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The golden age of guns

City Sage

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Newspaper editors used to have unwritten "foreign disaster" rules. Knowing that horrific events overseas didn't much interest their readers, they designed their coverage accordingly. A rule of thumb might have been that foreign disasters involving fewer than 50 fatalities didn't get any ink, unless Americans were among the casualties. And if local residents were involved, bingo!

In the United States, guns kill about 80 people a day, while approximately the same number perish in automobile accidents. Cars and guns kill one or two people at a time in frequent, randomly distributed incidents. Ordinary disasters, all of them, often seen as neither particularly noteworthy nor newsworthy.

But horrific massacres are different, spurring calls for serious regulatory reform.

In the 1950s and early '60s, five or six passenger airliners crashed in the United States every year, with grisly and well-publicized results. So dangerous was airline travel perceived to be that aircraft manufacturers, airline companies and government regulators worked together for decades to improve safety. Their task was made easier by public opinion.

Planes weren't love objects like cars or guns, with enthusiast groups wanting more danger, not less. Few wanted to fly in fast but crash-prone planes, like the ill-fated de Havilland Comet. Planes didn't have to look cool — they just had to be safe and functional.

Today, flying a domestic airliner is safer than any other form of transportation. There were no crashes in 2011 or 2012. The last fatal crash in Colorado occurred on March 3, 1991, when United Airlines Flight 585 crashed near Widefield, killing all 25 passengers and crew.

Annual traffic fatalities reached 54,000 in 1979, but have declined steadily and are projected to dip below 30,000 in the next few years. Experts attribute the drop to safer cars, safer roads, less drunk driving, and more restrictions on young drivers.

Consider the most desirable cars of the '50s, '60s and '70s. They were fast, seductively beautiful and dangerous to drivers, passengers, other vehicles and anyone who happened to get in the way. They handled badly in most conditions, were often grossly overpowered, prone to roll over, and not loaded down with sissy equipment like seat belts, airbags and rollbars. In a collision, you'd sail through the windshield or the engine would end up on your lap — either way, you were a statistic.

But they were sooo beautiful! Imagine yourself in a 1958 Chevy Impala convertible, top down on a summer day. That's life as it should be ... unlike our miserable daily commutes in one of today's safe and dreary sedans. That's why a '58 Impala convertible costs $300,000 today, or 150 times as much as it cost new. Love knows no boundaries.

High gas prices, foreign competition, a long recession and government regulations doomed the fleet-footed behemoths of mid-century America. We traded dysfunctional beauty for safety and reliability, and likely saved hundreds of thousands of Americans from untimely deaths.

Now we're in the golden age of firearms. Modern sporting rifles, most based on the Vietnam-era M-16, are the stuff of dreams: light, accurate, reliable, perfectly balanced, and loaded with testosterone. Guys buy them for the same reason guys bought L-88 Corvettes, GT-500 Mustangs, or Plymouth Superbirds — they're dangerous, beautiful and cool as shit.

And gun fatalities remain stuck at around 30,000 annually.

The NRA? It's the lineal descendant of the NHRA, the National Hot Rod Association. The organization ought to abandon its specious Second Amendment shtick and rename itself the North American Man-Gun Love Association. Most of us can't afford a '58 Impala, but we can buy a Bushmaster — an artifact to treasure and love, a bargain-priced substitute for a vintage Corvette.

Banning such assault weapons is tough politically, but if the feds can gradually force manufacturers to make them heavier, less accurate, prone to misfire, and butt-ugly as well, firearm sales will plummet. The golden age will come to halt, owners will hoard and protect their orphaned treasures, and potential mass killers will have to make do with less-capable weapons.

Here's a first step: Require that all assault weapons be chartreuse or pink, and that they be named after really bad cars: the Citation, the Pacer, the Vega and, worst of all, the Yugo! So not cool ...

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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