It is a commonplace that many crimes are committed with guns, particularly handguns. In 1993, 69.6 percent of all homicides were committed by gun, four fifths of these by handgun. Guns were also used in 42.4 percent of all robberies and 25.1 percent of aggravated assaults. The total of such gun felonies reported to the police was about 571,000.
As long as surveys have asked the question, about half of all American households have answered that they own at least one gun. Patterns of ownership, however, have changed. In the 1960s weapons used primarily for sport—rifles and shotguns—made up 80 percent of the approximately 80 million guns in private hands. About 12 percent of the population reported owning one or more handguns. By 1976, with the great postwar crime wave under way, more than 21 percent of the population reported owning handguns—an increase of 75 percent. The largest increases were among nonwhites (by 99 percent), college graduates (by 147 percent), and Jews (by 679 percent, to a total of 14.8 percent reporting handgun ownership, which left them well behind Protestants but ahead of Catholics). By 1978 the estimate of total number of guns owned had increased to roughly 120 million.
In every year since, at least four million new guns have been manufactured or imported. In 1993 there were 5.1 million guns manufactured and another 2.9 million imported. Of the eight million new guns in 1993, half—3.9 million—were handguns. The current estimate is that more than 200 million guns are in private hands.
Twenty states allow any law-abiding citizen to carry a gun concealed on his or her person, and fourteen more states are actively considering such laws. In some of the states where the laws have passed, about two percent (Oregon and Florida) or three percent (Pennsylvania)of the state's population have applied for and received a permit to carry a concealed handgun at all times. There is evidence that many people own and carry handguns without permits. One 1991 survey reported that a third of all Americans own handguns, another that seven percent carry them outside the home. A quarter of small business establishments may keep firearms for protection.
Last year The New York Times said that the city's bodegas had become "Islands Under Siege," in which fifty store workers were killed in a year. It reported on Omar Rosario, the manager of a grocery store whose previous owner was killed in a holdup. Rosario prepares for work by donning a bulletproof vest and sliding a nine-millimeter semi-automatic into his waistband. When a young man with one arm hidden inside his coat enters the store, "Mr. Rosario takes out his pistol and eases it halfway into the pocket of his pants, his finger on the trigger. He faces the man and lets him see the gun in his hand. He wants to make it clear that if the young man pulls a gun, he will be killed."
Professor Gary Kleck, of Florida State University, has made a close examination of citizens' use of firearms for self-defense, including in "civilian legal defensive homicides." Self-defense is not a crime, and most defensive uses of firearms, even when criminals are killed, are not routinely reported to the FBI. On the basis of local studies Kleck estimates that at least 1,500 citizens used guns to kill criminals in 1980. This is nearly three times the number of criminals killed by the police. The Department of Justice thinks these numbers may be too high. Nevertheless, it is evident that Omar Rosario is not the only citizen with his finger on the trigger.
For more than twenty years the children of the ghetto have witnessed violent death as an almost routine occurrence. They have seen it on their streets, in their schools, in their families, and on TV. They have lived with constant fear. Many have come to believe that they will not live to see twenty-five. These are often children whose older brothers, friends, and uncles have taught them that only the strong and the ruthless survive. Prison does not frighten them—it is a rite of passage that a majority of their peers may have experienced. Too many have learned to kill without remorse, for a drug territory or for an insult, because of a look or a bump on the sidewalk, or just to do it: why not?
These young people have been raised in the glare of ceaseless media violence and incitement to every depravity of act and spirit. Movies may feature scores of killings in two hours' time, vying to show methods ever more horrific; many are quickly imitated on the street. Television commercials teach that a young man requires a new pair of $120 sneakers each week. Major corporations make and sell records exhorting their listeners to brutalize Koreans, rob store owners, rape women, kill the police. Ashamed and guilt-ridden, elite opinion often encourages even hoodlums to carry a sense of entitlement and grievance against society and its institutions.
These lessons are being taught to millions of children as I write and you read. They have already been taught to the age groups that will reach physical maturity during the rest of this century.
The worst lesson we have taught these benighted children I have saved for last, because it is a lesson we have also taught ourselves: We will do almost anything not to have to act to defend ourselves, our country, or our character as people of decency and strength. We have fled from our cities, virtually abandoning great institutions such as the public schools. We have permitted the spread within our country of wastelands ruled not by the Constitution and lawful authority but by the anarchic force of merciless killers. We have muted our dialogue and hidden our thoughts. We have abandoned millions of our fellow citizens—people of decency and honor trying desperately to raise their children in love and hope—to every danger and degraded assault. We have become isolated from one another, dispirited about any possibility of collective or political action to meet this menace. We shrink in fear of teenage thugs on every street. More important, we shrink even from contemplating the forceful collective action we know is required. We abandon our self-respect and our responsibility to ourselves and our posterity.
How to change all this, how to recover heart and spirit, how to save the lives and souls of millions of children, and how to save ourselves from this scourge of violent anarchy—in short, how to deal with things as they are, how to respond to the implacable and undeniable numbers: this will be the real measure and test of our political system. But more than that, it will be the measure of our own days and work, the test of our own lives and heritage.
