Gun Lobby’s Perfect Aim

Jennifer Price is a Los Angeles historian and author of "Flight Maps: Adventures With Nature in Modern America."

“What made us dream that he could comb gray hair?”

William Butler Yeats


Two years ago, a San Pedro woman who was angry that she had to move out of her daughter’s apartment decided to buy a gun. She easily passed the background check and safety test and purchased a 9-millimeter semiautomatic handgun. She then shot and killed her daughter and her daughter’s fiance, my brother David.

I cannot tell you where this brutality came from -- nor the vast alienation that spurred her to destroy a daughter who had children herself and a man who had a son, parents, brothers and a sister. But I can tell you where the gun came from. She bought it at Western Surplus in Hawthorne. It was a Glock 19.

The 9-millimeter semiautomatic is America’s murder weapon of choice. The highly popular Glocks are as lightweight, powerful and easy to fire as Glock’s engineers can design them to be. The super-lightweight 19, a “compact” model, is easily concealed and can fire two bullets per second. It packs the same firepower as many larger handguns and tends to be the favorite Glock of women.


In the last four years, California has passed more high-profile gun-control laws than most other states combined. It is widely lauded as the most progressive state on gun control. But I believe we should see this not as progress toward an end to gun violence but as a great victory for the gun lobby, which has succeeded spectacularly well in blocking laws that would make a real difference.

Among the new laws -- all hailed as major or even groundbreaking -- the most highly praised measures of all make safety locks mandatory, require buyers to prove they can handle a gun safely and allow victims to sue manufacturers for negligence. Another much-touted law prohibits Californians from buying more than one handgun a month. Pending bills would require “ballistic fingerprinting” so that a bullet could be traced back to the gun that fired it and would extend assault weapon regulations to .50-caliber rifles -- but California, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, “has done most of the big exciting laws that [it] has the political will to do.”

The National Rifle Assn. must be rejoicing. It should be celebrating, because if such minor laws can seem “strong” or “tough,” it’s only because the gun lobby has managed to define the debate so narrowly that gun-control advocates have to fight like wildcats for safety locks and put in long nights so that people can file lawsuits after a person they loved is killed. Will these modest measures really save lives? Maybe a few, but California is more armed than ever. As if to prove the point, despite these new laws, the gun-related homicide rate in Los Angeles County has increased in each of the last three years.

The debate has to shift to center court, where the battles truly matter. The debate needs to focus on whether people should be allowed to own handguns at all. Handguns are tools to kill people. It’s what they’re designed to do effectively and well. It’s not surprising that some 11,000 people annually in the United States use them intentionally to do exactly that -- and many thousands will continue to do so, no matter how “safe” the guns are, or how well regulated or how liable we hold the manufacturers to be. Many murderers originally buy the handguns for self-defense. Many buy them specifically to kill. A great many would-be murderers do not have criminal records.

Gun control has to address three categories of gun deaths -- accidents (2% of the state total), homicides perpetrated by known-to-be violent criminals and all other shootings, whether planned or on impulse. While current measures attempt to address the first two, they almost entirely ignore the third. Yet the third category accounts for the most deaths, and most shootings occur with legally purchased firearms. And you only have to read the California section of this newspaper to see that such shootings occur daily.

In the week in which I am writing this piece, The Times reported the following gun deaths in L.A. County: A man allegedly shot his mother and his sister; another allegedly killed a store owner he was arguing with; a third allegedly murdered someone in a dispute over a gas pump. A 7-year-old boy was killed in what may have been gang cross-fire, and two men were shot while leaving a memorial service for a victim of gang violence. In Pomona, a depressed man stood up at a Burger King and shot a 2-year-old boy at another table, and in Oxnard, one man allegedly shot another over a parking spot.


Of all the reported homicides in this typical week, a single solitary murderer -- a father who allegedly beat his daughter with a baseball bat -- chose a weapon other than a gun. Gun deaths account for 65% of homicides nationally, and more than 70% in California. In L.A. County, an average of 17 residents are murdered with guns every week. No current or proposed gun laws in California would have prevented the deaths of most or possibly any of that one week’s victims. And almost certainly, most or all of these victims would still be alive if not for the easy availability of such a simple and effective tool to kill.

I wish I could say the woman who killed my brother over the apartment was a rare case, and that rage and vengeance and extreme alienation are unusual qualities in our society. But we know they are not. I myself no longer know what exactly separates vicious and insane, but we all know that far too many people can be one or the other or both. And many studies have shown that if you use a gun in self-defense, you are as likely to die as your assailant. So why do we continue to arm anyone without a criminal record who can pass a safety test and wants a gun?

Gun advocates are fond of arguing that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Yes, but nuclear bombs and chemical weapons don’t kill people either, and few people believe that stores across the country should sell them. We design tools to effectively accomplish specific purposes, and as a society, we make moral, human choices about which tools and technologies to make available.

Or do we continue to arm the populace because the 2nd Amendment -- part of the Bill of Rights, which the NRA is so fond of -- says that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” because “a well regulated Militia [is] necessary to a free state”? Did the Constitution’s framers -- as gun-control advocates so often have pointed out -- really intend to ensure the right to carry a 9-millimeter semiautomatic with a 10-shot clip?

Most rights are relative: to ensure one right, you almost always have to restrict another, and surely the dubious right to carry a handgun in one’s purse must be trumped by the more basic rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, which California’s gun laws failed to guarantee my brother -- and his 9-year-old surviving son. These basic rights cannot be ensured as long as the person next door or at the next table or the next gas pump is free to carry a remarkably powerful weapon. I defy the NRA to tell my family, or the families of the 2-year-old boy or the 7-year-old boy or any of that week’s victims, that the handgun ownership they have so successfully protected with such arguments is really worth this mountainous daily toll.

If I had the choice, I would gladly live in the same violent gun-owning society we live in now, but with David in it -- a society full of wonderful communities and friends and family, but also rife with alienation and dysfunction that can explode into anyone’s life with no warning. My next choice would be that we implement vast social and economic reforms that might ameliorate the deep-seated causes of the kind of anger and brutality and alienation that drive one person to kill another for a parking spot. Failing those options, I would like to see a ban on handguns to remove by far the easiest and most popular means to kill.

David isn’t coming back -- though still, even now, I sometimes think for a moment and against all logic that he could. Massive social changes are not on the horizon. By comparison, it would be outstandingly easy to stop arming people who wish to express frustration or hatred or rage or depression by ending others’ lives.

My brother was surpassingly sweet, funny and generous. He had -- to quote my mother -- “a heart as big as a house.” He lost his life, and we lost him, at the hands of a heartless person backed by a gun industry and a gun lobby with little concern for human life or the grief of families and friends. Gun-control advocates can push for safety locks and one-gun-per-month limits, and they’ll save a few lives. But as long these measures masquerade as major progress, the rate of gun deaths will go largely unabated.