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The math is simple and seductive. Fewer guns = more safety. Gun buybacks—never mind who’s turning in what—make the world a less lethal place. The happy logic compels cops and journalists, frequent antagonists, to link arms and celebrate quelling the domestic arms race. Last week, both daily papers featured front-page full-color shots of the vanquished firepower, offering readers the sexy machinery of danger coupled with the illusion of a safer city.
In the wake of “Operation Gun Tip,” D.C.’s latest entry into the gun-buyback hypefest, Executive Assistant Chief of Police Terrance Gainer rode a wave of gunless good vibes—not to mention almost 3,000 weapons in various states of repair—all the way to the bright lights of the Today show.
When the assistant chief and his cohort set up an ad-hoc gun show in the gym of the police training academy in Southeast, at least 14 video cameras were attendant. Among the local, national, and international journalists who showed, a few got down on all fours to examine the assortment of purse guns, old clunkers, and the occasional serious weapon scattered about the floor.
The bureau chief of Nippon TV of Japan—in between racing after his cameraman to make sure that he had decent light for all that great vid—told me that his audience was actually terribly interested in the gun issue. It was a big deal in Japan, he explained, because of the growing role of machine-gun-toting members of the Japanese mob, Yakuza. There is that—but I think there is also just the smallest chance that he used his footage to reinforce extant stereotypes about the Wild Wild West in general—and D.C. in specific. And many of Kenji Chikata’s domestic colleagues were there to do the same thing.
Guns are an icon of civic evil in urban society, and buybacks yield images of captured mayhem. Since handguns are illegal in the District, the people that owned them were criminals by definition, right? With that backdrop in mind, citizens who saw their mayor hold out a large-clipped Tec-9 on TV just knew that finally, somebody was doing something.
Too bad that something doesn’t work.
It would be great if stone-cold gangsters showed up at police stations to disarm in exchange for $100 per unit. Instead, a variety of law-abiding citizens traipsed in from all over the region to drop off guns that haven’t been used in years—and aren’t likely to see service in the near future.
It makes for dumb public policy. D.C. Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton got busy in the wake of the coverage trying to find money to take the effort national. Cops posture, media gush, and politicians pontificate—all selling the illusion of a more secure world.
A few days later, in separate incidents that may well have been connected, two young men in Columbia Heights were shot so full of holes that you could have removed the bodies with a Dustbuster. Forget the facile and meaningless irony that those particular guns—each of which emitted more than a dozen bullets in a short burst—eluded the good offices of the buyback. What is more real and inescapable is that the figment of safety provided by the buyback was shot to hell in a matter of days.
Nancy Hwa, spokesperson for the nationwide gun-control advocacy group Handgun Control Inc., says there are small upsides to the effort: “Buybacks are not an issue that we work on that much. We think they have some usefulness in terms of giving people an outlet to get rid of guns that might be hidden in a closet. By getting them out of the house, at least maybe some kids won’t have access to those guns.”
This week’s marveling notwithstanding, gun buybacks have been around a long time. Years ago, I was in Nicaragua with a journalist friend. The country was in the midst of a massive disarmament campaign similar to the one in D.C. I watched as a truck ringed by soldiers pulled up in front of the police station and dumped out a load of old, crappy guns that must have been buried out on the finca for years. Later that day, we went up into the hills, where a mix of the former Contras and Sandinistas had set up barricades to protest the government’s inability to provide deeds for land. It was a sultry, semi-drunken protest, with lots of guys leaning on old rusty machetes—until there was a sound of a shot not far from where we stood. Within seconds, everyone was armed with a stashed AK-47. They were shiny, beautiful guns, full of menace and nothing like the rusty pieces of shit that people were turning in. People who intend to use their weapons don’t hand them in for $100, whether they are Nicaraguans or District residents.
Standing amid all the hardware on display, Gainer seemed satisfied with what they had wrought, media-wise. “They are like moths drawn to a flame,” he said. “They see the inherent dangerousness of the weapons that are on display. That’s just human nature.” But he still didn’t suggest that most of the guns on display had criminal resumes: “I don’t know what the pasts of these guns are, but I do know that I have altered their future. There probably aren’t a lot of gang-banger guns out there, but we got 50 or 60 sawed-off shotguns, and those aren’t exactly family heirlooms.”
