One hundred thousand. The figure is large enough to make a stunning impression; it is small enough to be vividly understood. Last year 100,000 women were raped in the United States. Those were the reported cases. Police estimate the actual number is closer to 1 million.
Something has gone dreadfully wrong in our country. Crimes of violence are increasing at a pace well beyond the increase in population. In many large cities, teen gangs have taken over whole neighborhoods. Even in small cities, people are afraid to leave home at night.The people are especially outraged about one recent crime of violence. And what was that crime? There is a marvelous irony here. The people and the press are especially outraged about a case of police brutality in Los Angeles.
Granted, the conduct of the police officers in the case of Rodney King cannot be condoned. It was inexcusable, intolerable, unwarranted, unpardonable - all of that. The offending officers must be suitably punished. Let us condemn the incident absolutely.
But if the beating of King cannot be excused, I wonder if it may credibly be explained. Can we fully comprehend the level of frustration police officers must endure?
Day after day they see a maddening story repeated: They make an arrest, often at danger to themselves. They round up evidence sufficient to convict. And then what? Day after day they see suspects released on little or no bail. Criminals routinely go free to repeat their crimes. In only 5 percent or 6 percent of all crimes of violence will an arrest lead to significant time behind bars.
We simply must do better. In his message to Congress of March 11, President Bush made some useful recommendations. I don't mean to criticize, but his Comprehensive Violent Crime Control Act of 1991 is not comprehensive and it will not do much toward crime control. There is not much that Congress and the president can do, for the control and punishment of violent crime is not their primary responsibility.
The frustration that is felt by police extends across the whole spectrum of criminal law. A House subcommittee has been holding hearings on the Brady bill, so designated as a tribute to Jim Brady, former press secretary to President Ronald Reagan. Brady was terribly injured in the assassination attempt of 1981. The bill would mandate a seven-day waiting period before a licensed gun dealer could complete the sale of a handgun to a customer.
It now seems likely that the Brady bill will pass. If I were in Congress I would vote for it, but I would have no illusions that the waiting period would contribute toward crime control. Even under present law, criminals rarely buy handguns from licensed dealers. A criminal would have to be stupid beyond belief to buy a gun under the Brady bill, knowing that his criminal record would be searched.
Other gun control bills are likely to be as futile. The president asks for mandatory prison terms for the use of firearms in drug offenses. He would ban the kind of gun clips and magazines that turn semiautomatic weapons into 15-round machine guns, but these weapons rarely figure in street crime.
A great part of Bush's omnibus bill amounts to creating federal rules of evidence that would be models to the states. In these sections he recognizes that finally it is up to the states and localities to redouble their efforts.
Within limitations, wholly apart from the president's bill, the federal government can help. Wherever a plausible constitutional foundation can be established, as in the transportation of drugs and firearms in interstate commerce, Congress can act. The government may transfer abandoned military bases and mothballed ships for use as local jails. Congress may assist in the construction of state prisons.
After we have exhausted our outrage at the L.A. cops, suppose we redirect our sense of outrage to a better purpose. It is time, Bush said, "to take back the streets."