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December 21, 2009

Seek the Path of Love

As we prepare to say hello to a second decade of this new century, I am mindful of the wisdom of the ancient prayer we have come to know as "The Lord's Prayer." The prayer has been adapted by many cultures over the centuries. I am particularly taken by one rendition that comes out of Central America. I offer it as my wish to you for a Happy New Year.

Our Lord, whose Spirit is with us here on earth,
Even the hungry sing praise to your Holy Name.
They look to your "Kin-dom,"
a land rich with milk and honey.
Enable us to do your will,
to stand while others sit,
to speak when others remain silent.
We thank you for bread,
for the song of the bird,
for the miracle of the corn.
Forgive our silence in the face of injustices,
for burying our dreams,
for keeping our bread and wine to ourselves.
Help us to resist the temptations,
to turn our heads from hunger and injustice in resignation,
to close the doors of our hearts,
to take up the same arms as the oppressor.
Deliver us from all evil,
Enable us faithfully together,
to seek the path of love though it be only lightly trodden,
to persist despite hardships.
For it leads to your everlasting "Kin-dom."

It is my hope for all of us that we may be enabled to stand while others sit, to speak when others remain silent, and to persist despite hardships.

Happy New Year!

December 14, 2009

Stress in the Workplace

In Joshua Ferris’ national bestseller, Then We Came to the End, he details the foibles and tedium of modern office life through the story of a group of Chicago advertising employees attempting to find meaning and continued employment during the dot-com bust. The novel was a National Book Award finalist and deemed “One of the Ten Best Books of the Year” last year by at least seven top book reviews. It’s one of the funniest novels I have read in a long time.

In the midst of the humor, one episode in the book struck a chord with me. After one employee, Tom Mota, is fired, his fellow workers begin to wonder if Tom might return to the office seeking retribution. As Ferris describes it:

Tom subscribed to Guns and Ammo. He had a sizeable collection of firearms in his possession. Most of those guns, however, were collector’s items and probably couldn’t even fire anymore. Well, some of us thought, what’s stopping Tom from going out and buying new guns? How easy it is to visit a gun show and later find yourself in possession of the assault weapons ideal for a situation like the one we were envisioning...[or] after some less-than-truthful data entry, using a shady Internet dealer, he might be taking possession of those unsportsmanlike items from a UPS man even as our debate raged.

Ferris succinctly captures the real possibility of workplace violence and the touch of anxiety many workers feel. An average of 500 homicides occur in U.S. workplaces every year and a 2005 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that workplaces where guns are permitted are five to seven times more likely to be the site of a workplace homicide compared to workplaces where guns are prohibited. This problem has been exacerbated by the fact that, since 2005, the National Rifle Association has pressured at least 12 states to enact laws that restrict employers’ ability to exclude firearms from their premises.

Hopefully, our legislators will acquire the backbone necessary to stand up to the gun lobby at some point in the near future so future readers will see novels like Then We Came to the End as nothing more than fiction.

December 7, 2009

A Profile in Courage

Over my many years in the gun control movement, I have been privileged to work with, for, and against many interesting people. One of the most interesting is a man named Bob Ricker who, sadly, was taken from us on Friday after a bout with cancer.

As a promising young lawyer, Ricker was hired in 1981 to be the Assistant General Counsel for the National Rifle Association (NRA). Ricker represented the NRA in many important federal and state legislative battles and gained a deep understanding of the political and legal process. Eventually, he became the executive director of the American Shooting Sports Council (ASSC), the gun industry’s leading trade organization at the time.

In this position, Ricker participated in a series of gun industry meetings between 1992 and 1997, during which manufacturers questioned whether they should take voluntary action to better control the distribution of guns. As Ricker later stated, gun makers had long known that “the diversion of firearms from legal channels of commerce to the black market” takes place “principally at the distributor/dealer level.” This is because corrupt dealers make it easy for criminals and juveniles to buy guns by allowing practices like “straw purchases,” in which an individual with a clean criminal record buys a gun(s) on behalf of someone who is prohibited under federal law from doing so (i.e., a convicted felon, domestic abuser, “mental defective,” drug addict, etc.).

During these industry meetings, Ricker heeded Ralph Waldo Emerson’s advice that, “A little integrity is better than any career.” At a time in life when men are supposed to be incapable of real change, he had the moral resolve to transform his thinking regarding the gun industry’s business practices. Ricker proposed strict standards and guidelines to his industry colleagues. Under his plan, firearm manufacturers would have been able to sell guns only to distributors and retailers who could demonstrate that they had a firm understanding of applicable laws, safety rules, and warning signs for illegal firearm trafficking. Dealers would have also been prohibited from selling multiple guns at one time to a single individual. His plan was rejected. As Ricker described it, “the prevailing view was that if the industry took action voluntarily, it would be an admission of responsibility for the problem.” Ultimately, the industry’s lawyers decided that even holding the meetings was “dangerous” and they were stopped altogether.

Ricker was not done, though. Following the mass shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, he traveled to the White House on behalf of ASSC to meet with President Bill Clinton and see if something could be done to prevent future school shootings (the teenage killers had acquired their guns through unregulated private firearm sales). For an NRA run by “right-wing wackos,” this was the last straw. Ricker was forced to resign and the ASSC was disbanded in favor of the more conservative National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF).

