22. GUN WARS: AMERICANS HELD HOSTAGE
John Lennon's murder and the attempted assassination of President Reagan
have once again focused the media spotlight on the issue of national
handgun control. But if past history is any indication, the media flare-up
is temporary, due more to the stature of the victim than to an ongoing
concern over America's high homicide rate.
Nelson Shields, chairman of Handgun Control Inc., Washington, D.C.,
claims that nearly 25,000 deaths are now attributable to handguns in
the U.S. each year. While the media gave prime time focus to the 40,000
Americans lost in action during the Vietnam War, no similar outrage
was heard over the slaughter of 50,000 civilians by handguns in this
country during the same period.
A recent crime commission, headed by Dr. Milton Eisenhower, reported
that "Every civilized nation in the world other than our own, has
comprehensive national policies of gun control." Comparative statistics
are: homicide rates in West Germany and Great Britain are about 1.3
per 100,000; in Japan, the rate is 1.6 per 100,000; in the U.S., the
rate jumps to 9.7 per 100,000. And while the last four U.S. crime commissions
have urged stricter handgun control, their recommendations are consigned
to silence and inaction.
Today, some 60 million handguns are estimated to be scattered throughout
the nation, with some 2 to 3 million added each year. This peace-time
arms race has held the majority of Americans hostage for the past 50
years. Polls spanning that period have consistently shown that the public
wants some kind of handgun restrictions. The most recent Gallup Poll
(Jan. 26, 1981) showed that 62 percent of those surveyed favored tighter
gun control legislation.
Yet Congress appears impotent and blatantly unwilling to act in opposition
to the dictates of the National Rifle Association. The NRA, with a membership,
of 1.8 million on and an annual budget of $30 million is said to be
the nation's single most powerful lobby. It proudly boasts of its success
in electing Congressmen supporting NRA views.
Now a new piece of proposed legislation, the McClure-Volkmer bill,
backed by the NRA would make it easier to ship and sell handguns across
state lines, make it harder to convict people accused of violating the
existing federal handgun laws, and make it possible for people convicted
of federal felonies to own handguns.
The media are often represented as the Fourth Estate, with power to
check the inequities or failings of the Legislative, Judicial, and Executive
branches of government. A more consistent media exposure of this critical
issue surely could go far to override special interest groups and to
demand accountability from elected representatives. The failure of the
media to provide this kind of exposure qualifies this story for nomination
as one of the "best censored" stories of 1980.
The San Francisco Examiner/Chronicle, May 4, 1980, "Guns, Deaths,
Increase While Talk Continues," by Gay Pauley, UPI; Christian Science
Monitor, 2/20/81, "America's Criminal Record," and 4/1/81,
"A Land of 60 Million Handguns," both by Richard L. Strout;
U.S. News & World Report, 12/22/80, "Surge in Murders, Search
for Solutions," and "Should Handguns Be Outlawed?;" Time
Magazine, 3/23/81, "The Duel Over Gun Control," by Walter