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Gun-Violence Myth Driving
2000 Political Campaigns

Whites in suburbs fear their kids are targets;
statistics say otherwise.

3 July 2000


CHICAGO -- Consuelo Quintero was cooking
when she heard shots pepper her west-side
neighborhood. Quintero, 50, bolted from her
apartment into a nearby alley.

Sprawled on the pavement, blood smeared
on his shirt, was her worst fear confirmed.
Despite her screams, her son Carlos, 16,
would not open his eyes.

"I thought he was going to die," Quintero
recalled recently. Carlos survived the attack
by rival street-gang members, but he was left
paralyzed and in a wheelchair.

Gun violence remains a characteristic of the
nation's cities. But the growing national
debate over the issue stems instead from a
widespread perception, created largely by
news coverage, that the problem has spread
to white, middle-class suburbia.

Intense coverage of the massacre at
Columbine High School in suburban Denver
last year "dramatized the issue in such a way
that no one can say, 'It does not affect me,' "
said U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., a leader
in the 1960s civil rights movement. "The gun
violence that has been so real and so
powerful in the lives of people in the inner city
has now engulfed all of us."

Donna Dees-Thomases, the 42-year-old
New Jersey mother of two who organized the
Million Mom March on the National Mall in
May, said she was inspired to activism by
televised images of preschoolers being led
away from a shooting rampage at a day care
center in Granada Hills, Calif. The picture,
she said, made her fear for her own children.

Statistics, however, show that gun violence
still primarily plagues urban minorities. Death
rates remain unusually high for young black
men in core urban areas, according to a
1998 study published in the Journal of the
American Medical Association.

And contrary to popular perceptions, most
gun deaths are suicides, not homicides, and
person-to-person gun violence is declining,
experts say. 

Those facts have not prevented the issue
from catapulting to prominence in this year's
presidential debate. It's the first time guns
have gotten such attention since 1968, when
political assassinations and urban riots
galvanized the electorate.

Antigun side gains allies

Various polls suggest many Americans favor
tougher gun laws. And a sizable group of
those polled say a presidential candidate's
position on gun laws will have at least some
influence on for whom they vote.

Despite grumbling that the mothers became
active only after they thought gun violence
had spread to their own neighborhoods,
antigun activists welcomed them to the
cause, especially after several hundred
thousand people turned out at the Million
Mom March on Mother's Day.

Advocates of stricter controls on gun sales
and ownership say they hope the moms will
add political muscle to the movement, which
has made little headway in Congress.

Mike Barnes, president of Handgun Control
Inc. and a former Democratic House member
from Maryland, recalls the political pressure
generated by Mothers Against Drunk Driving,
which helped foster a nationwide crackdown
on drinking and driving.

"Once the moms got energized, it changed
the dynamic. Once awakened, they are a
significant political force," Barnes said.

Whether the million moms will be as effective
as MADD is open to question, however.
Social movements such as curbing drunken
driving or expanding civil rights for minorities
typically coalesce around legislative
solutions, said Robert Bresler, a political
scientist at Pennsylvania State University. But
the gun-control movement is split over what
remedies to pursue. It is also up against
politically mobilized gun-rights advocates,
who say new laws won't reduce the violence. 

"If the antigun movement is able to build a
strong middle-class constituency, and they
can agree on a particular set of legislative
accomplishments, it might become effective,"
Bresler said.

To further complicate matters, it isn't clear
that the gun violence is getting worse,
despite the rash of widely publicized school

There were 32,436 deaths from firearms in
1997, according to the most recent statistics
from the federal Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention in Atlanta. Roughly 54
percent of them -- 17,566 -- were suicides,
with the highest rate among white men ages
35 to 44. Homicide accounted for 13,522 of
the deaths, or slightly less than 42 percent.
The rest were unintentional shootings.

A presidential issue

Although gun-related deaths remain high in
the United States compared with other
industrialized countries, deaths and injuries
from guns peaked in 1993 and have declined
every year since, the CDC reports. The
agency cites the booming economy, the
aging population, the decline of crack
cocaine use and law enforcement
crackdowns as possible reasons. 

However, gun-related homicide rates remain
high for young black men, especially in cities,
according to the JAMA study. For those ages
15 to 24, it was 175 deaths per 100,000
people, compared with 30 gun-related
deaths per 100,000 for young white males in
urban areas. 

Outside the cities, the firearm death rate for
young black suburban men dropped to 92
per 100,000 compared with eight per
100,000 young white suburban men,
according to the JAMA study, which is based
on 1995 statistics.

Renewed activism by gun-control advocates
led the National Rifle Association to say in
May that it will try to raise and spend a record
amount to help defeat Vice President Al
Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate.

Gore and his Republican rival, Texas Gov.
George W. Bush, take markedly different
approaches to guns.

Gore has called for a mandatory, state-run
system of photo licenses for handgun buyers,
similar to the driver-licensing system. He
would ban cheaply made handguns frequently
used in crimes. And he would limit individuals
to one gun purchase a month in an effort to
stop traffickers who resell guns to criminals,
children and others ineligible to buy them.

The vice president also said he would require
3-day waiting periods for guns bought at gun
shows like the one where the two young
killers at Columbine bought their weapons.

Bush opposes mandatory registration of
guns or licensing of owners. He emphasizes
"Americans' constitutional right to own guns
to protect their families and homes," a
reference to the Second Amendment's
guarantee that "the right of the people to
keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." 

Bush says he would provide more federal
money to beef up enforcement of existing gun
laws. He supports background checks at gun
shows, but only if they can be done
immediately through the national system. 

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