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Monday, Sept. 20, 2004

Curb spread of WMD in U.S.

LONDON -- The failure of Congress to renew a 10-year ban on the sale of assault rifles and other dangerous weapons may seem to politicians a simple price to pay to win the support of the National Rifle Association in the forthcoming presidential election.

This powerful lobby is backing the re-election of President George W. Bush and considers bans on the sale of such weapons to be an infringement of the constitutional right of American citizens to bear arms. This is not an interpretation accepted by all U.S. experts and constitutional lawyers. Nor is it accepted by the majority of public opinion in the United States and abroad. In fact, the NRA would in many other democratic countries be regarded as a threat to law and order, and in some democratic countries it would be placed under surveillance.

When the U.S. Constitution was written in the 18th century, America may have felt threatened by its erstwhile colonial master (although after the British surrender at Yorktown an attempt to regain control of North America was never a serious possibility).

The right to bear arms was more important in the push to the West, where Indians posed a threat to the colonists, who sought their lands. The Indians were in due course reduced by war, disease and drink, and forced into "reservations," but parts of the West remained for many decades areas of violence and lawlessness. In these areas American settlers needed arms for their own protection as well as for hunting wild animals and birds for food.

But by the 20th century, improved communications and a system of sheriffs, courts and police forces had brought stability to most parts of the U.S. In cities such as Chicago and New York, armed criminal gangs became a threat to people of all classes and many Americans thought that they would be safer if they carried guns for self defense. Even so it is hard to see how any Americans ever needed assault weapons and machine guns for their protection. Nor did they ever need such weapons for hunting.

U.S. police departments, especially in urban areas, are strongly opposed to the proliferation of assault weapons. These make their task of trying to maintain law and order more difficult, and will jeopardize the improvements that have been achieved in public safety. It seems inevitable that more law officers will be killed as criminals find it increasingly easy to get hold of weapons that some describe as "weapons of mass destruction."

Gun crime remains much higher in the U.S. than in other democratic countries such as Britain and Japan, where firearms are governed by strict rules.

In the hands of responsible people, firearms need not be dangerous, but who is a responsible person, and who decides this question? If an intruder were to be killed by such a weapon, the person using the weapon, if he were to avoid a charge of murder or manslaughter, would need, under English law at least, to be able to show that excessive force had not been used.

In the case of the sniper who murdered a number of people recently in the area around Washington, the makers of the weapon involved -- although they continue to maintain that they are not legally liable -- have agreed to pay a substantial sum in compensation to the victims. It is to be hoped that makers of assault weapons misused for criminal purposes will similarly recognize a moral obligation to provide compensation to victims, but this seems optimistic.

Even if the owner of an assault weapon is a responsible adult and the weapon is kept in a secure place, inevitably there are dangers that the weapons may be seized by criminals or fall into the hands of children who will regard them as playthings.

Most children enjoy playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians. Toy guns will not satisfy them if they think that real weapons can be borrowed or stolen from their friends or parents. Accidents involving guns will increase and more children and adults will die or be seriously injured. The present gun controversy suggests that NRA supporters and the politicians who seek their votes are like children who have never grown up.

If U.S. President George W. Bush had been ready to come out publicly in support of extending the ban, Congress could surely have been persuaded to agree to an extension. Unfortunately the president seems to have given precedence to winning support from the NRA for his re-election over a principled stand in defense of law and order in America.

The American attitude toward firearms and reports of gun crime are damaging the U.S. image abroad. When contrasted with American denunciation of countries holding or developing WMD, the gun lobby's attitude seems hypocritical. American politicians frequently seem oblivious of or apparently could not care less about America's image abroad, but they would do well to pay more attention to these factors, especially when they need more than ever before understanding and support for their policies abroad, particularly in Iraq.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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