In 2003, Ricker would go public with his concerns about the gun industry when he provided testimony in an affidavit for a lawsuit by 12 California cities and counties against the gun industry. A few months later, he appeared on “60 Minutes” to tell his full story. When he was asked why he would risk his reputation and the wrath of gun rights activists by coming forward, Ricker stated, “I don't want to have to come home some night from the office and have my wife tell me that, ‘Your son was shot in a drive-by shooting,’ or, ‘The neighbor's kids were killed.’ And these people who sit up there in their corporate offices, they know about the problem. They've known about it for a long time. And the time is up.”

In his final years, Ricker backed up those words. He worked with the Virginia Center for Public Safety as they campaigned to close the Gun Show Loophole in that state. He was also a co-founder of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, a more moderate gun rights group that has been willing to acknowledge the legitimate public safety concerns aroused by gun violence in this country.

In the end, Ricker left quite a legacy of good works. But what I admire most about him is his courage to reexamine his beliefs and priorities. He risked—and lost—a lot of friendships in the pro-gun movement because of his determination to be a responsible citizen in our society. He was pilloried, mocked, and made an object of scorn for making this stand—but he never wavered. Even in his last months, Ricker was focused on making good public policy for the benefit of all.

Perhaps the best epitaph for Bob comes from Psalms 112 from the King James Bible:

1. Blessed is the man who fears the LORD,
Who delights greatly in His commandments.

2. His descendants will be mighty on earth,
The generation of the upright will be blessed.

3. Wealth and riches will be in his house,
And his righteousness endures forever.

4. Unto the upright there arises light in the darkness,
He is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous.

5. A good man deals graciously and lends,
He will guide his affairs with discretion.

6. Surely he will never be shaken,
The righteous will be in everlasting remembrance.

7. He will not be afraid of evil tidings,
His heart is steadfast, trusting in the LORD.

8. His heart is established,
He will not be afraid,
Until he sees his desire upon his enemies.

9. He has dispersed abroad,
He has given to the poor,
His righteousness endures forever,
His horn will be exalted with honor.

10. The wicked will see it and be grieved,
He will gnash his teeth and melt away,
The desire of the wicked shall perish.

November 23, 2009

Giving Thanks

As we prepare this week to share a Thanksgiving meal with family and/or friends, I offer this Litany by Eugene Pickett, former President of the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, to remind us of some of the things for which we can be grateful:

We Give Thanks This Day

We give thanks this day.

For the expanding grandeur of Creation, worlds known and unknown, galaxies beyond galaxies, filling us with awe and challenging our imaginations:

We give thanks this day.

For this fragile planet earth, its time and tides, its sunsets and seasons:

We give thanks this day.

For the joy of human life, its wonders and surprises, its hopes and achievements:

We give thanks this day.

For our human community, our common past and future hope, our oneness transcending all separation, our capacity to work for peace and justice in the midst of hostility and oppression:

We give thanks this day.

For high hopes and noble causes, for faith without fanaticism, for understanding of views not shared:

We give thanks this day.

For all who have labored and suffered for a fairer world; who have lived so that others might live in dignity and freedom:

We give thanks this day.

For human liberty and sacred ties; for opportunities to change and to grow, to affirm and to choose:

We give thanks this day. We pray that we may live not by our fears but by our hopes, not by our words but by our deeds.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

November 16, 2009

A Familiar Tragedy

I am constantly amazed at how easy it is to overlook the obvious until somehow the facts connect to our own experiences. Eleven days ago, as I was recovering in the hospital from back surgery, I heard the news of the Fort Hood massacre. Naturally, most of the news coverage focused on the number of dead and only briefly mentioned that 31 people were wounded.

As I was attempting to cope with the pain of a highly-controlled, planned-in-advance surgery, I found myself thinking of the pain and agony of those 31 human beings who were dealing with the trauma of unexpected gunshot wounds. I was forced to reflect how often we concentrate on the death totals of gun violence in America and overlook the fact that every day in our country 215 people are shot with guns and survive. What about them? They deserve more from our society, both in terms of resources and support.

I was also struck by the irony that Fort Hood is located in Killeen, Texas. Killeen is where one of the deadliest rampage shootings in American history took place in 1991, when an unemployed ex-Navy enlistee crashed his pickup truck into a popular cafeteria, pulled out two handguns, and killed 23 people before taking his own life. That tragedy held the "record" for America's worst shooting massacre until 2007, when a Virginia Tech student shot and killed 32 students and faculty. In another tragic twist, it turns out the Fort Hood shooter was a graduate of Virginia Tech in 1997.

The state of Texas reacted to the 1991 shootings in Killeen by enacting a law freeing up gun owners to carry concealed handguns in public. At the behest of the National Rifle Association, many other states followed suit. Perhaps predictably, the reaction from the gun lobby was similar after the Fort Hood shootings. Describing military bases as “gun-free zones,” commentators like John Lott have blamed the tragedy on their strict rules concerning concealed, private handguns. “The law-abiding, not the criminals, are the ones who obey the ban on guns,” says Lott.

Of course, there is an irony here as well. Nidal Malik Hasan, the Fort Hood Shooter, held a concealed handgun permit in the state of Virginia. Furthermore, Virginia permits are recognized as valid in the state of Texas. Hasan, by Lott’s definition, was one of the “law-abiding citizens” who would have made his fellow service members safer by carrying a concealed handgun on military installations.

That type of “logic” is exactly what our service members don’t need, and hopefully it will be rejected by the U.S. Congress as it considers how to respond to the tragedy. For now, however, we should all turn our thoughts to the families who have lost loved ones, and to the 31 brave Americans who have long recovery processes ahead of them.

