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Friday, Dec 14 2012 07:05 PM

ROBERT PRICE: In America, sanity has its work cut out

By The Bakersfield Californian

An armed madman burst into an elementary school Friday and attacked dozens of children, creating a chaotic scene of panic and terror. Maybe you heard about it.

And how many died? Zero.

No, I'm not referring to the abomination that took place in Newtown, Conn. The zero-fatality attack I now direct your attention to took place in China's Henan province, where Min Yingjun, 36, slashed 22 children with a knife. It was ghastly and vicious, but, as I write this, no one has died.

One of the many arguments against meaningful gun control legislation in the U.S. goes like this: If the homicidal nut job didn't have ready access to a gun, he'd just find some other way to kill people. And to an extent that's true. But he couldn't kill 26 people, including 20 young children, in a matter of two or three terrifying minutes.

There, that ought to fire up the National Rifle Association, the most successful lobby group in the history of civilization. Haven't I read the Second Amendment? You mean the one about the importance of maintaining a ready militia for the common defense? Yes, read it. Made sense in 1789 and still makes sense today. But that's not how its modern-day defenders have portrayed the issue of personal gun ownership. Virtually every effort to modify terms of the possession, ownership, capabilities, sale, or use of firearms or ammunition is regarded as an affront to the most cherished liberty in this great nation.

Others make the valid point that alcohol kills as well -- and in much greater numbers. Alcohol and automobiles are an especially deadly combination. That's why the National Transportation Safety Board just last week urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to get busy and work with automakers to develop a system that can read a driver's blood alcohol level using infrared light -- and lock down the ignition button if he's had too much.

You won't hear a lot of griping over that, certainly not from Americans whose lives have been touched by drunken driving. (Although the liquor lobby has already jumped all over it. The American Beverage Institute imagines a victimized Santa: "That glass of eggnog must have tripped the new, federally mandated alcohol sensor on my sleigh! Call a cab, Rudolph.")

Regulation of the auto industry has made a difference apart from driving's association with alcohol. The NHTSA, also just last week, announced that traffic fatalities are now at their lowest level since 1949. A big part of that has been government-mandated safety features and structural requirements. Yes -- car control.

My point: Safety-oriented regulation can make, and has made, a real difference with two of America's most prolific killers. Firearms regulation, however, is strictly a hands-off proposition.

Opponents of regulation say more guns, not fewer, is the answer. If more people had concealed carry permits, for example, the carnage would plummet. Armed bystanders can and have saved the day, but a holstered handgun goes only so far when the violence is sudden, unexpected and over quickly, as is often the case. That, after all, is the signature of gun violence. Rarely is it premeditated and public, as was the case in Newtown and Aurora, among many other mass shootings. (And the U.S. has had 20 this year, to the bewilderment of most of the world.) More often gun violence takes place in the privacy of someone's home, the product of easy availability and jagged emotion.

Fine. So what can we do about it? Certainly not gun confiscation, as the black helicopter watchers would have us believe is imminent. That would be absurdly unrealistic, not to mention tragic for the would-be confiscators. For now, we can do only one thing: agree to have a conversation. That's a mighty unambitious goal, you might say. But given the tenor of things in America today, meaningful national reflection is far from automatic. In fact, expect the opposite: an NRA-led retrenchment. Forty-eight hours after Newtown, it's already happening: "Conversation" has suddenly, and sadly, become interchangeable with "repeal." Sanity has its work cut out for it.

Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at rprice@bakersfield.com.

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