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Guns create equal-opportunity mayhem

In Cincinnati, a private university police officer stopped a driver for a nonviolent traffic offense and shot him in the head, killing him. The same day in a Washington apartment, a 3-year-old girl was killed, allegedly by a 7-year-old boy as he played with an unregistered gun.

The circumstances were different but the outcome was the same. A handgun had been fired in what clearly should have been a nonviolent situation. The man killed in Cincinnati had been stopped because his car had a license plate missing. The little girl was fatally hit in the chest as the gun went off twice, the exact details not immediately determined.

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The uniformed officer employed by the University of Cincinnati was arrested and charged with murder and manslaughter. His lawyer indicated he would offer a plea of self-defense, but a body camera worn by the defendant did not appear to offer the basis for it.

These and many other recent deaths by firearm, from Ferguson, Mo., to Charleston, S.C., are part of a seemingly endless stream of civic bloodshed in an American society with a love-hate affair with weapons of individual destruction.

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On one side is unarmed America, where citizens abhor handguns and they are seldom on public display, except in the legal possession of local and federal law-enforcement officers and private security police, as in the Cincinnati episode.

On the other side is armed America, with not only a regulated and disciplined military force but also a much larger civilian population of gun owners possessing weapons for protection at home or for sport and recreation at shooting ranges and hunting venues.

The two Americas are themselves in conflict over the right to bear arms and the peril it poses when guns intentionally or unintentionally lead to civilian death. For most of the nation's history, the issue was in heavy dispute, until the current Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment guaranteed individuals an absolute right to own them.

The argument continues over whether the precise language -- "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed" -- was intended only to guarantee possession for collective community protection.

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A huge pro-gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association and supported strongly by sport, recreation and self-protection organizations, insists the answer is a loud No!, and has become a mighty political army bolstering its interpretation of the Second Amendment.

In December 2012, the shooting and killing of 20 small children and six adults by a private citizen at a public s school in Newtown, Conn., aroused a public outcry, leading President Obama to vow to enact much stronger gun control laws. But he at first seemed hesitant and tentative.

"At some point," he said then, "we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. ... At some point, it's going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it, and for us to be able to think about the issue of gun violence collectively."

Subsequently, though, he did say: "We can't tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end, and to end them, we must change."

But the gun lobby, wielding dominant influence in the electoral process, crushed Mr. Obama's effort, which sought tighter background checks on gun purchases and a ban on assault weapons. He then issued 23 executive orders of lesser significance, and his Justice Department is said now to be considering tougher restrictions on gun storage and certain semi-automatic weapons and ammunition.

Since the Charleston church massacre, the president has lamented the failure of Congress to legislate further against the easy public access to firearms used in such mayhem, to no effect. Time is running out for Mr. Obama to orchestrate such an unlikely change.

And now we're becoming aware of an epidemic of white police officers drawing their weapons on African-Americans in routine traffic stops. It demonstrates anew how guns are a peculiarly American dilemma, and too often a nightmare, whether in the hands of supposedly well-trained law-enforcement agents in Cincinnati or an innocent 7-year-old in Washington.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is juleswitcover@comcast.net.

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