October 19, 2009

Meet the Boogeyman

Recently, I got hold of a fundraising letter that Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) sent out on behalf of a new group calling itself the National Association for Gun Rights (NAGR). To give you a perspective on their ideology, NAGR Executive Director Dudley Brown calls the Brady Law (which requires federally licensed firearm dealers to conduct background checks on gun purchasers) “dangerous” and “extreme” in a video on their homepage.

But I digress... Here’s an excerpt from the letter:

Dear Concerned American,

The great pay-back has begun, and it's going to be ugly. The gun grabbers in Congress are paying back the anti-gun extremists who put them and Barack Obama in office.

Hi, this is Congressman Paul Broun from Georgia. I wish I had better news, but you and I are facing an assault on our gun rights like we've never seen before. You see, H.R. 45 is Barack Obama's gun control package, and it includes the most vile anti-gun measures he's supported over the years. It's only the first step...but it's a HUGE step. H.R. 45 establishes a NATIONAL gun registry database of every gun and its owner—for the whole county! Your private information and every gun you own would be in the system. But that's only if you succeed in buying a gun in the first place! And since H.R. 45 dramatically increases requirements for firearms purchases far beyond those ever proposed, you just might find yourself incapable of buying a firearm once this bill takes effect.

And it gets worse too. The National Association for Gun Rights has a survey ready for you to complete, but I want you to understand just how dangerous this bill is before I give you the link. Please bear with me for a moment. You see, H.R. 45 would establish a national gun registry database which would:

* Increase requirements for firearms purchases, far beyond those ever proposed.

* Create a national firearms registry overseen by the Federal Government.

* Invoke Draconian penalties for bookkeeping errors related to the Federal Firearms Database.

I'm sure I don't have to tell you that gun registration has historically laid the groundwork for total firearm confiscation. Citizen disarmament is the watchword of tyrants everywhere. In fact, the most brutal dictators of the last century were famous for their gun registration and confiscation schemes. But H.R. 45, Obama's National Gun Registry and Citizen Disarmament Act, is more than just a forced registration of all firearms in America. The bill also makes it increasingly difficult to buy a gun in the first place.

It is certainly appropriate for this letter to hit mailboxes as Halloween approaches. Because here-in are three of the gun lobby’s biggest Boogeymen—Barack Obama, gun control and gun bans—all in one neat, scary package!

Never mind that the letter describes H.R. 45 as “Barack Obama’s gun control package,” even though it was introduced in the House of Representatives on January 6, 2009, two weeks before the president was even inaugurated...

Never mind that H.R. 45 has no co-sponsors and has received no hearing in a House committee—meaning you’re more likely to see a pig fly than this bill passing Congress...

Never mind that H.R. 45, “Blair Holt's Firearm Licensing and Record of Sale Act of 2009,” is named after a young man who died heroically while shielding a young lady from gunfire on a Chicago bus; and fully supported by his surviving parents…...

Never mind that overwhelming majorities of Americans support licensing gun owners and registering firearms (79% and 77%, respectively)...

Never mind that virtually every other modern democracy licenses gun owners and registers firearms, and none of those reforms have led to “brutal dictators” or outright gun bans (although they have led to astronomically lower gun death rates than we have here in the U.S.)...

Never mind that a tougher screening process for gun purchasers might be a good idea in a country that routinely arms individuals who are clearly a threat to themselves and others…

I think you get the idea... While it is entertaining to see the lengths to which some groups will go to scare donors into sending cash, it is also an important reminder to all of us to check the facts whenever we receive alarming claims in fundraising appeals. It turns out that line between fantasy and reality isn’t so fine after all...

October 12, 2009

Wear Them Out

I often find that true wisdom comes from simple stories, and one of the great story tellers was the one called Jesus of Nazareth.

According to the writer known as Luke, Jesus was traveling through the borderlands of Samaria and Galilee on a journey to Jerusalem. He stopped in a village and told his listeners a story about a widow and an unjust judge.

He said that in a certain town there was once a judge who cared nothing for God or man. There was a widow in that same town who constantly came before the judge demanding justice against her opponent.

For a long time the judge refused to grant the widow justice. But in the end he said to himself, “True, I don't fear God or care about men, but this widow is so great a nuisance that I will see her righted before she wears me out with her persistence.”

In this simple story there is a great political lesson that is often easy to overlook. The persistent widow is a reminder to those who seek justice that we should never lose heart. We must continue to press on, and will be rewarded if we do so.

October 5, 2009

We Like Our Lives

In March of this year, the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” was put on indefinite hold in the House of Representatives when Democratic leaders couldn’t figure out how to move the bill without a harmful gun amendment attached. The bill would have granted D.C. residents voting representation in Congress for the first time ever (the United States is the only democracy on earth that denies residents of its capital such representation).

The gun amendment in question was drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and sponsored by Senator John Ensign (R-NV). It would repeal the District of Columbia’s new gun laws across the board and prohibit the D.C. Council from enacting any law in the future that would “unduly burden the ability of persons” to obtain and possess firearms (changes that were not called for in the 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller ruling by the Supreme Court).

Earlier this year, Senator Ensign defended his amendment with noble-sounding references to “the Framers,” “the Constitution” and “Second Amendment rights.”

However, much has happened since then. In June, Senator Ensign admitted to an extramarital affair with a campaign staffer who was married to an employee in his D.C. office. The scandal led Ensign to resign his position as the Chairman of the Republican Policy Committee. The FBI has now opened an investigation into the matter that implicates another NRA Favorite Son, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK).

