BOOK REVIEW : Who’s Controlling the Guns? : UNDER FIRE: The NRA and the Battle for Gun Control by Osha Gray Davidson Henry Holt and Co. $25, 295 pages


What’s your instinct when you hear that a burglar with a gun broke into your neighbor’s house? Do you decide it’s time to outlaw guns in this country, or do you go out and buy one?

Some people would react by sending a check to Sarah Brady in support of the Brady bill, which requires gun-store owners to wait for police background checks before they can sell customers handguns. Others see guns as essential protection against dangers ranging from burglars to mob violence. Fear of violent crime has increased membership in Brady’s group, Handgun Control Inc. But the same fear also has brought new members to the National Rifle Assn.

Osha Gray Davidson’s “Under Fire” begins and ends with mass murder by gun. Davidson’s point is that violent events can be used by both gun control advocates and opponents. Not long before killing five children in a Stockton, Calif. schoolyard, Patrick Purdy complained to a mental health worker that he was having hallucinations, and told his brother, “You’re going to be reading about me pretty soon.”


Hearing the awful news, Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum felt that his point had been proven--America has too many guns and they’re too easy to get. Down the hill from the Senate, the NRA’s chief lobbyist reacted by revising the testimony he would give a few days later on Metzenbaum’s bill to ban the type of rifle Purdy used. “The real lesson to be drawn from the Purdy crime,” he wrote, “is that Patrick Edward Purdy was a criminal who ought to have been in jail rather than left free to roam the streets . . . It was the criminal justice system that failed those five schoolchildren.”

Davidson closes his book with the massacre of 22 people at Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen, Tex. The deaths shocked the member of Congress representing Killeen into supporting the Brady Bill. But one survivor, a young woman named Suzanna Gratia, offered a radically different interpretation. Her father and mother were shot dead; she crawled out a broken window. “My only regret,” Gratia told a TV reporter, “is that myself or some other person, a reasonably sane person, didn’t have a gun.”

“Under Fire” is an excellent piece of reporting, with the strongly argued message that it is unwise to dismiss NRA members as gun nuts. Davidson, author of “Broken Heartland: The Rise of America’s Rural Ghetto,” is a thoughtful social critic who leads us carefully through a complicated, interesting and very American bit of history.

The NRA was founded after the Civil War by a Union Army vet, convinced of the need for better marksmanship.

The group’s membership boomed after World War I and tripled in the three years after World War II. Most of the new members were hunters A fairly peaceable sporting organization through the ‘50s, the NRA sponsored Olympic rifle teams and set up competitions for thousands of kids at summer camp.

Like a lot of other things in American history, the NRA’s motives changed after November, 1963. The country learned that Lee Harvey Oswald had bought an Italian army surplus rifle advertised in the pages of the NRA’s “American Rifleman.” Though it took five years, Congress finally passed the Gun Control Act of 1968, banning the mail order sale of guns and ammunition.

To some in the NRA this was the first step in taking away an American’s right to bear arms, and therefore, the unraveling of the Bill of Rights. The ultimately victorious leader of the NRA’s political wing was a man named Harlon Carter, a Texan who held 44 national shooting records and was a member of the U.S. Border Patrol. He was also a convicted murderer. In 1931, as a teen-ager in Laredo, he shot a 15-year-old boy suspected of stealing the Carter family car. “You don’t stop crime by attacking guns--you stop crime by stopping criminals,” opined Carter, when he ascended to NRA leadership.

The NRA’s deer-slayer image draws in millions of Americans--mainly rural, mainly men, mainly Democrats. People who live in cities equate guns with robbery and murder, not possum hunting. About half of the households in America have at least one gun and the typical gun owner is a fairly well-educated member of the middle class.

Those who demonize the NRA should realize, Davidson writes, that “the overwhelming majority of gun owners are responsible individuals who commit no crimes with their guns.” These members make up a very active, persistent, uncompromising and intimidating lobbying group. In the first six months of 1990, the NRA sent out 51.3 million pieces of mail, at a cost of about $10 million. Still, the NRA isn’t invincible. Davidson reports that between 1983 and 1988 11 NRA-supported incumbents lost their Senate seats while no pro-gun-control incumbents lost theirs.

The gun control movement, in turn, is embodied in one man--Ronald Reagan’s former press secretary, Jim Brady. He was the most seriously injured when John Hinckley Jr. fired at President Reagan. A Devastator bullet entered Brady’s forehead, and, just as its manufacturer had promised, exploded into 20 or 30 whirling metal fragments. Brady and his wife, Sarah, joined Handgun Control Inc., providing a high-profile and highly sympathetic gun victim, and making gun control acceptable to other conservative Republicans.

Though Davidson describes terrible violence, including a typical night at a Washington, D.C. trauma center, he argues against a purely emotional response. How about economics? There are 30,000 dead every year in America because of gun violence. According to the American Medical Assn., the yearly cost of treating gunshot wounds in this country is $1 billion, of which taxpayers pay 85%.

Both sides of the gun war agree that we need to protect ourselves, but will we protect ourselves as a community, or one by one? One by one, log cabin by log cabin, household by household, would be the traditional answer. We have an obsession with independence, which, as Davidson vividly shows, the NRA expresses and exploits. Near his conclusion, Davidson quotes one major figure in the gun wars: “Nothing is harder than losing the independence and control we all so value in our lives.” The director of the NRA? No, Jim Brady.