1994: Guns in America

Librado Romero/The New York Times




Erik Larson ’78

Erik Larson explored America’s controversial debate regarding the right to bear arms in “Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun,” which traces a single gun from manufacturer to distributor to the hands of a troubled teenager who carried out a tragic school shooting.

“Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun”, from Chapter Three: The Lethal Landscape

By Erik Larson

The nation began arming itself in earnest in the roaring sixties amid student protests, Cold War terror, race riots, and assassinations. Over the most tumultuous years, from 1967 to 1968, the number of handguns annually made available for sale to civilians in the U.S. rose by 50 percent—by some 802,000 pistols and revolvers—to 2.4 million, the greatest single annual leap in American history. In 1960, there were 16 million handguns in America; ten years later, the total had risen to more than 27 million. As of 1989, according to a study by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF), there were 66.7 million handguns and 200 million firearms of all kinds in circulation in the United States.

If these guns were controlled by a legion of sober adults, we might have far less to worry about. One study of eleven thousand teenagers in ten states found that 41 percent of the boys and 21 percent of the girls said they could obtain a handgun whenever they wished. A July 1993 poll of students in grades six through twelve conducted by Louis Harris for the Harvard School of Public Health found that 59 percent said they could get a handgun if they wanted one; 21 percent said they could get one within the hour.

Handgun access among children is not strictly an urban problem. The Harris poll found the degree of access to be surprisingly constant between rural, suburban, and urban communities. More than 60 percent of children who lived in cities said they could get a handgun if they wished; 58 percent of suburban kids claimed they could too. A University of North Carolina study of adolescents in suburban and rural communities in the Southeast found that 9 percent of the boys actually owned a handgun. Boys typically received their first firearm—usually a shotgun or a rifle but seven percent of the time a handgun—at the age of twelve and a half. More than a fifth, however, received their first guns at the very responsible age of ten.

Kids have begun using their guns against each other. From 1965 to 1990, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the rate at which children age ten through seventeen were arrested for homicide increased by 332 percent, despite a slight drop in that segment of the population. Anyone inclined to dismiss these figures as reflecting merely the high rate of homicide in the nation’s black urban neighborhoods would be profoundly mistaken. The incidence of homicide arrests of white children increased in the same period by 425 percent.

Increasingly, you don’t need to own a gun or be the intended target of someone else’s gun to get shot. As guns have proliferated, the rate at which bystanders are wounded and killed has soared. In 1985 stray bullets killed four New Yorkers; in 1990 they killed forty.

Gun merchants and hobbyists steadfastly protest that guns aren’t the problem and, even if they were, that gun ownership is explicitly endorsed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution—the much misquoted “right to bear arms” clause—and it therefore as much a part of the American way as, say, voting. A comparison of international homicide statistics proves that guns do indeed set America apart from the rest of the developed world.

In 1987, America’s civilian guns were used to murder 3,187 young men age fifteen to twenty-four, accounting for three-fourths of the annual homicide rate in this demographic group of 21.9 per 100,000 people.

In Canada only seventeen young men were murdered with firearms, for an overall rate of 2.9 per 100,000.

In Japan, with 0.5 homicides per 100,000 people, eight young men died in gunshot homicides—as many killings as New York police encounter on a single busy weekend.

What accounts for the difference? Incidence of poverty, surely. Racial division. America’s frontier history and the myths it conjured. The influence of television and movies.

And the sheer number of guns.

It is easy to challenge any study that purports to show a direct relationship between firearms proliferation and the rate of violent crime. Which came first, the challenge goes, the rise in gun sales or the crime rate? Did the increase in the number of guns encourage more people to commit crime? Or did the increase in crime drive more people to buy guns to defend themselves? The ease of making this challenge and the impossibility of ever fully defending against it have allowed the gun camp to obscure the debate over firearms distribution, when in fact there is an abundance of credible evidence that where there are more guns, there are more deaths from guns. The NRA’s sloganeering notwithstanding, the evidence suggests that guns do indeed kill people.

A landmark study in King County, Washington, which includes Seattle, found that a gun kept at home was forty-three times more likely to be used to kill its owner, a family member, or a friend than an intruder. A Pittsburgh psychiatric hospital reported that the mere presence of a gun in the home more than doubles the odds that an adolescent member of the family will commit suicide. In 1987, Dr. Garen Wintemute, a researcher with the University of California at Davis Medical Center, plotted the annual firearm homicide rate per 100,000 people for the years 1946 through 1982. On the same graph, he plotted ATF’s estimate of the number of new firearms made available for sale each year. The two lines track each other over the page with the eerie precision of a pair of figure skaters, both peaking around 1974, both dipping in 1976, both rising to another peak, both falling in concert toward 1982. (The rates of both have increased since then.) A 1986 study from the National Institute of Mental Health found similarly striking correlations between the increased proliferation of firearms and the rate of gunshot suicide among people age ten to twenty-four.

One of the foremost researchers in this forbidding territory is Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor at Earl Warren Legal Institute of the University of California, Berkeley, who has studied the issue since the 1960s. He established that although handguns only account for about a third of the guns owned in America, they are used in more than 75 percent of gunshot homicides and 80 percent of firearm-related robberies. “On average,” Zimring reported, rifles and shotguns are seven times less likely than handguns to be used in criminal violence.” In one of his early studies he reviewed records of 16,000 violent assaults in Chicago to see whether the attacker’s choice of knife or gun influenced the outcome. He found, first, that in seven of ten cases where the victim died, the attacker inflicted only one wound. That is, the attacker did not repeatedly stab or shoot the victim to make sure he was dead. The major difference among these attacks was that “an assault with a gun was five times more likely to result in a fatality than an assault with a knife.” Zimring described the heightened danger posed by the attacker’s choice of a gun as an “instrumentality effect” attributable to the inherent lethal character of guns.