Ensign has apparently become so radioactive that one Senate aide commented, “[he] doesn’t have a lot of friends up here right now.” That’s unfortunate, because in the wake of his gun amendment, Capitol Hill was the only place in the District of Columbia the Senator had friends to begin with.

Under the weight of this pressure, Ensign made some incredibly candid and revealing remarks last Tuesday during a Senate Finance Committee debate on health care legislation. Commenting on the fact that the U.S. has a poor record on preventable deaths compared to other industrialized nations, the Senator suggested those statistics were unfair because they include deaths from auto accidents and gun violence. “When you take into account cultural factors—the fact that we drive cars a lot more than any other country; we are much more mobile,” Ensign said. “If you take out accidental deaths due to car accidents, and you take out gun deaths—because we like our guns in the United States and there are a lot more guns deaths in the United States—you take out those two things, you adjust those, and we are actually better in terms of survival rates.” You can view a video of Senator Ensign’s remarks here.

There you have it, victims and survivors of gun violence in D.C.—you simply don’t count. And if you District residents don’t want to abolish your firearm laws and make it easier for lunatics to get guns, well tough luck, that’s just one “cultural factor” you’re going to have to get used to.

Hmmmm... Thanks, but no thanks. As a D.C. resident myself, I can assure both Senator Ensign and the NRA that you might like your guns, but we like our lives and loved ones even more.

September 28, 2009

Does it Apply?

Last year, the Supreme Court overturned a handgun ban here in the federal enclave of Washington and ruled that the Second Amendment protects individual gun ownership (the justices did leave room for firearms regulation, saying government could prohibit guns in "sensitive places" and forbid ownership by certain dangerous people, such as felons). But the court did not say whether the Second Amendment also applies to the states.

Last Thursday, an 11-member panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals grappled with this specific question. The case, Nordyke v. King, involves a dispute over a firearms ban at the Alameda County Fairgrounds in California. Some members of the divided panel argued that the Second Amendment "right to keep and bear arms" is binding on states. Others argued that the Supreme Court has never overturned its earlier rulings that said the Second Amendment applies only to the federal government. One judge suggested the court uphold the ordinance as a valid public safety measure while side-stepping the constitutional argument.

Sayre Weaver, attorney for Alameda County, presented the argument that the earlier Supreme Court decisions that set precedents on the scope of the Second Amendment remain binding and can be overturned only by the high court. The 9th Circuit issued an order after the argument that they are holding the Nordyke case pending disposition by the Supreme Court of another case, National Rifle Association v. Chicago, where the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Second Amendment is not incorporated at the state level.

The Supreme Court’s decision on whether to accept the Chicago case for consideration will be a key one and have a significant effect on gun-related litigation across the country.

September 14, 2009

A Little Less Comedy Tonight

One of the greatest things about working for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has been the myriad of fascinating people that you meet and come to admire.

One such person is Larry Gelbart, the award-winning writer whose sly wit helped create such hits as Broadway's "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the films "Tootsie" and "Oh, God!" and the hit television series "M-A-S-H". Mr. Gelbart died this past week at the age of 81.

During his long career as a comedy writer, Gelbart wrote for Bob Hope, Jack Paar, Red Buttons, Jack Carson, Eddie Cantor, Joan Davis and many others. In the 1950's he joined a legendary writing team that included Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Carl Reiner writing for Sid Caesar's "Caesar's Hour."

Reiner, longtime friend and colleague, as quoted by AP writer Christy Lemire, called Gelbart "the Jonathan Swift of our day...It's a great, great, great, great, great, great loss. You can't put enough `greats' in front of it." Reiner directed "Oh, God!" from Gelbart's Oscar-nominated script. "The mores of our time were never more dissected and discussed. He had the ability to make an elaborate joke given nothing but one line."

Mr. Gelbart was a warm and generous human being. He will be greatly missed. There will be a little less comedy tonight.

September 7, 2009

Old and Wise

As I reflected on the harsh political rhetoric of this past summer, I was reminded of the words of the ancient writer of the Epistle of James:

"You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for your anger does not produce righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

"But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they look like. But those who look to the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.

"If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world."

[James 1:19-27, Inclusive Language translation]

August 31, 2009

In Search of That Better America

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, who passed away last Tuesday, was a stalwart force in national efforts to stop gun violence. Our country is better today for the work that the senator did to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and children. Senator Kennedy supported every major gun safety initiative since the Gun Control Act of 1968; including the Brady background check law, the ban on assault weapons, and ongoing efforts to close the gun show loophole. His wise counsel, gentle good humor, and steely resolve on these issues will remain in the hearts and minds of all those who work to reduce gun violence.

In addition, he had a tremendous impact on nearly every aspect of modern American political life. Some of his many legislative accomplishments were summed up in remarks at his "Celebration of Life" by Senator John Kerry, his colleague from Massachusetts:

“Ted Kennedy changed the course of history as only few others ever have. Without him, there might still be a military draft. The war in Vietnam might have lasted longer. There might have been delays in passing the Voting Rights Act or Medicare and Medicaid. Soviet Jewish Refuseniks might have been ignored—and who would have been there to help them as Ted did? Without him we might not have stood up against the apartheid government in South Africa. The barriers to fair immigration might be higher...

“Without Ted, 18-year-olds might not be able to vote. There might not be a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Meals on Wheels, student loans, increases in the minimum wage, equal funding for women’s college sports, health insurance portability, the Family and Medical Leave Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the first billions for AIDS research, workplace safety, Americorps, or the Children’s Health Insurance Program...

