Bang, Bang, we're dead

WHEN I WAS A KID, BRIAN ABATE AND I USED TO PLAY WAR BEHIND HIS HOUSE with make-believe guns made out of sticks or an actual facsimile from a toy store. This is not something kids are likely to do today without inspiring a SWAT-team response.

But these days kids don't have to play guns. They can just pick up a real one someplace and play in a war that has realcasualties.

According to a 1997 survey by the Centers for Disease Control, the rate of firearm deaths among American children 14 and under is 12 times higher than among children in 25 other industrialized countries combined. Of the total homicides among children in the world, 73 percent occurred in the U.S. From 1980 to 1992, firearm suicides among preteens climbed 132 percent.

Americas "we're No. 1" status with gun violence is not limited to the small people among us. In 1996, handguns were employed in the killing of 9,390 people in the United States. Of course, other industrialized societies also endure the scourge of gun violence. That same year, handgun murders claimed 2 lives in New Zealand, 13 in Australia, 15 in Japan, 30 in Great Britain, 106 in Canada, and 213 in Germany.

Why the exclusivity of the carnage in the U.S.? A recent study from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) suggests that its simply too damn easy to acquire a handgun here. For years the National Rifle Association and other Second Amendment ideologues have argued that changing laws to make handguns harder to acquire would not affect the U.S. crime rate since most guns used in crimes are acquired illegally anyhow—stolen or purchased on a mythological black market of illegal weaponry. But the ATF study, its first-ever comprehensive review of crime-gun tracing, reports that the vast majority of guns used in crimes originate in completely legal transactions conducted in the nations gun market. In fact, of 10,000 crime guns traced in the Chicago area from August 1997 to August 1998, only 98 were reported stolen.

Criminals do not have to be geniuses to get their paws on handguns—their weapon of choice 80 percent of the time. They simply hire pals with clean records to drive to a town or a state with lax gun-sales controls and have them pick up a weapon. These "straw buyers" have only to wait a few days to pick up their handguns and pass them on to the criminals. Its not quite as easy as grabbing a burger at a McDonald's drive-through, but its not much harder.

In Illinois, as in many other states, there are few limits on the number of weapons "gun enthusiasts" can purchase. According to the Chicago Sun-Times, in just nine months one straw buyer acquired 24 guns for gang members before his gun enthusiasm was dampened by arrest. Although it is illegal to sell guns in Chicago, this straw buyer only had to travel to suburban gun shops where gun dealers shared his enthusiasm.

Undercover police officers at these same shops explicitly posed as gang members accompanied by their straw buyers as they picked out their weapons of choice. Police report that gun dealers not only did nothing to prevent them from purchasing weapons for what were clearly criminal intentions, some even offered helpful advice about using hollow-point bulletsideal for street shootings, they told undercover officers, because they were less likely to pass through their targets and hit innocent bystanders.

The Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to bear arms; it doesn't require us to take our sights off common sense. It's harder to organize a game of T-ball than it is to buy a handgun in the United States. Whole subgroups of easily concealed, high-power handguns are marketed to criminals. Gun manufacturers and dealers are making huge profits, criminals are getting their hands on thousands of "legal" weapons, and the rest of us get to duck for cover while forking over billions to pay the hospital costs associated with handgun violence.

This does not strike me as a good deal. Reasonable precautions can be taken and certain classes of guns banned outright—without violating the spirit or the intent of the Second Amendment. Until we control our fast-food appetite for guns, the unarmed majority of us gun nonenthusiasts will remain moving targets for crime.

Kevin Clarke is the Managing Editor of Online Products for Claretian Publications and a Contributing Editor to U.S. Catholic.

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