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December 22, 2008

What's NOT in Santa's Bag

I am a fan of old-time radio programs. Last night I was listening to the December 22, 1949, broadcast of the original “Dragnet” series. The story, based on a true event, was about a nine year-old boy who was given a rifle for Christmas. As he and his closest friend were playing with the gun, one of the boys tripped and fell. The gun went off and one of the boys was killed.

In the closing scene of the Dragnet episode, Sergeant Friday was asked, "What did we learn from this?" His stern reply: "You should never give a kid a gun for Christmas."

I couldn't help but reflect how many times I have heard or read similar stories. And I wonder how many times this holiday season that story will be repeated.

Here is my wish for you…that you and yours have a safe and happy holiday season…and may the coming New Year be one in which we can work together to rid our society of gun violence.

Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanza, and a joyous Festivus for the rest of us.

December 15, 2008

Granny Get Your Gun

Gun manufacturers are always looking for a sexy new product for the civilian market. Tom Diaz chronicled this phenomenon in his book Making a Killing: The Business of Guns in America, noting that manufacturers increasingly market guns to consumers by emphasizing their capacity, lethality and concealability.

From time to time, you will see some bizarre ideas come out of the gun industry. I remember a belt buckle pistol which could shoot two small bullets at the touch of a button. Then there was a gun designed to look like a cell phone. But neither of those examples can touch the new “Palm Pistol” as a sheer head-scratcher.

The Palm Pistol has been described by its manufacturer, Constitution Arms, as "an ergonomically novel self defense handgun designed for seniors, disabled and others with limited manual dexterity.” Constitution Arms states that the single-shot 9mm weapon is “suited for home defense, concealed carry or as a backup gun. It is also ideal for [individuals] who may have limited strength or manual dexterity. Using the thumb instead of the index finger for firing, it significantly reduces muzzle drift, one of the principal causes of inaccurate targeting. Point and shoot couldn't be easier.”

A controversy recently erupted when Constitution Arms reported that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had formally designated the gun as a medical device. This gave rise to the suggestion that the Palm Pistol might be available by prescription and covered by Medicare.

Thankfully, none of this was based in truth. FDA spokeswoman Siobhan DeLancey recently made this clear, stating that her agency "has determined that the Palm Pistol, manufactured by Constitution Arms, is not a medical device under the Federal Food, Drugs, and Cosmetic Act.”

Matthew Carmel of Constitution Arms reacted angrily, saying, “I would assume it's due to political pressure … I find it quite ironic that certain elements of the political spectrum demand more protection for the weak, yet when someone steps up to the plate to provide that protection, to empower the weak from predators, they somehow cast a blind eye to their needs.”

Carmel certainly did step up to the plate. He stepped up and invented a gun with a hair trigger for older Americans with limited arm and wrist strength. It doesn’t take much imagination to see what could go wrong here. I can see an older gentleman responding to a noise at night, grabbing his Palm Pistol, and accidentally discharging it by clenching his fist when his cat runs out from behind a couch. Or perhaps, moving quickly through the house, his legs fail and he discharges the gun as he crashes to the ground. Or perhaps his four-year-old grandson visits one weekend, eager to show off his “limited manual dexterity.” And let’s not even get into the potential for suicide with this product…

In all likelihood, Carmel purposely put out fake information about the FDA approval to gain free advertising for his product. Tragically, the Palm Pistol will likely be on the market soon without ever being tested for consumer safety. Guns remain one of the only products in America not regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

December 8, 2008

Cognitive Dissonance

There is an interesting mental charade that goes on between scientific researchers on the one hand and, public policy makers and American gun owners on the other. It goes something like this. Highly trained social science and/or medical researchers conduct a massive, peer-reviewed study on the effects of gun laws on violent crime rates in America. They—not surprisingly—find that states with lax gun laws have higher rates of handgun killings, fatal shootings of police officers, and sales of weapons that are used in crimes in other states.

The results of the study are released. The press downplays or completely ignores the study. The pro-gun lobby denounces the study as biased and inaccurate. The public policy makers—if they are even aware of the study—completely ignore the findings and continue to dodge the problem.

This past week, a 38-page study on “The Movement of Illegal Guns” was released by a group of more than 320 U.S. mayors and reported on by the Washington Post. Mayors Against Illegal Guns based the study on new Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) data that had previously been withheld from the public.

The report finds that, “The stark differences in crime gun export rates appear to confirm the existence of an interstate illegal gun market, where a handful of states stand out as major sources for crime guns … States that export illegal guns at the highest rates have comparatively weak gun laws ... [These states] not only supply crime guns to other states, but they themselves also suffer higher rates of gun murders and fatal shootings of police officers than states with low crime gun export rates.

The Post ran the story on page A-10 of the paper. It will be fascinating to see what kind of coverage—if any—the report will receive from the nation’s other news media now that it has been officially released. More important will be how public policy makers respond to the data.

If the past is prologue, the NRA will once again denounce the study as “biased,” elected officials will ignore it and the anti-regulation faction will engage in “cognitive dissonance” and become more dedicated to their pro-gun myths than before.

The only thing that can break this cycle is you. You can obtain a PDF copy of the report from Mayors Against Illegal Guns and see that it is widely covered by your local news outlets. You can make sure that it is brought to the attention of every one of your elected public officials. Do not let them ignore this important public safety data. You can make a difference when armed with the facts.

December 1, 2008

Question No. 59

The intricate web of organizations that make up what is commonly called the “gun lobby” has relied for years on scare tactics to stir up their members and raise funds. One of the staples of the fear factory has been the claim that Democrats want to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of firearms in the United States. This “Chicken Little” tactic was recently used by the National Rifle Association in the November elections. The NRA wasted $15 million trying to convince hunters and sportsmen that Senator Barack Obama planned to take their guns—and then watched him win a landslide victory over Senator John McCain, their candidate of choice. Maybe Wayne LaPierre & Co. simply forgot that bugaboo is no longer available for exploitation in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in D.C. v. Heller. Justice Scalia made it patently clear that gun bans are unconstitutional and therefore impossible.

The gun lobby needed a new fear to exploit—and the latest “smoking gun” they have zeroed in on is a real beaut. In an attempt to again paint the Obama Administration as a threat to gun ownership, the current hue and cry is about a widely disseminated questionnaire for those applying for jobs in the new administration. Specifically, this question has drawn the pro-gunners ire:

“Do you or any members of your immediate family own a gun? If so, provide complete ownership and registration information. Has the registration ever lapsed? Please also describe how and by whom it is used and whether it has been the cause of any personal injuries or property damage.”

The NRA has described the question as “chilling” and suggested it could be used to disqualify law-abiding individuals who use firearms for hunting or self-defense in the home. Republican Senator Jim DeMint from South Carolina has also claimed (again without evidence) that the question was designed to “discriminate based on lawful activity.” Finally, Brendan Miniter of the Wall Street Journal argued that President-elect Obama has displayed “a typical ignorance of how gun ownership works in America.”

That’s funny. To hear the gun lobby tell it, I always thought gun ownership was about personal responsibility. It seems to me that the new administration’s questionnaire was simply trying to determine if applicants have exercised their Second Amendment rights in a responsible manner. Moreover, there is no evidence that gun ownership was being specifically targeted by the incoming administration. There were more than 60 questions on the questionnaire that sought to assess the overall character of applicants—including lobby ties, financial records, property ownership and the like. Given that these individuals seek to serve at the highest levels of government, that’s not only reasonable, but necessary—even in a pre-9/11 era.

I suspect the true reason the NRA got its tail feathers ruffled is because they seek to make private gun ownership in our country anonymous and unregulated. But responsibility and accountability go hand in hand—and no law-abiding citizen will ever have anything to fear from a little transparency when it comes to employment screening.

November 24, 2008

School Daze

News this past weekend of a school shooting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, served to remind me of a couple of misconceptions about the nature of gun violence in our nation’s school systems.