“He stood against judges who would turn back the clock on constitutional rights. He stood against the war in Iraq. For nearly four decades, and all through his final days, he labored with all his might to make health care a right for all Americans."

Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick added, "Ted Kennedy more often than not sailed into the political wind, in search of that better America. He did it with a grace and skill so typical of him and his family."

The Lion of the Senate understood that sometimes the toughest fights were the ones most worth fighting. In the future we can honor the memory of Ted Kennedy and the millions of victims of gun violence by sailing into the political wind and making Teddy's work our own.

August 24, 2009

What Do We Want Our Country to Look Like?

This summer’s Congressional recess has been marred by many incidents that raise grave questions about the current political climate in America and what that portends for the future of the Republic. One of the more jarring elements has been the presence of guns at town hall meetings on health care reform. Last week, we even saw a man openly carry an assault weapon outside a public appearance of the President of the United States.

In an excellent article about this issue, columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. has asked some appropriate questions about this development. His first query: "What would conservatives have said if a group of loud scruffy leftists had brought guns to the public events of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush?"

Dionne goes on to argue that the real question that must be addressed is what message the gun-toters are trying to send. As he sees it, “This is not about the politics of populism. It's about the politics of the jackboot. It's not about an opposition that has every right to free expression. It's about an angry minority engaging in intimidation backed by the threat of violence.”

This dovetails nicely with an excellent blog recently published by our executive director, Josh Horwitz, at the Huffington Post. In that piece, entitled, “‘Resistance Efforts,’ Guns and the Constitution,” Josh states, “If we let "the guys with the guns make the rules" then the very fabric of our democracy is up for grabs.”

I couldn’t agree more. All Americans need to take a close look at what is happening at these health care reform events and wonder what they want this country to look like for their children...

August 17, 2009

This Sounds Familiar...

Dr. Martin Luther King was a communist. The Director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had secret files to prove it. The entire "civil rights" movement was a Soviet Union-backed plot to lead induce race-mixing and thus weaken the fighting will of Americans. President John F. Kennedy was secretly set on disarming the United States. People who supported equal rights for non-whites were unstable, driven insane by mind-altering drugs and the devil's rock and roll music.

Listening to some of the charges being flung around in the current debate over health care reform, I can’t help but think that I’ve heard it all before. The charges above, of course, were some of those that we heard in America during the 1960s. People frightened by the changes taking place in our society were looking for a boogeyman and found it in the "Communist menace." Rightist politicians, organized hate groups, and some in the news media were quick to jump on the fear bandwagon. Civil rights supporters were shouted down in public meetings. Many universities were closed to certain speakers. Civil rights workers were openly harassed. Some were killed. Others were badly beaten or run out of town.

Despite these obstacles, dedicated civil rights activists—many of whom were students, both black and white—fanned out across the country to seek a change in the laws of the nation. Brave religious leaders stood up to speak truth to power. Advocates of reform organized and took action and eventually achieved great social change in America.

Now, once again, we seem to be on the threshold of major social change, and once again the threats, outlandish charges, and out-right thuggery are part of our public life this summer of discontent. Now there are new charges... President Obama isn't an American. He is part of a Muslim plot to destroy the country. The Democrats’ health care plan would create “death panels” to euthanize senior citizens, thereby reducing health care costs.

Again, the motivating factor is fear of change. I cannot help but believe that much of that fear is—just as in the 1960s—stoked by racial anxiety. It has finally sunk in that the election of Barack Obama is a reality and there is no going back to the “good old days.”

Another similarity is the stockpile of firearms in private hands. Only now the weapons are far more sophisticated and dangerous. I could not help but be alarmed by the New Hampshire man who recently showed up to a public forum held by the President of the United States with a 9mm handgun prominently strapped to his leg and a sign about letting the blood of “tyrants.” I am glad my colleague Josh Horwitz is keeping a close eye on such insurrectionist activity.

But there are two key differences between this upheaval and that of the 1960s. First, in the 1960s we did not have a 24/7 news coverage machine and the Internet to present unedited opinions instantly. Second, it seems that the majority of Americans are not buying into the scare tactics and will not stand (or fall) for such paranoia.

Ultimately, it is up to people of conscience to prevail against hate and intimidation and achieve the change we so desperately need. We can all have great confidence in our ability to reach this goal—those brave souls of the 1960s, who refused to bend against any opposition, proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

July 27, 2009

Mightier Than the Sword

The recent defeat in the U.S. Senate of the "Thune Amendment" was a rare victory for proponents of sensible gun legislation. If this amendment were signed into law, concealed handgun (CCW) permit holders from states with lax standards would be allowed to carry guns through and into other states with tough and more restrictive CCW laws.

Although we can celebrate the fact that the amendment fell two votes short of the 60 required for passage, we must be mindful that 58 Senators voted for this dangerous and unprecedented legislation. This underscores the disproportionate support that the gun lobby has in the Congress of the United States at this time.

Conventional political wisdom has it that Democrats are convinced that gun control is a losing issue. The converse of that argument is that the supporters of stronger gun regulation will not hold their elected officials responsible for ignoring or voting the wrong way on the issue. Some years ago, there were polls conducted which showed that for gun control advocates, the issue ranked #5 on a list of issues about which they cared the most. For gun rights advocates, however, the issue ranked in their top two. This “commitment factor” helps explain why many elected officials feel they can ignore the wishes of gun control advocates, who vastly outnumber pro-gun advocates.

