The Other Arms Race

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When Patrick Purdy sprayed 100 or so bullets from a rapid-fire assault rifle into a crowd of children outside a Stockton, Calif., elementary school, killing five students and wounding 29 others and one teacher before dispatching himself with a pistol, he set off a national wave of horror. If tots playing innocently in a schoolyard at recess are no longer safe from heavily armed criminals and lunatics, who is? Many citizens concluded that no one is, and some on the West Coast resolved to take action. Their solution: to arm themselves for survival in a world seemingly gone mad.

And so the Stockton massacre started a new spiral in America's domestic arms race. All last week California gun shops were jammed with customers, sometimes standing three or four deep at counters, clamoring to buy an imitation AK-47 like the one Purdy used or, failing that, some other semiautomatic paramilitary weapon. (His gun was actually an AKS, a Chinese-made semiautomatic version of the fully automatic Soviet AK-47, though many gun dealers and users call both versions AK-47s.) At B & B Sales in North Hollywood, owner Bob Kahn spent much of Thursday frantically phoning suppliers to replenish his sold-out stocks. "We're in a frenzy," he said. Kahn assured customers that 50 AK-47 look-alikes would arrive on Friday, but some buyers were in no mood to wait. Jay Montoya, a Los Angeles salesman who had already visited three other stores in a futile attempt to buy the Chinese-made weapon, finally plunked down $341 and walked out with a Ruger Mini-14, an American semiautomatic rifle with a smaller caliber. Said he: "In case there's an earthquake, I'm going to protect my house ((from looters, presumably)). I know how to use this gun, and I would."

In Castro Valley, Calif., Dick Bash, owner of a store named Combat Arms, reports that he is overwhelmed by demand, largely from gun fanciers who fear that the Purdy massacre might at last prod legislators into taking some serious steps to control the sale of guns. Says he: "There is an arms race on, all right. People are rushing to buy guns before the government takes them away."

In all probability, however, Combat Arms customers need not worry. The Stockton slaughter has indeed prompted talk in state legislatures and the halls of Congress about cracking down on gun sales, and a few actual proposals. Some would ban the high-powered paramilitary weapons that, foes say, have only one use: to kill human beings. Others would institute a federally mandated waiting period, generally 15 days, before a qualified buyer could pick up his gun. (Under the bewildering mosaic of state laws now in effect, waiting periods range from 30 days in New York to zero in Virginia and Oregon, where Purdy bought his rifle.) Such a cooling-off period is thought necessary to allow time for a thorough background check that would disclose whether the would-be buyer is a felon or mentally ill. Such proposals have picked up powerful new allies: police chiefs who once opposed gun control but fear that their patrolmen are being outgunned by crack-dealing gangs and other criminals.

Yet there is little reason to believe that the new push for gun control will get very far. Standing in the way, as always, are two mighty forces: the stubborn belief of many Americans that they have a moral and constitutional right to own guns, and the efforts of the 3 million-member National Rifle Association to fan that belief. The N.R.A. has lost none of its ability to flood the offices of Congressmen and state legislators with angry mail against the mildest gun-control initiatives. True, it lost a highly publicized referendum last fall on a Maryland law that will in effect ban cheap handguns, but that defeat was offset by a little-noticed victory in Nebraska: voters changed the state constitution to make it more difficult for Nebraska towns and counties to enact strict gun legislation. On the federal level, N.R.A. lobbying helped kill a rather weak plan that would have imposed a seven-day waiting period on buyers of handguns.

Gun-control advocates can expect no help from the Bush Administration. Quite the contrary: the new President, a life member of the N.R.A., has sweepingly asserted that "free men and women have the right to own a gun to protect their home." His views echo those of his predecessor, Ronald Reagan, who reiterated his opposition to gun control even after he was wounded by John W. Hinckley. Hinckley used a pistol he had acquired from a Dallas pawnshop only four days after his arrest in Nashville for attempting to board an airliner while concealing three handguns in a carry-on bag.

So the prospect is that the arms race in the streets and suburbs will continue to escalate, trapping growing numbers of innocent people in the cross fire. There were examples just last week of people endangered merely by being in the wrong place:

-- In Watsonville, Calif., Ignacio Vasquez Segura on Tuesday walked into a packing shed on a mushroom farm where a former girlfriend worked. She was not there, so he asked for one of her friends, Raquel Guiterrez, 24, shot her dead and blasted away with a semiautomatic rifle, wounding two co-workers. Segura fled in a sports car and shot himself in the head as police were closing in.

