Columns

Guns and a million moms

Andrew Phillips May 22 2000
Columns

Guns and a million moms

Andrew Phillips May 22 2000

Guns and a million moms

Washington

Andrew Phillips

It’s a place where law-abiding citizens helplessly watch “the creeping but steady erosion of their freedom.” Where honest folk “have come to fear the government and a law that no longer trusts them.” A place that stands as a stark warning to Americans determined to safeguard their liberty, “because if this is happening here, it could happen down there.”

Recognize it yet? It’s Canada, of course, as portrayed in a pretty darn scary video by the U.S. National Rifle Association. The NRA (like many Canadian gun owners, to be sure) is particularly outraged by Bill C-68, the federal law requiring all firearms to be registered by the end of2002. It’s the old slippery slope argument: once the feds know where the guns are, it’s just a matter of time before they take them away.

Or so, at least, argues the NRA, which once again is manning the barricades to protect “the right of the people to keep and bear arms” under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. It should, by all rights, be a tough sell these days. Americans have been shocked by a string of shootings at schools, churches, offices—even day-care centres. For Donna DeesThomases, a onetime publicist from New Jersey, the last straw was a shooting at a community centre in California last August. She watched on TV as a line of nursery-school kids were led to safety, and began organizing last weekend’s “Million Mom March” in Washington and 60 other U.S. cities to push for licensing and registration of handguns, safety locks, and other measures. “I couldn’t stop thinking about those kids,” she said in a letter to supporters. “I felt ashamed. Ashamed because I’ve sat back while others battle the gun lobby to protect our children.”

The idea is, quite literally, to turn gun control into a motherhood issue, much as Mothers Against Drunk Driving changed fundamental attitudes towards drinking and driving. A parade of moms shared their stories of loss: children gunned down on playgrounds; teens shot in botched holdups. With tens of thousands of mostly middle-class mothers on the march, it seemed as if the movement for gun control might finally become a major political force.

So why isn’t the NRA on its knees? Why is it stronger than ever, its membership way up! (It added 700,000 new members in the past 15 months and expects a record four million by No-

vember.) Largely because the situation is a lot more complicated than the cartoon version popular in places like Canada, i.e., concerned mothers versus the gun nuts. Consider:

• U.S. gun violence is actually way down, along with other violent crime, despite the rash of attention-getting shootings. New figures released last week by the FBI show serious crimes dropped in 1999 for the eighth year in a row.

• Fatal firearm accidents involving children are at an all-time low. In 1996, according to the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics, they accounted for just 138 deaths, a minuscule 0.3 per cent of all deaths among American children.

• The Million Moms are cleverly focusing on child safety, citing the well-publicized figure that an average of a dozen U.S. children are killed every day by firearms (“Each day

there is no action on this issue, we lose 12 more children,” they say on their Web site). Unfortunately, the figure doesn’t stand up. It’s reached by including everyone under 20 as a “child.” But the vast majority (85 per cent) of those killed by guns are aged 15 to 20, many of them older teenagers involved in violent crime. Every young person lost, of course, is a tragedy. But lumping 19-yearold gang members in with tiny tots makes little sense.

• Americans are skeptical about the value of new laws to further reduce gun violence. A survey by the independent Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, carried out for the first anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre, found that by a margin of 66 per cent to 29 per cent, Americans think gun control is more important than the rights of gun owners. But asked what would best reduce crime, they rank more gun laws behind many other things, like community programs for young people and longer jail terms. Only six per cent say tougher gun control would prevent another Columbine. Instead, the NRA scores points by noting the Clinton administration’s failure to strongly enforce many existing gun laws.

So the Million Moms have their work cut out for them. They intend to keep their campaign going until November’s elections, to make gun control a central issue for the middleclass, suburban voters whom politicians prize so highly. But the early evidence is not all encouraging. It may take more than dying teens, or marching moms, to shift American attitudes.