Guns in America: Combating the spread of gun violence – USA TODAY

This story originally published on Dec. 29, 1993. It is being republished as part of the commemoration of USA TODAY’s 40th anniversary on Sept. 15, 2022.
The best idea for ending the violence gripping the USA could be as simple as melting handguns into scrap metal.
Then again, the best idea might be executing those who use handguns to commit crimes.
Either of these proposals – distilled from basic arguments on both sides of the debate over violence and guns – might ensure citizens’ safety.
So why not choose one? Democracy should be so easy.
With more than 200 million firearms in circulation and the Second Amendment’s ambiguous “right to bear arms,” finding a solution has become a nationwide political battle.
Having passed Jim and Sarah Brady’s handgun control bill, and with growing public support for an answer to street crime, Congress is in a rush to legislate – or at least propose – more gun laws. Sixty bills related to gun regulation bubbled up in 1993, and a slew are on tap for 1994:
The House next month is expected to take up the crime bill, already approved by the Senate, that calls for billions of dollars for drug treatment, boot camps for first-time offenders and stricter sentences for crimes committed with guns. Also included is a ban of 19 types of semiautomatic assault-style weapons. In addition:
Rep. Cardiss Collins, D-Illinois, wants to make both gun manufacturers and gun dealers liable for damages from gun use.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-New York, wants to substantially boost the tax on bullets.
Other proposals call for licensing handgun owners, limiting gun purchases to one a month, and requiring stringent background checks for gun dealers.
Despite this flurry of activity, there’s still a segment of Congress – mainly Republicans and Western Democrats – who say gun control won’t keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Their solutions: more prisons, longer sentences and harsher penalties. “There is no one answer to the crime problem,” says Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. “To say the gun problem is the answer is absurd. We need to emphasize a more comprehensive approach.”
The Clinton administration is offering a little to both sides. The president has pledged money for 100,000 new police officers, and last week Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen proposed higher fees and fewer federally licensed dealers. “It makes no sense at all to have over 250,000 dealers in guns today and to have . . . people even operating out of their kitchens,” Bentsen said.
While advocating tougher stands on crime, including harsher jail sentences, neighborhood watches and community patrols, the National Rifle Association and other gun advocates see education and awareness as key to making people responsible gun owners. “These gun laws restricting law-abiding citizens don’t work,” says Steve Whitener of Gun Owners of America. “We need to educate and inform.”
Some gun control advocates say gun owners should have to buy liability insurance. “We essentially let gun owners off the hook in this society by saying they don’t have any responsibility,” says Richard Saltman, director of health policy management at Emory University. A gun owner would have to show proof he has insurance coverage to purchase a gun, just as many states require proof of auto insurance to get a license plate or register a car title. Anyone injured by that weapon could then recover damages through the owner’s insurance coverage. The idea is so new, most insurers have yet to form opinions. “This is something that could be quite expensive,” says Tom O’Day, associate vice president of the Alliance of American Insurers, a trade group.
Although some ideas are years away from everyday use, modern technology could restrict access to firearms without offending gun rights advocates. Some possibilities:
“Smart guns” that recognize owners by their palm prints – now being developed by defense contractors.
A radioactive or chemical tracer that could be placed in all guns and ammo to make detection easier. Police would carry detectors.
A magnetic strip on drivers’ licenses, encoded to prevent felons from buying guns.
Some communities, including New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., have tried enticing people into surrendering their weapons. In Dallas this month, the defending NFL Super Bowl champion Cowboys, Dallas police and the Children’s Medical Center began a year-long program to give residents tickets to football games in exchange for firearms. Nationwide, thousands of guns are turned in through gun amnesty and buy-back programs. In New York City Tuesday, a police station was mobbed as people traded in guns for $100 certificates for toys. In all, 403 guns were swapped. “Maybe it’s like a raindrop in the ocean, but it does make a difference,” says Dewey Stokes of the Fraternal Order of Police. “On a symbolic level, (buy-back programs) are a positive step,” says James Fox, dean of the College of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. “Every gun off the streets is an improvement.”
Most of the ideas for ending violence are “little itty-bitty things . . . nibbling away at the problem,” says Florida State University criminology professor Gary Kleck. “Mixed in with all that silliness, there’s some talk that we have to get at the root of the problem, which is poverty.”
Beyond family and economic improvements, the quickest way to end the violence, Kleck says, is a cease-fire in the drug war. “The war on drugs caused that problem,” Kleck says. “You disrupt drug markets, it causes violence.” Since the mid-1980s – when crack cocaine became a street staple and the war on drugs hit its stride – handgun deaths have nearly doubled.
Contributing: Gary Fields, Steve Komarow, William M. Welch and Leslie Phillips


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