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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.

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