Zero tolerance for slaughter

Get a backbone, America: Ban all handguns.

Published May 6, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I've long been an advocate of gun control, long frustrated by the craven attitude of many legislators when faced with the gun lobby. I was glad to see, shortly after the Littleton massacre, an editorial calling for the abolition of the Second Amendment. Donald Kaul, writing for the Chicago Tribune, cited Great Britain's recent ban on possession of handguns. All handguns. The law was passed in response to the shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, three years ago. (You remember the Dunblane shooting, numb though you may be now: A man burst into a school and killed a teacher and sixteen small children before shooting himself.) Kaul suggested that what is needed is not a vague reference to bearing arms, but an amendment to the Constitution giving Congress the authority "to regulate the sale and manufacture of firearms."

I was applauding Kaul all along, until he added that what's really needed is "a compromise that balanced the needs and desires of gun enthusiasts with the need of society to protect itself ..." And there we part ways.

This is what I want to know: Why do we need to balance the "needs and desires of gun enthusiasts" with anything at all? It is exactly this hedged, liberal urge to satisfy everyone that has gotten us into the dreadful mess we find ourselves in today -- a mess that the writers of the Constitution would have deplored. Do we really believe that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson intended the citizens of their imagined country to be scared to send their children to school? Why must we listen to the claims of gun lovers, or make any effort at all to satisfy their irrational appetite for weapons? Why should we bow to the rage and hunger of a single-issue lobby? Why should we think for even one more second that freedom means the freedom to own terrifying weapons of mass destruction? The discourse on the pro-gun side of this debate becomes more and more extreme, an endgame in which each one of us -- commuters, shoppers, neighbors, teachers, nurses, friends -- carries a gun, concealed, ready to shoot. Is this the world we are willing to make? If we don't say no, it is the world we will have.

I am no longer an advocate of gun control. I am an advocate of gun elimination.

In this strange, wonderful, unique democracy, we have freedoms no other people have enjoyed. Still, we regulate the swear words people say on the radio. We regulate toys. We regulate broccoli, aspirin and massage. We legislate which trees a homeowner can plant along their curb. We require motorcyclists to wear helmets. We insist on building permits, speed limits, and driver's licenses. We rate movies. We simply prohibit the use of marijuana. But we are afraid to say no to guns.

Guns are, in fact, treated in a completely different way from any other commodity, any other choice. The American government and the American public -- you and me -- are peculiarly passive and even hopeless in the face of the gun lobby. In just the last 10 years, 35 million new guns have been added to the 200 million guns we've manufactured in this country in the 20th century. They've been added to our daily lives, to our shopping malls, neighborhoods, city parks, street corners and schools. According to the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence there is now a gun for every single adult in this country and for every other child. A new handgun is made in this country every 20 seconds. Only the most outrageous weapons -- machine guns and grenades -- must be registered with the government. There are no federal safety standards for firearms. (There are clearly defined standards for stuffed animals, for Christmas tree lights and for cereal.) We allow people to buy lethal weapons at gun shows without even a swift background check. Imagine your worst nightmare, your scariest neighbor, your angriest employee or the most frightening student at your child's high school loading up on ammo this weekend at a convention center near you. It's perfectly legal. It happens all the time, and we act as though there is nothing we can do about it.

In fact, the United States has the weakest regulations and the highest rate of death from firearms of any industrialized country on the planet -- and of many less-industrialized nations. The statistics I use come from Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. If a pro-gun reader wants to challenge these "biased" statistics, I invite him to do so. Show me that it is not true that children in the United States are 12 times likelier to die from guns than children in other industrialized countries. Show me I'm wrong, that it isn't my daughter, my sons, your daughters and sons, your grandchildren -- your hearts -- who are dying. Only cars kill more of us and more of our babies. And still we stand by.

Why? Why do we feel a compromise of any kind is required here? Even liberals who would like to see gun control may be swayed by the fear of lost rights, of constitutional change, of interfering in private choice. Many other countries have decided that public safety comes before this particular private choice. What terrible tyrannies are these, which have banned or strictly limited the private possession of most guns? Australia. Canada. Spain. Germany. The death rate from firearms in the United States is 24 times higher than that in the United Kingdom. It is 196 times higher than that of Japan. These are not countries where the military marches in the street, enforcing curfews. These are not societies where armed criminals run amok. These are not, as the National Rifle Association likes to claim, countries on that first slippery step down the same slope the Nazis chose.

I am unmoved by the insistence of the gun lobby that their desire to make, sell, buy, collect and, most of all, use mutilating, lethal weapons somehow equals my need to allow them to do so. I am unmoved by claims of freedom, lifestyle or privacy in this realm. As a society, we have ignored such claims made (in remarkably similar language) by sexual predators, heroin dealers and white supremacists. Why do we think guns are different? What are we worried about, really? Perhaps we are worried that it is not a good idea to enrage people who like to wave guns about. It worries me, and it should worry you. We are a country of hundreds of millions of mostly rational people, and we are held hostage to a primitive killing urge.

If an American cannot be happy without collecting and shooting deadly weapons, I invite him to move to a country where you can do so. There are a number of such places -- most of them class-based or religious tyrannies without many of the freedoms we enjoy here, but you can't have everything. That is the point of a democracy, after all, one of its more subtle and vital points -- you can't have everything and still be free. There are countries where you can shoot machine guns to your heart's content. Go there, if that's what you want.

The phrase "gun nut" is not a joke. No one needs these weapons for anything. People just want them, and they want them with such angry lust that I had to face down a little fear to write this column. I am afraid of guns; I am afraid of people who like guns, own guns for the sake of owning them and shoot them for the feeling of shooting. I am a little scared all the time. I think we all are -- and should be. Is there a legislator in this country brave enough to take this on?

I no longer want gun control. I want an absolute ban on the manufacture, sale, possession and use of handguns and automatic weapons in this country, with long prison sentences for violations. I realize there must be exceptions. The police need guns -- at least until we get rid of the hundreds of millions of guns floating around. I am not opposed to game hunting for subsistence, and I can live with hunting rifles. Single-shot rifles. It will not be an easy or swift matter to eliminate guns; 200 million weapons is a lot of metal, a lot to find. It requires money, effort, collective goals and government support. We must not feel this is a hopeless task; we must not give up or give in. It can be done. All that is really missing is our will.

By Sallie Tisdale

Sallie Tisdale's most recent book is "Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom" (Harper San Francisco, 2006). She contributes to magazines such as Harper's, Tricycle, and Antioch Review.

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