Saturday, May 12, 2007

April 16, the day the worst peacetime shooting in American history took place at Virginia Tech, will not be soon forgotten. But normalcy is slowly returning. The prayers and condolences have ended, the tragedy is no longer Page One news, classes have been resumed and the flag at the headquarters of the National Rifle Association (NRA) in Virginia no longer flies at half mast.

The issue of gun control in our country will apparently again be glossed over. The presidential candidates, chiefly interested in votes, have mostly avoided the subject, and Virginia continues to allow the purchase of only one gun per month — no deterrent for Seung-hui Cho.

Ours is a country, unique among industrialized societies, that has become insensitive to murder. How else to explain the “American gun culture” that tolerates some 14,000 firearm murders, including 400 children, in 2005 — the last year statistics are available? Guns are easily purchased despite laws about waiting periods and background checks. The Seung-hui Cho story indicates the restrictions posed by the 1968 Gun Control Act are enforced only in the breach. Firearm murder rates 100 times higher in the United States than, for example, in Britain or Japan, are stark evidence our gun control laws are a joke.

What is not a joke is the absurd contention of the NRA gunslingers that if the Virginia Tech students had been armed there would have been far fewer victims. When would this powerful gun lobby have our students start arming themselves — at the high school or college level or in kindergarten? No civilized nation legitimizes packing a pistol while attending school.

Repeated polls have shown the majority of our citizens favor much tougher gun control laws. Some states have actually passed such stringent laws, but their effect has been watered down by the lax laws of their neighboring states.

Gun control is obviously in the domain of federal rather than individual state jurisdiction. President Clinton attempted gun control in 1994 when he banned military type assault weapons that have no sane civilian use, but President Bush allowed this modest gun control measure to lapse in 2004.

Early detection and treatment of the mentally ill is important but is not an adequate answer to firearm shootings gone amok. Mental health specialists are far outnumbered by the mentally disturbed and depressed youth of our country.

The debate over gun control is dominated by the interpretation of the Second Amendment to our Constitution — widely acclaimed as “the finest document ever devised by man.” In the one-sentence Second Amendment, “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms should not be infringed,” the key word is security, but not the kind of security that is now relevant to our nation.

As voiced in the Federalist Papers, the Second Amendment was concerned with the tyrannical kingdoms overseas, which would be “speedily overturned” were the people allowed to bear arms — an “advantage the nation would possess — and serve as a barrier to the despotism of the Old World.”

By today’s standards, crime was no problem in the largely rural New World whose inhabitants seldom locked their doors. Aside from rifles for hunting, firearms played a minor role in everyday life. Unknown in Colonial days were rival gangs engaged in drive-by shootings, drug-related homicide, road rage gunfire and, certainly, students shooting other students.

The Second Amendment was not remotely related to the type of violence nightly displayed on TV but rather a reflection of the political climate in Europe at the time. Our Founding Fathers were so wary of a central government that they proposed only a small standing army outnumbered 20-to-1 by a civilian militia. Clearly; their well-warranted fears are not germane today.

Alex Gerber, a clinical professor of surgery, emeritus, at the University of Southern California, is a former health care consultant to the White House and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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