As I travel around the country, I often hear people say that our nation’s schools are inherently dangerous because of gun violence. The truth is that our schools are far safer than the world outside. The most recent data from the Department of Justice (DOJ) shows that youth are over 50 times more likely to be murdered—and over 150 times more likely to commit suicide—when they are away from school than at school. Another DOJ study found that 93% of violent crimes that victimize college students occur off campus.

Secondly, I hear the belief expressed that school gun violence is confined to schools in large inner cities. The sheer lunacy of this line of argument always makes me think of the Columbine High School shooting, which took place in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Two white students from this suburban school killed 15 students and a teacher and wounded 23 others before killing themselves.

This past year there have been major school shootings in Blacksburg, Virginia; Opelousas, Louisiana; Willoughby, Ohio; Phoenix , Arizona; Boca Raton, Florida; Omaha, Nebraska; Mobile, Alabama; and DeKalb, Illinois. A more complete listing of school shootings by the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence illustrates the fact that the problem is not confined to major urban areas.

Despite that fact that our schools are some of the safest places in the country, we must continue to endeavor to keep them that way and improve existing security procedures. We must also be wary of a hard push by the gun lobby to put concealed handguns in our children’s classrooms. This disturbing development threatens to put our kids at greater risk and take the focus off the real problem—the incredibly easy access that children and the mentally unbalanced have to guns in our society.

November 17, 2008

The Last Thing They Want

Sometimes it's easy to forget that the gun control debate is not restricted to the United States. I would like to share with you in its entirety a recent article written by Ralph Ahren from Israel's oldest daily newspaper, Haaretz:

Founder of Israeli NRA Seeks to Import American Gun Culture

While the gun lobby in the United States took a setback last week with the election of Barack Obama, who supports the ban of assault weapons, a group of Israeli-Americans are now trying to ease restrictions on gun ownership here in Israel. Modeled and named after the powerful but controversial Virginia-based National Rifle Association, it is unclear whether the Israeli NRA will be able to gather enough support to be in any way influential. Several experts have already voiced criticism of the group's agenda.

"You hear about mob shootings in Netanya, where innocent people get killed, you hear about people being attacked with knives, with guns, with bulldozers," said Joshua Moesch, who founded the group last week. "I think that having more responsible citizens out there with weapons is very important. The police can be the greatest in the world, but they can't be everywhere at the same time."

Under the banner of self defense, the Israeli NRA advocates "the right to carry a firearm for all law abiding, military-serving Israeli citizens," as well as the expansion of what is known as the Shai Dromi law, which allows anyone who kills or injures an intruder on his or her property to be absolved of criminal responsibility. Other group goals include gun safety, self-defense courses, promoting shooting as a sport and creating police athletic leagues.

Moesch's first step was to create a Facebook group and a Web site. The 29-year-old Beit Shemesh resident told Anglo File he wants to first see how much support he can expect from the Israeli public before taking further action. If his group sees "a reasonable showing," the next move would be to register as a nonprofit organization and lobby to members of Knesset, he said.

Moesch, who immigrated to Israel from Vermont about six years ago, rejects the anti-gun lobby argument that more weapons would lead to greater violence. He counters by saying that compulsory army service makes Israeli society well acquainted with firearms, giving most people "a certain respect for guns." He adds, "People know in most cases when to use and when not to use them. We don't see many cases of off-duty soldiers getting into a fight in a club or something, using their guns to sort it out."

Yet it remains doubtful whether pro-gun advocacy will become as important in Israel as it is in the U.S. "The general trend to transplant American ideas to other countries is often not successful or very useful," said Gerald Steinberg, chairman of political studies at Bar Ilan University and an expert on American culture. The arguments put forward by the Israeli NRA are not convincing, he told Anglo File.

"We don't need a situation where hundreds of people shoot in all kinds of different directions in the case of a terror attack. That's the job of the police or the army," Steinberg said. He said that if more people carried guns the chances of more people getting hurt would be greater than the chance of neutralizing an attacker more quickly. "The last thing we want in Israel is an American gun culture," he added. "Israel has enough dangers, and making it easier for people on the street to carry guns is not what we need."

November 10, 2008

The Latest Charade

It seems that every election cycle there is an elaborate and almost comical charade that takes place. It goes something like this:

1) The National Rifle Association (NRA) alerts the media of a massive war chest to be spent to elect or defeat candidates based on their position on gun control.

2) Very small amounts of NRA monies are doled out to candidates in extremely safe seats.

3) Late in the election cycle, massive NRA funding is spent to defeat designated "gun grabbers." Wild and outrageous charges are hurled at these candidates.

4) Immediately after the election is concluded, the NRA claims a great victory, citing the percentage of winning candidates it has supported. This is duly reported in the press and touted in all the pro-gun publications. The elective power of the NRA becomes part of the “conventional wisdom.”

5) Later, careful analysis of the election results reveals that the majority of NRA-supported candidates would have won without the NRA. More importantly, in races where the NRA concentrates its attacks, their tactics are shown to have had no significant impact on the results. Unfortunately for the purveyors of conventional wisdom, the NRA claims of great victory have already been set in concrete. Future candidates are warned of the fearsome power of the big bad NRA.

Last Tuesday’s election once again followed the first half of the traditional pattern. During the summer, the NRA announced that it intended to spend $40 million in the elections—including an eye-popping $15 million campaign intended to defeat Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama. The NRA backed some ‘A’-rated supporters in safe seats and launched outrageous attacks on other politicians, with Senator Obama their primary target.

But after Senator Obama’s landslide victory in the presidential election—and Democrats’ significant gains in both the House and Senate—the national media finally called attention to the NRA’s sleight of hand.

NBC’s Carrie Dann reported: “As the vote margins of the presidential race rolled in, the one-time wedge issue of the Second Amendment did not seem to pack the national-stage punch for which the influential gun lobby had aimed. Nationally, gun owners broke for McCain by almost the identical margin that they broke for Bush in 2004. But in the states where the NRA Political Victory Fund's toughest efforts against Obama were concentrated—gun-rich regions in states like Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico—Obama’s victory was decisive. The Democratic nominee won those states by eight, 11, and 15 points, respectively. Of the 11 states where the NRA's anti-Obama ads were reportedly aired, McCain won only one: Texas. Down the ballot, the NRA backed all six of the Republican Senate candidates who lost to Democratic challengers. And in several high-profile House contests, NRA-backed candidates like Ed Tinsley, Bill Sali, Steve Chabot, and Phil English came up short … The influence of the once-dominant gun lobby appears to be up for debate...”

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pointed out some other salient facts about the election in a new report, noting that “The NRA spent over thirty-one times more money against Obama than it spent in its negative efforts in 2000 against Al Gore” and “The NRA spent over 90% of its independent expenditures on losing candidates.”

Only time will tell if the purveyors of common wisdom will finally absorb the truth of the effect of the NRA on national elections (or lack thereof). We should remain cognizant, however, that the NRA had $15 million to waste on this election. Pro-gun control forces did not. Now is the time for those who support sensible gun laws to put some of their money where their heart is—there is still important work to be done to reduce the 30,000 lives lost annually to gun violence in our country.

November 3, 2008

Beyond the Inner City

There has always been one argument for not getting involved in the gun control issue that has confused and frustrated me. As I travel around the country, I often hear people say that gun violence is primarily an, “inner city, gang-related” problem.

This argument is deeply flawed on multiple fronts. First, it is factually incorrect. The FBI reported 14,860 total murders in 2005, only 850 of which were gang killings. That year, the ten states with the highest rates of gun death per capita in the U.S. were Louisiana, Alaska, Montana, Tennessee, Alabama, Nevada, Arkansas, Arizona, Mississippi, and West Virginia—all predominantly rural states.

Secondly, there is a racial bias that is inherently embedded in the argument—suggesting that black Americans are the main victims and perpetrators of gun violence—therefore whites need not take the issue seriously. Out of the 31,446 gun deaths that occurred in America in 2005, 21,958 of the victims were whites. In terms of gun homicide, 5,266 of 12,352 victims in 2005 were white. The Department of Justice reports that from 1976 to 2005, 86% of white murder victims were killed by whites. Finally, there were more than 17,000 gun suicides in the U.S. in 2005, and 15,681 of these victims were whites. That’s a great deal of white on white gun violence that some would like to sweep under the carpet.