-- In Bridgeport, Conn., the Rev. DeLen McCrae, his wife Imogene and her son Scott Bish were sleeping shortly after midnight Wednesday when a fusillade of gunfire tore through their house. They huddled on the floor in Bish's room until the firing stopped; no one was hurt, but several bullets ripped through a living-room couch on which McCrae's daughter would have slept that night had she not called off a visit. Next day an anonymous phone caller told Mrs. McCrae it had all been a mistake; the barrage was intended for a next-door neighbor.

The common element in these cases and in shootings at a high school in Washington and a car dealership in Norfolk, Va., was more than the threat to innocent bystanders. All involved the use of semiautomatic weapons. These fast-firing, powerful guns, capable of sending a bullet through a concrete wall, were once rare outside the military. But when the U.S. normalized relations with China, imports of Chinese weapons as well as other goods became legal. Purchases of the AK-47 copy soared from a mere 4,000 a year as recently as 1985-86 to more than 40,000 last year. There has also been a leap in sales of the MAC-10, a relatively cheap U.S.-manufactured semiautomatic; the AR-15, a semiautomatic copy of the U.S. military's M-16 infantry rifle; and a semiautomatic version of the Israeli-made Uzi.

A clandestine cottage industry has grown up to convert these guns into full ! automatics, which can fire long bursts with a single pull of the trigger (a semi-automatic, despite its rapid-fire capability, requires a separate squeeze of the trigger for each round). A skilled gunsmith can accomplish the conversion for almost all semiautomatics, and there is a considerable demand for that service. Since 1934 federal law has made full automatics, such as machine guns, difficult to buy for anyone except police, the military and licensed collectors. A private purchaser has to obtain both federal and state licenses and undergo a rigorous federal background check.

Semiautomatics have become the weapon of choice for drug gangs looking for more firepower to blast away any threat to their giant profits, from police or rival peddlers. Law-enforcement officials note that the rise of semiautomatic weaponry parallels almost exactly the virtual takeover of parts of big cities by crack dealers. "In considerably more than half the crack arrests we make, we also seize firearms -- that is, good firearms," reports Robert Stutman, head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in New York State. "The paranoia induced by the drug, which most of the traffickers use themselves, makes them pick the best weapons available for protecting themselves, and they have the money for it."

The trigger-happy crack gangs have pointed the way for other criminals who once carried relatively crude firearms or none. "The old adage about burglars and car thieves never being armed is completely changed," says Dee Anderson, an Arlington, Texas, patrolman. He reports that an Uzi and a shotgun were recently used in stickups of a convenience store and a fast-food outlet in that north Texas city. Police also note apprehensively a tendency among all types of criminals not just to carry guns but to use them rather than submit to arrest. Says Houston Police Officer Al Baker: "Just about everybody committing a crime has a gun. Not cheap Saturday-night specials, but guns they can count on. And they're willing to shoot it out rather than go to jail."

In simple self-defense, law enforcers are also turning to heavier and more sophisticated artillery, ratcheting up the arms race another notch. "The police are definitely outgunned in this country," asserts Dewey Stokes, national president of the Fraternal Order of Police. A cop armed with the six- shot .38-cal. service revolver that has been standard for decades has little chance in a shootout with a criminal wielding, say, a converted Colt ; AR-15 capable of firing 900 rounds a minute; if not hit in the first fusillade, the policeman is likely to be shot while reloading. Out of that fear, police departments across the country are discarding the old .38 for semiautomatic weapons, and the DEA started a year ago to rearm its agents with the Colt SMG, a submachine gun designed by Colt Industries specifically for the agency. It is small enough to fit under a coat, yet packs quite a wallop.

