TO DISCLOSE my bias at the outset, the handgun issue ceased to be an abstraction for me on that bleak early-December night almost a year ago when my friend Dr. Michael Halberstam was shot and killed by a burglar. Not that my experience is unusual. Having a friend or relative assaulted by handgun is now so commonplace in this country that 10,000 people acknowledged as much in response to the queries of Handgun Control Inc. last year.
The story of Handgun Control Inc. is in large measure the story of Nelson (Pete) Shields III. If there is a principle of justice in this naughty world, we may look forward to the day when a sensible president, having just signed an effective federal handgun- control law, will present the Medal of Freedom to Pete Shields: not only because he is one of the remarkable citizen-activists of our time but because his labor aims to renew that most essential of the four freedoms, freedom from fear.
Shields' passionate involvement in the crusade against the great U.S. handgun madness began, as so many deep commitments do, in personal sorrow. On a spring night in San Francisco seven years ago his 23-year-old son and namesake perished of random gunshot wounds in one of the malicious "Zebra" killings. Soon thereafter Shields took early retirement from his comfortable career as a du Pont marketing executive and enlisted in the effort to pass an effective federal handgun-control law. He was then 50. He quickly became its driving force.
In Guns Don't Die--People Do, Pete Shields tells his story and lays out the compelling case for realistic legislation. It is a story, and a case, that every thoughtful citizen needs to examine with care.
Pete Shields knows as well as anyone that cold statistics rarely make people march, that the mobilization of a citizen's lobby demands that "victims" like the Shieldses bear public witness to their losses and hurts. But if statistics alone could persuade, the statistics on the American handgun-death epidemic would do so. It is a national scandal. Every year, year upon year, some 10,000 Americans (immensely more than in any other country on earth) are murdered by handgun, while an equivalent number die of accidental or self-inflicted wounds from the same source. In the seven peak years of the Vietnam War (1966-72), U.S. handgun murders exceeded Asian combat deaths by some 20 percent: 52,000-plus to 42,300. Twelve of 13 U.S. presidential assassinations or attempted assassinations (including attempts upon presidential candidates) were with handguns. In 1973 alone, 751 people were victims of criminal homicide in Detroit (the vast majority by concealable pistol or revolver). That was more than the total number of civilians killed between 1969 and mid-1974 in strife-torn Northern Ireland. (The populations of Detroit and Northern Ireland are about the same.)
Thanks to the tireless obstruction of the National Rifle Association (which Shields and his allies have rightly come to think of and call "the pistol lobby") the congressional response to all this is disgracefully pusillanimous. Indeed, Congress is not merely passive; even today there is a bill (known as McClure-Volkmer) that would gut the modest law passed in 1968 after the shooting of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.
The case for an effective federal handgun law, apart from the scandal of slaughter, is essentially the wild variation in state and local laws. This patchwork assures a continuing traffic which, through laxity, theft and illicit sale, places cheap, concealable pistols and revolvers in the hands of criminals, lunatics, potential suicides and overexcitable people who kill one another in crimes of passion.
One gauge of the intellectual dishonesty of the pistol lobby is that the alleged ineffectiveness of state and local laws is ritually cited as the reason why federal law would be vain. But as Shields demonstrates, it is precisely the absence of uniform national standards (registration, a waiting period between purchase and delivery allowing law-enforcement officials to check character and criminal records, detailed record-keeping, etc.) that renders local and state efforts ineffective. For instance, some Virginia suburbanites feel smug about the assault rates on the nearby streets of Washington. How many of them realize that about a third of the handguns that find their way to mischievous and deadly uses in the nation's capital are bought across the Potomac in Virginia? And no wonder, since the Old Dominion's firearms laws are as lax as any in the Union. Similarly, the tough strictures of New York's Sullivan Act, as amended, are undercut by the interstate traffic. Writes Shields: "A Treasury Department study in the early 1970s showed that over 90 percent of the handguns used in crime in New York came from out of the state. . . . For example, the handgun used to kill John Lennon was acquired in Hawaii and that used to kill former congressman Allard Lowenstein came from Connecticut."
Actually, the views, strategies and political successes of the pistol lobby remain a bit mysterious. For years polls have confirmed the belief of a majority of Americans (even among gun owners) in sensible federal handgun control. But the National Rifle Association, like many single-issue lobbies, seems to reflect almost exclusively the views of its most intense and militant minority; and indeed, the NRA is so structured that signs of softness or sense in its national headquarters are aggressively nipped. By distorting or ignoring the history and meaning of the Second Amendment; by conflating efforts to register handguns with imaginary plots to confiscate all firearms; by lavish campaign subsidies to congressional friends and fellow- travelers; by all these means and others the NRA and its allies manage still to swing a weight disproportionate to numbers and certainly to the merits of their case.
Some notion of the classic anti-control mentality is to be gained from Alan Gottlieb's The Rights of Gun Owners, presumably intended to act as a timely antidote to Handgun Control Inc. Since no good case is to be made, in fact or logic, against the moderate and limited legislative goals of Shields and his allies, the pistol lobby must necessarily resort to what one English statesman has called, in another connection, "suggestio falsi, suppressio veri and plain damned nonsense." There is much of all three in Gottlieb's book.
Under suggestio falsi (more commonly known as attacking straw men), it is the constant intimation of Gottlieb's book that the "gun-controllers," as they are scornfully called, believe they can reduce or even eliminate crime itself (not just gun-assisted or homicidal crime); that private pistol ownership is a constitutional right, not a privilege; that government is poised for some sort of "handgun confiscation program"; that otherwise sensible people regard gun ownership per se as the "real cause of crime in America."
Under suppressio veri (overlooking relevant truth), Gottlieb's whopper is the careful concealment of the discreditable truth that organizations like his own "Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms" rarely if ever support any federal gun-control legislation, however limited, and usually obstruct it at every turn.
As for the plain nonsense, take your choice. Gottlieb has the slippery habit of making the Founding Fathers (especially those who drafted the Second Amendment) sound like precocious lobbyists for the National Rifle Association. My history books, curiously, rarely if ever mention Thomas Jefferson's obsession with firearms. I wonder, too, whether George Washington actually said that "firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself" and "deserve a place of honor with all that's good." (He seems to have thought otherwise when he sent an army under Alexander Hamilton to disarm and disband rebellious moonshiners in Pennsylvania.) But in any case, the searcher for verification of these and other quotations will be in deep trouble unless he keeps a library of pistol-lobby books and periodicals. The statement attributed to Washington is footnoted, so help me, to an editorial in Vigilante, "Summer 1977, p. 6." Alas, I do not subscribe to that publication, nor in fact to American Rifleman, Rifle, or Gun Week, some of Gottlieb's other references.
Not without reason do such mischievous and mendacious screeds as this breathe a certain air of beleaguered desperation, along with their weird rhetorical tactics. The march of Pete Shields' growing hosts can be heard in the distance and maybe the pistol lobby is scared. It ought to be.