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September 26, 2000

Professor's Book Looks at a
Century of Gun Control

Though the debate over guns has been with us for decades, the issue has gone beyond the arguments over rights and crime prevention. It's become a way for politicians to pigeonhole their opponents, says Will Vizzard, a criminal justice professor at California State University, Sacramento and author of the new book Shots in the Dark: The Policy, Politics and Symbolism of Gun Control.

Vizzard, a former agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, is a nationally recognized gun control expert who has been interviewed by several national news organizations, including the New York Times. This month a camera crew form the History Channel came to Sacramento to tape him for an upcoming episode of its show "The Enforcers."

He says that until recently there had been four debates on gun control: guns as either good or evil; guns preventing crime or causing crime; states determining their own policy versus fear of government overthrow; and gun control as a public health issue.

But lately, Vizzard says, a candidate's stand on the issue has been used to paint the opposition as either a "pro-gun right-wing redneck" or an "anti-gun pinko liberal." And, he says, it's usually done without interest in the details of the law.

However the politics of gun policy is rarely so cut and dried. "Americans are really pragmatists," Vizzard argues. "They don't go that far in either direction."

Vizzard's book traces the history of U.S. gun policy throughout the 20th century. Among his discoveries was that the National Rifle Association and gun control advocates have actually switched sides on issues like licensing and waiting periods.

The latest gun issue, being pushed by the NRA, is aimed at state permissive-carry laws, which are in effect in more than half the states. The laws allow any adult who has not been convicted of a felony or had a history of mental illness to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The irony of the legislation, Vizzard says, is that these laws actually overturn the existing laws based on the Uniform Revolver Act written by the NRA that requires a waiting period and a permit for handgun ownership.

Early federal laws were ineffective largely because the government had limited powers of enforcement, Vizzard says. And he ventures that later problems with enforcement had to do with lack of scope and definition in the laws themselves.

Despite today's partisan, liberal vs. conservative stances on gun control, he says legislators often defy such easy labels. The pro-gun control lobby hoped and the NRA feared that the newly elected Democrats of 1974's "Watergate Class" would be staunch liberals who would easily pass anti-gun legislation. As it turned out, that group showed more concern with controlling excess by government agencies and were suspicious of government, not inclined to give government more control, Vizzard says.

The NRA had its own core of Libertarian radicals who felt they must counterattack any attempt at government regulation. They launched the strategy that they still use today, "Gun laws are persecuting Americans."

Pro-gun control forces followed with measures against so-called "cop-killer" bullets, assault weapons and the Brady Bill, which Vizzard calls a "pretty hollow law" because most states already required background checks. Nonetheless, he says, it became "the be-all and end-all of gun control."

Vizzard argues that what's needed isn't more legislation, but simpler legislation. Implementation of the assault weapons bill, for example, got bogged down because "nobody can define an assault weapon," Vizzard says.


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