Sunday, November 15, 2009

To Stop The Killings


By Sherwood Ross

Every time the young stick-up man tugged at my companion’s purse with his left hand, she would pull back, causing the muzzle of the pistol he held in his right hand to swing back and forth. Its line of fire each time was directed across my chest and if he accidentally or deliberately squeezed the trigger this piece might never have been written.

 “Give him your purse!” I insisted, meaning that hanging on to it wasn’t worth our lives. Still, she refused and the tug-of-war in the parking lot of my apartment building continued.

 “Here!” I said to the gunman, pitching my wallet to him, “take this!” He caught the wallet, turned and fled across a wide, deserted ballpark. Even in the darkness, we could follow him running for a long way, silhouetted in the lights of the U.S. Capitol, lit up at night ahead of him like a giant white cake.

 A few days later I received a call from a Maryland department store inquiring if I had sent a young man to buy a TV set on my credit card. A store detective arrested the youth and I dutifully showed up in court on the day of the trial only to learn he had skipped.

 Not long afterwards, a judge who lived in my building made page one of the Washington Star for resisting the gunmen who jumped him in the same parking lot. From his hospital bed he told reporters we Americans had to “stand up” to armed robbers, a noble sentiment spoken through his pain, considering all the bullets they pumped into his body.

 We were lucky, my friend and I. We could have been killed, as so many others are being killed each day. As Jill Lepore writes in the November 9th “The New Yorker,” the U.S. “has the highest homicide rate of any affluent democracy, nearly four times that of France and the United Kingdom and six times that of Germany.” UK averages about 60 gun homicides annually and Germany averages fewer than 200. More Americans are being murdered on our city streets than in all our foreign wars.

 New York Times columnist Bob Herbert last April 24th estimated 12,000 Americans are shot dead each year, 2,000 of them children, and 70,000 more are wounded but, like the D.C. judge, survive. Do the math: the total number of Americans shot dead each year is three times that of all U.S. troops killed in Iraq in six years of fighting. There is rage in our hearts; there is war in our streets.

 A big factor in the homicide rate is the availability of guns. In a typical year, guns are responsible for two of every three murders. There are 238 million privately-owned firearms in USA. Big city mayors and police chiefs favoring curbs on hand guns and automatic weapons seem unable to overcome the clout of the gun lobby in Congress. Americans have modified or ignored much of the U.S. Constitution over the years yet the National Rifle Association insists that the 2nd Amendment phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” is sacrosanct, even as innocent people are mowed down by the thousands.

Wayne LaPierre, NRA executive vice president, writes, “One of the ugly truths about many gun-control advocates is that they're more concerned about pushing for gun control than they are about reducing violence.” Note how LaPierre disparages their motives, when, in fact, some people become gun-control advocates only after the murder or wounding of a family member or friend. It’s quite likely that if homicidal waves of handgun violence did not occur nearly every day, as they do, nobody would bother chalking the slogan “Gun Control Now!” on the NRA wall.

“A vastly disproportionate number of murders and murder victims are young adult men,” writes The New Yorker’s Lepore. “When baby boomers reached that age bracket, the homicide rate soared. Now that they’ve aged out of their most lethal years, the rate has fallen.”  Fallen, yet still unacceptable. Marcus Baram of ABC News reported last April 23 that teenagers in Chicago are 10 times more likely to be the victims of gun violence than their counterparts outside the city limits. Between 2002 and 2006, more than 650 Chicago teens were shot and killed! This is nearly as many as all U.S. troop deaths since the start of the war in Afghanistan. Are defenders of “gun rights” blind to the fact we have a war raging in our city streets?

Surely, one factor contributing to the homicide rate is poverty. How many times have you read about youths from affluent suburbs arrested for armed robbery? Can you think of one? Not only are children in blighted cityscapes---where supermarkets and chain retail outlets fear to tread-- deprived of legitimate job opportunities but if they commit crime, do time and are set free, their criminal past makes it tough for them to find gainful work.  It’s not uncommon for six or seven out of every ten ex-cons to be returned to the Big House within three years of their release, the Justice Department reports. Worse, as “economy measures,” legislators right now are closing down prison drug rehab, educational, and vocational programs that would give ex-cons a fighting chance to succeed. There’s money for wars in three countries in the Middle East and money to operate a thousand military bases around the world but we short-change our own.

Another contributing factor to the high homicide rate may be the stiff sentences politicians’ mandate, enacting laws that limit the sentencing discretion of judges. In his treatise “On Crimes and Punishments,” published in 1764, Italian nobleman Cesare Beccaria wrote, “The countries and times most notorious for severity of punishment have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane of deeds were committed.”

Famed Chicago lawyer Clarence Darrow argued harsh laws did zero to deter crime. In 18th Century England, he noted, pickpockets worked the crowds at public hangings even though picking pockets was punishable by hanging. Today, stiff sentences have contributed to putting a record 2.3 million Americans behind bars, so many that judges from Alabama to California are ordering governors to make their prisons livable. Legislators are considering paroling oldsters rather than building more lock-ups.

In Congress, bills are being debated (1) to require criminal background checks for all would-be buyers at gun shows, reversing the no-questions-asked practice; (2) to limit bulk sales of handguns; and (3) to ferret out that small minority of reckless licensed gun dealers whose sales account for 60% of crime scene weapons. Such laws can work. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D.-N.J.) claims since enactment of his bill preventing domestic abusers from buying a gun, more than 150,000 attempted gun purchases have been blocked.

In California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenneger recently signed a law obligating sellers of handgun ammunition to record the names of buyers and other information about their purchase. A similar law in Sacramento from mid-January, 2008, through August, 2009, helped police find 229 prohibited people who had illegally bought ammunition---173 of them with previous felony convictions. And by matching ammo purchases with names on the state’s prohibited persons file, the Sacramento D.A. could charge 181 illegal ammunition buyers with felonies, according to an article on the Huffington Post.

Californians are reacting to a series of horrific shooting murders. For one, there was the Los Angeles city worker on Feb. 25, 2005, who sprayed his boss and another employee with AK-47 bullets after being reprimanded for showing up late for work. For another, there was the murder at a traffic stop of four Oakland police officers last March 21 by a shooter with a long criminal record. Other states need to follow California’s initiative.

Another anti-violence step would be to pay children to stay in school. This could put money into the pockets of young males who might otherwise pull stick-ups, such as the one in Washington referred to above. One organization, the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, (NIF-ty for short) advises public school children on how to earn money buying and selling, and many trained kids open their own retail outlets. NFTE founder Steve Mariotti, a former Ford auto executive, got the idea after he was mugged jogging in Manhattan by some youths for the few bucks he was carrying. His outfit reports it has helped 230,000 young people run businesses in 22 states and 13 countries. 

Beyond these steps, educators need to press for courses to teach non-violence in our public schools. After all, American children are deluged with violence-filled Hollywood movies and video games where killing is trivialized. The Non-Violence Project USA Inc., whose symbol is a handgun with a knotted barrel, is one non-profit that engages teens in pro-social activities, recognizing the wisdom of Mahatma Gandhi’s observation, “If we are to achieve real peace, we shall have to begin with children.” 

Executive Director Diane Landsberg of the Miami chapter in Coral Gables, Fla., says, “We have become a very rude and impatient society. We are taught to rush but not to wait. Courtesy and politeness matters. In order to get respect you’ve got to give respect.” One positive action might be for the NRA’s LaPierre to show his critics some respect, to give their ideas a chance, as in Sacramento, to make a difference.


(Sherwood Ross is a public relations consultant for good causes. He formerly worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and as a columnist for major wire services. Reach him at

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