The Gun Control Lobby, Thinking Small

By Jenny Price
Sunday, December 25, 2005

Five years ago an elderly Los Angeles woman who had agreed to move out of her daughter's apartment bought a handgun. She cleared the background check, passed the safety test and practiced on targets at the local shooting range. Then she shot and killed her daughter and her daughter's fianc -- my brother David.

As someone who has lost a member of my family to gun violence, I see the new federal legislation to limit gun manufacturers' liability as unconscionable beyond my ken. But what troubles me most is that the gun control lobby is pouring its resources into battles that probably won't save many lives -- and we're losing even those.

In the past decade, states have passed law after law to require safety locks, force gun-purchase waiting periods, trace bullets back to their sources and allow victims to sue manufacturers for negligence. That such measures have produced at best slight decreases in the rate of gun deaths is hardly surprising. Only 3 percent of such deaths are accidents, since most murders are committed with legally purchased firearms by people who know how to use them safely. California has passed a raft of such laws in the past five years and is widely praised as one of the most progressive states on gun control. In that same period, the number of handgun-related homicides has fallen and then risen again, with no correlation whatever.

The real problem is not that handguns aren't safe or well-regulated enough, or that you can't sue and try to bankrupt a corrupt manufacturer after someone you love has been killed. The problem is that 65 million people in the United States own handguns. The gun used to kill my brother was a Glock 19, a light and portable semiautomatic. These guns are designed to kill people: That's their sole purpose. Nearly 12,000 Americans annually use guns to do just that, and the majority use handguns. Twelve thousand: that's comparable to the number of AIDS deaths each year in the United States. (Great Britain has about 100 gun deaths each year.)

And if the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, which leads the gun control crusade, continues to assure us that it won't try to outlaw handguns? Then new laws to restrict who can buy guns and where they can carry them might reduce the annual toll to 10,000. But that's optimistic.

Wouldn't it make more sense to define the ultimate battle as one for a national ban on handguns -- the sole gun-control measure that promises to save tens of thousands of lives? With an endgame that can actually achieve the ultimate goal, perhaps we'd acquire the logical and moral authority to win more of the smaller battles.

I can hear the gun lobby scoffing, "Guns don't kill people. People do." This ditty is familiar to all of us. Yes, and bombs and chemical weapons don't kill people either, but they're not sold over the counter to just about anyone without a criminal record who can prove that he or she can use them safely.

Of the 12,000 guns used to kill people every year, 160 are used in legitimate self-defense. Guns in the home are used seven times more often for murder than for self-defense. I cannot say whether the woman who shot my brother was vicious or insane: I myself no longer understand the exact difference. But we all know that rage, vengefulness and deep alienation are hardly unusual in our society, and a handgun makes it horrifyingly easy for people to express them, on purpose or on impulse, by killing people.

If the National Rifle Association wants to pour its own considerable resources into creating a society ruled by absolute peace and brotherhood, I'm all for it. But let's stop arming the populace in the meantime, which pro- and anti-gun advocates alike know for certain will create a mountainous death toll.

Jenny Price is a writer living in Los Angeles.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company