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Misinformed Moms

    Frankie Bishop Odom's son, Chris, died after being shot outside a Pine Bluff, Ark., bar in 1997, but she wasn't among the half a million or so persons marching for gun control in Washington this weekend. "I don't blame the mothers who want the handguns done away with, I don't blame them at all," she said. But, she told the New York Times, she didn't think it would keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Moreover, she added, "In this town, it's not a bad idea for you to have a gun." Pine Bluff having had the nation's highest murder rate in 1997 and 1998, perhaps she didn't want to rule out using a gun to protect herself from crime that police evidently could not stop.

     Mrs. Odom's ambivalence to the Million Mom March here in Washington this past weekend captures some of the doubts and concerns about the gun-control agenda that much of the media missed. TV journalists, almost to a person, found the likes of weapons registration, licensing, mandatory waiting periods and other proposed regulations so commonsensical that they wondered aloud why march organizers didn't go further. Said MSNBC talking head Soledad O'Brien, "The Million Mom Marchers' platform is admittedly moderate. Do you think it's too moderate, that it doesn't go far enough?"

     March spokesmen didn't seem to need much prompting. In an interview on ABC's "This Week," march emcee Rosie O'Donnell carefully downplayed any possible use of weapons for self-defense. Asked about the case of Suzanna Hupp, whose parents and other restaurant patrons died at the hands of a gun-toting maniac because, Mrs. Hupp says, state law forbade her from bringing in a handgun with which she could have defended them, Miss O'Donnell said she could understand her "pain" but not her desire for self-defense. "She wants everyone else in the restaurant to have a weapon to shoot the bad guy?" Miss O'Donnell asked. "So many people are going to be hurt doing that." As Mrs. Hupp's case shows, disarming people can hurt them too. TV stars can count on security to protect them; ordinary Americans can't.

     Some perspective on gun violence is useful here. Anyone watching the march, or looking at Clinton administration press releases, would think that careless or accidental gun violence is rampant in this country and kills toddlers by the thousands each year. In fact, as the Centers for Disease Control has reported, in all of 1996, there were 17 accidental gun deaths for children under 5 years old and 42 for children under 10. (By contrast, 40 children under 5 drown each year in 5-gallon buckets, and 80 drown in bathtubs.)

     The vast majority of "children" who die as a result of gun violence are ages 15-19, many of them as a result of gang fights over who controls drug turf. That's hardly a consolation to the parents of these victims or to policy-makers; one of those deaths is too many. But the strategy for combating drug-related violence might be different than for preventing 5-year-olds and their friends from playing with loaded weapons. If Miss O'Donnell, for example, thinks their untimely deaths warrant licensing and registering guns, does she want to license and register buckets too?

     Simplistic gun-control solutions to complex social problems, involving everything from one-parent families to parental neglect to lousy schools, divert attention from the real problems facing American families and contribute to unjustified complacency in responding to them. The guess here is that women like Mrs. Odom know that. One can only hope the marchers don't find out the hard way.

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