The Widows And The Wounded

In the beginning of this year a Gallup poll asked Americans about the three most important issues facing the country. As has happened so often in the past, guns were scarcely mentioned. But by the time the same question was asked in May, the halls of Columbine High School had become a shooting gallery, and suddenly the laundry list of national ills had changed dramatically. The availability of guns trumped race relations; school violence was mentioned twice as often as Social Security. War and peace abroad was barely a blip on the screen compared with gun control at home. And perhaps, in some small way, that poll marked a moment when the American people began to wake up and smell the cordite.

Gun laws are an interesting issue in the never-ending civic debate that is this nation, because there is hardly any true debate about them at all. Polls have long shown that the majority of the American people--even the majority of gun owners--support government efforts to make sure guns are less dangerous and less often in the hands of the violent, the deranged and the very young.

Which makes any reasonable person wonder how such public consensus can have spawned such an illusion of strife, and so much stillborn legislation. The answer is simple. Many of the elected officials who oppose gun laws aren't true believers. To paraphrase Rhett Butler, the cause they believe in is themselves. The National Rifle Association spends millions of dollars each year on well-connected lobbyists and campaign contributions--to those who support it and, perhaps more important, to the opponents of those who do not.

And the NRA is not spending all that money to buy a nice piece of middle ground. Forty years ago the group targeted an Arkansas state legislator named David Pryor for sponsoring a bill making it illegal to leave a loaded rifle in an unattended unlocked car. (Pryor's measure was, of course, a clear violation of the constitutional right to be unbelievably stupid.) The NRA then dogged Pryor for decades as he rose to serve in the U.S. Senate. Today one of its targets is a Michigan congressman named Bart Stupak, who had the temerity to suggest that he might vote for childproof locks on guns. The NRA's scorched-earth approach has not changed.

But change has come, slowly, incrementally, elsewhere, and you can measure it in either polling percentage points, or in the body count. Stockton. Jonesboro. Columbine. The daisy chain of toddlers leaving a Jewish community center in California on an unscheduled field trip to safety when a white supremacist started blasting away in August. A part-time publicist named Donna Thomases saw news footage of those kids, so close in age to her own, and by Labor Day had created something called the Million Mom March. The Web site has had thousands of hits so far from mothers who want to go to Washington on Mother's Day to demand sensible gun laws. Just last week Thomases got an e-mail from a mom in Georgia. "I want to help," wrote Judy Harper, whose 13-year-old son, Jason, died when he accidentally shot himself with a handgun.

The recent history of gun-law activism has been defined by that sort of bereavement. Sarah Brady worked for years to have Congress pass the most important piece of gun legislation in our lifetime, the Brady bill, after her husband was shot and disabled during the assassination attempt on his boss, Ronald Reagan. Carolyn McCarthy worked to build common-sense consensus on gun laws as a member of Congress after her husband was murdered and her son seriously injured by a gunman on the Long Island Rail Road. "Let me go home," she lamented on the House floor after craven career politics killed a gun measure earlier this year. "I love working with all of you people. I think all of you are great. But somehow we sometimes lose sight of why we are all here."

McCarthy, whose wounded son cannot hold his own firstborn because he's lost the use of one arm, does not forget why she is in Washington. But she has done more than her share, as has Mrs. Brady. It's time the great complacent majority, the 70 or 80 percent of us who think that guns should be available within reason but regulated within reason, too, began to do ours. Public policy ought not to be made one bullet wound at a time.

The NRA will argue that there are already enough laws on the books, and that the problem is with enforcement. And these arguments would have more weight had the organization not worked tirelessly to undercut the very agencies that enforce gun-control statutes. The NRA will argue that gun laws penalize the law-abiding and leave the criminals free to cause bloodshed. And these arguments would have more weight if more than half of the gun deaths each year were not accidents or suicides, and so many of the measures the NRA has opposed were not so sensible and relatively small. (Mrs. Brady remembers likening gun laws to highway speed limits at a speech in Ohio, and being heckled by gun guys who hated speed limits, too.) Child safety locks. A prohibition on the possession of assault weapons by minors. A ban on the importation of large-capacity ammunition clips. It is preposterous to see the gutting of the Second Amendment in any of these. We register cars in this country, but not guns. And as a result the United States has the highest rate of gun violence among the world's most prosperous nations. In 1997, an astonishing 86 percent of the gun deaths of children under 15 in the world took place here.

Perhaps it will take one more school shooting to move the majority of Americans into a position more powerful than that of the NRA. Perhaps it will take one more school shooting to move us from people who support gun control to people who vote it. But as we continue to let the widows and the wounded do the work, be warned. That next school may be the one your children attend; the next accident could be close to home. "This child got into things," Mrs. Harper said of Jason. Don't they all.