Some Members of Congress have been recently asking, "What has happened to the voice of supporters of sensible gun legislation?” Editorials in newspapers across the country have wondered, "Where is the outrage at the recent spate of gun violence in this country?" In defeating the Thune Amendment, we stood together and began to answer those questions, but more needs to be done.

The Congress will soon be taking their August month-long recess. They will be heading home to take the temperature of the voting public in their respective districts and states. There are two things you can take for granted: 1) The economy and health care will be the top items on everyone's agenda, and; 2) The pro-gun lobby will be well organized to see that their voice is heard.

Will you be equally committed to sharing your concerns about—and support for—sensible gun legislation? If you do not speak up this August, the voice of the NRA and its ilk will be the only voices heard and the prospects for saving lives in the future will be diminished. Remember, 58 Senators voted for the Thune Amendment because they think you aren't paying attention, or just don't care. Let's tell them otherwise.

As a sage once put it, you should always carry a pen because you never know when you will meet someone with a sword.

July 20, 2009

A Modest Proposal

Dear gun rights activists,

As you know the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups have been very successful in expanding the easy availability of firearms and curtailing restrictions on who can carry guns and where they can carry them. You are also aware that gun sellers are reporting great increases in the volume of their sales.

You may have seen the news reports recently that many hospitals, emergency rooms and trauma centers across the country are running low on—or are out of—critical blood supplies needed to treat the victims of gunshot wounds. A large number of these victims are teens and younger.

Might it not be a good PR gimmick for you and your fellow activists to organize blood donor drives to restore some of the much-needed blood bank base in our nation’s emergency and trauma units? After all, we all know that "freedom isn't free." Freedom requires responsibility and sacrifice.

By donating blood to ensure there is enough in supply, the life you save may be your own.

Donating blood is easy, painless, and only takes about an hour of your time. Read more about donating in the "Donating Blood" section of the Red Cross website and call your local blood center today to schedule an appointment to donate.

July 13, 2009

Nominating Dictators

So what else is new?

Given the recent activities of many its Members, a May poll revealed that the Congress of the United States is held in low esteem by much of the public.

In Walt Whitman's political tract, "The Eighteenth Presidency," an attack on the dreadful state of American governance in 1856, he trained his sights on the "nominating dictators" of American political life. “Who are they?” he asked. The answer:

"Office-holders, office-seekers, robbers, pimps, exclusives, malignants, conspirators, murderers, fancy-men, post-masters, custom-house clerks, contractors, kept-editors, spaniels well-trained to carry and fetch, jobbers, infidels, disunionists, terrorists, mail-riflers, slave-catchers, pushers of slavery, creatures of the President, creatures of would-be Presidents, spies, blowers, electioneerers, body-snatchers, bawlers, bribers, compromisers, runaways, lobbyers, sponges, ruined sports, expelled gamblers, policy backers, monte-dealers, duelists, carriers of concealed weapons, blind men, deaf men, pimpled men, scarred inside with the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and harlot's money twisted together; crawling, serpentine men, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the earth."

Americans have been having fun looking at their political leaders ever since. Long may we look with a critical eye at the shenanigans of the kept editors [Did someone say "fair and balanced"?] and lobbyists for carriers of concealed weapons.

July 6, 2009

Some Things Never Change

Some years ago the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence used to issue an annual award to highlight the many ridiculous ways guns are misused in this country. We never wanted for candidates for this dubious honor.

In today's internet world, we have been taken over and expanded by the Darwin Awards. The stated mission of the Darwin Awards is "to salute the improvement of the human genome by honoring those who accidentally remove themselves from it."

In case you missed them, here are some of the nominees making the rounds these days. These are supposedly true stories culled from daily newspapers:

  • An unidentified man, using a shotgun like a club to break a former girlfriend’s windshield, accidentally shot himself to death when the gun discharged, blowing a hole in his gut. (San Jose Mercury News)

  • Ken Charles Barger, 47, accidentally shot himself to death in December in Newton, North Carolina. Awakening to the sound of a ringing telephone beside his bed, he reached for the phone but grabbed instead a Smith & Wesson 38 Special, which discharged when he drew it to his ear. (Hickory Daily Record)

  • Just as squirrels bury their acorns to protect them from predators for later use, a man from Howard, Wisconsin, put his ammunition and three handguns in a safe place before he and his wife departed on vacation. He wanted to be sure they would be there when the couple returned. But just as squirrels frequently forget where they buried a particular acorn, the man forgot that his hiding place was the oven. When they returned from their trip, his wife turned on the oven to prepare dinner. Shortly afterward the couple had to duck behind the refrigerator as the bullets began to explode like popcorn. The husband used a fire extinguisher to put out the fire the bullets started in the oven. No humans were hurt, but the prognosis for the oven was grim. (Associated Press)

I know that gun violence is not a laughing matter, but sometimes I have to shake off the grim reality and marvel at the many ridiculous and deadly ways that guns are misused daily in our nation. And if humor can help people take notice of the importance of handling firearms safely in all situations, all the better.

June 29, 2009

In a Split Second

I am constantly amazed at the number of people who blithely assume that their possession of a handgun—no matter what their level of training—would enable them to prevent or stop a gun-related crime without doing collateral damage. Such an assumption is often in direct contrast to the experience of well-trained, armed law enforcement officials.

