Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Armed and not so dangerous

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WASHINGTON -- I've been asking my friends and neighbours out here in the deer-trodden suburbs of Washington whether they keep a firearm in their homes.

"Yes we do," said the lawyer. "We used to live in L.A. and we had a break-in there."

"No," said the oncologist. "But we do have a mastiff-pit bull mix."

"Does an air gun count?" parried the notary public.

"Yes," said the businessman. "It's my great-grandfather's hunting rifle, and I keep it in a locked case."

"My husband has guns," said the school counselor and mom of a four-year-old girl. "But they're in a huge safe in the basement with a combination and a lock-and-key and I would have no idea how to open it."

"Then what's the point of having guns?" I asked her.

"Well, if you have a child in the house and the guns aren't locked up, then there could be an accident," she replied. "But if you need them and you can't get at them, then they're useless. So you're hosed either way."

Our well-kept town of 30,000 commuters is not exactly Ground Zero for gun crime, but then neither was Newtown, Connecticut. In fact, it has been a full two years since our last atrocity by a mentally ill triggerman. By American standards, we're living in Shangri-La.

This is what happened here in 2011: A 35-year-old former standout soccer player and graduate of Howard University followed his 81-year-old neighbour home from an automated bank machine and executed him, prosecutors claimed, for a trove of $40.

A couple of days later, the same suspect allegedly trailed a new immigrant from Sri Lanka who just had finished his shift at our local Subway sandwich shop and shot him dead.

Behind these unprovoked homicides was a public history. Two years earlier, the university graduate -- then working part-time as a barber -- had been arrested on a charge of fourth degree burglary and harassment after he accosted a young female and invited her to his room to smoke weed. He was convicted, but he never served a day in jail.

"The defendant has been duly examined by experts of the department of health and mental hygiene," the sentencing report for that crime read, "and they have presented to the court their findings that the defendant is not criminally responsible with respect to the charge(s)... and is not dangerous due to mental disorder . . .

"Except with prior permission of the court, R - G -- shall not possess, own, use, or carry firearms or any other type of dangerous weapon."

Two years later, despite this paper proscription, the small-town serial killer who had been deemed "not dangerous" allegedly committed two gun murders, one of them just outside our McDonald's and the other half a block from an elementary school.

So a community (and a nation) wonders: What is to be done to keep firearms in the hands of every American except the sick ones?

That was the topic at last week's "lunch salon" at our local history museum.

"I'd like to have a civilized discussion about what the second amendment calls the right to keep and bear arms," the museum director announced at the opening, but it took only 45 seconds before a man at the table next to mine started shouting "only if there's a militia!"

"Can I have a bazooka?" the citizen continued. "Why can't I have a tank, or an F-15?"

About 50 seniors, a handful of younger folks, a firearms safety instructor from the National Rifle Association, and a prosecutor and public defender from the county legal department were in attendance. This was a couple of days after Vice-President Joe Biden advised us that "if you want to keep people away in an earthquake, buy some shotgun shells" and the White House released a photograph of the republic's trigger-happy Skeet-Shooter-In-Chief.

I waved my arms to get the museum director's attention and blurted to the gathering: "How many of you nice people keep firearms in your homes?"

About half of the hands went up.

(That same day, the USA Today newspaper reported on its own survey of firearm ownership by members of the United States Congress. One hundred nineteen Republicans and 46 Democrats answered affirmatively, while the majority declined to respond, including several who had used photographs of themselves with guns in their campaign advertising.)

Back at the lunch salon, the county prosecutor was telling us that keeping a gun at home was an inviolable part of being an American because "self-defence is an absolute right."

"But if a burglar breaks into your house and you shoot him while he's sitting at your kitchen table eating a rum cake, you got a problem," he cautioned the elderly throng.

"Is there any way to stop all these massacres?" a lady asked the public defender.

"If they want to do it, they're going to do it," he answered, with neither sadness nor pride. "It's simple but probably impossible to make people not want to."

Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J12

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