WASHINGTON — Why do we have the same futile argument every time there is a mass killing?

Advocates of gun control try to open a discussion about whether more reasonable weapons statutes might reduce the number of violent deaths.

Opponents of gun control shout, “No!” Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, they say, and anyway, if everybody were carrying weapons, someone would have taken out the mass murderer and all would have been fine.

And we do nothing.

This is a stupid argument, driven by the stupid politics of gun control in the United States.

In almost all other spheres, we act reasonably when faced with new problems. When Richard Reid showed that nasty things could be done with shoes on airplanes, airport security started examining shoes. When liquids were seen as potentially dangerous, we regulated the quantity of liquids we could take on flights. Long ago, we barred people from carrying weapons onto airliners.

If we can act pragmatically in the skies, why can’t we be equally practical here on earth?

In its zeal to defend our inviolable right to bear arms, is the National Rifle Association going to argue for carrying concealed weapons on airplanes? If not, won’t the organization be violating its core principle that all of us should be armed at all times?

No one pretends that smarter gun laws would prevent all violence. But it’s a disgrace that we can’t try to learn from tragedies such as this week’s Virginia Tech massacre and figure out whether better laws might at least modestly reduce the likelihood of such horrific events happening again.

Our country is a laughingstock on the rest of the planet because of our devotion to unlimited gun rights. On Thursday, an Australian newspaper carried the headline: “America, the gun club.”

John Howard, the solidly right-wing Australian prime minister closely allied with President Bush, bragged earlier this week that when a mass killing took place in Australia in 1996, “we took action to limit the availability of guns and we showed a national resolve that the gun culture that is such a negative in the United States would never become a negative in our country.” No doubt the NRA will mount a boycott of Foster’s beer.

Any reasonable measures are blocked because most Republicans are opportunists on the gun issue and Democrats have become wimps. Republicans have exploited support from the NRA for years and Democrats, eyeing rural congressional seats, are petrified of doing anything that will offend the gun lobby.

The newspaper Politico, using figures from the Center for Responsive Politics, reported that in the 2006 elections, pro-gun groups gave $962,525 in contributions, and groups considered “anti-gun” gave $49,090. Republicans received 166 times more money from pro-gun groups as from anti-gun groups. Democrats received three times more from pro- than anti-gun groups. Who owns Congress?

But it’s not just money. It’s also how the gun issue has been “distorted and how it has been turned into a hot button cultural issue,” said Rep. David Price, D-N.C., in an interview Wednesday.

“You’re either for or against the issue and that’s kind of code for being ‘one of us’ or not, of being in tune culturally,” he added. “And that’s the end of the issue,” meaning that it’s difficult to deal with gun regulation “in a rational, measured way.”

Price said that when he confronts voters in his district who criticize him for being “for gun control,” he asks whether they favor background checks for gun buyers, a ban on assault weapons and more efforts to trace guns used in crimes “to check out gun dealers who supply guns.” In large numbers, he says, such voters agree with him and reject the positions taken by the gun lobby.

The key, Price argues, is to propose “specific and well-targeted” measures aimed at keeping guns out of the wrong hands.

OK, let’s be specific. What would the NRA’s objection be to a law requiring gun dealers to establish whether a potential buyer is a student and, if so, to inform (or even receive permission from) the student’s high school or college before any weapons could be sold? What about raising the age for purchasing a gun to 25 or 30? Why not renew the ban on the sale of assault weapons?

Why not create a national bipartisan commission that would propose ways — including, but not limited to, sane gun laws — to push back our culture of violence?

One more question: Why are our politicians still cowering before the gun lobby after Virginia Tech?

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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