The sheer lunacy of the “inner city argument” was highlighted for me last week with news of yet another heinous shooting. I was aghast when I learned that eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj had died while shooting a fully automatic Uzi at a gun show in Westfield, Massachusetts. Westfield has been described as “a small city with the close-knit feel of a rural New England town” with a population of approximately 40,000.

I still remember, too, a seminal event that pushed me to become involved in gun violence prevention. On August 1, 1966, a white student at the University of Texas at Austin shot and killed 14 people and wounded 31 others from the observation deck of the University's 32-story administrative building. The gunman went on this rampage shortly after murdering his wife and mother as they lay sleeping.

Such shootings are just one small indicator of the inclusive nature of gun violence in America. These deaths, injuries, physical and psychic trauma affect all of us—regardless of age, race, class or geography.

October 27, 2008

A Constitutional Right to Bully Women?

There is a legislative battle going on in the state of Maryland which focuses on an aspect of gun violence which gets far too little attention: the use of firearms in domestic violence.

According to the Washington Post, the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, recently indicated his interest in sponsoring two bills that failed by lopsided votes in a House committee during the previous legislative session. The effect of this legislative package would be to require individuals who are the subject of final protective orders limiting contact with an abused spouse or partner to surrender their firearms to local law enforcement.

Currently, judges are given the discretion to determine whether an individual should surrender his firearms or not—and these orders apply only to handguns.

Maryland gun rights advocates were successful in stalling the legislation earlier this year. Some of the explanations provided by members of Maryland’s House Judiciary Committee who voted against the bills were less than convincing. House Minority Whip Christopher B. Shank (R-Washington) “said he and other judiciary members were sensitive to concerns involving the constitutional rights to bear arms, as well as questions about how the legislation would affect police officers who carry guns on the job.”

Maryland legislators are concerned about the “constitutional rights” of men who bully and beat women in their communities? And Shank's latter point is equally odd given that the Maryland State Police support the legislation. Apparently, shame doesn’t come into play when the National Rifle Association is handing out ‘A’ grades.

The Violence Policy Center recently published a national report on domestic violence which found that 1,836 women were murdered by men in single victim/single offender incidents in 2006—five a day, every day. More than 12 times as many females were murdered by a man they knew than were killed by male strangers.

And it’s not just homicide. The Harvard School of Public Health has found that “hostile gun displays against family members may be more common than gun use in self-defense, and that hostile gun displays are often acts of domestic violence directed against women.”

Perhaps Gov. O’Malley’s intervention will spark greater consideration of this critical issue. Do you know what the laws of your state are regarding domestic violence and firearms? Have you ever discussed the issue with your state legislator(s)? Now would be a great time to start a dialogue with your elected representatives. They are asking for your vote; shouldn’t you ask them a couple of questions in return?

October 20, 2008

The Banality of Opposing Views

Over the years I have been struck by how many times I have come to like and appreciate many of the most ardent opponents of sensible gun control. Despite our differences of opinion, our goals are the same—a safer and more decent nation. We simply disagree on how to reach those goals.

I remember one occasion when I was being interviewed on television in Chiloquin, Oregon, and a man rose up from the audience to rail at the moderator. He was upset that he had been prohibited from bringing his guns into the studio. When asked why he needed to have them there, the man replied: “So I can shoot that lying [expletive] Mike Beard.” Naturally, I talked with him after the show and got to speak with him on other occasions during my stay in Oregon. I came to really enjoy this feisty pro-gunner who used inflammatory rhetoric to make his point.

One of my favorite people in the pro-gun movement has always been Neal Knox, former executive vice president of the National Rifle Association. Neal is an unrepentant hard-liner on the gun issue. His website, “The Hard Corps,” expresses his positions clearly and with great bravado. When asked about Neal by a reporter on one occasion, I truthfully replied, “In political matters he is a mean S.O.B., but personally he is the kind of man you would like to have as a grandfather.” For several years after that remark I received a nice card from Neal on Father’s Day signed simply, “Your Grandfather.”

I was reminded of these past encounters by a great blog that appears elsewhere on this website this week by Ladd Everitt. Ladd wrote about a day he recently spent with Brian Borgelt, the former owner of Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington. Bull’s Eye has been the source of many guns found on crime scenes in America—including the rifle that was used in the famous Beltway murder spree in 2002.

In Ladd’s blog, Borgelt comes across as someone with whom you could be friends in spite of his shady business practices. That human element—which is present even between individuals with huge divisions in ideology and philosophy—has been one of the pleasant surprises of my lifelong journey through this movement, and something I still cherish.

October 13, 2008

Hard Times, Hard Deaths

Over the years, numerous rigorous academic studies have pointed out the relationship between household firearms ownership and the rate of suicide. According to a recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health: "Deciding whether to own a gun entails balancing potential benefits and risks. One of the risks for which the empirical evidence is strongest, and the risk whose death toll is greatest, is that of completed suicide."

As the current economic crisis deepens, Americans across the country will find themselves struggling with stress and depression. The media has yet to address how this situation will affect the suicide rate in America, and how guns will factor into that equation.

We should fear the spread of horrific events like the one that occurred last week in California. An unemployed financial advisor, distraught over money worries, killed himself and five family members at their upscale Los Angeles home with a handgun he had recently purchased.

Simultaneously, we are seeing alarming stories of an increase in sales of guns as a result of the economic downturn. If this is true, how much more tragedy will result? How many more lives will be lost due to the combination of impulsive behavior and the ready availability of firearms?

September 29, 2008

The NRA Cries Wolf...Again

Over the years I have observed the underhanded and sleazy political campaign tactics of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action (NRA-ILA). It has been my experience that their practices hew to a familiar pattern—wait until near the end of an election cycle, then attack those who support common sense gun laws with a series of unsubstantiated and false claims.

This election cycle, the NRA-ILA has announced that it will spend $40 million on campaign activities. $15 million of that amount will be used to portray Democratic presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama as a threat to individual gun ownership in the United States. The NRA-ILA is circulating fliers and mailers that claim to expose "Barack Obama's 10-Point Plan to Change the Second Amendment." This bogus "plan" is really an NRA invention that purposely distorts the Senator's voting record and public statements.

In addition, the NRA is running TV and radio ads that claim that Obama plans to "ban use of firearms for home self-defense," "ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns," and "close 90% of gun shops and ban hunting ammunition" if elected. These accusations are a familiar mixture of misrepresentations, twisted language, fabrications, unsubstantiated conjecture and outright lies. To any informed voter, the NRA’s tactics are pure political satire worthy of Saturday Night Live. The ads themselves are so ridiculous that they would be funny were they not so dangerous.

You can check out the accuracy of the NRA’s claims about Senator Obama at the nonpartisan Annenberg Political Fact Check website. A recent editorial by American Hunters and Shooters Association (AHSA) President Ray Schoenke also refutes the NRA’s Confiscation Myth.

Let us remember that just two election cycles ago it was Republican presidential candidate Senator John McCain who was in the NRA’s crosshairs. In 2001, the NRA lambasted McCain as one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment. Now, NRA-ILA Executive Director Chris Cox brags about “over 20 years of high-profile agreements” with the Senator.

Like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” the NRA will continue to raise their confiscation fears as long as there is money to be raised and politicians to intimidate. The moral of that famous story is "Nobody believes a liar...even when he is telling the truth.” At least Wayne LaPierre & Co. will never find themselves in that situation...

September 22, 2008

Viva El Sentido Común

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence was a founding member of the vibrant and creative International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA). IANSA is a global movement against gun violence—a network of 800 civil society organizations working in 120 countries to stop the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. IANSA seeks to make people safer from gun violence by securing stronger regulation on guns in society and better controls on arms exports. It represents the voice of civil society on the international stage (i.e., by participating in the current United Nations Programme of Action on Small Arms) and draws on the practical experience of its members to campaign for policies that will protect human security.

