The Great Meltdown . . . of Common Sense

July 7, 2008 - 8:02 PM

With reporters and local politicians on hand, 14,000 firearms used in Los Angeles County crimes or confiscated from crime scenes were melted last Thursday in a Rancho Cucamonga metal-recycling factory, to be transformed into steel reinforcing bar.

The annual event was dubbed Project Isaiah (2:4: ". . . swords into plowshares") by the factory's environmental and safety manager, Leonard Robinson. He no doubt means well. A native of violence-scarred South Central Los Angeles, Robinson reportedly launched the project in 1993 "as a symbolic gesture to victims of firearms violence and their families." But haven't we had enough of symbolism? Are we not yet ready for some substance? Is there any point to this spectacle beyond the speeches, photo-ops and political posturing?

Aside from the arms in the pile that had been illegally re-configured by their former owners, most of the arms readied for destruction looked to be ordinary sporting rifles and shotguns, like the ones you can buy at any Wal Mart. Clearly visible also in the newspaper photo were a First World War vintage British infantry rifle, and a World War II-era military-surplus carbine. Surely an ignominious end for these two venerable (and valuable) war relics that served their countries well.

But the annual meltdown is worse than pointless for two reasons. First, it leaves the public with the false impression that it is somehow better off because a few thousand weapons were destroyed. This view was encouraged by L.A. County Assistant Sheriff Larry Waldie, who announced to reporters on hand at the meltdown that "Today our streets are safer." On Wednesday, the arms were locked away in a police evidence room, and by Friday they were reinforcing bar. This transformation makes us safer?

If our streets are safer, it is because the former owners of these arms are behind bars. That fact, rather than the weapons' destruction, gives us reason to sleep better at night. Politicians and police officials have an obligation to catch suspects and put the guilty people away--not lecture the rest of us about private ownership of firearms.

One also wonders whether the victims of gun violence or their families are invited to the Project Isaiah meltdown? Do any of them attend? It's hard to imagine many victims wanting to witness the destruction of the perpetrator's weapon. It's easy, on the other hand, to imagine them wanting to be present at his trial and probably at his sentencing, too. Most of them know who is really responsible for their loss. It isn't the inanimate object.

Second, spectacles like Project Isaiah give the impression that all firearms contribute somehow to crime and are guilty by their very nature. Such events are reminiscent of the story of a sheep in medieval France that accidentally caused the death of its owner. The unlucky critter was put on trial and, having been found guilty by the local judge, was condemned to execution and stoned to death by the townsfolk.

Truth be told, well over 99% of all the millions of firearms owned in the U.S. serve beneficial purposes, including family shooting sports, putting meat on the table, and defense of person, family or property from lawbreakers. By all accounts, guns stop more crime in the United States than they cause. Collectively, firearms continue to serve the purpose our nation's founders anticipated. They are the ultimate deterrent to the rise of tyrannical government within our borders.

If politicians and businessmen really want to put on a show, perhaps they should have an annual ceremony at the prison gate as convicted felons are escorted inside. A celebrity could announce their respective crimes and the number of years before we can again expect to see them walking freely down the street.

Or if we must have a ceremony for guns, how about balancing Project Isaiah with another--call it Project Nehemiah (4:18: "And each of the builders had his sword girded at his side while he built"). This one would honor all the firearms used over the past year to protect or save innocent lives. Guns such as the one used by the security guard that deters would-be bank robbers, or the one used by a woman living alone to send a would-be rapist to the hospital to remove a bullet from his hindquarters, or the one used by an alert neighbor to save a child from a raging pit bull.

Some might say it's silly to honor firearms. Is it any less silly to demonize them?

Daniel C. Palm is Associate Professor of Political Science at Azusa Pacific University and a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute.