Clarence Page: No easy answers for gun woes
Unlike the Sandy Hook School massacre in Connecticut, the horrific death of Hadiya Pendleton might not have been enough all by itself to spark Senate hearings on gun violence.
Yet as an urban teen, her tragic case is sadly far more typical of the national carnage of gun violence than the mass shootings that have renewed the nation’s gun safety debate.
No question that the 15-year-old honor student from Chicago’s South Side was very special in many ways. She was popular, by all accounts, and a top student at an elite public high school who dreamed of going to a top-flight university. She was killed only a week after performing as a majorette with her high school band during President Barack Obama’s inauguration weekend in Washington.
She was talking with friends in a public park after school when a gunman jumped out of a car and opened fire at the group, killing her and wounding two boys.
Police stressed that she and the other teens in the park were not involved in gangs, although the gunman might have mistaken them for rival gang members. It was the 42nd homicide in less than a month in the president’s hometown, where more than 500 other homicides occurred last year.
“Just a matter of days after the happiest day of her life, she’s gone,” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, said a day later, as he argued for more action against gun crimes at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on gun violence in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., shootings.
Yet the death of Hadiya Pendleton shows how tragedies like Newtown cause lawmakers and policymakers to focus on the violence that is most shocking because it is the least common, random mass shootings by gunmen thought to be mentally unstable.
Much of the news coverage focused on renewing the federal assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. I’d like to see the ban restored. Studies by the Justice Department and the Police Executive Research Forum indicate that criminal use of such weapons fell by a third or more when the ban was in effect.
But the NRA is also correct when they point out that murderers killed fewer people with rifles, according to FBI statistics, than with knives, hands, feet, clubs or hammers. That’s not an argument against regulation of rifles, in my view. It’s an argument for regulation of handguns, too.
We can begin with such popular moves as the expansion of computerized, instant background checks before individuals can legally purchase a firearm.
Current federal law requires instant background checks for purchases from federally licensed dealers. But an estimated 40 percent of firearm sales are sold by individuals who are not licensed dealers, President Obama recently said. Critics dispute that number, saying it’s too high, but either way, it’s a loophole we need to plug.
In fact, that was National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre’s position when he testified before the Senate in May 1999 after the Columbine High School shooting. “We think it’s reasonable to provide mandatory instant criminal background checks for every sale at every gun show,” he said. “No loopholes anywhere for anyone.”
But when Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, asked LaPierre last week if that still was his position, the NRA chief said no, claiming to be disappointed with the way the law has been enforced. Besides, he said in what may be the most quotable quote of the day, “Background checks will never be ‘universal,’ because criminals will never submit to them.”
Of course, as Durbin pointed out, getting in the way of criminals who want to purchase guns is the whole point.
No single remedy will fix a problem as complex as gun violence, but we have to start somewhere. And, as Hadiya Pendleton’s death sadly illustrates, we need to do more than pass gun control laws. We also need to deal with family, educational and other community problems that lead to the epidemic of violence.
A disproportionate number of gun-related homicides in Chicago, and nationwide, are young African-American males killing other young African Americans, like Hadiya. That sadly discourages too many of our fellow Americans from paying closer attention to the contagion of gun violence, but if we African Americans don’t do what we can, big or small, to ease our plague of kids killing kids, we can’t expect others to do it for us.
Clarence Page’s column is distributed by Tribune Media Services. Email him as email@example.com. Representations of fact and opinions are solely those of the author.