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C. Fraser Smith: Signs of hope on the gun front

AUSTIN, Texas – Did the modern version of dramatic mass shooting deaths begin here?

Some of us remember when a deranged, former Marine sharpshooter murdered 16 people and wounded 32, firing from the clock tower at the University of Texas.

Twenty-five year-old Charles J. Whitman wrestled a personal arsenal to his vantage point on the 28th floor.

Surely there were earlier examples of such atrocities.

But since that day, Aug. 1, 1966, the nation and its presidents have had to explain senseless gun death in a range of inherently dramatic places.

They have also had to explain why we have been a helpless “Can’t Do Nation” when it comes to guns.

We know something must be done here. We have the gory data. We’ve been more than provoked, shamed and challenged.

Have we given up? Apparently not.

Many of us could make a roughly accurate carnage map, using red or blue or yellow pushpins to mark where defenseless young people have been victimized.

This year we added pins marking Charleston, South Carolina, and Umqua, Oregon.  And of course there was Newtown, Connecticut; Aurora, Colorado; and others.

Each of these killing fields brings on pain and outrage – and, so far, fruitless action. Nothing seems to offend us or our leaders sufficiently. Not so far.

We know there were many more shootings because thousands of men, women and children are killed with guns – more than 33,000 last year. That toll is consistent with previous years.

Some argue that Americans must arm themselves to better fend off deranged or simply malevolent shooters. (The Texas legislature has been debating a carry law.) Many others think this is madness.

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson is one of the advocates of the arm-yourself approach. A bullet-riddled body, he has said, would not be enough to justify limiting the so-called constitutional right to own a gun.

Our Congress, for the most part, declines to move in any way to reduce the toll. President Obama, after the innocents were slain in Connecticut, was unable to get background checks through the U.S. Senate.

And yet clear majorities of Americans, Republicans and Democrats, want action.

We know there is ambient danger. We know our children could be killed. Is any tower, movie theater, church basement a safe place?

We have to concede that some of the gun lobby’s points are valid. President Obama did that recently on “60 Minutes.” You can’t stop all the nut cases, he said.

You can stop some of them, though. There have been no more shootings in Connecticut since the children were slaughtered. Australia, as much a frontier society as we used to be, has had no massacres since it did a major gun buy-back some years ago.

Fingerprinting and licensing will help. Attorney General Brian Frosh urges other attorneys general to follow Maryland’s lead on licensing and fingerprinting of gun buyers. Several other states have achieved good results by copying Connecticut, New Jersey and Maryland.

And, writes James Surowiecki in The New Yorker, the landscape is changing. Newtown did mark a turning point, despite the appearance of having had no immediate impact.

Hillary Clinton’s recent debate comment favoring background checks is one bit of evidence. Candidates have shied away from the issue heretofore.

Local efforts by Frosh and U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (who has a licensing bill pending in Congress) have persuaded more legislators to pay attention.

NRA opposition, Surowiecki says, no longer assures defeat at the polls.

These straws in the wind may help create the most important change of all: voters and leaders who believe that real change is actually possible.

If that happens, fewer malevolent or deranged shooters may take life – always leading to more of the same. It won’t be easy. There are so many more guns in the street than there were in August 1966. Maybe some brave leader might want to study the Australian gun buy-back program.

C. Fraser Smith hosts Inside Maryland Politics on WYPR. His email is smithfraser911@gmail.com.