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IF THE GUN lobby wonders why it gets a bad name, it need look no further than American Derringer.

The company's latest foray into the market has aroused the concern of school officials in Syracuse for a very simple reason: When a student pulls out a pen, they may not be able to tell whether he's getting ready to write or reload.

It seems the company is marketing what one eager gun store owner calls a novelty item -- a 4-inch gun that looks like an ink pen. It can kill with one .22-caliber, .25-caliber or .32-caliber round.

Some novelty.

Despite its $200 to $300 price, school officials fear it will be the type of weapon that kids will naturally gravitate to. Whether they buy that with the money they might otherwise spend on a stereo, "borrow" dad's or get it the way teen-agers get other guns, it is easy to understand school officials' fear.

It is hard to understand just why this nation needs one more gun, especially one like this, which the company callously jokes "only writes in lead."

No doubt gun-rights activists will claim they need this latest creation for target shooting, home defense or deer hunting. But it's clear the "pistol pen" is just one more addition to a gun culture that already takes a bloody toll of 65 American lives every single day.

That culture -- combined with a fear of
crime and possible racial paranoia -- resulted in the needless death of the 16-year-old Japanese exchange student whose shooting has put the United States under an international microscope. The youngster was shot to death by a Louisiana homeowner when he went to the wrong house in search of a Halloween party.

The homeowner was acquitted this week. The successful courtroom argument by his lawyer should chill everyone: "You have the absolute legal right in this country to answer your door with a gun."

A mind set that makes Americans want to reflexively grasp that right -- shooting first and asking questions later, as this homeowner did -- is what leads to needless tragedy like the one in Louisiana.

That mind set is bolstered by a healthy fear of crime. But it's also bolstered by a gun culture that gets rich encouraging everyone to buy more and shoot more. A gun that looks like an ink pen is just one added example of how that culture is perpetuated for profit.

That culture makes it easy to understand how outraged and baffled Japanese observers could dismiss the United States as still a "developing nation." It's a term Americans use when describing other nations' industrial or commercial deficiencies. But it can just as accurately describe our own social and legislative deficiencies when it comes to dealing responsibly with guns.

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