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Tom Plate: Let's lay down our right to bear arms

By Tom Plate
Special to CNN

Editor's note: Tom Plate, former editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times, is a professor of communication and policy studies at UCLA. He is author of a new book, "Confessions of an American Media Man."

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- Most days, it is not at all hard to feel proud to be an American. But on days such as this, it is very difficult.

The pain that the parents of the slain students feel hits deep into everyone's hearts. At the University of California, Los Angeles, students are talking about little else. It is not that they feel especially vulnerable because they are students at a major university, as is Virginia Tech, but because they are (to be blunt) citizens of High Noon America.

"High Noon" is a famous film. The 1952 Western told the story of a town marshal (played by the superstar actor Gary Cooper) who is forced to eliminate a gang of killers by himself. They are eventually gunned down.

The use of guns is often the American technique of choice for all kinds of conflict resolution. Our famous Constitution, about which many of us are generally so proud, enshrines -- along with the right to freedom of speech, press, religion and assembly -- the right to own guns. That's an apples and oranges list if there ever was one.

Not all of us are so proud and triumphant about the gun-guarantee clause. The right to free speech, press, religion and assembly and so on seem to be working well, but the gun part, not so much.

Let me explain. Some misguided people will focus on the fact that the 23-year-old student who killed his classmates and others at Virginia Tech was ethnically Korean. This is one of those observations that's 99.99 percent irrelevant. What are we to make of the fact that he is Korean? Ban Ki-moon is also Korean! Our brilliant new United Nations secretary general has not only never fired a gun, it looks like he may have just put together a peace formula for civil war-wracked Sudan -- a formula that escaped his predecessor.

So let's just disregard all the hoopla about the race of the student responsible for the slayings. These students were not killed by a Korean, they were killed by a 9 mm handgun and a .22-caliber handgun.

In the nineties, the Los Angeles Times courageously endorsed an all-but-complete ban on privately owned guns, in an effort to greatly reduce their availability. By the time the series of editorials had concluded, the newspaper had received more angry letters and fiery faxes from the well-armed U.S. gun lobby than on any other issue during my privileged six-year tenure as the newspaper's editorial page editor.

But the paper, by the way, also received more supportive letters than on any other issue about which it editorialized during that era. The common sense of ordinary citizens told them that whatever Americans were and are good for, carrying around guns like costume jewelry was not on our Mature List of Notable Cultural Accomplishments.

"Guns don't kill people," goes the gun lobby's absurd mantra. Far fewer guns in America would logically result in far fewer deaths from people pulling the trigger. The probability of the Virginia Tech gun massacre happening would have been greatly reduced if guns weren't so easily available to ordinary citizens.

Foreigners sometimes believe that celebrities in America are more often the targets of gun violence than the rest of us. Not true. Celebrity shootings just make better news stories, so perhaps they seem common. They're not. All of us are targets because with so many guns swishing around our culture, no one is immune -- not even us non-celebrities.

When the great pop composer and legendary member of the Beatles John Lennon was shot in 1980 in New York, many in the foreign press tabbed it a war on celebrities. Now, some in the media will declare a war on students or some-such. This is all misplaced. The correct target of our concern needs to be guns. America has more than it can possibly handle. How many can our society handle? My opinion is: as close to zero as possible.

Last month, I was robbed at 10 in the evening in the alley behind my home. As I was carrying groceries inside, a man with a gun approached me where my car was parked. The gun he carried featured one of those red-dot laser beams, which he pointed right at my head.

Because I'm anything but a James Bond type, I quickly complied with all of his requests. Perhaps because of my rapid response (it is called surrender), he chose not to shoot me; but he just as easily could have. What was to stop him?

This occurred in Beverly Hills, a low-crime area dotted with upscale boutiques, restaurants and businesses -- a city best known perhaps for its glamour and celebrity sightings.

Oh, and police tell me the armed robber definitely was not Korean. Not that I would have known one way or the other: Basically the only thing I saw or can remember was the gun, with the red dot, pointed right at my head.

A near-death experience does focus the mind. We need to get rid of our guns.


http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/18/commentary.plate/index.html?eref=rss_topstories

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