On June 10, Bill Crummett, an agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), witnessed an armed crime unfolding as his car was stopped at a traffic light near the Capitol in Washington, D.C. As reported by Clarence Williams in the Washington Post, “Two pedestrians in a crosswalk pulled out semiautomatic handguns and opened fire on a third man, who was wounded and scrambled for cover behind a sports utility vehicle. The assailants then hid their weapons in their waistbands, leaving Crummett to make a split-second decision: Engage and risk a firefight or call for help.”

As Williams tells the story, “Crummett decided not to risk the chance of escalating a gun battle at an intersection crowded with commuters and pedestrians. Instead, he called D.C. police, gave them a description of the suspects and began a low-key pursuit until help arrived.” As a result of his actions, the guns used in the crime were recovered and one suspect was arrested later that day. No innocent bystanders were harmed at any time.

According to Agent Crummett: “There’s a couple of things that I could do at that moment. It was more dangerous for me to try take enforcement action…the smartest thing to do was to follow them.” Inspector Michael Reese with the D.C. Police agreed: “He could have opted to shoot, but he didn’t. I think he used good sound judgment. He let his expertise come into play.

I have heard far too many un-trained, would-be heroes confidently assert that they would pull their trusty piece and save the day in such a situation. Walter Mitty would be proud. In reality, reaching for your trusted piece will most likely result in increased tragedy. Owning a gun is a grave responsibility. Knowing when not to use one is imperative.

June 22, 2009

The Times on the Times

On the west coast, Steve Lopez of the Los Angeles Times looked at a business that’s booming in tough economic times and wondered, "What’s Triggering Gun Sales?" Lopez visited several gun dealerships in the Los Angeles area to find out.

Three main reasons were put forward for gun purchases. First is the much ballyhooed fear promoted by the National Rifle Association (NRA) that President Obama is going to take away all guns. One dealer polished off the gun lobby’s old chestnut: "There are few things that stand between the people and tyranny. Once private gun ownership is eliminated, there's nothing to stop the government from doing what it wants to do."

The second reason has to do with fear of where the current Obama hatred might lead. As one dealer said, “If somebody shoots this guy, there's gonna be wars in the streets," adding that the violence would make the Rodney King rioting look like a picnic in the park, and some people are afraid to get stuck without enough bullets.

The third reason given was a real doozy: Some people "don't know whether [Obama’s] Muslim or Christian."

I loved Lopez’s response to these arguments. “If war broke out between the U.S. government and the Inland Empire, would it be that easy to choose sides? … Then again, if there are people in this country unstable enough to think Obama might lead a jihad, shouldn't I be prepared to protect myself from them?”

In another recent editorial, New York Times columnist John Herbert wrote, “Americans are not paying enough attention to the frightening connection between the right-wing hate-mongers who continue to slither among us and the gun crazies who believe a well-aimed bullet is the ticket to all their dreams … As if the wackos weren’t dangerous enough to begin with, the fuel to further inflame them is available in the over-the-top rhetoric of the National Rifle Association, which has relentlessly pounded the bogus theme that Barack Obama is planning to take away people’s guns ... While the NRA is not advocating violence, it shouldn’t take more than a glance at the newspapers to understand why this is a message that the country could do without.”

Herbert pointed to the obvious irony that “gun control advocates are, frankly, disappointed in the president’s unwillingness to move ahead on even the mildest of gun control measures.” He wisely concluded that the first step to addressing the threat of insurrectionist violence in our country, “should be to bring additional gun control back into the policy mix.”

It’s great to see some editorial sanity from both ends of the country.

June 15, 2009

Two Horrifying Days

One horrifying day is seared in my memory—the day in 1962 I spent touring the remains of Auschwitz with a friend who had lost his wife, children and parents in that unspeakable death camp. I can not express the sense of evil that permeated those grounds. I was made acutely aware of the horror that can be unleashed by organized and armed hate groups.

The memory was brought vividly back to life by the tragic shooting at the U.S. Holocaust museum here in Washington, D.C. The perpetrator of the shooting left a note, “You want my weapons—this is how you’ll get them. The Holocaust is a lie.”

According to an article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the killer “held subscription and mail-order memberships in an assortment of far-right and anti-Semitic organizations, including the California-based Institute for Historic Review, the Adelaide Institute, a far-right Australian group, and, at one point, was nominated as a ‘white racialist treasure’ by a visitor to Stormfront, a neo-Nazi Web site based in Florida. In 2004, [he] spent several months in Hayden, Idaho, home base of the now-defunct Aryan Nations, a longtime breeding ground for white supremacists and domestic terrorists that included The Order, a supremacist group that carried out murders and armed robberies in the 1980s. One intelligence document shows that…FBI agents discovered an application form for Mr. von Brunn for an Aryan Nations splinter group known as Church of the Sons of Yaweh.”

More frightening to me are the comments made by other spewers of racial hatred in the wake of the shooting. A friend of von Brunn’s, White Separatist John de Nugent, said "James von Brunn is significant because he is somebody who simply acted on his belief. But I think there are millions of white people who are trending in this direction. If I were to advocate the violent overthrow of the country I think hundreds of people would join me right now."

The Holocaust Museum shooting—so closely following on the heels of the shooting of abortion doctor George Tiller in his church—reminds us of how much damage can be done to our democratic ideals by a dedicated group of hate-mongers who have easy, unregulated access to deadly firearms. The comments of people like John de Nugent make my blood run cold.

Two of my current and former colleagues at CSGV, Josh Horwitz and Casey Anderson, recently published an important book, Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, that discusses in detail the harm that is being done to our fragile democracy by these armed insurrectionists.