Another member of IANSA is an exciting group in Brazil called Viva Rio. The country of Brazil has experienced debilitating levels of gun violence. In recent years, more than 100 Brazilians have died daily from gunfire, many of them young men from poor urban communities. Young men are more likely to be killed by firearms than all other external causes of death combined, including traffic accidents, illness, and other kinds of injuries.

In part due to the leadership of Viva Rio, in 2003 the government of Brazil enacted strong gun control measures. I was excited to read in the August 23-29, 2008 issue of The Economist an article reporting on the falling murder rate in Brazil—particularly in the country's largest city, Sao Paulo. The article cited gun control reform as one of the main reasons for the decline. A 2003 law restricted the right to carry guns. A subsequent amnesty and gun buyback program took half a million weapons off the streets.

Brazil is yet another example of a democracy that refuses to put up with the scourge of gun violence that is endemic to the United States. Many nations have found creative and effective ways to deal with the problem that we have chosen to ignore. Perhaps it is time to once again pull our heads out of the sand, look around at other nation's "best practices," and take some coordinated national action to Stop Gun Violence.

September 15, 2008

Beyond Right and Wrong

This past weekend, I had the privilege of participating in the annual "9/11 Unity Walk." As the event’s website describes it: "Jolted by horrific acts of 9/11, discouraged by religious intolerance, yet inspired by the movements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, religious leaders and lay people alike have embraced their differences in a dramatic display of unity, the Unity Walk. Since 2005, in Washington, DC, and, now, New York City, every church, synagogue, mosque and temple on Embassy Row and near Ground Zero opens their doors to each other, and symbolically, the world. The Unity Walk seeks to build bridges of understanding and respect in a post September 11th world.

The poet Rumi once said: "Out beyond right and wrong there is a field. I'll meet you there." It was very exciting to be among a throng of people of all different faiths and beliefs who were able to meet on that field and put aside our differences and walk hand in hand. As we concluded the walk at the memorial to Mahatma Gandhi, we were reminded by Arun Gandhi of his grandfather's plea: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

These are good lessons for us in the gun violence prevention movement. Once in a while, we should lay aside our minor differences of approach and come together for our common overall goal—to make this a safer country for all our people.

September 8, 2008

Seeking a Newer World

This weekend, I participated in a memorial service for a great, dear friend, Frances B. Stevens, a gentleman of the South who became a fierce advocate of the civil rights of all people. His passing reminded me that it is up to us to work for a better world for those to follow.

In memory of Frances, I offer this selection from Ulysses written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1833 after the death of his own dear friend. Frances Stevens was one who fit Tennyson's words: "To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

"The long day wanes; the slow moon climbs; the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down;
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

September 1, 2008

To Dream the Impossible Dream

Forty-five years ago my wife-to-be and I stood amongst a huge multitude of people on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and heard a young black preacher spell out his dream of a future for America. It was a stirring vision of a society that, "one day," could become a reality.

At the time, his dream seemed like a beautiful but unreachable goal. However, last Thursday, exactly 45 years to the day, we sat in another crowd to witness a young African-American fulfill the promise of that long-ago dream. We heard Barack Obama spell out his own vision of the future of America. Like the dream of the preacher, it seems like an unreachable goal. But we now know that dreams can come true with lots of hard work, dedication and sacrifice on the part of the dreamers.

I was pleased to hear the Democratic candidate for President of the United States include the following in his vision of our future:

"The reality of gun ownership may be different for hunters in rural Ohio than for those plagued by gang violence in Cleveland, but don't tell me we can't uphold the Second Amendment while keeping AK-47s out of the hands of criminals."

That is an important goal for a candidate running for public office in this day and age when gun violence has become an epidemic and most politicians are trying to ignore or run away from the issue of gun control.

A day later we were presented with a stark contrast when a self-proclaimed "lifetime member of the National Rifle Association" was chosen to be the candidate for Vice-President on the Republican ticket. It was a curious and disappointing choice for a presidential candidate who had hinted at his independence from the gun lobby when he recently reiterated support for closing the Gun Show Loophole.

In the days ahead, we will have an opportunity to find out who is the real John McCain: the maverick willing to buck special interests to better the lives of everyday Americans, or the politician eager to court right-wing favor even if it means betraying his principles?

Soon we will have a clear choice of visions. And then the future will be in our hands when we head to the polls in November...

August 25, 2008

No Hoorays for Hollywood

I was disturbed to turn on the television this weekend and see trailers for two bid-budget—and extremely violent—films being released by Hollywood this month.

The first was for "Righteous Kill," which stars Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. The trailer certainly lives up to the film’s name, glamorizing the use of handguns and assault weapons and implying that some forms of homicide are both moral and acceptable:

Unknown: "Somebody shot another bad guy."
DeNiro: "We got to find out who did this."
Pacino: "Give him a medal."

In another segment, DeNiro quips, "Nothing wrong with a little shooting, as long as the right people get shot."

The "Bangkok Dangerous" trailer with Nicolas Cage is every bit as audacious in glamorizing murder. In it, hitman Cage boasts that “there is no right and wrong” and is shown shooting multiple people.

These films follow closely on the heels of others that have glamorized vigilantism and murder, including "The Brave One" with Jodie Foster, "Shoot 'Em Up" with Clive Owen, and "Wanted" with Angelina Jolie.

What is most baffling is that many of the same actors who are appearing in these movies have made strong statements about the need for tougher gun laws in the past. Cage was the lead in the thought-provoking film "Lord of War," which catalogued the tragedy wrought by the illicit international trade in small arms. DeNiro has been vilified by the gun rights community for his support for sensible gun laws. Foster stated that she was “absolutely” for gun control after “The Brave One” was released. It’s hard to see what is driving this apparent contradiction outside of a large paycheck.

One thing is for sure…when it comes to idolizing guns and glamorizing “justifiable” homicide, Hollywood can certainly give the gun lobby a run for its own money.

August 18, 2008

No Pain, No Gain

Over the years, I have often been struck by the number of people who say they want to see something positive done about the problem of gun violence, but do not want to become involved in political action or vigorous public debate. They seem to think it somehow unseemly or impolite to engage on this serious issue in the political or public relations arena. This is a recipe for total failure.

The great 19th century American political philosopher, Frederick Douglass, accurately described the problem when he stated: "The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its waters." "Power concedes nothing without a demand," Douglass concluded. "It never did, and it never will."

Right now, the gun lobby holds a tremendous amount of power in this country, and legislators are doing its bidding because they are not hearing often enough from the majority of Americans who want sensible gun laws and safe communities. If we want something done about the problem of gun violence, we will have to get our hands dirty, get ourselves involved in the political struggles—local, state and federal—that can make a real difference. We have to write letters to the editor, attend local community meetings, meet with state legislators, participate in demonstrations, raise our voices. And yes, even be willing to face the nasty, vitriolic rants of those who disagree with us and want to intimidate us into remaining silent.

Otherwise, our fate has already been written by Douglass: "Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them."

August 11, 2008

Leadership in Faith

The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is so named because we originally started as a coalition of national religious organizations working to prevent gun violence. The Coalition eventually grew to include all of the major Protestant, Catholic and Jewish organizations in the country. Over the years, we have added a wider range of civic and public safety organizations to the Coalition.

A few years ago, one member of our Board of Directors, who is a Presbyterian minister, wondered why there seemed to be a dichotomy between the actions of the national church groups and their local constituencies. He did a survey of local pastors. To no one's surprise, the survey revealed that although almost all the pastors agreed with the national denomination's positions on gun violence, they were loath to raise the subject at the local level because it "might anger" a few local members or raise hostility from local pro-gun groups.