The final and most dismaying turn in this cycle: responsible, law-abiding citizens -- afflicted by a lack of confidence in the police, reading every morning and watching on TV every night the stories about shootouts endangering innocent bystanders -- start arming themselves in case they have to join the battle. It used to be that the great majority of American gun owners bought their weapons for hunting or sport (target shooting, for instance). But recent surveys show nearly 50% mentioning self-protection as their primary reason. Says Mark Warr, a sociologist at the University of Texas: "It's a giving up on the system. People have lost confidence in the ability of local government to control crime. There is a growing feeling that 'We must do it ourselves.' "

Strikingly, it is often Jane rather than John Q. Public who is the first- time gun buyer these days. Guns have long been viewed as a symbol of male sexual power and arrogance, an attitude captured by the Beatles' song Happiness Is a Warm Gun. Yet surveys by Gallup for Smith & Wesson, the gunmaker, show that the number of women purchasing firearms increased 53% between 1983 and 1986, while the number thinking of buying one quadrupled, to nearly 2 million. Many of those plans have undoubtedly turned into purchases, though no updated figures are available.

The reason is that women feel especially vulnerable to violent crime -- often with good reason. Carol Kolen, a Chicago psychologist, was attacked several years ago at the University of Illinois Medical Center by two men, one carrying a gun, she fought off a rape but was severely beaten. Then, on a Saturday morning last year, she was attacked again as she approached her car parked outside a neighborhood church. "After that I said, 'That's it, no more.' I made the decision then and there that my protection was in my own hands." Kolen bought a gun and is going to indoor shooting ranges to practice because she realizes that "guns are dangerous. You need to become comfortable with a gun to use it in the right situation."

But it is not only victims who are arming themselves. For many citizens of both sexes the mere thought of crime arouses a terror great enough to overcome their onetime revulsion toward firearms. "Cathy," an executive secretary in Danvers, Mass., says she once felt "absolute fear" toward the guns her former husband kept in their house. But word went around her office building of a rape at knifepoint in the parking lot, and a greater fear took hold. "I thought about what happened, and I know I'm no match for a knife," says Cathy. "So I did a lot of thinking about whether I really wanted to carry a gun. Then I did a lot of shopping around about what kind of gun I wanted." She wound up packing a snub-nosed Smith & Wesson revolver in a shoulder holster under her business suit. "I feel safer with my gun," she says. "I feel safer walking out into the parking lot at night."

Is she actually safer? No definitive answer can be given unless someone devises a way to count crimes that are not committed because the would-be perpetrators fear that the potential victims may be armed. Some respectable authorities think the wide dispersion of guns among ordinary citizens does help deter crime. Sociologists James Wright and Peter Rossi conducted in-depth interviews over a three-year period starting in 1982 with more than 1,874 imprisoned felons. Among their findings: 56% of the cons agreed with the statement that "a criminal is not going to mess around with a victim he knows is armed with a gun," and 57% believed that "most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police." Fully 74% thought that "one reason burglars avoid houses when people are at home is that they fear being shot."

But the great bulk of expert opinion is that owning a gun undermines rather than increases safety: whatever deterrence of burglars or rapists might occur is more than offset by other factors. First come the suicides: in 1986, 18,153 people shot themselves to death. No one knows how many might have lived if they had been unable to pick up a gun and how many might have merely chosen other means to end their lives. But surely the presence of a loaded gun in a bureau drawer must have tempted many, particularly teens, to yield to a black depression that might have lifted had the means to carry out the dark wish not been so readily available.

Then come the accidental shootings, many by klutzes who never bother to learn how to handle their weapons. More heartbreaking are the frequent incidents of children picking up their parents' guns and finding out in the most disastrous way that they are not toys; for example, an eight-year-old boy who shot his six-year-old sister dead last week in Fairfax, Va. Then there are the quarrels between spouses, between parents and children, between neighbors and friends that suddenly turn lethal because one or both can pick up a gun. Police commonly estimate that if a household gun is ever used at all, it is six times as likely to be fired at a member of the family or a friend as at an intruder. (It is even more likely, says Dr. Carl Bell, a Chicago psychiatrist who has conducted research into crime and victimization, that the gun will be stolen; guns are prime targets for burglars because they can be easily and profitably sold to other criminals.) And finally, in the relatively rare shoot-outs between householders and burglars that do occur, it might easily be the burglar who proves more skilled in handling his gun and the householder who winds up in the morgue.

