Guns: A moral, health and political issue


The Archdiocese of Baltimore announced last week that it will work hard for a tough new gun control law in Maryland. Among the elements the Catholics want in a bill, said Auxiliary Bishop John Ricard, are licensing based in part on safety examinations, prohibitions on gun possession by minors and those with a record of violent crime, a ban on the sale of semiautomatic assault weapons and guns with high-capacity magazines -- and severe penalties for violations.

The time has come to go at least that far. This has become, as Bishop Ricard put it, "a moral issue." It has also become a public health issue. Especially in large cities with many poor families, the likelihood of death or disability by gunshot is much greater than by disease or non-gun accident. The "disease" of guns is getting out of control in the way infectious diseases have in the past. Society has to find a way to stop the spread.

Some state legislators have already responded to the archdiocese announcement with the suggestion that its proposal is too ambitious. That is craven. Unambitious gun control efforts have clearly not worked. Legislators in Annapolis, other state capitals and in Washington, D.C., have tried to "balance" overwhelming public opinion in favor of gun control against the National Rifle Association types' insistence that when it comes to guns, no law is a good law. The result has been a series of half steps -- and gun ownership and victimization that are out of control.

One argument often heard in opposition to tough gun control laws is that since there are so many guns in the hands of violent criminals, law-abiding people have to have them to protect their homes. Wrong! The New England Journal of Medicine reported last week that having a gun, especially a hand gun, in the home, even in the case of the law-abiding, increases the risk of homicide significantly. "Virtually all of this risk involved homicide by a family member or intimate acquaintance," the authors of the study concluded.

Previous studies have shown an increased likelihood of suicide and, especially where young children are present, accidental death and injury when there are guns in the home.

The unwillingness of many legislators to endorse effective gun control laws is puzzling. Maybe it's the political equivalent of cultural lag. Marylanders want such legislation. Statewide candidates see that. The leading candidates for attorney general in both parties are for it. So are the two leading Democratic candidates for governor.

Recent polls in the state suggest that most voters would favor a pro-gun control candidate over an anti-, all other things being equal. That should have an impact on the 1994 General Assembly session -- and if not, on the 1994 elections.


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