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.

SOURCES:

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 Isaacson.