A Gun In Your Home (Good Housekeeping, March 1974)
This week, thousands of students walked out in protest of the deadly school shootings in Parkland, FL trying to make a difference and speak out against gun violence. With the gun debate making headlines once again in the headlines, this article from the March 1974 issue of Good Housekeeping just shows that nothing much has changed, other than the fact that deadlier guns have been made widely available.
Every year thousands of Americans are killed - needlessly - by handguns. Even if you feel safer with one, you may have only an illusion of protection. Here are the shocking facts about the dangers of
A Gun In Your Home
By Stephen Oberbeck
It was all just too much for Gary Cohen, a Chicago boy of 13 whose mother died four years ago of cancer.
Last June, his sister, Janice, 15, accidentally shot herself while handling a gun from her father's weapons collection. She was paralyzed from the chin down. Then, on November 9, after lonely months of brooding by his crippled daughter's hospital bedside, Gary's father, Philip, 38, gave up on life. He took one of the guns from his collection of pistols and rifles and committed suicide. Gary found him dead in the family bedroom, a note nearby telling of his misery.
Three days later, while he was home alone from school - it was Veteran's Day, a holiday - Gary, too, was drawn to the deadly gun collection. The deeply troubled orphan took down another of his father's guns and shot himself in the head. Grieving over the dead youth, Gary's grandfather lamented, "A child doesn't see that there can be a future. He thinks the world disappears in one tragic act."
For some 21,000 Americans each year, the world does disappear in one tragic act - a shattering blast from the barrel of a gun. The arsenal of firearms possessed by America's 50 million gun owners accounts for over 10,000 murders a year. Many of these are hot-tempered homicides which simply would not have occurred if guns were not so widely and quickly available. Our troubled nation also suffers 11,000 suicides a year and a "preponderant number" of these, according to U.S. Vital Statistics, are committed with firearms. Finally, there are the grisly gun accidents - averaging 2,600 a year - totally unnecessary, unpremeditated and pointless mishaps that leave their tragic chain reaction . as in the case of Janice Cohen, her father and her 13-year-old brother.
To monitor the nation's newspapers for handgun accidents during any given month, as this writer did last October, is to gather a shocking series of one-act tragedies. They are the news stories, daily glimpses of disaster, we tend to read with a sorrowful nod, thankful the catastrophe hasn't touched us. Unlike Gary Cohen's story, many are too easy to forget. But scores of them spread out on a table at the same time make a terrible impact. Here are just a few from last October's grim harvest:
- Chester, Pa., October 9: Shawn Armstead shoots himself after apparently finding a .45 caliber revolver in his mother's bedroom dresser drawer. His life ends at four years of age.
- Palm Desert, Calif., October 9: Target-shooting at tin cans among sand dunes near their home, Juan Diaz, 19, accidentally kills his brother, Armand, with a .22 caliber pistol.
- Colorado Springs, Colo., October 9: Robert Burns Martin brings home a pistol he is thinking of buying from his army post. As the Fort Carson soldier examines what he thinks is the unloaded weapon, it discharges. His wife, Suzanne, 22, sitting at his feet, is fatally struck.
- Phoenix, Ariz., October 15: Levi Hayes, aged 11, is killed when a friend's .22 caliber pistol he is playing with accidentally discharges. . Levi was visiting 15-year-old Andrew Tademy at the time. The parents were in church.
- Ogden, Utah, October 14: Raymond Trueba, 14, is killed by a single bullet fired from a .22 caliber pistol his friend thought was unloaded.
- Temple, Texas, October 16: Nicole Davis accidentally kills her brother, Michael, with a .22 caliber pistol in the family home. At the time, Nicole was one year old. Michael was three.
- Pocatello, Idaho, October 17: using a small-caliber pistol the family keeps for protection, Jeannie Goodrich shoots her husband, Brent, five times. She had mistaken him for an intruder.
- Chicago, Ill., October 27: Alexander Lopez shoots Melody Rivera in the head with a .38 that has been lying on a dresser in the Lopez home. Alex was five; Melody, six. The gun - unregistered - belonged to Alexander's father.
Accidental death is an American fact, but few Americans realize how often, and how carelessly, death comes at the point of a gun. The pathetic litany of last October's gun mishaps could run on page after page. Cities and sexes and ages vary in each case, but one pattern is clear. The culprit in the roster of death - and also in the vast majority of nonfatal firearm accidents - is the handgun.
