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Murray Fromson Headshot

On Guns, MLK and Tucson

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No sooner than the mourning for Christina-Taylor Green had been put behind Tucson than we in Los Angeles were jolted by another incomparable episode of gun madness. The scene occurred on the grounds of Gardena High School, southwest of the central city.

Police helicopters flew overhead. Detectives swarmed onto the school grounds, Several kids were handcuffed for questioning. It was like a scene from NYPD Blue, only this one was not in Hollywood. It was set by a 17-year-old boy, carrying a loaded 9mm Baretta handgun in his backpack. From what eyewitnesses said, he had placed his backpack down on a desk and a gun inside accidentally went off. Two 15-year-olds -- a boy and a girl -- were wounded. The girl was rushed to a nearby hospital where she underwent lengthy surgery, suffering from a skull fracture and brain trauma. The boy had been grazed in the neck by the same bullet. They were lucky. Unlike the nine-year-old girl in Arizona, they will survive. The names of the wounded students, as well as the boy with the gun, were momentarily withheld. Everyone involved claimed the shooting was an accident.

It occurred in mid-morning that several students described as a climate of fear. Everyone, it seems, was afraid of the persistent gang violence that has been present on the school grounds for some time. But why then did school authorities not deal with the problem forcefully and immediately? If the boy with the gun apparently was both afraid and angry, why didn't his parents detect his fear and, moreover, how did the boy obtain the gun and from whom? Unanswered questions for sure.

The following day a school security guard was shot point blank in the chest near a campus across town -- in the San Fernando Valley. The bullet knocked the guard down and though a protective vest prevented the bullet from entering his body, the gunman got away. Nine schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District -- the largest district in the country -- were on lockdown for much of the day until the suspect was captured.

After reading accounts of these incidents, I endured the chills and a flashback of memory on the day after one commemorating the birthday of a man of peace; an apostle of non-violence who himself was destined to die some 50 years later. My thoughts went back to 1965 when I walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King as a reporter on the March from Selma, Alabama.

What few people knew, including we reporters, was that a funeral hearse trailed behind the marchers, so fearful, his aides believed, that Dr. King could be the target of a would-be assassin. Understanding that I had just returned from an assignment in Vietnam for CBS News, he questioned me intensely about the effect of the war on individual soldiers, especially black GIs. His angst came full bore in 1967 when I was back in Vietnam and King chose to go public about his opposition to the war in a remarkable sermon he delivered at the Riverside Church in Manhattan. Many of his close advisers urged him to withhold criticism of the war, fearing it would divert attention from the civil rights campaign. Worse yet, the sermon, delivered on April 4, 1967, indeed did rupture his relationship with President Johnson and closed King's access to the White House. Ironically, it was exactly a year to the day before James Earl Ray assassinated him in Memphis with a weapon he purchased in a gun shop.

While more than a week has passed since the slaughter in Tucson, it struck me that on the anniversary of King's birthday that remembers both his birth and death, Americans have tolerated for generations the mistaken belief that the Constitution guaranteed them the right to pack a gun. That was not so originally. At the time of its writing, the Second Amendment stipulated that "in the absence of a well-regulated militia" the people had the right to bear arms when the country was virtually defenseless. Today, our law enforcement apparatus in both the civilian and military aspects of our society. is enormous and well-defended. Most of the crimes that occur in the United States are committed by individuals who have a gun illegally.

The gun may be a protector in time of an emergency, but historically, because of its dramatic and illegal use, it has become a curse on American society. It needs to be regulated the way our cars and drivers' licenses are -- to obtain one requires several tests. In order to purchase many medications, prescriptions first must be written by a licensed physician. But thanks to a steady and heavily financed campaign by the National Rifle Association, strict legislation is impossible. The use of the gun is accepted almost philosophically by presidents and politicians on Capitol Hill as well as office holders in state, county and city offices. Fear causes their timidity; fear that they will be the target of some gun nut or fear that it will cost them re-election when voters go to the polls.

Many Americans flock to our nation's gun shows to salivate over the latest weapons they can take home "to protect" themselves. They accept the fraudulent notion that the Constitution guarantees Americans the right to carry a gun. Mind you, we are no longer talking about ordinary pistols, but killer guns like the Glock 19 that spew out dozens of bullets that on impact cause the kind of bodily damage that no television station, cable network or news will dare to show its viewers.

The political power structure and the media have danced all around the issues that have made it possible for Jared Loughner to kill and nearly end the lives of a cross-section of innocents who had come to meet Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords.

Unfortunately, ours is a country besieged by violence but engrossed as well by artificial violence. The central figures appearing in motion pictures and televised movies feature gun-wielding heroes and villains in which the winners take all. Movie trailers are laced with bang-bang to lure audiences into the following week's screenings. Electronic games with the emphasis on violence are the most popular form of entertainment for our children and young adults.

In the wake of the Tucson tragedy, every expert on gun violence has been contacted by journalists from newspapers, television and radio stations, or cable talk show hosts to dissect Loughner's motivation.

Perhaps we have been so desensitized by violence that the war in Afghanistan has lost its meaning, despite the fact that American lives are at stake every day. The notion has been remote or distant to the majority of Americans. Like the wars -- first in Vietnam and then Iraq -- both of which were undeclared, the news coverage of day-to-day violence on the battlefield has been carefully sanitized on the 6:30 news, which rarely shows the gore of war.

During the Vietnam War, I remember a kind of quiet self-censorship that was applied by editors at CBS News, and I'm sure the other national news networks. The rule of thumb was "use the wide shot, skip the tight shot."

More recently Americans have gotten a detached view of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In our gun culture, the notion persists that the owners would know how to use a gun if indeed they had one. A whole lot of "cowboys" reinforce the myth. Under normal circumstances, widespread statistics indicate that in the eventuality of a robbery, a holdup of homes or businesses or an otherwise serious threat to their well-being, most gun owners would not have easy access to a weapon in their possession or easy access to one.

From personal experience, I would venture a guess that an overwhelming majority of Americans, from gun owners to ordinary homeowners or Arizona cowboys are clueless about the impact of the weapons in their hands or pockets.

Guns, guns and more guns is the crazy legacy for those who have fallen in Tucson.

I remember a particularly ghastly incident in Vietnam when U.S. Marines suffered heavy casualties because a battalion confronted by well-armed North Vietnamese had not been given instructions in how to clean the dust covers of their newly-arrived M-16 rifles. Dozens of Marines were killed because dust jammed their weapons.

The old myths are the legacy of those who have fallen in Tucson.