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Still Under The Gun

By Richard Lacayo

TIME magazine

(TIME, July 6) -- Almost exactly 30 years ago this week, TIME ran a cover story, "The Gun in America," with a memorable image by the Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein that defined the whole notion of in-your-face. That story appeared at a moment when the conduct of national affairs had collapsed into something armed and dangerous. It was 1968, just days after the murder of Robert Kennedy, and before him of Martin Luther King Jr., when the exit wound was becoming a standard problem in American politics. Though the bloodshed of those years emerged out of many causes, one of them was surely the long-standing American romance with guns--the mystique and abundance of firearms, and the ease with which they moved from one hand to another until they fell into the wrong ones. But that sequence of killings also produced a briefly effective national revulsion against gun violence. Before the year was out, Congress would pass the Gun Control Act of 1968, a milestone law that banned most interstate sales, licensed most gun dealers and barred felons, minors and the mentally ill from owning guns.

Now TIME returns again to the issue, prompted in part by the string of school shootings that began last year in Pearl, Miss. Gunfire has increasingly intruded into the possibilities of childhood, and the militant wing of adolescence has brought the possibility home. Recent statistics suggest that 1 in 12 high schoolers is threatened or injured with a weapon each year. And while juvenile crime as a whole is down--down even more dramatically than the already precipitous drop in adult crime--the number of youths murdered by firearms went up 153% from 1985 to 1995.

In some ways the school-yard killings are aberrations. The percentage of households that own guns is actually declining, from a decades-long average of about 45% to something closer to 40%. All the same, there are still nearly as many firearms in the U.S. as people--more than 235 million by some estimates. At a time when crime rates are dropping, gun crime is dropping too. But gun murders in the U.S. are still far more common than they were 30 years ago, and more common than they are in any other Western industrial nation. We've plateaued in no-man's-land.

Yet unlike in 1968, few people who watch the gun debate expect this moment to produce much in the way of gun-control legislation in Congress. The first years of the Clinton Administration, when a Democratic President made deals with a Democratic Congress, saw the passage of the Brady Bill and the assault-gun ban. After the Republican sweep of Congress in '94, the assault-weapon ban was nearly overturned. What prevails in Washington now is a standoff in which only modest measures, like the newly introduced proposal for gun safety locks, stand much chance of passage. On the state level, the most popular approach has been decontrol--laws that permit concealed weapons.

Millions in the U.S. believe passionately that their liberty, their safety or both are bound up with the widest possible availability of guns. So 30 years later, guns are still very much with us, murderous little fixtures of the cultural landscape. We live with them as we live with computers or household appliances, but with more difficult consequences--some of them paid in blood. Among the industrial nations, this cultural predicament is ours alone.

--Reporting by Barbara Maddux/New York
In TIME This Week

Cover Date: July 6, 1998

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