ban can have a limited effect on total gun murders, because the banned weapons were never involved in more than a modest fraction of all gun murders?”

Why is it wrong to manufacture an item so that it meets government requirements, and to specify in advertisements that the item meets regulations?

Why, in what is normally an intellectual journal of opinion, are you using such an emotion-laded term as “death-dealing weapon?”

To claim this gun is a “death-dealing weapon” is to say that all guns are bad because they can all be construed as death-dealing weapons and should all be treated alike.

Why does a firearm have to have a sporting purpose? Who defines sporting purpose? Anyway, the Bushmaster is used in competitive rifle shooting; it does have a sporting purpose.

If I have a right to defend myself from serious injury or death, why do I not have a right to defend myself with a non-sporting use firearm?

You seem to be in favor of law suits against manufacturers when their products are misused. Should car manufacturers be sued when cars are used in the commission of a crime? MacDonald’s when their customers get obese?

The ballistic imaging database that you are in favor of has been shown by government agencies to be unworkable.

When the avowed objective of many anti-gun groups is total confiscation of guns, and when governments have used such databases to confiscate guns (California), the National Rifle Association has every right to oppose any type of gun registration. Why does the government need to know who owns firearms?

How will gun registration decrease the number of guns that will continue to be in the possession of criminals?

If there is a right to self defense, why are you in favor of prohibiting firearms that could be afforded by those in economically depressed areas, which happen to be the areas of highest violent crime? (I refer to your opposition of what you call “Saturday night specials.” By the way, what is your definition of that term?)

Are you aware of the great increase in violent crime, including gun-related crime, that has occurred in both Great Britain and in Australia since those countries outlawed private ownership of most types of guns? Are you aware of the findings in the sophisticated statistical studies in Professor John Lott’s book More Guns, Less Crime?

It is not unusual to read in the pages of America articles demonstrating the media bias against the Catholic Church. (You need look no further than Fr. Greeley’s article in the same issue.) Please consider the possibility that you have been shown only one side of the gun control issue and that you should research the other side before writing editorials.

William J. Brennan | 1/31/2007 - 1:14pm
Your editorial on gun control (2/10) misses the value of firearms in preserving human life. Just as we support the right to life of the unborn and the elderly, the lives of bus and cab drivers, gas station attendants and convenience store clerks are equally precious. Such people often must work at night in dangerous urban or even rural areas, becoming easy targets for predators, whom the courts and law enforcement cannot control.

Each year between one and two million armed Americans defend themselves and their families from injury, sexual assault and death, often without even firing their guns. Would you prefer to condemn them to submit to the savagery of criminals by disarming them?

The solution to violent crime involving firearms and other deadly weapons is to get the criminals who carry or use them in crimes off our streets by long prison sentences. Imposing liability standards on cities, police, judges, parole boards and probation officers would inhibit the “Turn Them Loose Bruce” types from releasing dangerous felons into the population. The prospect of million-dollar lawsuits by victims and their families would make our society far safer than any gun control scheme that merely keeps decent people helpless in the face of violent criminals.

Francis J. Murray | 1/31/2007 - 12:24pm
Gun control (editorial, 2/10), as it is now conceived, will not work to limit gun violence in America, because it is divisive and technically flawed. The issue has become as polarized as the debate on abortion, with the anti-gun activists on one side and legitimate gun-owners on the other. Like abortion, this issue has driven large numbers of individuals, particularly hunters and shooting sports enthusiasts who would otherwise be Democrats, out of the Democratic Party. Gun control may have cost Al Gore the last election. Its major thrusts, a ban on “assault weapons” and now ballistic imaging, are technically naïve. The ban defines assault weapons in terms of what they look like, not in terms of their capacity to assault. If a gun has a few defined, nonessential, observable features, it is deemed to be an assault weapon, whereas any firearm in the hands of the wrong person can be used to assault someone else.

Ballistic imaging is based on the unique markings that a particular gun makes on a bullet or shell casing. A gun, however, is an assemblage of metal parts, any one of which can be replaced or altered with simple tools in a home workshop. Making one or more of these modifications will permanently change the unique markings, and this will become common practice if ballistic imaging laws are passed.

If gun violence is to be reduced, the issue must be taken out of the political arena. The confrontational approach must cease, and both sides need to sit down and begin to talk seriously with each other.

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