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  April 8, 2002

Larson Says Culture Change
Needed to Combat Gun Violence
By Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu

Putting an end to the violence associated with hand guns and other weapons that permeate American society will take not just legislation but a cultural change, according to a Connecticut Congressman.

It must be a grassroots effort, says U.S. Rep. John Larson, D-1st District, that goes way beyond just gun reform.

Larson made his remarks at the School of Social Work April 3, during a lunch-time presentation billed as "First Monday: Unite to End Gun Violence." First Monday is a national campaign dedicated to education and action to reduce gun violence.

Addressing an audience of more than 50 students and faculty in the Zachs Community Room, Larson said there is a plethora of weapons in the country. He cited statistics published by the National Institute of Justice in 1994, indicating that 46 million people (or about 35 percent of households) owned 192 million firearms, including 65 million handguns.

Literature distributed at the event stated that more than 30,000 Americans are killed by guns each year.

Larson said that in 1992, as president of the state senate, he championed legislation banning assault weapons and rifles. The following year, a federal ban on assault weapons became law; but the legislation is marred by a loophole that, for example, allowed the weapons used in the Columbine school shooting to be obtained.

He noted that attempts to pass legislation against gun violence face opposition that is cultural in nature. "This is not only about legislation," he said, "it's about changing the culture and mindset.

"Those of us in the Northeast and those of us in urban areas [who support such legislation] find there's a whole different culture in the country," he said. People who support the culture surrounding hunting, the notion of "the gun that won the west," and concepts of "rugged individualism," being able to protect the family, and being able to enjoy recreation, "look askance at any proposal to limit guns," he noted.

He said the country is strongly divided on a regional basis. The division is "not the typical Democrats-versus-Republicans. People from the Northeast are supportive; those from the South, the West and the Midwest it will take more work to convince."

Larson said the pro-gun side, led by the National Rifle Association, has been successful at lobbying to protect the Second Amendment, the constitutional guarantee of the right to bear arms. "There are people from the South and Midwest who are prepared to vote for gun reform, but are fearful of reprisals."

Larson said successful gun reform will take a grassroots effort.

"There are not many speeches that move people one way or another," he said. "The real work in Congress has to be done in lining up the votes to begin with. The educational work that has to go on must be from the bottom up. To change the culture is going to take an awful lot of work and persistency," and that will require involvement from, among others, activists and social workers.

Larson said efforts to limit gun violence must proceed on many fronts. Other related initiatives include hate crimes legislation, efforts to reduce violence on TV and limit bullying in schools, and lawsuits against weapons manufacturers.

He called for a focus on prevention. "There is a lot of work to do at home, with families, parenting, and education," he said. "The family unit we glorify is disintegrating on many levels before our eyes."

Larson noted the need for high-quality day care and early childhood education and pointed to the important roles social workers and teachers must play.

"Ultimately, all those issues are linked, and all the issues ultimately lead to the budget, to the real debate going on in Washington D.C.," he said.

"There is wide disagreement on the domestic agenda," he added.

Moreover, in order to ensure that gun reform is effective, any legislation its advocates are able to accomplish ought - like every other piece of legislation - to be evaluated before it becomes law.

"As a legislator, you think if you've passed the legislation, you've solved the problem. But you may find the legislation enacted didn't look like what you intended," he said. "There should be an evaluative detail on every piece of legislation, especially in human services. If it is not going to accomplish what was intended, change it or throw it out, rather than layering legislation upon legislation and then testing it in the courts 15 to 20 years from now."

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