That the proliferation of firearms is a serious problem for American society is obvious, and the obvious is what Jervis Anderson belabors in this brief discussion of the subject. His heart is clearly in the right place and his sentiments are uniformly unexceptionable, but unless you have just checked in from Saturn and are utterly ignorant about the problem, you will find little in "Guns in American Life" that enhances your knowledge or understanding of it.
It is useful, to be sure, to be reminded of the dimensions of the gun crisis. Ours is indeed, as Anderson calls it, "the world's largest and freest gun culture -- one whose roots are deep in the nation's past" and whose infatuation with guns is breathtaking: "There are now nearly 200 million civilian-owned guns of every kind in America, and that figure includes some 60 million handguns. In 1980 alone, about two and a half million handguns were made and sold in the United States, and about a quarter-million more were assembled here from imported parts. In the late 1960s, one new handgun was sold in America every twenty-four seconds. Today, demand has doubled: two are sold every twenty-four seconds."
The price we pay for this arsenal is equally breathtaking: "Between November of 1963 (when President Kennedy was assassinated) and November of 1982 (after President Reagan barely escaped assassination), nearly half a million civilians were killed with guns -- by murder, accident or suicide -- and almost five million more were robbed, wounded or raped at gunpoint. Between 1963 and 1973, while the war in Vietnam was taking 46,121 American lives, guns here in America were killing 84,644 civilians."
Although polls repeatedly show that a clear majority of Americans favors controls on the availability of guns, their proliferation goes virtually unchecked as a result of the tireless efforts of the gun lobby. Led by the National Rifle Association, it is "one of the largest, strongest and best-financed special-interest groups in the nation's capital" and "has managed to exercise something resembling a veto over the desire that most Americans have expressed for stronger gun laws."
The NRA contends, as every American surely must know by now, that people, not guns, are the real killers, and that gun ownership is constitutionally protected by the Second Amendment, which provides: "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." In its demented interpretation of that amendment, the NRA has managed to equate the owner of a "Saturday night special" with a militiaman and has gotten the Congess and state legislatures to go along with it by applying generous amounts of cash to the reelection campaigns of malleable public officials.
This is a familiar if depressing story that Anderson tells in a droning, monochromatic prose that scarcely enlivens the tale. He duly notes all the reasons why guns should be controlled, if not completely eliminated, and he gives at least perfunctory recognition to the reasons why many Americans feel they need firearms. Chief among these is "the terrible rate of crime and the justifiable fear of it," though there is little evidence that the private possession of guns deters crime; if anything, it seems to cause it. Another consideration is the desire of many people to use guns for sport or to hunt; these forms of recreation Anderson dismisses too reflexively, so readers interested in a more subtle discussion of a complex question will want to have a look at "The Hunt," by John G. Mitchell, published five years ago by Knopf.
Anderson closes his book on a gloomy note, correctly observing that there has as yet been no "turning point" on the gun-control issue. Not merely is this true now, but it is likely to remain true into the future. Unlike drunk drivers, gun owners have a powerful and vocal lobby that has successfully turned aside every effort to mobilize public sentiment against them in the manner of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Though the effect of private ownership of firearms has been at least as deleterious to American life as the lethal combination of alcohol and automobiles, the prospect of legislating effective control over guns is to all intents and purposes nonexistent.
This is an outrage, but it is an outrage we have chosen to live -- and to die -- with. To the hunter in the forest, the householder in the suburbs and the hoodlum in the city streets, guns are as American as a half-time flyby at the Super Bowl. So long as that is the case, all the pretty words of their opponents will just be whistling in the dark.