When 19-year-old Aubrey Bennett Jr., pleaded guilty to the robbery and shooting of a taxi driver last summer, Judge Henry Kennedy asked him why there was so much killing on the streets of Washington, D.C. In a brutally honest reply that sent shivers through district court,
Bennett replied: “It ain’t like it was when y’all were young. Y’all fought it out with a fist. They don’t do that no more. They use a gun.” Indeed, they do. And in the process, the nation’s capital, more than any of the other large and violent American cities, has developed the characteristics of a Wild West town. There is a general perception that the police have lost control.
But at least some of that control was restored last week when President Bill Clinton signed the so-called Brady bill to regulate handgun sales. The new law, which goes into effect next February, mandates a national five-day waiting period for handgun purchases to allow state officials time to check if the prospective buyer has a criminal record or a history of mental instability. Said Clinton: “This will be step one in taking our streets back, taking our children back, reclaiming our families and our future.”
The statistics are horrific. There were 23,760 murders in the United States last year. And nowhere is the
situation more grave than in Washington, where so far this year there have been more than 1,650 shootings and 432 murders—the highest homicide rate in America. The great majority of the killers and their victims are black men in their teens and early 20s who deal in drugs. Fully 83 per cent of Washington murders involve a gun. In October, an exasperated Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly asked the President to authorize the use of the National Guard on the capital’s mean streets. Clinton refused. But he did ask Congress to authorize members of the U.S. Capitol Police, the Secret Service, the Park Police, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the U.S. Marshals Service to be drafted into the city police force for a few months. The idea is to give the mayor and police Chief Fred Thomas time to hire and train more regular police offi-
cers. Declared Kelly: “We’ve got a war on our hands."
Experts say that the cur rent wave of Washington killings is directly related to the emergence of crack co caine in street-corner drug markets. For the dealers, crack is easy to make, rela tively cheap and hugely prof itable. It has led to gang batties over selling sites, and that in turn has led to a pro liferation of guns. With large sections of the capital living in a state of constant fear, last month police Chief Thomas declared a "crime emergency," enabling him to change officers' shifts with out notice so that he can put more police on the streets at times when crime is highest.
The Brady bill may take guns off Washington’s mean streets
The emergency was declared not so much as a result of the growing crime statistics, but because a series of particularly poignant cases involving innocent children has made the public acutely aware of the anarchy on the streets. In June, four teenagers armed with handguns strolled up to a crowded swimming pool and sprayed bullets into the water, wounding six children. Then, in September, fouryear-old Launice Smith was shot and killed when she was caught in the crossfire of a schoolyard gunfight. Said Jack Fevin, a criminologist at Boston’s Northeastern University: “It’s a culture that regards killing as cool, and hatred as hip. We’re facing a juvenile Armageddon.”
Proponents of the Brady bill say that its passage could help turn things around in Washington and other violent urban areas. Last week, former White House press secretary James Brady, who was shot in the head during the 1981 attempt on President Ronald Reagan’s life, was wheeled into the highly emotional signing ceremony for the bill named after him. The wheelchair-bound Brady, who has only limited control over his limbs and voice, read a speech that his wife, Sarah, held before him. “Twelve years ago, my life was changed forev-
It took seven years of persistent lobbying to pass the Brady bill, but the laws governing handgun ownership are still far weaker in the United States than in Canada:
• Handgun purchasers must be at least 18 years old, with no criminal record or history of mental illness.
• Purchasers must undergo a background check by police and obtain a registration certificate from the RcMP-processes that can take as long as several months.
• Gun owners must also obtain separate permits to use, carry or transport their weapons.
• In most cases, hangun owners must belong to a provincially recognized gun club and must pass a firearms safety course.
• The Brady bill requires a five-day waiting period and a background check for ________ anyone wishing to buy a handgun.
• Other federal laws bar minors, convicted felons, drug addicts, the mentally ill and illegal aliens from owning firearms.
er by a disturbed young man with a
gun,” he said. “Until that time, I had not thought about gun control or the need for gun control. Maybe if I had done so, I wouldn’t be stuck with these damn wheels.”
It was largely as a result of relentless campaigning by Sarah Brady that the bill was eventually passed. For seven years, the fight seemed one-sided as she challenged the powerful National Rifle Association (NRA). But as the nation’s murder rate soared, the momentum gradually shifted. Indeed, the Senate last month passed an overall crime bill that, among other things, bans the manufacture and sale of 19 different semiautomatic assault weapons. Last week, NRA officials continued to assert that the Brady law is largely a symbolic effort that will not reduce violence in the nation’s streets, NRA representative Mary Sue Faulkner not-
ed that the states that already have waiting periods have not experienced a decline in violent crime. _ Faulkner claimed that the new law "ignores the over whelming numbers of crimi nals who obtain weapons illegally." But Jefferey Muchnick, legislative director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Vi olence, argues that the law, although not a panacea, is better than nothing. "No one, least of all our organization, has ever claimed the Brady bill would stop crime," he said. "But if we can't turn off the spigot, we can at least turn down the volume."
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