Taming the Monster: Get Rid of the Guns : More firearms won't make America safer--they will only accelerate and intensify the heartache and bloodshed

More than ever, America is concerned about personal safety. Increasing numbers of people are, to put it simply, scared.

On one level this is a sign of intelligent life on Earth, for the United States in reality is certainly a scary place now. Since the beginning of October, when The Times began this series of editorials on gun control, nearly 500 people have died from gunshots in Los Angeles County alone.

That's nearly 500 of us just from gunshots. In Los Angeles County alone.

Ordinary citizens--not only drug dealers or cruising gang members--are being shot at, and there are no sanctuaries, no fire-free zones. A bullet can find you in a church, in a school, in your home. What can we do to change this picture?

For more and more Americans the answer is to fight gunfire with gunfire--to buy a gun. In October and November Californians purchased 107,000 firearms, 16% more than in the corresponding two months of last year. And those figures represent only the legal sales.

Is this the route America truly wants to go? To respond to the gun violence by acquiring more guns?

BUT DON'T MORE GUNS MAKE FOR MORE SAFETY?

Guns are extraordinarily dangerous things, even in the hands of those who are trained, careful and responsible. Even many members of the National Rifle Assn.--an organization that bitterly opposes The Times' call for comprehensive national gun control--know what we are talking about and probably disagree with their governing board's opposition to proposals for mandatory, pre-purchase firearms training.

Yes, America could continue this ever-hotter domestic arms race. It could continue to allow virtually everyone who isn't a felon or insane to obtain a gun. So we can all walk around packing guns, right? That will make us a less violent society, right? Not likely.

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At the same time, halfway measures, however well-intentioned, will not markedly reduce gun violence. Sure, we strongly supported the just-passed Brady bill, which imposes a mandatory period between the purchase and delivery of a handgun. Why not? And we endorse proposals to heavily tax as well as limit the availability of ammunition. Why not? And we back proposals to get tougher on gun criminals and to better enforce existing laws to license, tax and restrict the sale and importation of certain types of firearms. Who could be against such measures?

AMERICANS WON'T BE SAFE UNTIL THEY DISARM

All of these will help, but none will address the core problem. Only by slicing away at this nation's already vast and deadly arsenal of guns will we reduce the violence and the fear. You will not feel safe, your children will not be safe, until there are almost no guns on the streets and in homes.

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No guns, period, except for those held by law enforcement officials and a few others, including qualified hunters and collectors. Without a drop in the number of guns already in circulation--200 million and rising hourly--no legislative reform, no matter how comprehensive or masterly, will produce a drop in gun crime any time soon. Conversely, measures to reduce the existing supply of firearms will work only if they are coupled with a near-total ban on private gun ownership.

Why should America adopt a policy of near-zero tolerance for private gun ownership? Because it's the only alternative to the present insanity. Without both strict limits on access to new weapons and aggressive efforts to reduce the supply of existing weapons, no one can be safer.

Can Congress impose such a ban? Federal courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court, have consistently upheld a variety of firearms restrictions, even prohibitions, over the last 60 years. In practice, the Second Amendment has not been an impediment to tighter gun laws, nor should it be in theory, given the amendment's origins in the colonists' desire for an organized state militia.

Will such a policy make a difference immediately? Yes, it will. But given today's huge weapons stockpile, not as dramatic a difference as it once might have. Gun ownership advocates argue that a near-total ban on the manufacture, importation and private ownership of handguns and assault weapons such as The Times advocates will simply fuel the black market in these firearms, leaving criminals heavily armed and law-abiding citizens defenseless. Even if everyone surrendered his or her weapons, their argument goes, evil would find a way--those bent on mayhem would fashion zip guns and other lethal devices.

But consider the experience of the many foreign nations that tightly restrict private gun ownership: Those that limit firearms control gun violence more effectively. Gun crime is by no means unheard of in these nations, but even with a black market trade and homemade weapons, the incidence of gun homicide, accidents, armed robberies and other violent crimes is much lower than here.

ACCIDENTS, TOO, WOULD DROP PRECIPITOUSLY

When we comprehensively ban the private possession of handguns and assault weapons here, profound and welcome changes will follow. Accidental shootings should drop precipitously, including those tragedies that involve children playing with guns. Homicides should drop as well, even though the enormous number of guns already in circulation means that the incidence still will be higher than that abroad. The success of this endeavor will depend on the commitment by federal and local officials to tough enforcement. That will be vital.

We can take back the streets. We can take back our lives. It can happen, though it will not be easy. We must begin thinking differently about guns: Instead of assuming, as we have for too long, that all but a few demonstrably dangerous citizens are presumptively entitled to own a gun, we must, as a nation, move toward a very different model, one that presumptively bars private citizens from owning a firearm unless they can demonstrate a special need and ability to do so.

MANY THINGS ARE CURBED--WHY NOT FIREARMS?

Thus we must act. As a society, we have already agreed that many things are simply too dangerous to be left in unrestricted private possession. We tightly control the use of motor vehicles, for example. We require every driver to be licensed and every car and truck to be registered and inspected. We require seat belts, forbid driving under the influence of alcohol and impose speed limits, even though most cars on the road today are technologically capable of far exceeding those limits. Indeed, partly because of these laws, the number of motor vehicle deaths in California last year was 23% lower than the number of firearm deaths.

We impose similarly tough restrictions on the use and sale of pharmaceutical products. Some jurisdictions now even limit the sale of spray paint, the medium of choice for many graffiti taggers. But, with few exceptions, guns and ammunition are easily available to almost anyone who wants them. This is crazy.

After the bloodshed in this region and this nation in the last two months alone, who can still argue compellingly that Americans can be trusted to handle guns safely?

We think the time has come for Americans to tell the truth about guns. They are not for us; we cannot handle them. They kill people, our children included. It's time to get rid of them. Period.

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