Fisticuffs and knife fights: ‘quaint’ street warfare of days long gone | COMMENTARY

Have you ever seen “West Side Story” — either the play or movie? Based loosely on Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” it is about two star-crossed lovers from opposing families, in this case, the families are street gangs in the 1950s.

Although the music and dancing is wonderful and the emotions embodied in the story still resonate, parts of it are outdated. Most obvious: the scene where the two rival street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets, meet to battle it out. Initially they agree to settle things with a fistfight, but they wind up using knives. Isn’t that quaint?


Today, of course, we have moved well past fists and knives onto Glocks, Uzis, Tec-9′s and other firearms. And now we have “ghost guns” that can be assembled at home for quick and easy (and anonymous) use, sort of like a model plane.

I thought of this when reading The Sun’s story, “Police Commissioner: ‘It angers all of us’” (Sept. 16) about four kids shot in East Baltimore last week. Although thankfully none of these kids were killed, the organization Everytown reports that between 2015 and 2019, an average of 3,000 young people, under age 19 were not so fortunate and died by guns during those years. Contrary to the slogan pushed by gun groups like the NRA, guns do kill people. Many would have survived their attackers but for the fact that the weapon of choice was a gun.


There are all of kinds of strategies being employed in cities like Baltimore to try to prevent kids from engaging in violent behavior. Some of these programs are successful, some less so, and it is crucial that we strive to identify and then implement the best ones. But there will always be conflicts among kids individually and in groups. While the prevalence of drug dealing in some communities has played a significant role in changing the nature of these conflicts over the years, there were also many fights when I was growing up in the Bronx 60 years ago. There were far fewer guns and far fewer deaths, however — hardly a coincidence.

I first encountered the gun lobby as a prosecutor in New York City arguing to the New York legislature that what were called “cop-killer bullets,” those designed to penetrate safety vests, should be outlawed. It seemed like a slam dunk to ban bullets not used by hunters or target shooters, or in self-defense or any other manner in which defenders of gun rights claim that guns are used responsibly. I naively believed that even the NRA would not oppose such a ban. I was wrong, and the NRA and many other gun groups have opposed virtually every proposal over the years, no matter how limited and reasonable, that restricts the use of guns or their ability to kill mass numbers of people.

Contrary to the arguments of some, the Second Amendment is not a bar to reasonable measures to limit the use of guns. This was made clear in two pro-guns rights cases decided by the court dealing with the constitutional right to bear arms. But we continue to be a country that is armed to the teeth and second only to Brazil in the number of gun deaths nationally — far eclipsing any nation in Europe.

Those of a certain age will remember when the gun lobby first argued that the surest way to avoid violence is to make sure more people possess guns, so the good folks can stop or deter the bad folks. How has that worked out over the years? We now see mass murders (terrorist and non-terrorist), road rage shootings, accidental shootings and all kinds of deaths that would not occur if there was no gun involved or if an incident led to violence, would not result in death.

Yes, the gun lobby has won most of its battles, but we still can close the loophole that allows sales of guns without any checks at gun shows and ban certain weapons of mass destruction that seem to proliferate these days.

Think of how many more kids we could keep from being killed if we could all just learn to live with that.

Steven P. Grossman ( is the Dean Julius Isaacson Professor Emeritus at the University of Baltimore School of Law.