I was recently heartened to learn of the action of the delegates to the 2008 session of the North Georgia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church. They adopted a resolution which states, in part:

"Whereas bringing concealed weapons into the church sends a message that is at odds with what the church wants to communicate and violates the religious character of religious property, and;

Whereas the work of the church does not involve or require weapons;

Now be it resolved that the delegates to the 2008 session of the North Georgia Annual Conference oppose any attempts by the state legislature to allow anyone other than law enforcement officers to carry concealed weapons in houses of worship;

And be it further resolved that we invite members of other churches and faiths in Georgia to join us in this effort."

Our thanks go out to the members of the North Georgia Annual Conference of the UMC who have chosen to take a public moral stance on this vital issue even though it may not be a popular position with every single parishioner in the local church pews.

August 4, 2008

The Trouble with Mary

By now you will have heard the story of Mary Lou Sapone/Mary McFate, the woman who since the late 1990s has covertly infiltrated gun control groups for a private security firm hired by the National Rifle Association (NRA). I knew Mary McFate. I considered her an ally in the campaign to stop gun violence in this country. Like others in the movement, I felt deeply betrayed by her mendacity and duplicity.

I am particularly dismayed by the pain felt by many victims and survivors of gun violence who befriended Mary and poured out their own personal stories to her. At times, they relied on her for solace and for assistance. What they got was betrayal. To me, this is the greatest damage done by this spy in our midst.

I suppose that we should take comfort in the fact that the National Rifle Association was so frightened by our activities that they were willing to pay Sapone/McFate huge sums of money to spy on our organization and betray those who considered her a friend and co-worker. I can express shock that Mary McFate was the agent, but no shock that the NRA would stoop so low. This high-priced, unethical operation confirms the manner in which the NRA works. As Bryan Miller of States United to Prevent Gun Violence recently observed, the NRA has "no rules, no question of fairness or honesty. Anything that they can do they will do to protect the profits of the gun industry." In the words of James Jay Baker, who was executive director of the NRA's legislative arm when Mary was hired, "We got information from whatever sources we can." This incident is but one in a long list of dirty, underhanded activities undertaken by the NRA. Anti-gun violence advocates across the nation—indeed around the world—can bear witness to the varied and vicious skullduggery of this mouthpiece of the gun industry.

As sad as this incident is, we must not let it make us paranoid. It should not color our attitude toward the good people who step forward to become involved in the vital campaign to stop gun violence. Mary Lou Sapone will have to live with her betrayal; we do not have to bear that burden. We have the responsibility to past and potential victims of gun violence to do all within our power to reduce the death and destruction caused by our country's lax policies regarding firearms. Let us bury the memory of Mary with our re-dedicated activity.

July 28, 2008

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something strange seems to come over far-right Republican Members of Congress during election season. A case in point is seven-term Congressman Mark Souder from the state of Indiana. He is by all accounts an opponent of “Big Government” and federal interference in local matters. But in an election year when he is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Mike Montagano, Souder has decided to spend his time pushing a bill that seeks to usurp the powers of the mayor, city council and residents of the District of Columbia.

H.R. 1399 would pre-empt the Supreme Court’s recent decision in District of Columbia v. Heller and prevent the city from complying with the ruling by instituting a new registration system for handguns. Souder’s bill would allow individuals to possess unregistered firearms, repeal the District’s ban on assault weapons, and prohibit the city from taking any future action “to enact laws or regulations that discourage or eliminate the private ownership or use of firearms.” Federal lawmakers are essentially being asked to impose on the city of Washington something they would never tolerate for their own home districts.

Given the state of the economy and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one would think our Congress has far more important things to do than serve as the city council for the District of Columbia. However, the National Rifle Association (NRA) remains a lobbying power on Capitol Hill and it is eager to throw raw meat to its contributors as the November elections approach. According to The Hill newspaper, the NRA will be grading Members of Congress on whether they support a discharge petition to bring H.R. 1399 to the floor of the House. Conservatives looking for NRA money and support have been put on notice.

The District is vulnerable to such an attack, of course, because it continues to lack voting representation in Congress. Rep. Souder and many of the co-sponsors of H.R. 1399 are the same politicians that time and again have opposed the “District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act,” which would give the city a voting representative in their chamber for the first time ever. D.C.’s non-voting Delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been perfectly clear regarding her opinion of Rep. Souder’s legislation, stating, “I've seen some outrageous attempts to violate home-rule, but this nakedly political and unnecessary NRA-driven attempt is a new low because, by acting now, they deny the District the decency and respect due any American jurisdiction going through the prescribed process for complying with [a decision by the Supreme Court].”

In a time when our country is facing real and pressing issues domestically and abroad, it’s not only D.C. that should be feeling outrage. Voters who want their elected officials to deal with the problems that actually affect them and their families might also want to keep their eye on what Rep. Souder and the NRA are trying to pull off in Congress.

July 22, 2008

Bach to the Future?

This past Sunday, CBS' "Sixty Minutes" updated a fascinating segment titled "El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music." Bob Simon reported on a groundbreaking musical education program in Venezuela. "The system" is all about saving hundreds of thousands of children—through music. In the words of its founder, Dr.José Antonio Abreu, "Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty. A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides." In Simon's words, "music actually becomes the vehicle for social change."

The thousands of the kids in the program come from the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Venezuela. They are given an early introduction to classical music and musicial instruments. Hundreds of youth orchestras are created as venues for them to learn and perform. "Music produces an irreversible transformation in a child. This doesn't mean he'll end up as a professional musician. He may become a doctor, or study law, or teach literature. What music gives him remains indelibly part of who he is forever," Dr. Abreu said.

Reporter Simon introduced, "Lennar Acosta, who '60 Minutes' first met eight years ago when he was serving time in a juvenile detention center in Caracas. He was 17, had a violent criminal background, and the scars to prove it. When the detention center started an orchestra, Lennar tried the clarinet.

"Ed Bradley asked him about it. 'Tell me what it was like the first time you picked it up to play it?' Bradley asked.

"'It's completely different than when you hold a gun,' Lennar replied.

"Asked if he thought his life was different because of the clarinet and the orchestra, Lennar told Bradley, 'Yeah, a lot. The music taught me how to treat people without violence.'"

At the end of the segment, Simon asked one of the organizers if he thinks the system could work in the United States. The response was, "Yeah, I mean, kids are kids. It doesn't matter where they come from. And if you can help a poor kid in here, you can help a poor kid everywhere. It doesn't matter the culture, it doesn't matter the race. I mean, it's music. Everybody loves music."

Can you envision a day when poor kids in the U.S. have easy access to clarinets and violins rather than Glocks and nines? Music, not murder or mayhem. What a wonderful use of our resources that would be.

July 14, 2008

"He's a nice guy, but..."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to deliver what came to be known as his "but speech" in which he would remind the audience that the word "but" was the one word that completely changes everything that goes before it. For example: “He's a nice guy, but…”

Recently, I read a couple of articles that made me recall that speech. The first appeared in the academic journal Psychological Science and detailed a study in which researchers from Knox College found that male college students who held a gun rather than a child's toy for 15 minutes had elevated levels of testosterone. These students would then add three times as much hot sauce to a glass of water that they knew another test student subsequently had to drink.

The same day, I read a story that appeared in both the Associated Press and the New York Times. It reported that a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, had concluded that a man who gunned down two illegal immigrants who were burglarizing his neighbor's house had used justifiable deadly force and should not be charged with murder.

The shooter, Joe Horn, a retired computer manager, called 911 during the incident and told the emergency operator he saw two men burglarizing his neighbor’s house who were “black.” The operator repeatedly told him to remain in his house and stay calm. Horn was informed that a unit was on the way in response and that there “ain't no property worth shooting somebody over.” Horn would not listen, however. He referred to Texas’ recently enacted Shoot First Law and told the operator “I’m not going to let them get away with this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] … I'm going to shoot. I’m going to shoot ... I’m going to kill them.” A detective had just arrived at the scene when Horn fired three blasts of buckshot from his 12-gauge shotgun into the backs of the unarmed Latino burglars, Hernando Torres and Diego Ortiz, killing them both.

I am sure there is no connection between these two stories, but...

