"We've got to do everything we can to eliminate violence, not just in the schools, not just around the schools but in the city. In large measure the problem is guns. . . . If you don't have a gun, you will not use the gun."
These were the pointed words of New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins, delivered Wednesday to stunned students and teachers at Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn after two teen-agers there were shot to death by a 15-year-old fellow student with a .38-caliber revolver.
Dinkins, who had intended to talk about the virtues of education, instead articulated the essence of why the nation is so beset by senseless murder.
The causes of violence--including poverty, ignorance and, sometimes, downright evil--are many. But the key instrument of death is but one: the ubiquitous gun.
And no city, no town, no neighborhood is immune to the plague of gun violence. Friday morning a teen-ager with a handgun pumped six rounds into a crowd of students in front of Robert Fulton Junior High School in Van Nuys, striking two in the legs. Last Monday, feuding gang members from the San Gabriel Valley opened fire in a crowded shopping mall in West Covina. Fifty shoppers ducked for cover; miraculously, only two people were wounded.
Religious and social leaders here in Southern California recently declared a "state of emergency" and vowed to devote resources to social and economic problems that have spawned the gang culture. While their idea is welcome, it is not a full solution.
The fundamental problem here and across the country is that teen-agers from all walks of life are getting their hands on guns and slaughtering each other. It's true that the presence of guns doesn't inherently make people violent. But firearms allow violent people--and peaceful individuals who may for a moment lose control--to act out their anger in a deadly way that no other weapon can match.
The Van Nuys and West Covina shootings both demonstrate a sobering fact. Our nation is engaged in a domestic arms race, an unending cycle of violence fed by fear and perpetuated by the myth that protection can be found with a loaded gun.
Americans have a simple choice. We can choose to make our country a safer place to live by imposing sensible limitations on the manufacture, importation and availability of handguns. Or instead, we can allow the gun lobby to frame the debate by taking the absolutist and doomed position that allows everyone to be armed to the teeth--ensuring that murder-by-bullet will continue unabated. The domestic arms race can spiral on, or Americans can choose life, and disarm.