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America's irrational obsession

Whenever I write about gun control I can count on a flurry of calls from readers who disagree. Some disagree so disagreeably that I have to hang up. No other subject brings them out quite like that.

Florida legislators got a taste of it when some proposed to stop the sale and restrict the ownership of assault weapons. The phones didn't stop ringing until the House version had been withdrawn for redrafting. When the Senate Commerce Committee took it up last week, it was defeated 10-4. The same lineup also disposed of bills to prohibit the sale of guns to people under 21, register people who sell guns at gun shows, bar firearms from publicly owned buildings and prohibit uncased weapons inside motor vehicles.

If I were a shill for the Costa del Sol or any of Florida's other rivals in the tourist business, I'd see to it that every travel agency in northern Europe knew what had happened in Tallahassee:


Only in America would politicians think that makes sense.

I don't usually hear _ and, more important, neither do the legislators _ from Floridians who are in favor of gun control, even though the polls say they are far and away the majority.

A couple of people who favor gun control did call last week to ask if I could explain why that Senate committee had voted as it did. I could not. There are no rational reasons for the way Florida legislators vote on guns, unless, perhaps, you consider stupidity and political cowardice to be rational. (There is a case, at least, for the latter. Most people who favor gun control, legislators know, aren't single-issue voters. The opponents are.)

One of the callers was Ted Stambaugh, formerly a mayor of St. Petersburg Beach, who believes guns are killing Florida's tourist industry along with their human victims. He was aghast not only at the vote but at the response he had received when he telephoned the office of Sen. Malcolm Beard, R-Tampa, to protest it.

A woman who took the call told him, he said, that "she did not want to see anything like Hitler happen in our country. .


. She said that "Hitler came in and took all the guns.'

" When he objected that there are so many guns that America has become unsafe, said Stambaugh, "She said, "Why don't you get a gun too, to protect yourself?'


None of the bills in question would have interfered with anyone's right to hunt, take target practice or defend their homes and businesses. The gun lobby, however, fancies the belief that regulation today means confiscation tomorrow.

There is, as it turns out, a grain of historical truth in the Hitler allusion. But there are also vital historical differences the gun fanatics neglect to mention. German history professors Georg Kleine, of the University of South Florida, and Robert Rubanowice of Florida State University explained them to me last week.

Hitler did, essentially, confiscate guns. But the German people did not own guns privately to anything near the extent that Americans do. The guns he was after were in the hands of private militias, associated with many of Germany's 37 political parties and dozens of splinter groups, that had been fighting pitched street battles during his rise to power. Some of those armed bands, it should be noted, were his own.

"Anything but hunting rifles were certainly not freely available in the marketplace, so there was no such thing as Hitler taking them away," noted Kleine, who is a native of Germany.

The key difference, both professors emphasized, was that Germans, unprotected by anything like the American Bill of Rights, had voluntarily ceded their political freedoms to Hitler long before he went for their guns. Kleine sees no parallel to America's unique obsession with guns. Europeans, he said, "are really at a loss in this particular debate. We can't relate to it. We write it off as cultural, but you're probably right: It's irrational."

Speaking of the irrational, the National Rifle Association, which opposes gun registration on the grounds it could lead to confiscation and which refuses to divulge its current membership lists for the same reason, has been exposed by the Associated Press for renting the names of former members to direct marketing firms and political fund-raisers. Said an official, "Our rule is, somebody gone for six months, they're fair game and we can sell their name." So much for principle. Embarrassed executives stopped the practice last week.

What will it take to convince the gun lobby that the rest of us have rights too _ to see our children grow up safely, to walk our streets free from fear _ that are incompatible with free trade in assault weapons and unregulated trade at gun shows? That Florida's law encouraging guns in cars has had murderous consequences? That our freedoms of speech, press and voting, rather than our guns, are what protect us from despotism?

Nothing will ever persuade the gun lobby. We'll just have to make the politicians fear us as much as they now fear them.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.