The recent bank shootout in the North Hollywood section of Los Angeles is a bloody reminder that too many guns with too much firepower are much too readily available in this country.
Both bank robbers were killed, while 10 police officers and several civilians were wounded.
Life seems to be imitating art, or at least the movie "Heat." Rentals of this film, released a year ago, have sharply increased in the Los Angeles area since the incident. In the movie, a big shootout takes place outside a downtown bank. Robbers armed with automatic assault weapons equipped with armor-piercing rounds engage in a Tet Offensive, L.A. style. Bullets riddle cars, go through walls and penetrate buildings.
Thrillers like "Heat," along with many crime novels, illustrate the extent of firepower freely available. Conservatives say that such movies and books glamorize crime and are responsible for incidents like the one in Los Angeles.
But movies like "Heat" don't tell you where to buy guns, or how to convert them from semiautomatic to fully automatic. There's no coupon in the back of a mystery or crime novel asking you to send in proof of purchase symbols to obtain your armor-piercing shells.
Where do you find such fare? In the weapons magazines where groups like the National Rifle Association (NRA) advertise the right to bear whatever inappropriate arms you want.
I routinely buy some of these magazines in the course of writing mystery and crime novels. I want to be accurate about guns and need to get an insight into what gun enthusiasts think.
On the covers of such magazines are space-age weapons with scopes allowing you to see at night, laser-sighting devices and clips that hold enough rounds to kill a herd of elephants. In the classifieds, you can find listings for plastic guns, knife-throwing lessons, combat equipment, pamphlets on how to change your identity, commit sabotage or make pipe bombs, and many more opportunities to exercise your Second Amendment rights.
Now, before you think I'm some kind of gun-hating liberal, I must inform you that I'm strapped. I keep a .357-caliber Magnum under lock and key in my house. I don't have a problem with owning a gun for protection. But taking the constitutional right of gun owning to an extreme is foolish and dangerous.
How ironic that the Brady law, which places some restrictions on gun purchases, had its third anniversary in the same week as the Los Angeles shootout. The NRA and its allies are still viciously attacking this reasonable measure. The provisions of the Brady law, which include a five-day waiting period and background check, should not only be rigorously implemented, they should be broadened.
The fault for incidents such as the Los Angeles shootout lies not in our pop culture but in the inflexibility of organizations such as the NRA and in the cowardice of the politicians who are beholden to them. Some of these groups and politicians are quite cozy with militia types who proclaim that any limitation of their fun with guns is an abridgment of all that is good and holy about America.
The shootout and other recent violent events - such as the night ambush and murder of two policemen in Riverside, Calif., by a killer who carried a gun fitted with a night scope - result partly from the excessive availability of guns. The suicidal shooter on top of the Empire State Building paid cash for his gun in Florida with only a hotel receipt as proof of residency.
"The heat is on," as crime novelist Chester Himes wrote. And the problem of guns with too much firepower ending up far too easily in the wrong hands must be dealt with if our society isn't going to combust from within.
Gary Phillips os a mystery novelist whose "Violent Spring (Berkely) has just been issued in paperback. He is project director of the MultiCultural Collaborative in Los Angeles. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services distributed This article.
Pub Date: 3/09/97