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The guns of terror

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published October 21, 2001

TALLAHASSEE -- My wife asked the other day why I bother to take my cell phone almost everywhere we go. Why not leave it at home when I'm not at work? The reason, simply, is that it has become a habit. But I couldn't miss the chance to make a topical joke.

"In case we see Osama bin Laden," I replied.

Okay, bad joke. But the notion of calling the cops to snatch bin Laden off a Tallahassee street is no nuttier than whatever is possessing so many Floridians to think that buying a gun will protect them from terrorism.

Whatever the merits of packing heat -- and in my view far fewer people need to than think they do -- nothing that happened on Sept. 11 or since makes it any wiser. If anything, it makes the streets more dangerous. People are already too jittery. There have already been hate crimes against unoffending people on account of their head scarves, beards, turbans or other accoutrements.

The object of terrorism isn't simply to kill. It's to demoralize the enemy. On that point, the guns sales statistics say the terrorists are winning.

Anyone mistakenly shot by one of Florida's gun-happy vigilantes will be as much a victim of Sept. 11 as those who died that day.

In Florida, you don't even need a license to keep a weapon in the glove compartment of a car. One must presume every driver to be armed and dangerous.

To carry a concealed weapon elsewhere does require a license; some 267,000 are current. It requires firearm education or experience, but only minimally: The training can be as brief as four hours. That's scarcely time enough to explain the places where the weapon can't be carried (such as meetings of the Legislature) let alone to be drilled on when it should and should not be used.

The law is so relatively loose that only 18 states have taken up Florida's offer to recognize our carry permits in exchange for theirs.

Among 31 nonreciprocity states is California, which currently requires anyone who buys a firearm to present a safety certificate that can be obtained by watching a video, completing a safety course or taking a test. Last week, Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill to make it stricter, especially on new handgun owners. Effective in 2003, there will be no alternative to a written test. Handgun buyers will have to provide thumbprints and demonstrate to safety instructors that they know how to use the weapon safely. The sponsoring senator's son was killed when someone mishandled a handgun at a party.

In Florida, Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale, has filed a bill that would require a license to own a handgun, based on "successful completion" of a six-hour course in handgun safety, handgun law and proficiency.

This is, however, the last you will hear of Geller's bill. Geller himself says so. He doubts they'll even give it a hearing in committee.

Geller's district is one of the few that's sensible enough for him to safely sponsor such a bill. The real question: Why bother?

As a gesture, he says. A gun owner himself, he says it's about safety, not crime. "It would probably prevent children's deaths more than anything else . . ."

"This is a bill that I had filed a number of years ago . . . and then I had filed it again one or two years ago and realized I could never get it agendaed," he said. "The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, including the Million-Mom March, asked me to file it again. I said sure. I also told them I thought it had no chance of passage."

Geller said he also told them that no such bill will ever have a chance unless the vast majority of voters who say they favor it become as single-minded as the minority who don't. Otherwise, he said, "You need to basically stop wasting our time."

At lunch the other day, the conversation got around to the latex gloves somebody had placed in the mail room.

"People used to talk about safe sex," said a colleague. "Now it's safe mail."

But even safe mail is a dilemma. Throwing out suspicious mail is not necessarily the safest thing to do. Though there's probably more chance of winning the Lotto, if you did unknowingly throw out an anthrax-ridden letter, you'd still have been exposed and the contamination would spread.

Alas, it's not even a good excuse (as if another were needed) to throw out junk mail, which having been packaged en masse is probably the safest of all.

Having almost nearly pitched a letter from Sears the other day, I opened it to learn that the store would automatically upgrade my store card to a bank card unless I called an 800 number and told them not to. It took six attempts and nine minutes on hold, and I was not a happy customer when I got through.

We have enough bank cards, along with the experience of what a nuisance it can be when someone steals the number. A store card is safer.

The "offer," as Sears put it, was legal because it also owns the bank. But if you ask me, it should never be legal to "offer" something that you have to go to any trouble to refuse. "Opt-out," no. "Opt-in," yes.

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