In the past decade 200,000 of our citizens have been killed and millions wounded. If we assume, with the FBI, that 47 percent of them were killed by friends and family members, that leaves 106,000 dead at the hands of strangers. Ten years of war in Vietnam killed 58,000 Americans. Over an equal period we have had almost the exact equivalent of two Vietnam Wars right here at home. Whether fighting the war or fighting against the war, participants and opponents alike engaged Vietnam with fury and passion and a desperate energy. Were we to find such energy, such passion, now, how might we use it? Where would we start? I suggest simplicity. If your territory and your citizens are under constant deadly assault, the first thing you do is protect them.
To do this we need forces. We need a very large number of additional police officers: at least half a million in the next five years, and perhaps more thereafter. We do not need more private police, who protect only the circumscribed property of better-off citizens who can afford to pay; we need public police, whose mission is the protection of all citizens, and who are available for work in the ghettos and housing projects where most of the dying is taking place.
If we as a society expect black citizens to construct reasonable lives, we cannot continue to abandon so many of them and their children to criminal depredation. If we expect children to respect law and the rights of others, it would seem elementary that we must respect the law and their rights enough to keep them from getting murdered.
We need a larger police force not to imprison more of our fellow citizens but to liberate them. The police need not function as the intake valve of a criminal-justice system devoted to the production of more prison inmates, of whom we already have more than is healthy; their true role is to suppress violence and criminal activity, to protect public space that now serves as the playground and possession of the violent. The role of the police is to guard schools and homes, neighborhoods and commerce, and to protect life; they should represent the basic codes and agreements by which we live with one another. Today's vastly undermanned police forces, whose officers race from call to call, taking endless reports of crimes they were not around to prevent, do not control the streets. They do not exercise and cannot embody the authority for which we look to government. Rather, it is the most violent young men of the street who set the tone and filter the light in which the children of the city are growing. That is what we need at least half a million new officers just to begin to change.
Some will ask how we are to afford the $30 billion or so a year that this would cost. The question has a ready answer. We have a gross domestic product of more than $6 trillion, and a federal budget of more than $1.6 trillion. President Clinton has requested $261.4 billion for defense against foreign enemies who killed fewer than a hundred Americans in all of last year. It would be silly to suggest that the federal government should not or cannot spend an eighth as much—two percent of even a shrunken federal budget—to defend the nation against domestic enemies who killed more than 10,000 people who were strangers to them in 1994, and who will surely kill more in every year that lies ahead.
This is not a complete program, because this is not the time for a complete program. We have to stop the killing. Beyond doubt we must reform welfare, minimize illegitimacy, change the schools, strengthen employment opportunities, end racism. In the midst of this war, while the killing continues, all that is just talk. And dishonest talk besides: there can be no truth to our public discussions while whites are filled with fear of black violence, and blacks live every day with the fear and bitter knowledge that they and their children have been abandoned to the rule of criminals. If some foreign enemy had invaded New England, slaughtering its people and plundering its wealth, would we be debating agricultural subsidies and the future of Medicaid while complaining that the deficit prevented us from enlarging the Army or buying more ammunition? Would the budget really force us to abandon New Hampshire? Why is this case different?
Some people will say that I propose an army of occupation. But all too many black citizens already live in territories occupied by hostile bands of brigands. How can these citizens be freed except by forces devoted to their liberation?
It is true that the police, especially in the ghettos of older cities, have often been corrupt, brutal, and ineffective, although they are almost always better than most of their critics. The remedy for bad policing is for good people to join the police force and make it better: that is why the one truly promising feature of the 1994 crime bill is the creation of a prototype Police Corps, a police ROTC that will offer four-year college scholarships to the best and most committed of our young people in return for four years of police service following their graduation. Now and for many years into the future the opportunity to give the greatest service to one's fellow citizens will be as a member of a police force —the one truly indispensable agency of a free and civil government.
Others will say—not openly, because this kind of thing is never said openly—that it's hopeless, and that the best we can hope for is that the killers will kill one another and leave the rest of us alone. Indeed, a visitor from another planet might well conclude that only such a belief could explain our society's otherwise inexplicable passivity. History should save us from such vile and horrible thoughts. Despite all vicissitudes, within two generations of Emancipation black families had achieved levels of stability and nurture comparable or superior to those of many immigrant groups. The long history of black people in America has not been one of violent or cruel conduct beyond the national norm. Rather, it is a story of great heroism and dignity, of a steady upward course from slavery to just the other day.
The collapse of the black lower class is a creation not of history but of this generation. It has been a deliberate if misguided act of government to create a welfare system that began the destruction of black family life. It was the dominant culture that desanctified morality, celebrated license, and glorified fecklessness; as the columnist Joe Klein has observed, it is in moral conduct above all that the rich catch cold and the poor get pneumonia. It was stupidity and cowardice, along with a purposeful impulse toward justice, that led the entire governmental apparatus, the system of law enforcement and social control, to cede the black ghettos to self-rule and virtual anarchy in the 1960s and 1970s, and to abandon them entirely since. It is the evident policy of the entertainment industry to seek profit by exploiting the most degraded aspects of human and social character. None of this is necessary. All of it can be changed.
I have spoken of the need to change conditions among blacks, because they are experiencing the greatest suffering and the gravest danger today. But let none of us pretend that the bell tolls only for blacks; there is no salvation for one race alone, no hope for separate survival. At stake for all of us is the future of American cities, the promise of the American nation, and the survival of our Constitution and of American democracy itself.