Cry, The Trigger Happy Country


By Erik Larson

Crown x 272pp x $21

When it comes to guns, urban Americans are increasingly splitting into two camps. To owners, guns are an enjoyable hobby as well as protection against the rapist, the burglar, the drug-addled maniac pounding on the door at midnight. But those who fear guns worry that they'll become victims of handguns--in muggings, carjackings, or crossfire--or that their kids will be shot at school. The two camps have found no room for compromise. Owners, through such groups as the National Rifle Association, fight to keep government from restricting their right to bear arms. Meanwhile, gun-control advocates try to limit their chances of being shot.

As Erik Larson makes depressingly clear in Lethal Passage: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis, the owners' lobby so far has prevailed overwhelmingly. It has essentially written the rules for the gun trade and has seen to it that the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms is bereft of enforcement authority. Federal regulations meant to keep guns out of the hands of children, felons, and lunatics are so riddled with loopholes that they provide little more than the false impression that something is being done. In some states, you can still buy a handgun, legally, from an unlicensed individual and not have to register it. And the new Brady Act, which requires a five-day waiting period for handgun purchases, is far too mild to have much effect.

As a result, Larson contends, urban Americans endure a level of daily violence practically unknown outside of actual war. Consider: There are more than 67 million handguns and 200 million guns overall in circulation in the U.S. Each year, handguns kill 23,000 people--64 a day. Each day, criminals wielding guns rape 33 women, rob 575 people, and assault 1,100 more. All this puts the U.S. homicide rate at 21.9 per 100,000 people per year. By contrast, the rate in Canada is just 2.9 and in Japan, 0.5.

Larson lays out plausible reasons why Americans have come to accept this absurdity. First, dime novels glorified the Wild West, turning psychopathic killers into heroes and their weapons into tools for justice. Hollywood in the 1940s exploited the myth, and the television networks followed. Civil unrest in the '60s led to huge increases in gun purchases. And millions of Americans have found, as Larson did while writing the book, that shooting--"watching the dirt fly"--is major fun. On top of all that, the pro-gun faction has chosen a successful strategy-- fighting restrictions of any kind. Larson might also have faulted gun-control advocates for their timidity--settling for waiting periods for purchases, for instance, rather than a ban on handguns.

To provide narrative structure, Larson traces one particular 9mm Cobray M-11/9 from its quick-buck Georgia manufacturer through its 1988 sale to its eventual use in the murder of a Virginia Beach (Va.) high school teacher by 16-year-old Nicholas Elliot. Larson, a Wall Street Journal writer, first wrote about the case for the Journal and The Atlantic.

Elliot was a slight, none-too-bright loner who bought the deadly looking but poorly made semiautomatic because it gave him a sense of power. One day, he carried the gun and six full 32-shot clips in his backpack to his private, Christian school to confront the class bully. While stalking him, he killed one teacher and critically wounded another before his gun jammed. He pleaded guilty, received a "life" sentence, and will be eligible for parole in 2004. The husband of the murdered teacher won a $105,000 judgment in a suit against the dealer who carelessly sold the weapon to a kid.

The successful lawsuit is the sole indication that society might hold anyone but Elliot to blame. In a series of interviews with gunmakers, dealers, and gun-culture low-lifes--such as the Denver publisher of a line of how-to books on shooting, stabbing, garrotting, and blowing up people--Larson finds none willing to take responsibility for the tide of gun violence in America.

Halfway through the book, Larson asks a critical question: "Has gun retailing become simply too costly a pursuit for our society to tolerate?" But Larson, who says he doesn't own a gun for fear his children would hurt themselves with it, backs off from the only rational answer and proposes a compromise: Require gun dealers to pass a test and keep accurate records. Make owners register, take a safety course, then pass a test. Give the Consumer Product Safety Commission jurisdiction in hopes it will mandate safety mechanisms and child-proofing.

Basically, that's all we require of the auto industry. But as Larson admits, his legislative remedies "don't have a chance in hell of being passed." So after telling an unremitting horror story, Larson ducks the logical solution--banning all handguns--and thus ends the book on a note of despair. How many buildings must be fitted with metal detectors, he wonders. How much more of our freedom must we surrender? How bad will it get?

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