July 7, 2008

Freedom vs. Responsibility

Now that we have properly celebrated the Declaration of Independence and the birth of our freedom as a nation, perhaps it is time to begin a reflection on the obverse side of the same coin. As German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Responsibility and freedom are corresponding concepts. Factually, though not chronologically, responsibility presupposes freedom and freedom can consist only in responsibility. Responsibility is the freedom of men which is given only in the obligation to God and to our neighbour."

I have long believed that as an extension of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, the U.S. needs to build a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco harbor. Our nation must maintain a very delicate balance between these two poles. Too much freedom and you have anarchy; too much regulation and you lose freedom. We do not live in isolation—we live in a greater community and we have the responsibility to consider the impact of our actions on our neighbors and the country as a whole.

This dichotomy has always fascinated me in regards to the gun safety debate. On the one hand we have zealots who proclaim that there are no acceptable restraints on their freedom to possess firearms. On the other hand we have zealots who believe that no one should be able to own firearms in any circumstance.

The recent Supreme Court decision in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller has set the principle that there are legitimate restraints on the constitutional rights of individual citizens to own firearms. This is consistent with the view of our Founders that government regulation was an integral part of not only the Second Amendment, but ordered liberty in general. A tremendous opportunity is now open to us. We can enter into a genuine debate—unmarred by propaganda— over what legitimate restraints can and should be placed on firearm sales and ownership in order to keep America’s communities safe. It will be a delicate balance to attempt to achieve, but many of our country’s greatest accomplishments have involved this type of careful and thoughtful compromise.

June 30, 2008

Standing the Constitution on its Head

I had thought that our system of government was broad and stable enough to stand up to the pressures of any one wing of political factions. Now I must admit that I am amazed at the damage that has been done to the American political system by a small group of dedicated Neo-Cons over the past seven years. Any positive image of the U.S. throughout most of the rest of the world has been thoroughly trashed. The ability of the government to react effectively to crises has been called into question. Our military has been over-burdened and stretched too thin by an expensive and unnecessary foreign military occupation. The executive power has been enhanced to the detriment of our other branches of government.

And now the Supreme Court has overturned over 100 years of judicial precedent and stood the Second Amendment to the Constitution on its head. The 5-4 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, written by Reagan appointee Justice Antonin Scalia, holds that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess firearms for self-defense purposes unconnected with service in a well regulated militia.

As Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, recently wrote: “By deliberately omitting what test the Court is using to decide that [the District’s handgun ban and trigger lock requirement] unreasonably burden this newly proclaimed individual right to possess firearms, the Court leaves legislators and lower courts adrift at a time when public health data clearly shows the harm associated with handguns far outweighs any benefit from their use for lawful self defense.”

The decision is a terrible one and complete misreads the Framer’s intent in drafting in the Second Amendment. It is relatively narrow in scope, however, and leaves many critical questions unanswered. More importantly, it does not prevent gun violence prevention organizations from actively pursuing a wide range of legislative initiatives to reduce gun violence. Here at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, we will still be able to pursue all of our goals: pushing to close the Gun Show Loophole, passing microstamping laws to assist law enforcement with crime-solving, and holding gun manufacturers and dealers accountable for their distribution practices.

We will see if the Heller decision ultimately stands the test of time. But it certainly will not stop the work of millions of Americans across our country who are deeply concerned about the 30,000+ lives lost annually to gun violence. We are resolved to fight for sensible controls on the design, manufacture, sale, and distribution of firearms in America and will not stop until the senseless bloodshed in our country ceases.

June 23, 2008

Are We Ready to Play?

I keep on my desk the all-important reminder from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Contemplating the sometimes daunting task before the gun violence prevention movement, I recently took a moment to look back over the progress of the past few years. I am struck by the many small, but significant, changes that our movement has brought about in our society. A recent, historic change was the enactment of innovative “microstamping” legislation in California. This opens an exciting new approach to crime-solving (which will bring justice and peace to victims of gun violence) that can be replicated across the country.

My reflection also prompted me to re-read a 2004 article entitled “The Optimism of Uncertainty” by historian, playwright, and social activist Howard Zinn. “Revolutionary change does not come,” wrote Zinn, “as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.”

Together we have been engaged in a series of such small acts. There is much yet to be done and at times it is tempting to get discouraged. But as we look to the future, it is possible to agree with Howard Zinn: "I am totally confident not that the world will get better, but that we should not give up the game before all the cards have been played. The metaphor is deliberate; life is a gamble. Not to play is to foreclose any chance of winning. To play, to act, is to create at least a possibility of changing the world."

It may seem trite to say, but the coming election will bring us a different administration and a new Congress with which to work to bring about other possibilities to change our world. Are we ready to play?

June 16, 2008

An Honest Voice

People across the country are grieving this week for the loss of one of the great figures in American media. On June 13, Tim Russert—the longstanding moderator on the popular NBC News program “Meet the Press”—was taken from us far too early at the age of 58, the victim of a heart attack.

None other than Walter Cronkite described Russert as “giant in our field — a standard-bearer of journalistic integrity and ethics” and this was certainly no exaggeration. Veteran CBS journalist Bob Schieffer, discussing Russert’s penchant for asking tough questions on “Meet the Press,” noted that he never asked them merely to catch his interview subjects off guard or embarrass them. The point of these questions was instead to divine what his interview subjects really meant; what they stood for when all the political nuance was stripped away. This is why Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein remembered Russert as someone who “was masterful at exposing hypocrisy … and sought a way to the truth, often unconventionally.”

For those of us in the gun violence prevention moment, a signature Russert moment occurred when he interviewed National Rifle Association (NRA) CEO Wayne LaPierre on “Meet the Press” in March 2000. One week earlier, LaPierre had accused President Bill Clinton of tolerating killing and having “blood on his hands.” LaPierre’s “theory” was that the Clinton administration used gun deaths to further their political agenda.

Russert was relentless in his interview of LaPierre, asking him repeatedly if he would apologize for his comment or retract it. LaPierre refused to do either—in craven fashion, he would not even stand by his statement when pressed.

Undoubtedly, Russert was aware of the many steps President Clinton had taken during his two terms in the White House to prevent criminals and dangerous individuals from gaining access to firearms. This included his signing of the Brady Law (which stopped over 1.4 million prohibited purchasers from buying guns between 1994 and 2005) and the Assault Weapons Ban. Russert was likewise aware of the intense opposition of the NRA to this legislation—LaPierre & Co. fought the passage of the Brady Bill for seven hard years before attempting to take credit for it at the last minute.

In an era when our mainstream media is too hesitant to speak truth to power, the loss of Tim Russert will be sharply felt. We can all honor his memory, however, by holding our elected officials accountable and demanding serious discussion of the important issues that lie before us today.

June 9, 2008

An Effort to Understand

There are many memorial dates that stand out on the gun violence prevention movement calendar. One of the most poignant to me is June 4. Last week, that date marked the 40th anniversary of the assassination of anti-war presidential candidate Senator Robert F. Kennedy.

Kennedy’s shooting coming so close on the heels of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. left the country in great turmoil. President Lyndon Johnson appointed Milton S. Eisenhower to head a Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. One of the commission’s recommendations was to restrict the availability of handguns.

President Johnson urged Congress: “In the name of sanity…in the name of safety and in the name of an aroused nation…give America the gun control law it needs.” The centerpiece of his administration’s proposed legislation, introduced by Congressman Manny Celler (D-NY), was registration of all firearms and the licensing of gun owners.

The NRA launched an all-out war on the bill, saying that it would “sound the death knell for the shooting sport and eventually disarm the American public.” Following a rancorous five-day Senate debate in which Senator Chris Dodd (D-CT) accused the NRA of “blackmail, intimidation and unscrupulous propaganda,” the Congress passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. By that point, the licensing and registration provisions had been stripped from the bill. In the end, the act banned the interstate shipment of firearms; prohibited the sale of guns to minors, drug addicts, mental incompetents and convicted felons; strengthened licensing and record-keeping requirements for gun dealers and collectors; increased penalties for those who use guns in the commission of a federal crime; and banned importation of foreign-made surplus firearms.