The proliferation of handguns has now reached epidemic proportions. Although no one can accurately say how many pistols and revolvers are loose in America, accepted estimates put the figure above 30 million, and experts claim that each year around two million more handguns are added to that total. Nor can authorities determine just how many handguns are in the possession of street criminals or the organized underworld. What is known, and sadly deplored, is that millions of such weapons are kept by householders - many of them unlawfully - across the country. Guns are kept as protection, as sport weapons, war souvenirs or collectors' items such as the arms amassed by Gary Cohen's father. Many are hardly ever used or even touched. But for 2,600 Americans each year, one touch is enough to kill.
It is a grim irony and a sobering fact that five years after the world was shocked by the murder of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (with a cheap handgun), this country is afflicted with more guns than ever before. What this boils down to is that every four minutes an American is killed or wounded with a handgun. Police say a new one is sold every 13 seconds. And used handguns - especially the inexpensive, pocket weapons dubbed "Saturday Night Specials" - are traded across the nation at the staggering rate of two a minute. Meanwhile, for all the talk, Washington is unable to stem the tidal wave of weapons. The critical question remains to be answered: Why not? Clearly most Americans want no more slaughter.
According to both the Harris and Gallup pollsters, two-thirds of our citizens favor the registration of all firearms and the licensing of all gun owners. Strong preventative measures have been attempted by lawmakers, such as Senators Edward Kennedy, Birch Bayh and former Senator Joseph Tydings - measures that would ban the production, sale and possession of handguns. But they have met with little congressional success. The most significant step toward finding our way out of the firearms jungle was the Federal "Gun Control Act of 1968," enacted by Congress in the wake of the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
This law sought to (1) ban the interstate and mail-order traffic in weapons; (2) prevent sales to criminals, narcotics addicts and minors; and (3) dry up the flood of foreign made Saturday Night Specials - sone $16.4 million worth before the act's passage in 1968. But the law was found to contain gaping loopholes - loopholes which the gun merchants quickly discovered. While it prohibited the import of ready-to-fire Specials, it failed to ban the importation of the parts used in manufacturing the shoddy handguns. Thus, gun peddlers began to hire cheap labor (Cuban refugees in Miami, for example) to assemble Specials here at home from foreign parts they had imported.
Despite the 1968 law, the gun dealers' cash registers scarcely missed a ring. U.S.-assembled Specials made here from Spanish, Italian, and West German parts continued to flood the market. And, what was worse, other enterprising American gun manufacturers, thinking to take advantage of the new law, began producing their own brand of Specials from U.S. parts. By 1970, the increase of Specials on the streets exceeded the amount of the imports the '68law had been designed to stop.
But in the long run, the history of the 1968 Gun Control Act - its rocky road before and after enactment - may prove more instructive to future legislators than its loopholes. Before passage it was beset with wrangling and political in-fighting; after passage it was hamstrung - if not emasculated - by the repeal of some of its strongest provisions. For example, the law originally stipulated that anyone who wanted to buy .22-caliber ammunition - the country's most widely used cartridge - had to register his purchase each time he bought it. Incensed sportsmen and hunters protested that this was going too far and was a form of punishing harassment That section of the act was finally repealed.
Understandably but so far ineffectively, several Senators, decrying the inadequacy of past anti-gun legislation, have urged a total handgun prohibition. They have attempted, to make progress by appealing to public sentiment, especially after heartbreaking tragedies such as the Kennedy assassinations. There was another shocked outcry from gun-control advocates when Alabama Governor George Wallace was felled and permanently crippled by a would-be assassin wielding a handgun. The same cry arose only last year, when Mississippi Senator John Stennis was cold-bloodedly gunned down outside his Washington, D.C. home after being accosted by a pair of teen-age bandits.
