Oscar Wilde, who knew something about woe, once said, "Each man kills the thing he loves." As a society we've been doing an especially effective job of that lately with this newest round of senseless slayings that have taken the lives of admired people. Once again we're awash in an outpouring of collective national guilt, remorse, and recrimination. Answers to the old questions involving American violence remain as distant as ever. But this time there can be no hiding from the ugly realities -- and no need to go through the pretence of Studying the Problem, and then issuing a public report detailing The Findings. We may not know all the forces that drive some to violent acts, but we certainly know a lot about the causes. We also know what we can do about them, if we choose.
Beside the chair, as I write, are stacks of documents: hearings, studies, and reports all dealing with the subject of American crimes of violence. They represent the work of leading authorities and the expenditure of a great deal of time and public money over the last generation. A pattern emerges from this exhaustive effort. Every time another spate of violence afflicts the land, or another prominent public figure is murdered, an official commission is appointed, usually by the president, to give us another examination of the problem. Thus, after the Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy murders, a National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence labored and produced a report containing words strikingly similar to others before it:
"Violence in the United States has risen to alarmingly high levels. Whether one considers assassination, group violence, or individual acts of violence, the decade of the 1960s was considerably more violent than the several decades preceeding it and ranks among the most violent in our history. The United States is the clear leader among modern, stable democratic nations in its rates of homicide, assault, rape, and robbery, and it is at least among the highest in incidence of group violence and assassination.
"This high level of violence is dangerous to our society. It is disfiguring our society -- making fortresses of portions of our cities and dividing our people into armed camps . . . . We have endured and survived other cycles of violence in our history. Today, however, we are more vulnerable to violence than ever before . . . ."
It is, of course, worse today.
The FBI tells us that one murder was committed every 24 minutes in the United States during the last full year, 1979, for which its figures are complete. That year saw 21,456 murders -- a 10 percent increase over the previous year. Another 10 percent increase in serious crimes nationally was recorded during the first half of this year, with murders rising again. In its recent tabulations, murders occurred more frequently in December than any other month. Those dry FBI statistics spelling out acts of terror, tragedy and heartbreak are revealing in another sense -- the weapons used to commit the crimes.
Firearms are the predominant murder weapons nationally. And handguns account for the overwhelming percentage of murder weapons. More data: exactly half of all murders are the result of shootings by handguns. Rifles are used in 5 percent and shotguns in 8 percent of murders, while deaths from cuts or stabbings figure in 19 percent. How anyone, of any political persuasion or personal background, can ponder those figures and not draw a common conclusion defies understanding.
In that Violence Commission study of more than a decade ago, the experts found that "the availability of guns contributes significantly to violence in American society. Firearms, particularly handguns, facilitate the commission and increase the danger of the most violent crimes -- assassination, murder, robbery and assault." It also found the number of guns owned by private citizens was rising rapidly. Americans then possessed about 90 million firearms, it estimated, with half of all households having at least one gun. Today, those figures are even more dramatic.
It is believed some 60 million handguns are now in circulation in the United States, with more than 2 million being added each year. At the present rate, Americans will have 100 million handguns by the turn of the century.
The murders of Dr. Michael Halberstam in Washington and John Lennon in New York, both coming within days of one another and both involving slayings by handguns, have touched off the latest national gun control debate. Emotion aside, there's nothing new in the debate -- and, so far anyway, nothing new in the immediate prospects for change.
In Washington, over at the national headquarters of the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms, an organization with a quarter of a million members, the chief lobbyist, John M. Snyder, was talking about the political impact of the two recent and highly publicized killings. They won't change anything, he said. If anything, the November election results were clearly more favorable to the pro-gun side. "Things are going to be more hopeful from the point of view of gun owners," he said. "I would say Reagan is the most pro-gun president since Theodore Roosevelt."
At the Washington headquarters of Handgun Control Inc., the national group founded five years ago by a former Delaware businessman, Pete Shields, after the murder of his oldest son, reaction to the latest killings of prominent people has been intense. The office has been swamped by calls from throughout the nation and overseas, from people of all ages and all backgrounds, asking what they can do. They are told they can carry their concern directly to the president, and urge him immediately to send handgun control legislation banning the manufacture and sale of the so-called "Saturday night specials" and limiting the number of handguns anyone can buy. But when it comes to political power, the gun control group still lacks the clout in money, membership and lobbying expertise developed over more than a century by the National Rifle Association. In this, as in everything else in Washington, it is the power of the organized lobby that always triumphs over the wishes of the unorganized people. If there remains any doubt about that, consider this: for more than 40 years since George Gallup took his first poll on American attitudes about gun control legislation, the public overwhelmingly has endorsed such things as licensing of handguns.And nothing has happened.
So here we are again, back where we began, outraged, shocked, horrified, and still finding ourselves facing the situation described in that commission summons to action: "The United States still does not have an effective firearms policy."
In this, too, Wilde said it better long ago: Something was dead in each of us, And what was dead was Hope.