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Monday, April 8, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Charles Krauthammer

Both Sides Blowing Smoke In Gun Debate

Washington Post Writers Group

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In an election year you expect Washington to be full of phony arguments. But even a cynic must marvel at the all-round phoniness of the debate over repeal of the assault weapons ban. Both sides are blowing smoke.

The claim of the advocates that banning these 19 types of "assault weapons" will reduce the crime rate is laughable. (The term itself is priceless: What are all the other guns in America's home arsenal? Encounter weapons? Crime-enabling devices?) There are dozens of other weapons, the functional equivalent of these "assault weapons," that were left off the list and are perfect substitutes for anyone bent on mayhem.

On the other side you have Rep. Gerald Solomon, R-N.Y., demanding in trembling fury that the ban be repealed because his wife, alone in upstate New York, needs protection. Well, OK. But must it be an AK-47? Does, say, a .44 magnum - easier to carry, by the way - not suffice for issuing a credible "Go ahead, make my day"?

In fact, the assault weapons ban will have no significant effect either on the crime rate or on personal security. Nonetheless, it is a good idea, though for reasons its proponents dare not enunciate. I am not up for re-election. So let me elaborate the real logic of the ban:

It is simply crazy for a country as modern, industrial, advanced and now crowded as the United States to carry on its frontier infatuation with guns. Yes, we are a young country but the frontier has been closed for 100 years.

In 1992, there were 13,220 handgun murders in the United States. Canada (an equally young country, one might note) had 128; Britain, 33.

Ultimately, a civilized society must disarm its citizenry if it is to have a modicum of domestic tranquility of the kind enjoyed in sister democracies like Canada and Britain. Given the frontier history and individualist ideology of the United States, however, this will not come easily. It certainly cannot be done radically.

It will probably take one, maybe two generations. It might be 50 years before the United States gets to where Britain is today.

Passing a law like the assault weapons ban is a symbolic - purely symbolic - move in that direction. Its only real justification is not to reduce crime but to desensitize the public to the regulation of weapons in preparation for their ultimate confiscation. Its purpose is to spark debate, highlight the issue, make the case that the arms race between criminals and citizens is as dangerous as it is pointless.

De-escalation begins with a change in mentality. And that change in mentality starts with the symbolic yielding of certain types of weapons. The real steps, like the banning of handguns, will never occur unless this one is taken first, and even then not for decades.

What needs to happen before this change in mentality can occur? What must occur first - and this is where liberals are fighting the gun control issue from the wrong end - is a decrease in crime. So long as crime is ubiquitous, so long as Americans cannot entrust their personal safety to the authorities, they will never agree to disarm. There will be no gun control before there is real crime control.

True, part of the reason for the high crime rate is the ubiquity of guns - which makes the argument circular and a solution seem impossible. But there are other, egregious encouragements to crime that gun control advocates ignore at their peril. The lack of swift and certain retribution, for example.

In the United States, 4 (!) percent of all robberies result in time served. Tell your stickup man, "You can go to jail for this," and he can correctly respond, "25-to-1 says I don't."

Yes, Sarah Brady is doing God's work. Yes, in the end America must follow the way of other democracies and disarm. But there is not the slightest chance that it will occur until liberals join in the other fights to reduce the incidence of and increase the penalties for crime. Only then will there be a public receptive to the idea of real gun control. (Copyright, 1996, Washington Post Writers Group)

Charles Krauthammer's column appears Monday on editorial pages of The Times.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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