'Normal' Deviancy


Washington.--Ms. Derlesher Edwards of Chicago paid $55 for a handgun and 100 rounds of ammunition because she overheard men in the small family restaurant she owns saying, "This is an easy place to stick up." Her son Darnell took the gun from her purse and put it in his school gym bag because a classmate who had stolen his candy bars said that if Darnell didn't give him more candy he would shoot him. Darnell told some classmates he had the gun, word reached school authorities and they confiscated it.

Darnell is 6.

And so it goes in a nation with more gun dealers than gas stations, a nation in which, according to a new government report, firearms cause more deaths among those 15 to 24 than all natural causes combined.

In an article in The American Scholar, "Defining Deviancy Down," Sen. Pat Moynihan writes that in the span of just one generation deviant behavior has soared to levels Americans flinch from recognizing. So the nation has been redefining deviancy to exempt much conduct previously stigmatized, and has been relaxing the standard of what is considered "normal" levels of deviant behavior, levels that would have been intolerable by standards obtaining not long ago.

A sign of "normalizing": In 1990, according to the Justice Department, Americans reported only 38 percent of all crimes and only 48 percent of violent crimes. Such behavior is a shrug of despair.

Another sign is this New York Times sub-head on a story about a teacher shot on the way to class: "Struck in the Shoulder in the Year's First Shooting Inside a School." Just the first. More to come.

When the crime level, no matter how high it is or how rapidly it is rising, is "normalized," society is saying it has no expectation of improvement, and hence makes no insistence on even trying. Mr. Moynihan is for trying almost anything. Noting that we have a two-century supply of handguns, but only a four-year supply of ammunition, he says, "Guns don't kill people, bullets do," and he proposes prohibiting the manufacture of certain calibers of ammunition.

In 1929, he notes, Chicago's St. Valentine's Day massacre shocked the nation. Four gangsters machine-gunned seven gangsters. Nowadays it is not unusual in many cities -- it is "normal" -- to have such carnage on a "normal" weekend. Raymond Kelly, New York's police commissioner, read Mr. Moynihan's article and wrote a splendid speech urging "a new intolerance." In 1929, Chicago's St. Valentine's Day massacre shocked the nation. Four gangsters machine-gunned seven gangsters. Nowadays on a weekend in many cities such carnage is 'normal.'

Noting that on Valentine's Day 1993 there were 12 homicides in his city -- six in one Bronx apartment -- Mr. Kelly said:

"The fight against crime in America, like that against Soviet domination, is now essentially a fight for freedom. Fearing crime, or being one of its victims, is to lose a fair measure of freedom. . . . Society's increasing tolerance of crime and anti-social behavior in general is abetting our own enslavement. The erosion of freedom caused by crime is so pervasive that we are in danger of failing to notice it at all."

He notices with disgust the parked cars with signs in their windows saying "No Radio." These signs are attempts to communicate in conciliatory terms with thieves, saying: Break into someone else's car, there's no loot in mine. Such signs, says Mr. Kelly, are "flags of urban surrender."

Noting that there were 50 million guns in private hands in 1950, and that the number has doubled every 20 years to at least 200 million, and that most are handguns, Mr. Kelly argues for national registration of all handguns. Such registration would produce "a trail of ownership" and "an interesting trail of civil liability, as well, for persons who sold or disposed of their guns illegally or just recklessly."

Mr. Kelly also urges more "community policing," putting many thousands more officers on visible neighborhood beats. Which brings us back to Darnell's mother.

She lives in a city where Steve Johnson of the Chicago Tribune recently interviewed a man sentenced to six months of court supervision for carrying a small pistol -- for self-defense, he said. The man plans to buy another gun and carry it illegally after his supervision ends. He told the reporter: "We have a saying on the street. We'd rather the police catch us with it than the other guys catch us without it."

So speaks a resident of Darnell's mother's city, where in 1982 Cook County Hospital's trauma unit treated "only" 500 persons who had been shot, and "only" 5 percent of them had been hit by more than one bullet. In 1991 the unit treated about 1,000 gunshot victims and 25 percent had absorbed more than one bullet.

Desperation drove Darnell's mother to buy a gun because she calculated, not unreasonably, that she could not count on the protection of the police. Until the calculus is changed for people like her, trapped in violent neighborhoods, the gun lobby can plausibly argue that gun control will merely disarm the innocent. So gun control and "community policing" -- call it saturation policing -- should be indissolubly coupled.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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