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Deadly Fix : LETHAL PASSAGE: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of America's Gun Crisis, By Erik Larson (Crown: $20; 288 pp.)

March 13, 1994|Andrew Vachss | Andrew Vachss is a lawyer who writes extensively on crime and violence. His latest novel, "Down in the Zero," will be published this fall by Knopf

In "Lethal Passage," Erik Larson aims the journalist's most potent weapon--an assembly of unadorned facts compelling rational conclusions--at those America citizens who remain "unaligned" in the endlessly raging debate about gun control.

Bull's-eye!

Using the device of tracing a single handgun from conception to manufacture to distribution to retail sale, Larson clearly illustrates the frightening ease with which weaponry of mass-murder capability can be acquired. Nicholas Elliot hardly qualified as a criminal mastermind. Sixteen years old, with a "mental age of 12 or 13" and suffering from both dyslexia and a "schizoid personality disorder," Nicholas came to school one day with a Cobray M-11/9, a cheap semiautomatic pistol capable of firing 32 rounds on a single clip. He was seeking a larger boy who had tormented and bullied him for some time. On his way to his intended target, one teacher was killed and another severely wounded. Had the pistol not malfunctioned, the potential body count is too terrifying to calculate--Nicholas was carrying six full clips plus hundreds of additional rounds in ammo boxes, including some he had modified to create "dumdum" and "hollow point" effects.

For too many Americans, homicide is a problem solver. The sociopath for whom humans arouse no more empathy than the characters in a video game has two main consumer demands: firepower and the look--that all-important air of menace. Accuracy is of no consequence to the urban punk killing machine--his shooting style is "spray and pray."

American teen-agers know this--and arm themselves accordingly--to such an extent that many schools would sooner dispense with textbooks than metal detectors.

The message--that guns "fix" things--pervades our culture. From stalkers to schizophrenics, from the paranoid to the pursued, from the frightened to the fascinated, guns dominate consciousness and dictate behavior.

Larson takes us past the absurd myths (one can "count the shots" during a firefight), past the numbing statistics (every year handguns alone account for 22,000 deaths), past the rhetoric and into the face of the reality--the American public is armed and dangerous.

Journalism at its highest form is "investigative art." "Lethal Passage" qualifies. Neither "gun nut" nor "anti-gun," the author uses a highly accessible style to illuminate the path that led us to the current situation. Guns may be a religious experience for some, but for those who manufacture them, they are a product--a product to be marketed.

"The domestic gun industry, despite its privileged status as the least regulated of consumer-product industries, sold so many guns in America it saturated the market and now must scramble for ways to open new markets."

And the marketers have been so successful that even the language of guns is loaded. One detective summed up Nicholas Elliot's mobile arsenal by saying the teen-ager was "ready for war." Hardly an accurate description--in wars, people shoot back. But "combat" is a much more acceptable raison d'etre for handguns than "slaughter."

Expecting profiteers to self-regulate is absurd. The author, after pointing out that we have "child-safe" requirements for bottles of vitamins but not for guns tells us: "Buying a gun should be the most difficult consumer ritual in America, instead of one of the easiest."

Part of the blame is ascribed to "historians" whose purple prose made heroes of career criminals and assorted psychopaths. "Strip away the legends enshrouding the famous outlaws and what you find are pathological killers," the author writes. I must have missed something--is that supposed to have changed?

But the real culprit is not criminals lusting after weapons, it is a combination of National Rifle Assn. (NRA) "fundamentalists" who hold the right to own guns so sacred that it must never be subservient to mere species survival . . . and a cowardly Congress, which gives lip service to crime prevention but will not even protect its own law enforcement officers from the deluge of guns available for the asking.

The word fundamentalist is well-chosen. NRA extremists view the "right to bear arms" with the same ferocity the Anti-Choice zealots view in utero "life." As Larson points out, the mainstream NRA member is not opposed to handgun registration--in fact, the majority favors such laws.

But as the NRA leadership moves further away from a centrist position, continuing to alienate law enforcement as well as virtually everyone concerned with the safety of our citizens, how does it maintain its political clout? The answer is both simple and depressing--politicians don't conduct plebiscites, they simply react to "leadership." And that leadership's hostility to regulation in any form implies a promise to deliver a massive voting bloc on a moment's notice.

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