Maniacal Obsession: Guns and More Guns

<i> Mark Ridley-Thomas is executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles</i>

The present hysteria surrounding assault weapons is directly attributable to an American tradition that glorifies the gun--a curious aspect of American culture that allows the American people to vicariously wallow in violence of various sorts.

While gun advocates continue to conspicuously consume their “toys,” many Los Angeles residents are being killed by the object of many people’s desire. Gang-related murders in Los Angeles County totaled 69 in January and February, ahead of the record pace of last year. More than 353 people were killed by gang violence in 1988, and officials estimate that this year more than 400 will become victims of a gang member’s bullet.

South-Central Los Angeles bore nearly 30% of the casualties inflicted by gang warfare. In South-Central, the New Year celebration sounds like nothing less than an armed camp. That’s why, over the years, the leadership of the African-American community has supported tough handgun control. Attention now has to be turned to the banning of semiautomatic weapons.


Law enforcement agencies agree that the gangs’ devilishly impressive arsenal, which includes innumerable semiautomatic weapons, would account for the increasing body count in Los Angeles’ poor and minority communities.

Prices for the weapons are doubling and tripling as gun buffs scramble to get their hands on what has become our newest cultural fad. Sales are booming and efforts to legitimize the gun-control movement are drowned out by gun enthusiasts’ claims that the bans abridge their constitutional rights.

The cultural obsession with firearms is often shrouded in the highest law of the land in order to cover up the nakedly violent proclivities that drive the destruction of life--human and animal. Similarly, these constitutional arguments help people justify taking any action deemed necessary to protect life and limb or property and borders. Somehow we Americans still labor under of the ethos “might makes right,” which too often fuels the belligerence that typifies life in America.

In this regard, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate uses of violence seems more and more absurd. The issue of the moment is the ban of semiautomatic weapons, which is only a small part of a big, violent mess. The lack of a concentrated focus on confronting the gun lobby’s agenda to militarize life points to our tacit approval, which we can ill afford.

While this debate rages on, people are daily being subjected to cruel acts of violence. The news is full of mind-numbing examples. There always seems to be another little boy who accidentally kills his brother with their father’s “hidden” handgun; there always seems to be another teen-ager face down in the street dead from a spray of bullets. Typically, we shrug our shoulders at the orgy of violence, feebly thinking, “What a shame.”

Perhaps the carnage resulting from incessant gunfire is finally registering with Americans. Recent polls would indicate that more Americans than ever support the banning of assault weapons. Unfortunately, however, the rush still continues to purchase assault rifles and other guns.


Why is America so fascinated with weapons--weapons that kill the “enemy” abroad and weapons that kill our own citizens at home? Isn’t it abundantly clear by now that guns don’t really provide safety? Those who argue that communities should be armed to provide the protection that is otherwise not afforded them are promoters of fallacies at best--and purveyors of sinister schemes at worst.

Regrettably, Administration after Administration has chosen to perpetuate this maniacal obsession by viewing weapons of destruction as more important than programs of human uplift. This militaristic attitude that infects the government also infects our citizens with alarming results. Americans must reject this notion of peace through strength--it only fattens the coffers of the Pentagon, which contributes to the level of violence that we have come both to accept and fear.

President Bush has called the recent moratorium on the import of assault rifles a “pulse change” rather than a reversal of his opposition to laws on gun control. The Bush ban is but a limited, half-hearted gesture at making safer neighborhoods, because it affects only imports and does not prohibit the manufacture and sale of hundreds of thousands of domestic semiautomatic weapons. When all of the rhetoric is stripped away, Bush offers only protectionism in the arms business.

The importance of this issue must not go unaddressed in African-American and Latino communities, the communities that are being hit the hardest. In the wake of the 21st anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., now more than ever is time for the voice of nonviolence--or just plain civility--to be heeded.