Sat, 13 Aug 1994

Gun control debated in U.S. as violence rises

Tamara L. Bond

JAKARTA (JP): The escalating rate of violence in the United States has intensified an already fierce debate over gun control.

The long-held belief that Americans have the right to defend themselves with firearms is growing unpopular as the public becomes fed up with crime.

Recent vicious killings have sent a wave of terror through the country: five were killed and 19 wounded when a madman went on a shooting spree on a New York commuter train; eight people were gunned down in a posh San Francisco law firm; a Japanese exchange student was shot when he lost his way to a party.

FBI Uniform Crime Reports indicate that the number of handgun murders in the U.S. has jumped from under 8,000 in 1984 to more than 12,000 in 1992, an increase of over 30 percent. The number of violent crimes committed with handguns averaged 640,000 annually between 1979 and 1987.

Even more frightening is the accelerating rate of gun violence against children. Newsweek reported that children under 18 are 244 percent more likely to be killed by guns than they were in 1986 and that one in six youths between the ages of 10 and 17 has seen or knows someone who has been shot. The Children's Defense Fund noted that between 1979 and 1991, nearly 50,000 children under the age of 20 were killed with firearms.

These ominous statistics are not altogether surprising in light of the fact that Americans possess more than 211 million firearms -- nearly one for every man, woman and child in the country.


The National Rifle Association (NRA), the nation's most powerful pro-gun lobby, believes that limiting the number of guns will not curb the violence.

"They can talk taxes and gun bans all day, but it won't get us further down the road to stopping violent crime," said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre.

The NRA emphatically opposes any form of gun control, arguing that it infringes on the right to bear arms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

Pro-gun advocates insist that legislation should make guns more accessible to the general public, and contend that a ban would indicate to potential criminals that their victims are less likely to be armed.

Many Americans agree, fearing that a complete ban on firearms would leave the public defenseless against criminals who will always be able to buy a gun on the black market.

The NRA claims that the recent surge in violent crimes combined with talk of more stringent gun legislation have brought them more than 1,500 new recruits per day. Membership has jumped from less than 2.5 million in 1991 to nearly 3.4 million in 1994.

In spite of the increase, the group appears to be losing influence. In the past, the NRA has been a huge lobbying force that has deterred many politicians from taking action to control firearms. But recent legislation indicates that Congress is listening to the cries of fear throughout America and is willing to lay a heavy hand on gun ownership.

Congress recently passed the Brady bill, which requires a 5- day waiting period so police can run a background check on those who want to purchase handguns.


Congress also voted in May to ban 19 different kinds of assault weapons. Although the ban passed by a paper-thin margin -- 216 to 214 votes -- the Economist heralded it as "the most stunning loss yet for the once-invincible National Rifle Association."

Gun-control supporters have advocated a list of firearms legislation including a complete ban on assault weapons, licensing and training gun owners, fingerprint checks and stiff taxes on handguns, assault weapons and ammunition.

U.S. murder statistics show the cost of the country's liberal gun laws. During 1990, the U.S. had 10,567 handgun murders, while there were just 22 in Britain and 10 in Australia, both countries which have strict gun-control laws.

Gun-control activists are capitalizing on America's fear of widespread gun violence to encourage people to reject guns. A recent poll showed that 70 percent of Americans now support gun control.

Even President Clinton has jumped on the bandwagon, saying that violent crimes have "left Americans insecure on our streets, in our schools, even in our homes." He instructed the U.S. Justice Department to examine the possibility of a national registration and licensing system for handgun owners.

Attorney General Janet Reno, who was asked by the president to analyze the feasibility of licensing procedures, said, "I think it should be at least as hard to get a license to possess a gun as it is to drive an automobile."

Is gun control the answer to reducing violent crime in America? Recent legislation shows that lawmakers think it is.

In the face of gun-related violence, Americans are showing they prefer to defend themselves with gun-control legislation rather than with firearms.