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> Columns > Boston Globe > Illusory thinking on gun control

Illusory thinking on gun control

By Cathy Young | October 28, 2002

THE SAGA OF the suburban sniper who has terrorized the Washington area for nearly a month may or may not be over with the arrest of two suspects, John Allen Muhammad and his teen companion John Lee Malvo. But, predictably, some people have already found another culprit to blame for the tragedy: guns and gun-rights supporters.

Recently, when The New York Times ran a story about actor and National Rifle Association president Charlton Heston's last round of stumping on the campaign trail next to the headline ''Disbelief and Desperation in the Sniper Zone,'' some saw a macabre irony. ''As long as our elected leaders remain hostage to the rantings of Mr. Heston and the National Rifle Association, we can expect a future of ... similar headlines,'' wrote a Massachusetts reader. A Washington resident accused the gun organization of ''protecting'' the likes of the sniper.

But could any gun laws have prevented the shootings? Even the most far-reaching gun-control proposals do not include a ban on rifles, only handguns. What's more, Muhammad is a United States Army veteran, the kind of person who would likely have access to guns even under a strict gun-control regime. And in general, our society doesn't have a stellar record of keeping prohibited things out of people's hands (war on drugs, anyone?).

Since 1996, Australia has implemented some of the world's toughest gun laws and a sweeping buyback program. Yet just this month, it has witnessed two shocking incidents. On Oct. 14, South Australia's mental health chief, Margaret Tobin, was shot dead by an assailant outside her office in Adelaide. A few days later, a gunman opened fire in a classroom at Monash University in Melbourne, killing two.

Editorials in the Australian press responded by calling for even more gun restrictions. Yet they offered little evidence that such measures would have prevented these tragedies, and conceded that criminals were finding ways to circumvent the laws such as smuggling in gun parts from Southeast Asia and assembling them into lethal weapons.

The overall homicide rate in Australia has declined by 10 percent since 1996. But any link between this trend and the antigun policies is hardly clear: In the same period, the United States has achieved an even greater drop in the murder rate. And while the percentage of armed robberies committed with firearms in Australia has decreased markedly, armed robberies overall are up.

Let's not forget, too, that guns in the hands of law-abiding citizens can actually stop those who prey on the innocent. A largely ignored incident in Pittsburgh, which happened at the same time as the sniper shootings, provides a convincing demonstration. A man who committed a half-dozen sexual assaults in the city's East End, eluding police and terrorizing women - not as lethally as the sniper, perhaps, but seriously enough - was captured when his intended seventh victim shot and wounded him with the gun she was licensed to carry.

Obviously, some sensible gun-control measures can help curb firearm-related crimes. The sniper shootings have renewed calls for ''ballistics fingerprinting.'' Under this proposal, every new gun would be test-fired and the markings from the bullet and the shell casing entered into a government database, so that a bullet or casing found at the scene of a crime could be matched to the weapon and the original buyer.

Such a database would help solve some crimes, though it would be useless if the weapon had been stolen. Yet the National Rifle Association opposes a national gun registry, fearing a slippery slope toward confiscation of firearms. An extreme position? Maybe. But the extremism of gun-rights supporters is akin to the extremism of abortion-rights proponents who oppose even minimal abortion restrictions. In both cases, they know that there are powerful activist groups that really do see modest restrictions as a first step toward a total ban.

Gun-control champions probably won't be the only ones to draw a lesson from the sniper shootings. If Muhammad and Malvo are officially charged, immigration opponents will likely seize on the fact that the latter is an alien from Jamaica. But, whatever the cause, we should be wary of attempts to use this tragedy to promote an agenda.

We live in a dangerous world. Guns kill; so do explosives strapped to a human body, airplanes turned into weapons, or lethal powder mailed in an ordinary-looking envelope. It may be comforting to think that if we just had the political will to take tough measures, whether against guns or against illegal aliens, we would be safe. But it would be a comforting illusion.

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