As limited as this law was, it was the first significant piece of federal gun control legislation passed by Congress in 30 years. Before long, the NRA would begin work on a well-financed campaign to repeal several of its provisions.

Years after the King-Kennedy assassinations, the widows of both men, Coretta Scott King and Ethel Kennedy, became National Co-Chairs of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Their strong, wise and compassionate advice and leadership were a great source of comfort as we worked on this vital issue.

But it is the words of Sen. Kennedy himself that echo in my mind as we mark his passing. On the night that Dr. King was killed, Sen. Kennedy addressed a crowd in Indianapolis and gave them the tragic news. He then said, "We can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand and comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion and love ... Let us dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world."

This is still our goal and our responsibility.

June 2, 2008

Memorial Musings

During the past 40 years that I have been involved in the gun violence prevention movement, I have witnessed many things that have perplexed me. Not the least of these is the way our media treat some victims of gun violence.

Imagine this scene: Your family is in a crowd of people hanging out with friends and family at a neighborhood park at night on a holiday. Suddenly, the crowd is sprayed with gun fire. Six adolescents between the ages of 13 and 18 receive gunshot wounds to the chest, thigh, torso, abdomen, and foot. One child is even grazed on the forehead by a bullet.

Now picture these children as African-American.

Is your horror the same? It should be. In fact, this exact scene played out on May 26 and the mainstream media did not even report on it. Yet they somehow found the time to keep us abreast of the latest Hollywood gossip.

I venture to say that had these teens, these children, been white, this would have been headline news. Every major news outlet, AP reporter, and weekly magazine would have descended on the crime scene and reported on every single second of this tragedy.

Have we really become desensitized to the fact that young black men and women are being gunned down daily in their neighborhoods? Is this now an accepted “norm,” business as usual in a self-obsessed nation?

So I am asking the media, and the American public, to make all gun-related injuries and deaths a national priority. The day we start seeing any child affected by gun violence as one of our own—as an integral and precious part of our national fabric—is the day we can start taking a serious stand on the easy access that youth have to guns in America.

The alternative—to remain complacent and embrace an “everyone-for-him/herself” mentality—is too terrible to contemplate.

May 27, 2008


Like the rest of the nation, I was stunned and saddened by the recent news about Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy’s health. It seemed to knock the breath from our collective lungs here at the Coalition. But, in true Kennedy nature, Senator Kennedy is leading us through pain and grief yet again. With stoic pride and strength, he is showing us that patience and understanding are the ways to get through a rough time—not by reacting in anger.

The same was true when his brothers, President John F. Kennedy and presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy, were gunned down and murdered. Although racked with grief, he refused to respond to the tragedy by calling on his fellow Americans to take up arms against one another. Nor did he himself exhibit a need for retribution. In those dark moments, he remained calm and let go of his fear and anger. And it was faith and reason that brought him through.

As a college student, I had the opportunity to serve as an intern in the office of Senator John F. Kennedy. That was a unique experience I will always treasure. His assassination and the shootings of Senator Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were the major reasons for the founding of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Over the intervening years, it has been a great pleasure to work with Senator Ted Kennedy on a series of important gun control measures.

I have the utmost admiration for the senator for his years of leadership and counsel. Teddy and Vicki, you are in our thoughts, prayers and hearts. May peace be with you. We look forward to having you back in Washington soon.

May 19, 2008

When We Are Called

A wise person once observed that there is a nexus between those who study because they suffer and those who suffer because they study.

It seems to me that the gun control movement is one of those places. Too many people come to the movement because they suffer as victims or survivors of gun tragedy. Others come to the movement because they have taken the time to study the issue and are outraged by what they find. Either way we enter, the pain becomes the same once we’re in.

In today’s political climate it is sometimes difficult to keep a positive attitude about the state of our movement. How do we carry on in the face of so much suffering? At such a time, I find myself turning to poetry and song. One song which has given me comfort is “When We Are Called to Sing Your Praise” (words by Mary Nelson Keithahn):

“When we are called to sing your praise with hearts so filled with pain
That we would rather sit and weep or stand up and complain,
Remind us, God, you understand the burdens that we bear;
You, too, have walked the shadowed way and known our deep despair.

When we are called to sing your praise and cannot find our voice,
Because our losses leave us now no reason to rejoice,
Remind us God, that you accept our sad laments in prayer;
You, too, have walked the shadowed way and known our deep despair.

When we are called to sing your praise and life ahead looks grim,
Still give us faith and hope enough to break forth in hymn,
A thankful hymn, great God of Love, that you are everywhere;
You walk the shadowed way with us and keep us in your care.”*

In those times when we must look inside for strength, I can only offer the hope that we can break forth in song and find that which is the source of our confidence.

*Copyright 2000 by Abingdon Press, admin by The Copyright Co.

May 12, 2008

The Little Leader

In the playLife of Galileo (Leben des Galilei)” by Bertolt Brecht, Gallileo is told by his daughter, Andrea, “Unhappy is the land that breeds no hero." Galileo responds, "No Andrea, unhappy is the land that needs a hero."

As we
enter a summer certain to be filled with more horrific incidents of gun violence, our country is unhappily in need of heroes. The spring, however, seems to have already brought us one: Kai Leigh Harriott of Dorchester, Massachusetts.

Kai Leigh’s story
was related by Marie Szaniszlo in the April 30 edition of the Boston Herald. Kai Leigh was just 3 years old in 2003 when she was struck on her front porch by a stray bullet which pierced her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the chest down.

The shooter was arrested and at his sentencing three years later, Kai Leigh turned her tear-stained face to the accused and told him that what he had done was wrong, but she forgave him.

Later, the convicted shooter videotaped an apology from behind bars urging other youth to learn from his mistakes. Viewing the tape, Kai Leigh (now age 7) said, “I would tell him thank you for making an apology because you can inspire so many people by telling them, ‘Don’t do bad things.’”

Kai Leigh’s spirit reminds me of the vision of the peaceable kingdom offered by the writer of the Book of Isaiah (chapter 11, verse 6 in the King James Bible):

“The wolf shall also dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.”

May 5, 2008

The Long Hot Summer Ahead

It is still spring and yet the indications are already here that we will have a long and deadly summer. Youth homicides are already beginning to reach epidemic proportions in many cities across the country as the economy slumps further and temperatures turn upward. Mayors in places like Chicago and Washington, D.C. are calling for emergency actions to reduce teen gun violence.

A decade ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a study that pointed out U.S. children ages 14 and younger are 12 times more likely to die by gunfire than children in 25 other industrialized nations combined. Young Americans are more likely to die from gunfire than from all natural causes combined.

Why is this? Some would argue that there are cultural differences—that Americans gorge themselves on violent videogames and movies. I have traveled around many countries of the world and I know that youth the world over watch the same violent movies and play the same violent video and computer games. While there is no doubt that there are many factors involved in American gun violence, the single largest factor is the easy availability of guns. This is where the similarities between other nations and the U.S. disappear.

Within our own country there is a similar disparity. A Harvard University study demonstrated that children in the U.S. are more likely to be killed with guns in states where there is a high level of gun ownership as opposed to states with low levels of gun ownership. Dr. Matthew Miller, lead author of the study, said “In States with more guns, more children are dying. They are dying in suicides, in homicides, and in gun accidents. This finding is completely contrary to the notion that guns are protecting us. The differences in violent death rates to children are large, and are closely tied to levels of gun ownership. The differences can not be explained by poverty, education or urbanization.

So as we enter the long and violent summer, we can look forward to our big city mayors calling for more action to restrict the easy access that children, criminals and other prohibited purchasers have to guns. Their pleas will be met with silence by our elected officials and candidates for political office. And most likely the tears of parents of dead teenagers will, once again, fail to be seen or heard by our government.

We are the only ones that can change this bleak prognosis and move our nation toward a more rational gun policy. Are you willing to get involved for the sake of our children?

