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We're Locked and Loaded Into Our Rambo Fantasy

by Jay Bookman

On the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Georgia's most famous son, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Georgia Legislature approved a bill allowing permit holders to carry concealed firearms in public places such as restaurants that serve liquor, state parks and transit systems such as MARTA.

The bill also made it legal for any nonfelon - including those without a permit - to carry a loaded firearm beneath a car seat or other easily accessible hiding place in a vehicle.

As a practical matter, those changes won't matter much. The folks who want to drive around with a loaded pistol beneath their front seat are going to indulge in that foolishness regardless of what the law says. And armed permit holders won't suddenly start using their weapons to either save or take lives in restaurants or parks.

Nonetheless, the law does testify to the enduring power and political appeal of what you might call the Rambo fantasy. And it reveals once again how easily that delusion can frustrate passage of common-sense gun-safety laws that might save lives.

We all know how that fantasy goes, because it has become a stock story in American pop culture: Bad Guy pulls a gun and starts blowing innocent people away; Good Guy pulls his own gun and kills Bad Guy, saving lives and becoming a hero.

In real life that rarely if ever happens. But we pass laws like this anyway, almost as a way to pay homage to that cultural fantasy and to placate the dreamers who insist that the law recognize their right, however far-fetched, to someday be that hero.

You know who those folks are. They're the ones who like to claim that if they had been carrying that tragic day at Virginia Tech, a lot of those kids would still be alive today. They believe that the problem with today's society is not too many guns in too many places, but rather too few, and they see themselves as potential white knights, just waiting for a dragon to come along.

But those dragons rarely do. In 2006, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Statistics, guns were used in a total of 10,177 homicides. Of that enormous total, just 195 homicides were categorized as justifiable, defined by the bureau as "the killing of a felon, during the commission of a felony, by a private citizen."

In percentage terms, 98.1 percent of the time a private citizen kills someone with a firearm, the killing is not justified. Yet because of the power of the Rambo fantasy, we write laws as if that remaining 1.9 percent of gun killings were the majority.

And even that 1.9 percent figure is a vast exaggeration of how many times the fantasy comes true. The FBI doesn't break the numbers down further, but I'd bet that almost all those 195 cases involved a private citizen who legally used a gun to stop a burglary or home invasion, not a crime conducted in a public place.

Having followed and participated in the gun debate, and having used guns myself for a time in my life, I'd also bet that rather than being brave souls ready to protect the rest of us, most Rambo fantasists are intimidated by the world around them.

That conclusion was crystallized for me years ago when a state legislator from suburban Atlanta announced in a gun debate that he would never dare to dine in an Atlanta restaurant unless he was carrying a firearm.

Now, frail little old ladies with walkers ate in those restaurants regularly without apparent fear, but this guy - a young man well over 6 feet tall - thought it was too dangerous unless he could carry a gun with him.

Apparently, the heft of 2 pounds of steel in a shoulder holster gives some of those people the courage they need to go out into a world that otherwise terrifies them. It gives them the bravery that nature failed to provide.

That's a big part of the reason that lax gun laws are so important to them.

Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor.

Copyright© 2008 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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