Guns all around

January 6, 1993

William Raspbery, who died Tuesday at age 76, was a longtime Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner. This column was written during the American invasion of Somalia.

The televised images of starving Somali children are less disturbing now — not because these youngsters are suddenly well-nourished and fit, but because we know that they are at last getting food and will soon be better. The images of Somali gunmen are another matter. They are disturbing both in themselves and because we know the pictures aren’t likely to improve any time soon.

Every other post-pubescent male seems to have a gun — often some huge banana-clipped assault weapon — slung over his shoulder. Truck- mounted “artillery” seems as common in Mogadishu as rifle racks in rural Alabama. And no one seems hesitant about using this awesome firepower.

No, this is not a call for the U.S. military to disarm the civilian population of Somalia or to install a government capable of doing so (though it’s hard to see how, in the absence of some such step, the country can avoid slipping back into chaos as soon as the foreign troops leave).

What I’m thinking about is closer to home. How different are parts of Somalia from parts of the United States? And how much more like Somalia would the United States become if the gun-rights people have their way?

I’d be surprised if most of those brave and self-sacrificing volunteers who were distributing food in Somalia long before American troops arrived there weren’t among the ranks of gun-control advocates back in the States. No matter. The thuggish behavior of armed Somali marauders made it necessary for the volunteers to avail themselves of guns — or at any rate the services of hired gunmen. It was the only sensible thing to do.

If matters get much worse in the nation’s capital, I’ll want a gun, too, and for the same common-sense reasons. My theoretical support of gun control will give way to the practicalities of looking after myself and my family, and the question of legality will become the merest side issue.

But while my “equalizer” might make me feel a bit less unequal, it wouldn’t make me feel the slightest bit safer. The danger of some accident maiming a family member or friend would make me reluctant to have a loaded weapon around, and the dread of killing a stranger unnecessarily would make me reluctant to fire.

Oh, I can conceive readily enough of situations that would both make me want to have a gun and relieve all my misgivings about using it. It’s 4 in the morning, the entire family is home and accounted for, and someone comes smashing through the front door. Or someone is menacing a member of the family.

But for me and most Americans, these nightmares don’t happen. At least they seem less likely than the tragedies we keep reading about — the child who kills a family member with a gun bought for safety, or the father who mistakes a son or neighbor for a burglar and blows him away. And even in those parts of town where the smashed-door nightmare might happen — the same parts of town where guns are plentiful and where people will use them on a whim — being armed is no guarantee of long life.

Gun control isn’t either, of course. But a look at Somalia makes some gun control seem reasonable.

Just try to pass even the most modest gun-control legislation, though, and the gun-rights people are all over you. The state of Virginia has become a sort of object lesson in this regard. The ease with which guns can be purchased legally in Virginia has made it the source of choice for crooks up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Forty percent of the traceable guns used in violent crimes in Washington over a 10-year period - 41 percent of those in New York City - were sold in Virginia. It is widely believed that many of the guns purchased by Virginians are for illegal resale outside the state.

But when Gov. Wilder proposed a modest gun-control package last month, the National Rifle Association screamed like a stuck pig. The heart of the Wilder package: a proposal to limit handgun purchases to one a month for each purchaser. The NRA has already led successful fights against two-a-month purchase limits, waiting periods and other restrictions aimed at reducing the ease with which guns fall into the hands of criminals.

The arguments of the NRA spokespersons are by now familiar. Guns don’t kill, people do. When you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns. The Constitution protects the right of citizens to bear arms.

Even conceding all their arguments (which is conceding quite a bit), it’s hard to reach any other conclusion than that they see the spread of deadly weapons as a good thing. Maybe they really do believe that the best way to neutralize the firepower of crooks is to arm everybody else.

Do you suppose they see the TV footage of Somali gunmen and armed teenagers and relief workers? Do you think they smile approvingly?

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