Adding all types of deaths together, James Mercy and Vernon Houk, researchers from the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control, point out that "during 1984 and 1985, the last two years for which data are available, the number of people who died of injuries inflicted by firearms in the United States (62,897) exceeded the number of casualties during the entire 8 1/2-year Viet Nam conflict." Writing in the Nov. 10 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine, Mercy and Houk judged that "injury from firearms is a public- health problem whose toll is unacceptable." Gunfire is, in fact, the eleventh most frequent cause of death in the U.S. and sixth among people under 65. For young black men in the inner city, homicide is the leading cause of death.

In the same issue of the journal, another group of researchers presented evidence that lax U.S. gun laws might be to blame. The team, headed by emergency room surgeon John Henry Sloan, studied a pair of cities just 140 miles apart: Seattle and Vancouver. The two cities had similar unemployment rates, household incomes, law-enforcement policies and even favorite TV shows. Two differences: in Canada, handgun ownership is tightly restricted; in Washington State, guns are more easily purchased. And between 1980 and 1986 Seattle had 388 homicides, vs. 204 in Vancouver. The divergence in murder rates cannot be fully explained by different attitudes toward law-and-order. The two cities had almost identical robbery and burglary rates and even virtually the same number of killings by non-gun methods, but gun homicides were five times as common in Seattle. The research team's scientifically understated conclusion: "Our results suggest that a more restrictive approach to handgun control may decrease national homicide rates."

That opinion is growing in the wake of the Stockton slaughter. In California, Governor George Deukmejian and Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, longtime foes of gun control, have lessened their opposition -- at least when it comes to paramilitary weapons. Deukmejian now calls for a 15-day waiting period for the purchase of assault rifles. Gates would apply the waiting period to purchases of all kinds of guns, and has called for an outright ban on paramilitary weapons. Says he: "We have been too tolerant. There is no need for citizens to have highly sophisticated military assault rifles designed for the sole purpose of killing people on the battlefield."

But gun control still faces daunting practical and philosophical objections. Even some advocates think it is oversold. Police officers tend to equate guns with drugs; so long as the crack trade is not significantly reduced, they think, the inner-city shoot-outs will rage on and contribute to the impression (not entirely justified in light of slight overall declines in the national crime rate) of a rising tide of violent crime that has driven so many peaceful citizens to arm themselves. On the practical side, writing a definition of paramilitary weapons that would distinguish them from some types of semiautomatic hunting rifles is no easy job.

To be effective, any law regulating semiautomatic assault rifles would have to be federal. It would make no sense to ban such weapons in, say, California, if they could be legally purchased in neighboring Arizona or Oregon. But tens of millions of Americans -- not to mention the Bush Administration -- resist the thought of giving Washington that much power over citizens' lives.

Most important of all, affection for guns runs deep in the American psyche, as evidenced by the common estimate that 50 million to 60 million U.S. households, about half the total, own at least one gun. And many of those households are convinced that gun ownership is an inalienable right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which reads, "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." Actually, the wording is ambiguous; legal scholars have been quarreling for decades over whether it guarantees the right to bear arms to citizens individually or collectively -- that is, as members of a "well-regulated militia." The Supreme Court has never ruled squarely on that issue and has not even faced it indirectly since the 1930s. Then it upheld a law banning sawed-off shotguns on the ground that they would be of no use to a militia, seemingly upholding the collective interpretation. On the other hand, some writings of the Founding Fathers indicate they believed an armed citizenry to be the ultimate check against any tendency of their own government to turn into an oppressive tyranny, which would imply an individual right to bear arms.

But in a society that subjects drivers to more rigorous tests before they can operate an automobile than it does gun purchasers before they can buy a deadly firearm, such logic has its limits. It surely does not apply to semiautomatic assault rifles, which are unsuitable for either hunting or reasonable self-protection. Such steps as banning paramilitary weapons and instituting a uniform waiting period would not prevent hunters, target shooters, gun collectors or even ordinary citizens legitimately concerned with self-defense from buying weapons. They would merely make it a bit more difficult. In the process they might begin to slow, if not stop, the domestic arms race and avert the greatest danger of all -- that the every-man-for- himself atmosphere of an armed camp would erode the bonds of trust that keep a society from slipping into anarchy. Gun control is no panacea, but it might help forge a better society -- and if the U.S. cannot make progress in the wake of the Stockton massacre, when can it?