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Deafening Silence

Why are so many Americans so conspicuously silent on the issue of gun control?

October 15, 2002

Why are so many Americans so conspicuously silent on the issue of gun control?

The infamous Washington sniper — who has killed nine people by now and wounded two others — has done little to trigger a U.S. debate on more effective gun control measures.

Despite the occasional newspaper commentary, neither opinion makers nor the public at large have truly confronted the underlying issues. Very little has been heard from the political classes as well.

Instead, most public commentary has been reduced to presenting the tragedy essentially in the form of a melodrama.

Yet, as regrettable as every one of those lives lost is, human-interest stories will do little to curb the widespread availability of guns in American life. Nor will they prevent similar tragedies from happening again.

In light of the Bush Administration’s strong effort to go after Saddam Hussein, many people around the world are confused about one question: Why is the United States so focused on weapons of mass destruction — if its politicians do not even have the willpower and determination to go about the business of protecting the citizens in its own capital?

Connecting those two issues may seem unfair to most Americans. But most people outside the United States wonder aloud why Washington has so much zeal about Saddam — and so little concern for small arms proliferation.

After all, the sniper in the Washington area is murdering innocent people — and putting the population of the nation's capital on edge. The killer does not have weapons of mass destruction. Far from it. The person is likely using what — in the parlance of U.S. gun merchants — is charmingly called a "hunting rifle."

But this innocent-sounding "hunting rifle" is terrorizing people in Washington. Preventing the tools for murder and mayhem from falling into the wrong people's hands, after all, is not just a matter of concern when it comes to Saddam Hussein.

Collectively viewed, guns also add up to weapons of mass destruction on U.S. soil. Every year, more than 30,000 people are shot to death in murders, suicides and accidents in the United States of America.

There is, of course, nothing new about these facts. After every major gun-related horror — from school shootings to other heart-wrenching murders, suicides or accidents — calls for stricter gun regulation are met by the unbending opposition of the U.S. gun lobby.

Anybody questioning the threat posed by guns ought to walk around Washington these days. There is a heavy police presence both at schools and on the streets — and some people even have taken to donning bullet-proof vests while pumping gas. Simply put, common citizens are worried sick about another sniper attack.

Some may argue that U.S. attitudes towards guns are a domestic issue. And by that logic, if Americans don't perceive gun violence as a big enough problem to do something about it — then that's their good right as a free people.

But unfortunately, this view leaves out the fact that the twisted U.S. politics of gun "rights" has major spill-over effects on the global stage.

Citing the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment that protects the right of Americans "to keep and bear arms," U.S. negotiators played a major part in scuttling a United Nations initiative to ban the illegal trade of small arms, such as assault rifles and pistols.

The Bush Administration's position on the issue — which is almost identical with that of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the largest pro-gun lobby — is that such a ban could interfere with the rights of U.S. citizens to own and buy guns.

Most of the other countries that were present at the conference were shocked that the United States would promote such a hard-line position, given that small arms are wreaking havoc in numerous conflicts around the world.

Of the 49 major conflicts during the 1990s, 47 were fought with small arms as the weapons of choice. These weapons — an estimated 600 million are in circulation worldwide — are responsible for over 300,000 deaths every year during armed conflicts.

To understand why small arms are such a huge problem, think of thugs armed with AK-47 assault rifles. They are the thugs who terrorize civilians, destabilize governments, hinder relief operations and nurture a culture of violence in states ranging from Somalia to Colombia — and Sierra Leone to Afghanistan.

Ultimately, small arms constitute a problem that — to much of the world — is at least as urgent as going after Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

It therefore doesn't do for the U.S. government to aggressively pursue regime change in Iraq, all the while ignoring — and even indirectly promoting — the global scourge of small arms violence. Especially when the effects of small arms violence can be seen on the home front — as the incidents in the Washington-area make plain.

It is shameful enough that the U.S. government isn't doing more to protect its own citizens from gun violence. It's even worse when U.S. policies contribute to a problem of global dimensions.

Not just at home, but also on the global stage, gun control is but one of the big issues on which the United States needs to mend its ways.

The country would do well to advocate the importance of one simple rule: Freedom — as precious as it undoubtedly is — can go too far. Sanity needs to prevail.

And in the wise words of the 1st century B.C. Rabbi Beit Hillel, the world is asking this question: "And if not now, when?"

Yes, when will this country ever get serious about gun control?