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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.