WORDS DON'T KILL PEOPLE; BULLETS DO

Richard Reeves

LOS ANGELES --- I do not believe that Sarah Palin and her blather about "reloading" or Sharron Angle, she of "Second Amendment solutions," have anything to do with the gunning down of innocents in Arizona. You can't blame a third of a huge nation, who love simplistic hyperbole, for the actions of one crazy person in Tucson.

What bothers me is people, sane and insane, with guns, better ones, another manifestation of technological revolution. What bothers me is the cowardice of national leaders and other politicians who allow people to carry around those weapons on the streets, in restaurants and bars. That's the great American craziness.

My father was a criminal court judge in Hudson County, New Jersey, a pretty tough venue in the best of times. He was a Republican, a pretty conservative one, and a hunter with two shotguns locked in a case. I learned a lot, I think, sitting in his courtroom as a boy and listening to him talk at home.

First, I know about death threats. They were a regular feature of our lives. Most particularly I remember "The Voice of Doom," a telephone voice saying that he was not only going to kill my father, but my mother, brother and me as well. My father's reaction to some of those calls was to offer to meet these people in a public place, a bar on Journal Square near the Hudson and Manhattan Tube station. They either did not show up or they poured out their tale of woe before thanking my father for seeing them.

I thought he was a brave man, though I can't imagine anyone would do the same now, in day when, at least in Arizona, it is perfectly conceivable that the callers might have concealed semi-automatic weapons under their jackets.

Second, he taught me about guns, how to use them and his view of them as a jurist who presided over years of murder and attempted murder cases. This is what he told me about that:

Almost all murders are between people who know or know of each other and for reasons good or bad got into arguments or disputes that escalated into violence. It is hard to kill a person with your hands or a club or a knife. You have to get close to your enemy, and he or she is going to fight back. The would-be assassin was often in as dangerous a position as the assailant. In those disputes -- domestic violence, for instance -- one person or the other reached for the heaviest weaponry available. If it was a baseball bat or a kitchen knife, there could be blood or broken bones, but the victim generally survived. Not so with guns; in those cases, shooters could kill with minimum risk to themselves.

So my father believed in gun control, though I'm not sure the phrase existed back then. In those days, carrying a gun, whether you used it or not, was a felony. Carrying a concealed firearm was a violation of what across the river in New York was called the Sullivan Law. And there were no such things then as 7-inch-long semi-automatic pistols capable of firing 30 9mm rounds.

Carrying such a weapon is a legal right in Arizona and a few other places. And if I read the situation correctly, that freedom to carry -- "packing," it used to be called -- that right, is expanding. We are a country that has become totally comfortable with minutes of silence and flags at half-mast. Then we sing "God Bless America" in the middle of the seventh inning.

So, no, I don't blame Palin or anyone else. If groups should be blamed for the latest shoot 'em up in Arizona, it is the colleagues of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Congress and her former colleagues in the Arizona Legislature. Politicians. It is the cowardice of politicians of both parties to challenge the National Rifle Association and others pumping pittances of money into the political system that has brought us to the point that anyone, nuts or not, can carry guns around. The result of that political fear will continue until soon enough we will have time for only 30 seconds of silence for each deadly outrage.

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