Jury Still Out on Gun Control
1999 News of the Nation
Despite the encouraging FBI report that the murder rate continues to plummet—it is now at its lowest level since 1967—a spate of isolated killing sprees in 1999 traumatized the nation and revived the gun control debate. On April 20, Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, killed 12 fellow students, themselves, and a teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. A series of appalling killings followed throughout the summer and fall, including one at a community center and another at a church. (See also 1999 Month-By-Month.)
Public soul searching struggled to explain these senseless acts, focusing in particular on the school shootings, all of which had been committed by white, suburban teenage boys. Media violence, lack of parental supervision, and adolescent alienation were prevalent explanations, with the more conservative elements of society attributing the trend to evil and godlessness. Senate leader Trent Lott claimed that “when we stopped having prayer in schools, things started going to pot.” While conservatives argued that gun control was not the solution—guns don't kill people, it's people who kill people, the argument goes—liberals countered that if there was less access to guns, people would be killing people much less frequently.
The Senate, in response to the public outcry after the Columbine shootings, passed a bill that called for mandatory background checks on buyers at gun shows. But as public outrage faded, the powerful gun lobby again stepped up the pressure on Congress. House Republicans sponsored a pale imitation of the Senate bill, which Democrats angrily rejected.
Where politicians have failed, however, the courts have been more effective. A recent lawsuit found that gun manufacturers “substantially and disproportionately” increased production of guns that appeal to criminals, and another lawsuit determined that manufacturers deliberately oversupply states that have weak gun laws, fully aware that the extra guns will make their way onto the black market. Reflecting the tactic used against the tobacco industry, gun control advocates have begun using the courts as an effective David to topple the Goliaths of the gun industry. Colt, for example, found itself slapped with 28 lawsuits, and announced in October that it would essentially cease selling handguns to civilians.