April 28, 2008

Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House

You can look on the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence website and find a myriad of reasons to not have a gun in the home. Most of the arguments are grounded in statistics and research, but one of my favorite reasons was cited by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins (2001-2003) in the following poem:

Another Reason Why I Don't Keep a Gun in the House

The neighbors’ dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.

The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
I close all the windows in the house
and put on a Beethoven symphony full blast
but I can still hear him muffled under the music,
barking, barking, barking,

and now I can see him sitting in the orchestra,
his head raised confidently as if Beethoven
had included a part for barking dog.

When the record finally ends he is still barking,
sitting there in the oboe section barking,
his eyes fixed on the conductor who is
entreating him with his baton

while the other musicians listen in respectful
silence to the famous barking dog solo,
that endless coda that first established
Beethoven as an innovative genius.

April 21, 2008

The Wrong Question

Last week marked the first anniversary of the gun massacre at Virginia Tech. The remembrance was marked by more than 70 "Lie-Ins” across the nation, including one at the university, which also conducted a candlelight vigil and other commemorative events.

I could not help but be moved by the remarkable way the VA Tech community has responded to this great tragedy. I am also impressed that so many of the Hokies—students and parents—have become involved in the movement to stop gun violence.

As each of these shooting events takes place, the public response has for the most part become predictable. Most Americans are horrified and frustrated in equal parts. Certain politicians decry the violence, yet proclaim that guns have nothing to do with the problem. We all know that is not true. Guns have everything to do with it. There is no other consumer product used so frequently to deliberately kill our fellow citizens.

The pro-gun lobby is predictably using the recent school shootings as an opportunity to ask, “What if the teachers and students had been armed?” That is the wrong question.

The right question is, “What if the perpetrator had NOT been able to obtain those firearms?” How many lives would have been saved? Instead of asking what the U.S. would be like with more guns, shouldn’t we be asking what our country would be like with fewer guns? Guns do not solve problems, they create problems. A handgun is designed for the sole purpose of taking human life.

It is tragic that we have come to this; that we are obliged to be fearful of gun violence in our schools, our places of work and worship, our streets and highways. Our efforts must be dedicated to ending this shameful chapter in the life of the nation.

April 14, 2008

Conventional Wisdom

Over the years, I have learned a couple of things about "Conventional Wisdom”: 1) It is conventional—not a lot of thought has gone into it, and; 2) It is seldom wisdom.

The current conventional wisdom on gun violence is that it is an intractable problem that cannot be solved and that no one in or running for public office is willing to deal creatively with the issue.

I am constantly dismayed that people who have witnessed dramatic changes in public policy—the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dismantling of apartheid and the creation of a new South Africa, the winding down of the nuclear arms race, the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, etc.—people who have seen these miracles in their own lifetime, will look at you dumbfounded when you say, “We can have a society free of gun violence.”

Where is our vision? What is our hope? We must confront and change the common wisdom that will lead us to despair and hopelessness. We can and must envision a nation in which we are not afraid of the gun lobbyists, a nation in which we have sensible gun laws; laws meant to protect us, to protect our communities, to protect our children.

We cannot achieve what we do not first dare to dream.

April 7, 2008

Style and Grace

In my 40-year journey through the gun violence prevention movement, I have had the opportunity to meet—and at times to debate—many fascinating people. One of the most interesting individuals I’ve ever encountered was Charlton Heston, who served as President of the National Rifle Association (NRA) from 1998 to 2003.

I must admit that I was never a fan of Mr. Heston's wooden acting style, nor his stentorian delivery.
Neither could I find much value in the right-wing political philosophy he embraced later in his life. However, I found him to be a kind and humorous gentleman in person. Perhaps I was swayed by his referring to me as a "young man"; something I had not been called in years!

Heston was extremely successful at portraying some of the great characters of history on the silver screen. But perhaps the greatest character he was able to project was that of Chuck Heston, the larger-than-life, rugged American hero. His manner of sharing his final battle with Alzheimer's disease was a great testimony to the man, as was the forceful way in which he led the NRA. I will truly miss his style and grace.

March 31, 2008

The Choice

This week will mark the 40th anniversary of the tragic day when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was taken away from us by a sniper’s bullet. But the important lesson is not how he died.

In his life Dr. King taught us that great moral crises must be met with courage, principle and an uncompromising stand for what we know to be right. He taught us that violence, in whatever form, will never be more powerful than love. As he often said, “Violence creates more problems than it solves.” Dr. King also issued a warning: “I can still hear that voice crying through the vista of time, saying, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.’ And there is still a voice saying to every potential Peter, ‘Put up your sword.’ History is replete with the bleached bones of nations, history is cluttered with the wreckage of communities that failed to follow this command.”

But today, in the streets and neighborhoods of America, King's important lesson is in danger of being lost. Across the nation, homicide has become the leading cause of death among young African-American men. A recent Department of Justice study (pdf) found that nearly half the people murdered in the U.S. each year are black, and three out of four of these homicides involve a firearm. Blacks are more than twice as likely as whites to be confronted with a gun during a crime.

I was deeply honored when Coretta Scott King agreed to join Mrs. Robert F. Kennedy as honorary co-chairs of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. They courageously served CSGV for many years. It was a great privilege to work with these two women, who knew only too personally the great pain that gun violence can inflict.

We must remind ourselves of the challenge that Dr. King left us: “We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos or community.”

I hope that you will join the movement to make our communities, our schools, and our homes safe from gun violence. That would be a fitting way to honor the legacy of Coretta Scott King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

March 23, 2008

Frustration…and Faith

It is no secret that the past seven years have brought many disappointments to those of us working to reduce gun violence. There have been a few important state victories in that time, but on the national level we have been faced with several setbacks. Now it seems that the Supreme Court will throw us another curve in June.

I am often asked: “You have been at this for over 30 years. What keeps you going?” I respond that I came to the cause out of anger. Anger at what was happening to my city, my country and my future. Anger at the deaths of thousands of children, wives and husbands and the failure of our leaders to take the problem of gun violence seriously.

I came because of anger. But, I have stayed because of faith. A faith that tells me that love is stronger than hate. A faith in our cause that gives substance to our hopes for a safer society and makes us certain of realities we cannot see.

In the dark times, I am upheld by the words of Rabbi Tarfon in the Pirke Avot: “The day is short, the task is great, the workers are sluggish and the wages are high and the Master of the house is pressing…” He also used to say: “You are not required to complete the work, but neither are you free to avoid it.”

I also feel compelled by the commandment of the writer of Ecclesiasticus (11:20-21): “Stand by your contract and give your mind to it; grow old at your work. Do not envy a rogue his success; trust the Lord and stick to your job.”

Well, at least I have followed the “grow old at your work” part!

March 18, 2008

What a Difference 2/9 Can Make

This week marks an important step in the quest to determine the role the Second Amendment will play in the national campaign to reduce gun violence. On Tuesday, March 18, the nine members of the Roberts' Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of the District of Columbia v. Heller. The District’s strict gun laws, which have been in effect since 1976, were declared unconstitutional in a lower court decision the Supreme Court will be reviewing.

The ultimate decision of the Justices in the Heller case could determine the scope of gun control legislation across the nation. Or the Court might decide to limit its ruling in a very narrow manner. Either way, the issue will be decided by a minimum of five members of the Court. Two of those members, Chief Justice John Roberts, and Justice Samuel Alito, Jr., are relatively new appointees of President George W. Bush. Those two Justices have already had a significant impact on the activist role this Court has played in several major cases. What a difference two votes can make on a wide range of important issues!

The Supreme Court debate this week will be an interesting political side-show, but the final decision is not expected until near the end of the Court's term in late June. Whatever the decision of the Court in the Heller case, the real campaign to reduce gun violence can and will continue. No matter their interpretation of the Second Amendment, a wide array of legislative and social action strategies are, and will continue to be, open to the gun safety movement. We at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence renew our thirty-year pledge to you to utilize every possible action to bring an end to the epidemic of gun violence in this nation.