Guns Don't Kill People...
...the federal government kills people

It's a classic example of bass-ackwards politics, and it's not going to save a single life. But who gives a shit about lives -- especially the lives of people who live in housing projects? Not the White House, and surely not HUD. They care about blame. And the blame, they tell us, rests with Mr. Smith and Mr. Wesson -- not with the government.

See also...
... by Thomas S. Roche
... in the Scope section
... from January 4, 2000

Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo and Bruce Reed, President Clinton's domestic-policy adviser, said last month that they were bringing an ass-claction lawsuit against gun manufacturers on behalf of -- and here's where it gets really good -- the 3 million people who live in public housing projects.

It doesn't take a genius to see the most obvious and largest hole in this argument: In case no one noticed, it's still legal to own a gun in America. It's still legal to import guns. It's even still legal to manufacture guns in the Land of the Free. That's because, as we all know, freedom comes from the barrel of a .357 Magnum, and the gun lobby shelled over $4 million in 1998 to make sure it stayed that way. The anti-gun lobby, in contrast, spent $160,000 in the same year,1 which is a little bit like facing down Arnold Schwarzenegger with an air rifle.

Our lawmakers don't have the guts to outlaw firearms. Instead, they pass ill-advised measures limiting "assault weapons" and "Saturday night specials," two terms which don't mean anything, as any self-respecting gun nut will tell you. And now our lame-duck president is resorting to half-assed judicial intimidation -- wasting taxpayer dollars and everybody's time. Ultimately, this tactic will prove meaningless. Still, it should be considered a cynical and malicious attempt to circumvent the legislative process. It makes those who advocate radical federal gun control look like even bigger fluff-headed liberals than they already did -- which is saying a lot.

None of this has anything to do with laws, nor with the Second Amendment that gun enthusiasts are so cheerful about flogging. Like everything else in America, it has to do with corporate profits -- in this case, the profits of Smith & Wesson, Springfield, and Colt rather than Nike or Starbucks. The former sell instruments designed to kill, including many designed for no earthly purpose other than to kill human beings. Does that make those profits dirty money -- dirtier than Shell's or Nestle's or Union Carbide's? Hardly.

Around 70 percent of those killed in public housing projects are killed with guns. What about the other 30 percent? Do we let the government sue the makers of knives? Baseball bats? Ball peen hammers? How about automobiles? There were more than 40,000 automobile-related deaths in the U.S. in 1997, but the Department of Transportation isn't suing Ford, Chevy and Chrysler because some drunk asshole mulched a four-year-old girl on her tricycle, is it?

Cuomo says the government is seeking a settlement, not a lawsuit. The lawsuit, as is now typical in this litigious society, is merely the big stick carried by the soft-spoken HUD. It's a threat, pure and simple, a method of governmental control. Which makes it not that different from Waco, where the Branch Davidian "stockpile" of guns was used, at least partially, to justify an FBI/ATF turkey shoot. "It's tantamount to harassment," as Jeff Reh, a representative of Beretta USA, told the Washington Post.

Any settlement the government makes in this case will involve tighter controls on gun sales and greater restrictions on gun advertising. But when was the last time you saw a giant billboard looming over the projects advertising guns? I never have, and I live two blocks from one of the worst housing projects in San Francisco. Liquor yes, but not guns. Gun ads appear, as you might expect, in gun magazines. And as for tighter controls on gun sales, one of the main concessions the government is seeking is for gun manufacturers to refuse to distribute to dealers who sell at gun shows, because the restrictions and record-keeping on gun shows are not typically enforced with the vigilance they are at everyday legitimate gun dealers. And how many of the guns that kill people in the projects are purchased at gun shows? Do you have any idea who attends gun shows? I'll give you a hint: They don't live in the projects. Someone living in the projects just can't afford another flamethrower or a Browning Automatic Rifle -- that would take a hell of a lot of hours at Taco Bell.

But that uncomfortable fact underscores a variation on the old pro-gun cliche: Manufacturers don't sell guns at gun shows; gun dealers sell guns at gun shows. It is not the responsibility of Jack Daniels to make sure Joe's Liquor checks your ID every time you buy a bottle. It's the responsibility of John Law. If the law doesn't provide sufficient penalties to dissuade Joe's Liquor from selling Junior a pint of Tennessee sippin' whiskey, then it's the responsibility of lawmakers to pass stricter laws. Lawmakers seem to be very enthusiastic about doing this when it comes to minors' access to liquor and cigarettes. But they lose their stomachs for law when the topic is guns.

Gun control is seen as a pet liberal issue, and gun control measures are routinely defeated in Congress -- which is why, every time some disgruntled employee goes into the company cafeteria and puts holes in a bunch of his former co-workers, the nation is so shocked and horrified that there aren't stricter gun laws in America. And "stricter gun laws" invariably means "a law that would have prevented that psycho from getting a gun."

But you can never prevent that psycho from getting a gun, because you didn't give a shit until after he got it.

If you've walked past a housing project lately, you probably noticed that much of the public housing, nationwide, is so terrifyingly dangerous that children, as the San Francisco Chronicle so eloquently put it, "sleep in bathtubs." That heartrending image is sure to stick in the minds of newspaper readers, but who should really be blamed for kids sleeping in bathtubs for fear of flying bullets? The people who make guns, or the system that allows a destructive cycle of poverty in crime-ridden housing projects as the only alternative, for millions of American families, to living in the streets?

Look, guys: If you want to use the courts to save lives in America's projects, sue the check-cashing places that feed off of people without bank accounts. Sue the banks that make it impossible for poor people to have those bank accounts. Sue the fast-food joints that employ adults at something not even approaching a living wage. Sue the landlords who jack up rents so high that in a lot of cities poor people (and a lot of the rest of us) can't even dream of living in a decent neighborhood -- ever.

Oh, except none of those people are breaking the law. Tough, isn't it? People do a lot of shitty things to each other, and sometimes those things aren't even illegal.

Cops learn that their first week on the job. You oughta learn it too, HUD.

Thomas S. Roche is a GettingIt staff writer, novelist, satirist, educator, and best-selling anthologist. He operates a free email newsletter about his writing; send email to to subscribe.

1Figures courtesy of the Center for Responsive Politics.