LETHAL PASSAGE: How the Travels of a Single Handgun Expose the Roots of
America's Gun Crisis, By Erik Larson. Crown, 272 pp., $ 21.
ON DEC. 16, 1988, Nicholas Elliot entered the Atlantic Shores Christian School
in Virginia Beach with a Cobray M-11/9 semiautomatic assault pistol and several
hundred rounds of ammunition. A few hours later, one teacher was dead and
another wounded. Nicholas was 16 years old: two years short of the legal age for
owning a gun. The ensuing investigation found that he had purchased the pistol
through his uncle. His mother bought the bullets.
By focusing on a single incident, Wall Street Journal reporter Erik Larson's
brilliantly conceived "Lethal Passage" exposes the madness of a culture whose
firearms regulations are so lax that acquiring a gun is easier than getting a
driver's license. Under present laws, a blind person can purchase a gun.
Larson's "cultural detective story" provides compelling statistical and
narrative evidence for more stringent gun laws: handguns account for 22,000
deaths and 150,000 nonfatal injuries yearly - more than 60 deaths a day; half of
those are homicides, while most of the others involve people shooting
themselves; a gun kept at home is 43 times more likely to kill its owner, a
family member, or a friend than an intruder; handguns are used in more than 75
percent of gunshot homicides and 80 percent of firearms-related robberies.
"Reach out and kill someone," Larson suggests as an appropriate motto for his
grim picture of a violence-prone America.
America's love affair with guns is a rich, often lurid, story. The nation
began arming itelf in earnest in the roaring '60s amid student protests, Cold
War angst, race riots and assassinations. Between 1967 and 1968, the number of
guns sold rose by 50 percent to 2.4 million. With so much product saturating the
market, the gun industry is now looking desperately for new customers, hence its
recent attempt to sell to two traditional consumer groups - women and children.
Paralleling the tremendous growth of the gun market has been a lagging
regulatory effort. The infamous tommy-gun massacres of the '20s brought the
first federal controls; the upheavals of the '60s the second. "What will bring
the third?" Larson wonders - a question which may be answered by the intense
public outcry in the face of rampant violence which led to the recent passage of
the Brady bill and calls for further gun-control legsilation.
The book's most disturbing section is devoted to the legal gymnastics of the
National Rifle Association and its allies who lobby against any and all gun
laws. Although Larson's sympathies are clear, he tells a balanced story,
pointing out that the NRA was not always the obstructionist
Constitution-thumping entity it is today. The pathetic efforts of the Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms - its 400 inspectors, in addition to their many
other duties, are responsible for policing the nation's 245,000 licensed
firearms dealers - also makes for chilling reading.
The story of the Cobray M-11/9 is a good example of toothless firearms laws
in action. Advertised as "the gun that made the '80s roar," the Cobray was
designed in the 1960s for anti-Castro exiles and has become the favorite of drug
rings and murderous street gangs. Although utterly useless for hunting, the
Cobray is protected by the dubious "right to bear arms" clause of the
Constitution and is valiantly defended by the NRA.
Larson leavens his grim narrative with an extensive chapter on the history of
the gun culture and an overview of paramilitary presses that publish
instructional titles like "Kill Without Joy and Get Even: The Complete Book of
Dirty Tricks." Along the way, he unravels the myth that guns won the West, an
episode of American history that the author says gave birth to the national
credo that "when all else fails, a gun can save us."
"Lethal Passage" concludes with Larson's hypothetical "Life and Liberty
Preservation Act," a five-part law that would require gun-licensing procedures
similar to the ones we have for cars. It is a thoughtful policy recommendation
which Larson acknowledges would have little chance of getting passed, even
though 52 percent of Americans favor an outright ban on ownership of handguns
and 82 percent support a federal law requiring that handguns be registered.
"Lethal Passage" should be required reading for all those legislators who fail
to heed the popular will in favor of sensible gun-control laws.
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