But such incidents tend to recede from the public memory, while continuing unrest in our cities - unrest in our cities - unrest that hits close to home - does not. On the contrary, it prompts uncounted millions of people to seek weapons for defense, if not offense. Thus, 1968 was hardly the time to argue that gun control would help curb crime in the streets. There was crime in the streets. In ghetto cities like Newark and Detroit, ripped by racial riots and looting, gun sales at the time doubled and in some cases trebled despite the efforts of gun-control advocates.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that attempts to curb crime by restricting the sale of the Saturday Night Special have in some cases backfired. New York police have reported that 75 percent of the handguns they have confiscated are not Specials at all, but "quality weapons." Of the 3,000 they seized last year, 98 percent were either stolen or acquired out-of-state. By now, even the politicians recognize what the police already knew; No self respecting criminal carries a Special. It is too inaccurate, too undependable, too likely to be as dangerous to the shooter as to his target. And one final irony: The easily destructible Specials simply wear out and pass from circulation, while quality weapons last indefinitely.
That pro-control politicians may be aiming at the wrong target provides anti-control elements with ready ammunition. The most substantial obstacle to stricter gun control is the nationwide sentiment generated by the National Rifle Association, a nonprofit - and tax-exempt - organization whose million or more members are hunters, sport shooters, gun collectors and dealers. The National Rifle Association is the nation's grassroots lobby against more gun controls. It champions stricter enforcement of current regulations and stands squarely behind the Second Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment which guarantees "the right of the people to keep and bear arms."
What the NRA seldom talks about is the context in which that guarantee occurs. Here is the much-quoted amendment in its entirety: "A well0regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." Clearly, what the founding fathers had in mind was the people's right to a citizens' militia for their common protection. It seems most unlikely that they were guaranteeing the right of individuals to commit mayhem with a gun.
While supporters of gun control feel that too many people are in fact exercising their "right" to kill or maim each other or themselves, the NRA contends that "guns don't kill people, people kill people." Its slogans stress that "A gun is made of metal and wood. It has no mind." The problem, of course is that guns are made to picked up by people, and used. Even guns that spend most of their time in a collector's cabinet - as in the case of Philip Cohens collection - may probe lethal. To legislative proposals for the registration of all handguns, the NRA facetiously replies: "Stop forest fires. Register matches." The logic here is shaky at best. Matches are not specifically made to start forest fires. But why manufacture a gun if its ultimate purpose is not to be fired? Surely, it is obvious that guns are produced to some destructive end, whether that end is drilling a hole in a human being, an animal, or a tin can.
While it advocates lawful gun ownership and stresses sense and safety in handling guns, some of the NRA's advice is specious. One of its pamphlets (What Every Woman Should Know About Self-Defense) counsels: "In cities and towns where it is legal to do so, a firearm is excellent protection, providing you are trained to use it properly and safely." But how does a terrified woman shoot a prowler or a burglar "properly and safely"? This same be-careful-when-playing-with-dynamite mentality is echoed by a Nashville gun manufacturer who produces thousands of Specials. "I find that most people buy guns for their wives" he says, "for the table beside their bed Not to shoot, just to make their wives feel good, to feel like they've got protection." And he adds, "She takes it out once and shoots it to see if she can do it, and that's the last time the gun is fired."
Such was not the case for Jeannie Goodrich, who mistakenly shot her husband last October in Pocatello, Idaho. Nor for a San Jose housewife, Mrs. Judy Bowman, who shot a 15-year-old youth she mistook for a prowler with her husband's .22 pistol. And some of last October's gun-accident victims were people considered to be highly trained in proper and safe gunmanship. For example:
- A test-firing engineer at a Gasport, N.Y., gun manufacturing firm shot himself in the leg while testing a weapon.
- In Reno, Nev., five hunters were discussing weapons. One, Rick D. Vezane, pulled out a magnum pistol to demonstrate a point and shot himself in the leg.
- An off-duty policeman in San Francisco picked up a .38 service revolver and by accident shot himself in the head.
- A Huntington Beach, Calif. policeman accidentally shot and killed his girlfriend, Mary Cleasby, while he was putting his off-duty pistol into his pocket.
Gun enthusiasts might reply that these are merely examples of carelessness. But the point is that in countless cases, proper training has put no safety-catch on tragedy. Take Cyril Rovansek, Jr., a Cleveland-area patrolman of 31 who friends described as an "even-tempered family man." On November 4, he went berserk, shot and killed his wife, two children, a family of four living above the Rovanseks and critically wounded a Cleveland policeman before killing himself. In the absence of a gun, could he or would he have wreaked such havoc?