Depends on the family, I guess. But there’s no evidence that the buyback did anything more than take the least lethal 1 percent of the region’s weapons out of circulation. Considering that many of them probably came from neighboring jurisdictions, the effect for D.C. is further diluted. The last time that the city and police stepped up to collect guns—amid a similar herald of trumpets from TV and print—was at the beginning of 1994. Boxing promoter Rock Newman basked in the 1,000-watt glow after putting up the cash to buy back 3,600 weapons.
In the year that followed, 399 people were murdered in the District, better than one a day. That’s 150 more murders than took place last year.
Mayor Anthony A. Williams told the reporters at the buyback, “Just because you don’t have the silver bullet” doesn’t mean that the city shouldn’t do everything in its power to get guns off the street. As a reporter, I was grateful for the soundbite. But as a citizen, I wonder whether it wouldn’t make more sense to repair a broken Superior Court or train an underwhelming local police force. But hey, there’s not a lot of great video in that.
When the dog-and-pony show was finally over, officers and recruits moved in and began scooping up the guns by the handful and putting them in boxes—many of which were marked “D.C. Recycles.”
Vise Re-Tools David Vise, a Washington Post reporter who has preoccupied much of the paper’s coverage of D.C., is moving on to cover the Justice Department on a team with Lorraine Adams, who previously worked on the investigative unit.
Vise had a tight relationship with the control board and broke a number of important stories, including the initial news that the District was about to lose control of the levers of government, and later, that the school board was no longer in charge of schools. He wrote the beginning, middle, and end of the Andrew Brimmer story, as well.
“I love the story and continue to love it. It’s a fascinating mix of politics and race, national and local. There is no more important story than the District of Columbia. It’s the hub of the wheel, and what happens to this city is important to everybody, not just the people who live here….But I’m ready for a fresh challenge,” Vise says.
Justice will get beefed-up coverage at a time when the Post is getting killed on the Waco story. But it leaves the paper’s fast-attenuating D.C. coverage all the more bereft. For a time, the Post dominated the story with the likes of Michael Powell, Vernon Loeb, and David Vise—but now that those reporters have bounced on to more glamorous postings, the paper is left with a bunch of people covering One Judiciary Square as if it were a foreign embassy. Williams’ feckless start-up didn’t appear in the Post until long after it had become conventional wisdom inside 441 4th St. (And the Washington Times is no help. In spite of its spectacular series on the lack of consequence for criminals in Superior Court—even the Post edit page stooped to recognize its excellence—the paper’s metro coverage has gone from pugnacious to practically nonexistent.)
Trend Non-Alert I’m not a big fan of reporting on reports, but Tim Smart’s Post story last Monday about an annual survey conducted by the Institute for Policy Studies pointed out that the ratio of top execs’ pay to that of factory workers had gone from 42-to-1 to 419-to-1 since 1980. Nice talisman of the Gilded Age, that, but you had to wander back to Page 6 to find it. (I didn’t notice the story until I saw it pimped on Slate’s “Today’s Papers.”) Page One was busy making room for Marylou Tousignant’s groundbreaker about grown women mixing it up at summer camp. Or maybe it got knocked out of prime time by the freelance story revealing that school lunches in Berkeley, Calif., are getting healthier. Now that’s a trend piece.
Back Scratch Fever Let’s say you work in an office and your buddy down the hall gets a demotion, and it’s your job to write a story about it. If you are Tony Kornheiser colleague Leonard Shapiro and write a media sports column called Around the Dial, you just spin like hell and suggest that he was blown about by forces beyond his control. “Another fall, another reshuffling at WTEM radio, caused mostly by ESPN Radio’s decision to put Tony Kornheiser’s so-smart show in the 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. slot nationwide. WTEM will now carry the Post columnist’s show live in that time period….” Another columnist who doesn’t share a water cooler with the subject might use the same facts to suggest that Kornheiser got dumped from drive time because he was stinking it up, that he was stretched too thin, and that his ratings must be tanking, “so-smart” or not.
B.Y.O.T.P. In a memo last week to reporters in the bureau about hurricane coverage, Post Maryland Editor Ashley Halsey advised his scouts to always be prepared when they go out to cover the weather. In addition to good maps and lots of sunscreen, he suggested potential hurricane correspondents should pack toilet paper. Guess that’s in case they run out of notebooks. —David Carr
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