The shooting of a 6-year old girl by a 6-year-old classmate in Flint, Mich., was followed a few weeks later by a 12-year-old’s holding his class hostage with a loaded semiautomatic pistol in Lisbon, Ohio. Events like these, coming so soon after the massacre and suicides at the Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., have rightly horrified the nation. As one sign of the growing sense of outrage that firearms should be so easily accessible, Mother’s Day this year will be marked by a Million Mom March that will take place both on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and in other cities around the country. The march is being organized by Donna Dees-Thomases, a mother who received what she describes as a wake-up call after watching the news about the shooting at a day camp in Granada Hills, Calif., on Aug. 10. Her reaction is a sign of a growing demand for effective gun control measures aimed at ending such occurrences.
Gun control has already become a major election-year issue, with both the president and Vice President Al Gore pressing for more stringent legislation. In his State of the Union message, Mr. Clinton proposed that all handgun buyers be licensed, just as car drivers are, a procedure that would also entail a background check and require passing a safety course. His proposal faces intense opposition by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups, as well as resistence by most Congressional Republicans. Traditionally, Republicans have been against gun control; but with popular sentiment boiling over in the wake of high profile slayings involving children, they are under siege at both the federal and the state level to enact measures that would reduce our epidemic levels of gun violence.
Even two years ago, pressure on the gun industry was taking on new impetus with a succession of lawsuits brought by cities and counties around the nation. The grounds of the suits vary. The suit in New Orleans is based on product liabilitythe contention that manufacturers can be held accountable for deaths and injuries because of a lack of safety features in their products. In Chicago, the suit is tailored to the city’s special circumstances: Guns are banned, but dealers in the suburbs have been knowingly selling weapons to city residents. This has led to higher levels of injuries and deaths. Whatever the outcome, the suits have been exerting a heightened form of pressure on an industry that does not have the deep pockets of the tobacco industry from which to mount costly legal defenses. In an effort to avert legal action, one manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, has agreed to incorporate certain safety features into its new weapons.
Safety features and the development of so-called smart guns are now popular discussion points in several state legislatures. A new law in Maryland mandates trigger locks on all new handguns and built-in locks within three years. Some manufacturers claim that more high-tech types of smart guns, involving such features as magnetic rings to disengage the locking device, will eventually be possible. But Kristen Rand, director of federal policy at the non-profit Violence Policy Center in Washington, D.C., doubts whether the necessary level of technology is attainable. She also believes that if developed, smart guns would lead to increased gun sales. She told America that Colt has said that their development could lead to as many as 60 million new handgun owners. No wonder gun manufacturers welcome the idea! "Most owners have more than one," she added, "so smart guns would simply add to the arsenal." If this were the case, they could also augment the incidence of suicidethe major cause of gun deaths in the United States, far greater in terms of numbers than gun-related homicide. Ms. Rand pointed out that over a period of time, people living in homes with firearms are five times more likely to commit suicide than people in homes without them.
For Ms. Rand and the Violence Policy Center, the only effective approach to gun control would be twofold. First, regulation of the gun industry, just as the manufacturers of other consumer products are regulated. Second, and more broadly, a ban on all handgunsthe major source of gun-related deaths and injuries among Americans. The killing of pre-schoolers in Britain several years ago resulted in such a ban there. It may be long in coming here, but in the meantime other efforts are under way that could at least limit gun sales. The Blagojevich/Lautenberg bill, for example, would close the loophole that currently allows sales at gun shows by private "hobbyists" without a background check. Gun shows play a significant role in providing guns to criminals. The bill faces strong opposition from the N.R.A., but it deserves Congressional support, as does the president’s call for the licensing of gun buyersand the much longer-range goal of a total ban on handguns.