In one of the most compelling studies of the impact of firearm proliferation, Dr. Arthur Kellermann, an emergency-medicine physician at Emory University, and associates from the Universities of Washington and British Columbia studied the rates of homicide and assault in Seattle and Vancouver from 1980 through 1986. The cities are close to each other. They have similar economies and similar geophysical locations. Their populations have a similar demographic profile. Presumably they watch the same movies and many of the same TV shows. During the study period, they also had similar assault rates. They differed markedly, however, in the degree to which they regulated access to firearms. Vancouver allowed gun sales only to people who could demonstrate a legitimate reason for having a firearm. Seattle had few regulations. The researchers found that attackers in Seattle were almost eight times more likely to use a handgun than those in Vancouver. Seattle’s homicide rate, moreover, was five times higher, with handgun-related killings accounting for most of the difference.

The proliferation of guns continues, however. In the 1980s gun manufacturers feared they might have sold so many guns to American consumers that they had sated the market. Indeed, slack demand helped cause the failure of Charter Arms and drove Colt’s Manufacturing into bankruptcy. Gunmakers, cheered on by the National Rifle Association, sought to improve their prospects by pitching guns—handguns in particular—as the only sure way to protect ourselves against crime. The Los Angeles riots of 1992 proved a godsend. Millions of TV viewers watched a white truck driver beaten senseless by black marauders. They saw Korean businessmen, the new heroes of American enterprise, brandishing guns to guard their inner-city businesses in scenes that evoked our most favorite Wild West myths: a good man standing alone, gun drawn and squinting into the setting sun, waiting for nightfall and the next attack of the barbaric hordes, be they Indians, cattle rustlers, train robbers, or, in this modern transmogrification, black gang-bangers in the ghetto. The most striking images and the most beneficial to the gun marketers were those scenes played over and over again of a group of L.A.’s Finest retreating posthaste to their police cars and leaving the good settlers of Indian country to their own devices.

The NRA was quick to extract the obvious message of the riots: you better get a gun because no one else is going to protect you. A 1992 recruitment ad for the NRA featured blocks of text against photographs of looting, burning, and destruction. “WHAT WILL IT TAKE?” the ad asked. “Must your glass be shattered? Must your flesh and blood be maimed? Must your livelihood be looted? Must all you’ve built be torn down? Must your once-proud nation surrender to more gun-control experimentation while its citizens tremble behind deadbolts and barred windows? . . . What will it take before you stand up with the one group that will stand for no more? . . . We warned gun laws would fail, and they have. We said gun control is wrong, and L. A. PROVES IT.”

The newest targets for this sales pitch are women, considered especially receptive, the argument goes, because so many now are single heads of households and increasingly hold important jobs that require late hours and lots of travel. Gun magazines, such as the American Rifleman, published by the NRA, and Women and Guns, published by the Second Amendment Foundation, routinely carry stories about armed women who killed, wounded, or at least scared off their attackers. Such testimonials may require close examination, at least in light of one example printed in a 1989 issue of American Rifleman. The story described how a female cabdriver in Phoenix, Arizona, picked up a customer early one morning, only to have him hold a broken bottle to her throat and force her to drive to a deserted area. He took $70, then pushed the woman from the cab. “When her assailant ordered her to crawl in the dirt, [she] responded by emptying her pocket semiauto into him,” the magazine reported. “He died later in a hospital.”

By emptying her gun the cabdriver did indeed save herself, but not quite in the way this heroic account would have us believe. She later told the Arizona Republic how her enraged and wounded attacker then seized her gun, jabbed the barrel into her neck, and pulled the trigger—not once, but several times.

Had she not emptied the gun first, clearly her attacker would have done so.

The American Rifleman does not print tales of the risks associated with firearms ownership, such as the story carried by the Associated Press in October 1991 about a woman who shot herself in the face late one night. She blamed the accident, the AP reported, “on sleepy confusion between two objects she keeps under her pillow—her asthma medication dispenser and a .38-caliber revolver.” The dispatch then quoted the woman as saying, “I didn’t even know I had hold of the gun until it went off.” She survived with surprisingly minor injuries.

Gun manufacturers now peddle their weapons to women using advertisements that show guns juxtaposed with photographs of small children and that describe gun ownership as a necessary act of women’s liberation. A controversial Colt ad, run in 1992, featured photographs of two Colt pistols under a larger photograph of a mother putting her young daughter and her Raggedy Ann doll to bed. “Self-protection is more than your right,” the ad reads, “it’s your responsibility.” Even Davis Industries of Chino, California, gets into the act. “What with all the crime in the streets these days,” the Davis ad says, “a woman needs a bodyguard more than ever”—a rather ironic declaration, given that the company’s cheap handguns and those produced by its sister company, Raven Arms, are among the guns most often implicated in urban crime.

A Smith & Wesson ad shows a young woman intently firing the company’s LadySmith revolver at a shooting range. This is the newest incarnation of the LadySmith. The company produced its first LadySmith, a small .22 revolver designed for a woman’s hand, in 1902 and manufactured it until 1921, when it learned some disturbing news: the revolver had become the weapon of choice among prostitutes. Horrified, the company quickly halted production. The woman in the most recent ad appears under a headline that asks, “What Would Mom Think Now?”—a slogan clearly meant to evoke the famous or perhaps infamous Virginia Slims pitchline, “You’ve come a long way, baby!”

“We’re seeing the same thing we saw with promoting cigarettes,” said Dr. Wintemute, the University of California researcher. “An inherently hazardous product is being associated with images of equality for women, of liberation for women, of independence for women, with the added approach of using fear—which you can’t use to sell cigarettes but you can certainly use to sell guns.”

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