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Death by handguns

What the murders at Virginia Tech and on Boston’s streets have in common
By EDITORIAL  |  April 25, 2007


The only difference between the carnage wrought on the Virginia Tech campus and the ongoing plague of murders bloodying Boston’s streets is one of intensity.

One aspect of the horror of the Virginia killings is that while they were executed in what appear to be two carefully orchestrated bursts, it took only a matter of minutes for a mentally unstable Tech student to murder 30.

Murder in Boston takes place at a slower, but equally relentless pace. Week by week, multiple gunmen shoot and kill their neighbors at an alarming rate. Every four or five months, Boston’s death toll rivals that of the Virginia massacre.

There is a common denominator in the Virginia and Boston killings: handguns.

Opponents of stricter gun control argue that guns do not kill people, people do. That, in a painfully narrow sense, is true. The zealots who argue along these lines, however, do not seem to consider the possibility that absent access to guns, killers — crazed or otherwise — would have no triggers to pull, no bullets to fire.

Yes, someone hell-bent on murder could always strangle, stab, or beat a victim to death. But handguns make murder all that much easier: the squeeze of a trigger and — bang — someone is dead.

An America without handguns would be a far safer place. Americans own half the guns in the world. And it’s not surprising that the United States has the highest rate of gun deaths — murders, suicides, accidents — among the world’s richest nations.

We don’t think that banning handguns would eliminate murder or suicide or accidental deaths. We are not utopians. We are just betting, predicting, hoping that such deaths would decline.

There is, of course, no political hope of controlling handguns more tightly, just as there is no hope of banning them. Despite all the zany lies and ignorant rhetoric spewed by the right wing, this nation is in a deeply conservative mood. No Democratic candidate for president has the guts to tackle gun control in this deadly gridlocked environment, for fear of offending red-state voters.

The best that blue states such as Massachusetts can do is take stock at home. The good news is that Massachusetts has some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country. And they are generally well enforced. It is illegal for anyone under 21 to purchase or carry a handgun; “secondary” sales (such as those at flea markets and gun shows) require background checks; the attorney general maintains an exhaustive list of banned high-power models (previous attorney general Thomas Reilly was an anti-gun zealot and his successor Martha Coakley shares his views); rapid-fire magazines of more than 10 rounds are restricted; child-safety locks are required.

However, Massachusetts has a spotty record when it comes to collecting and updating its data for criminal-background checks. The state’s Criminal History Systems Board, which maintains and distributes that information, has long been toiling with ancient computer systems that produce numerous errors. And Massachusetts has been slow in fully automating its adjudication data, which is necessary for keeping accurate felony information. In large part this is the inevitable result of a commonwealth with hundreds of local police departments and a scattered, aging, underfunded court system.

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