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We Need More Than 3 Strikes to Be Safe From the Real Killers : Gun control: 87% of firearm homicides are committed among acquaintances. What can we do?

October 20, 1994|LOUIS CALDERA | Louis Caldera (D-Los Angeles) is chairman of the Assembly's Select Committee on Gun Violence, which will begin hearings on gun violence today in Los Angeles

California's gun-violence problem involves far more than the misuse of guns by career criminals and repeat violent offenders. By passing a tough "three strikes" law cracking down on these career felons, the Legislature and the governor have done the easy part of addressing the problem. Now they need to take on the much more difficult but equally important task: cracking down on the easy availability of cheap handguns and high-powered assault weapons being used by people other than career criminals.

Last year, 2,609 people were murdered with handguns in California. But laws meant to protect society by locking up career criminals will have no effect on those committing the vast majority of gun-related assaults and homicides: the enraged, the distraught, the despondent and the disturbed. Contrary to public perception, only 13% of homicides in California in 1993 were committed in connection with crimes such as rape, robbery or burglary. The other 87% were committed in connection with violent personal confrontations, frequently by an acquaintance such as a family member, neighbor, friend, co-worker or ex-spouse--and usually with a handgun. More and more, the perpetrators of those homicides are younger and younger--schoolchildren whose neighborhoods are awash with cheap handguns.

California must take steps to prevent the growing gun-violence epidemic and not just deal with it after the fact. The stakes are tremendous. A recent study by the California Research Bureau puts the cost of firearms-related violence in California at more than $18 billion a year: more than $1.1 billion in medical care, 80% of which is at taxpayer expense; almost $4 billion in lost productivity, and $13 billion in pain, suffering and lost quality of life for victims and their families. To put it another way: The annual cost of gun violence is more than six times the reputed annual cost of illegal immigration.

Additionally, California businesses, including the California tourism industry, are losing hundreds of millions in patronage even as they are forced to spend tens of millions in increased security costs.

These social and economic stakes demand a thorough assessment of ways in which we can address this complex problem. Short of a ban on the private ownership of handguns, we can prohibit the sale of cheap, easily concealable "Saturday night specials" that are used to commit the vast majority of gun-related assaults. We also might consider eliminating the state preemption against local gun-control laws and let each community write the gun laws its citizens want to live by.

These and other proposals will be considered when concerned members of law enforcement, legislators and citizens embark this week on public hearings to develop a legislative approach to ending the epidemic of gun violence.

Targeting career criminals after they have victimized society was only the first step. Keeping guns out of the hands of irresponsible people is the necessary second step.

Let's hope California is ready now for meaningful reform.

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