For civilians, the question is clear: Is a gun really good protection, as the NRA maintains? Or does it create a greater threat than any it is designed to combat?
One of the most recent studies of civilian-owned gun mishaps is a Cleveland report presented - appropriately - to the Epidemiology (as in "epidemic") Section of the American Public Health Association at a San Francisco conference last November. It revealed that a gun kept by a civilian for protection is six times more likely to kill a family member or friend than an intruder or attacker. The researchers who worked on the report, two Cuyahoga County coroners and two Case Western Reserve professors of medicine, corroborate the national statistic that at least 70 percent of people killed by handguns are shot by people they know, most often a relative or acquaintance.
Equally disturbing, the Cleveland report showed that death rates from gun accidents had increased fivefold for urban populations and doubled for suburban communities since the study was begun in 1958. And handguns were responsible for 80 percent of Cuyahoga County's accidental firearms deaths. Three-quarters of these occurred in the home and 70 percent resulted from someone's handling or "playing" with a gun. These cold figures - and the far-from-cold human tragedies behind them - are two realities to be weighed with our constitutional "rights."
The question is: When will the needless killing stop? On the national political front, the situation promises to get worse before it improves, with antis and pros in Washington locking horns and pawing the ground furiously, but making little progress. The NRA, extremely sensitive to the pulse of the people both for and against its goals, is warning its members of another "gun law fight by '74." It's magazine, The American Rifleman, told readers last October that the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals has already recommended confiscation of all privately owned handguns by 1983 and prohibition of further production or sales. The commission has also advocated that all states enact "stop and frisk" laws and "broad police powers" enabling lawmen to search for weapons where they strongly suspect criminal intent. This recommendation, especially in the light of last year's drug raids against innocent citizens will be equally unacceptable to both ends of the political spectrum and may well work against stronger controls.
All this adds up to a long, stormy battle, but probably little sweeping change. Certainly, before iron-fisted Federal mandates come out of Washington, there will have to be widespread public demand for states to adopt restrictive measures - as have New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts and California.
Meanwhile, some local communities have already taken their own steps. Only last November, in Miami, the Dade County Commission passed three ordinances over the thundering protests of gun enthusiasts. One banned the Special. Another called for the licensing of all people involved in selling guns. The last, and most noteworthy, required the buyer to pass a firearms proficiency test on gun use, safety and laws before acquiring a weapon.
Though they may not be the answer, such local controls have already produced hopeful results. Philadelphia, back in 1965, adopted measures stronger than the 48-hour waiting period which the state required before a buyer could actually take possession of his handgun purchase. The city, in addition, made buyers obtain a permit, which meant furnishing fingerprints, a photograph, and the weapon's serial number. In one year, the permit plan weeded out almost 200 people with records of burglary, robbery, rape, addiction - plus 27 individuals who had been convicted of intent to kill and 96 others with police records for carrying concealed weapons. As the nation's rate of murder-by-firearms rose to 65 percent (of all murders). Philadelphia's inched up to only 44 percent. Toledo, once cast as the "gun capital" of the Midwest, instituted a plan similar to Philadelphia's. By 1970, its yearly handgun murder rate had dropped eight percentage points. Louisville, Ky., experienced a ten percent reduction in armed robberies after requiring an eight-day waiting period for handgun purchase.
All this is encouraging but it alleviates only slightly the larger problem: the massive numbers of handguns still loose in the land. City and state controls can reduce the number of guns in criminal hands, but can't begin to resolve the problem of millions of lawful, if misguided, gun owners - ordinary householders who feel safer with a gun by their bedside. What these people need to know is that in the vast majority of instances a weapon offers only an illusion of protection, not the real thing.
One of the gun lobby's favorite arguments is that in an emergency a gun may literally mean survival. There may be a point here, but it's not the point the lobby has in mind. Yes, survival is an issue where guns are concerned, but if we are to survive it will be in spite of our guns, not because of them. Everyday the newspapers bear out the frightening truth: Millions of guns in millions of homes are a threat to life - not to the life of some unseen enemy, but to the life of the people who own them. So, if what you want is to protect yourself and your family, don't wait for stern measures to be handed down from Washington. Start your own gun-control program and start it now. If there's a gun in your home, turn it over to local authorities. Get rid of it, before it gets rid of you.