RECENT statistics have again brought Americans face to face with the least attractive aspect of their society - its violence. A Senate Judiciary Committee report warned that homicides could reach a new high of 23,220 this year. Earlier, researchers from the National Center for Health Statistics released a study showing that the murder rate among young men in the US is almost 22 per 100,000. That contrasts to 0.5 per 100,000 in Japan, 1.2 in England, and 1 in West Germany. Guns figure in three-fourths of US homicides, noted the NCHS study.
Immediate responses to such figures are predictable: alarums from politicians, with calls for ever tougher law enforcement. That's fine, as far as it goes. The 1990 Omnibus Crime Bill, heading toward final passage by Congress this fall, puts restraints on the sale and manufacture of automatic weapons, beefs up federal law-enforcement capability, and strengthens sentences.
But if the nation is serious about reversing its scandalous murder rate, a lot more is needed. Gun control is going to have to go beyond easily evaded regulation of a few classes of assault weapons. Handgun control - stringent waiting periods and registration requirements - continues to be essential. The war against drugs will have to be fought more strenuously along such fronts as treatment and education, to keep more young people from being claimed by the drugs-and-violence culture.
Scholars point out that demographic surges contribute to upticks in violent crime. Right now, it's the eldest offspring of baby-boom children reaching their teens. But that can't account for - and it certainly can't excuse - the singularly violent climate in the US. Neither can the country's relative social heterogeneity.
Policy decisions are crucial to building a more peaceful society. And so are decisions of individuals. We all choose, daily, between hatred and compassion, anger and reason. No one is irrelevant in the fight against violence.