Shockproof to violence

Boston—There were murders over the weekend. Everyday, garden-variety murders, or should I say everyday, urban-variety murders.

Most of them ended up buried, if you will excuse the expression, in the back of the paper. When there are 16,000 murders by firearms every year, every homicide isn’t front-page news. Boys and young men are shot over turf, over drugs, over money, over nothing, all the time.

Sometimes it takes a fresh angle, a new twist, something unusual to make a headline out of a mere murder. The victim has to be a tourist on a highway. Or a policeman. A 4-year-old caught in the crossfire. Or an entire family.

Shootings for that matter, mere woundings, are rarely noted at all, except on the police blotter or the hospital admission chart. Nor is there a place to record instances of fear, except in the minds of people who have seen their cities become shooting ranges and their neighbors becomes targets.

We have become nearly shockproof. We have watched cynically as the political hot potato of violence is passed among policymakers who call for more police and stronger families, more jails and social programs.

But we are not immune to anger. The cumulative effect of murder—another day, another 40 deaths—has finally simmered into a heated insistence that we do something as well about those efficient tools of homicide: the guns.

What was it Janet Reno said some months ago? “If only this nation would rise up and tell the NRA to get lost.” Well, for the first time in memory, the gun lobby is on the defensive. For the first time, candidates who once feared the NRA are running against it. For the first time, gun control laws are not political suicide. They may be political salvation.

In New Jersey, the beleaguered Gov. Jim Florio resurrected his campaign with an attack ad that was literally about attack weapons. The ad asked: Why would the NRA spend a million dollars to elect Christie Todd Whitman?

In Virginia, Attorney General Mary Sue Terry has tagged her opponent in the governor’s race this way: George Allen, Reckless On Guns, Politics As Usual.

There has been a rash of modest gun control victories in the state legislatures as well. This year, Connecticut passed a ban on assault weapons. Virginia passed another limiting the purchase of guns to one a month.

In Colorado, after a infant was killed in a shootout at the zoo, Gov. Roy Romer called a special session of the legislature to ban juvenile possession of handguns. Now in Massachusetts, the gun-owning hunter, Republican Gov. William Weld, is supporting both a ban on assault weapons and on possession of handguns by anyone under 21.

Gun control advocates have also found allies too among doctors who speak of guns these days the way they speak of cigarettes: as a public health menace. They tally up the cost of gunshot wounds the way they tally the costs of lung cancer. They find that the risk of homicide is three times greater in a home with a gun than in a home without one.

Now Congress—once a wholly owned subsidiary of the NRA—is getting the message just as it is getting the Brady bill. Again.

“How many years has it been since Jim Brady got shot?” asked Clinton when he spoke of violence at his law school reunion last weekend. It’s been 12 years. “And still we haven’t passed the Brady bill.”

If the Brady bill were a dress, it would make its return appearance to Congress this month in tatters, moth-eaten and out of date. It’s a relic of the Reagan era when too little was still too much to ask for.

This modest bill requires a five-day waiting period and a background check before someone can buy a gun. Friends of the bill worry that it may disappoint a public already skeptical about the ability of such laws to reduce violence. But even enemies agree that it has become the national referendum on the future of gun control.

If Brady passes, the NRA spell is broken. What happens next? A national ban on assault weapons? A health-care tax on guns and bullets? A federal ban on minors possessing handguns? We begin the long haul toward saner policies and safer streets.

For now, turn to the back of the paper. Another day, another murder. Or two. Hillary Clinton said it best on CNN, “I cannot bear to pick up another newspaper and read about another baby shot.”

There is one thing even worse. If babies with bullets in them stop being news.