June 8, 2009

Sound the Battle Cry of Radicalism

At my age I probably should not be—but constantly am—amazed at the things some in the pro-gun lobby will say in order to get a mention in the news. In a desperate attempt to fire-up the faithful, groups like Gun Owners of America (GOA) have accused Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor of being “an anti-gun radical” for joining a Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit opinion earlier this year that refused to incorporate the U.S. Supreme Court’s D.C. v. Heller decision on the Second Amendment at the state level.

In their shrill statement, the group charged that “Sotomayor, a politically correct lover of centralized government power (as long as she is part of the power elite), immediately went into counter-attack mode against the Heller decision” in the opinion mentioned above in the case of Maloney v. Cuomo.

As if to emphasize how detached from reality that rant was, this past week a panel of conservative judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, hearing a challenge to gun laws in Chicago and Oak Park, Illinois, came to the same conclusion as the Sotomayor panel. “We agree with Maloney” read the unanimous decision written by the circuit’s Chief Judge, Frank K. Easterbrook, one of the country’s leading conservative jurists. “The Supreme Court has rebuffed requests to apply the Second Amendment to the states,” Easterbrook wrote. He was joined in the decision by the well-known conservative jurist Richard A. Posner and a third Republican-appointed judge.

Now, I have no idea of how Judge Sotomayor actually feels about the gun rights/responsibility debate. I truly wish that I did. However, I do know that the gun lobby has no more information than I do. That does not prevent them, however, from making outlandish and defaming statements to play to the media and attempt to raise more funds from the faithful. Nor does it bode well for an honest debate on the issues. Once again, the gun lobby adheres to the admonition to not let the salt of truth ruin the flavor of a good press quote.

June 1, 2009

The Power of Doubt

Recently, the National Rifle Association (NRA) held its annual convention in Phoenix, and I chanced upon an interesting quote from a Remington employee who ran a booth at the gun expo there. Speaking about the NRA’s view on President Obama, he said, “We have our doubts and doubt is that makes this organization thrive.”

Just three days later, NRA Board Member Ted Nugent published an editorial in the Waco Tribune that seemed to confirm this theory by elevating doubt (or “fear,” if you prefer) to a new level.

“Water is essential to life … A certain lunatic fringe is always conspiring to ban guns, something else we need to live,” Nugent said, without offering any concrete examples of such proposals (or perhaps Mr. Nugent simply believes an assault weapon is as essential to human life as oxygen).

But Nugent wasn’t done there... He then described the NRA’s annual convention as “a great celebration of good over evil,” thereby condemning not only gun violence prevention organizations, but also the thousands of victims and survivors of gun violence across the country who actively advocate for tougher gun laws. That includes survivors of the Virginia Tech shootings and family members of the victims in that tragedy, 50 of whom recently wrote the Richmond Times to urge legislators to close the Gun Show Loophole, a proposal the NRA adamantly opposes.

Nugent’s doubts also extended to our nation’s law enforcement officers. “All the evidence tells us that calling 9-1-1 is a joke,” he states. “We’ll tell authorities to bring a dustpan and a mop to clean up the dead monster we just shot.”

“Peace and love will get you killed,” Nugent concluded, not bothering to explain why the United States, with its weak gun laws, has higher rates of homicide than virtually every other industrialized democracy in the world.

Doubts? I have my own, particularly in regards to the mental health of the NRA’s celebrity spokesmen.

May 18, 2009

It's About Citizenship

Many of you are aware that CSGV Executive Director Josh Horwitz has a book coming out this month, Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, that “recasts the gun debate” by “demonstrating how reasonable gun control is essential to the survival of democracy and ordered liberty."

Josh is not the only person thinking about this topic in the wake of last year’s District of Columbia v. Heller decision, however. Frequently, I will receive emails from a nonprofit organization, The Potowmack Institute, whose motto is, “It’s not about guns…it’s about citizenship.”

A recent missive from the Institute contained some very provocative ideas:

We are in the midst a crisis in gun violence and gun trafficking that is no longer simply national. It has become international … These crises can no longer be ignored … The [Senate] Judiciary Committee will have confirmation hearings on a Supreme Court nominee. It is not usual to ask nominees questions on cases, but the Parker [v. District of Columbia]/Heller gun rights cases do offer possibilities on the most fundamental concepts…

The vital arguments [have been] ignored … The substantive discussion begins with something very simple: What James Madison was really describing in Federalist Paper No. 46 was not a civil right of private individuals. It ends with something equally simple. The Parker/Heller cases were a devastating defeat for gun rights ideologies [in part because those decisions affirmed that a wide range of gun control regulation is both constitutional and permissible and because they refused to adopt a strict scrutiny standard for future regulations]. If the gun lobby does not accept the opinions of the courts, the constitutional challenge to them is to launch a campaign for a constitutional amendment. The cynical business of defeating legislation does not secure a constitutional right.

The hearings have to be directed toward the formulation of national policy. The only really important goal of national policy is to control the illegal traffic of guns between and among jurisdictions and now, between and among nations. That is empowerment policy for local jurisdictions. The Federal Government need do little more. That goal can only be accomplished by registration of ownership and reporting of private sales...

[The solution] is very simple: Resurrect the original militia concept and practices as manifest in the “Militia Act of 1792.” Registration for militia call-up—regardless that a call-up ever takes place—is a matter of military preparedness. It can have the added benefit of controlling the illegal traffic [in firearms]. We can call it the “Homeland Security Militia Reserve Act.”

The constitutional authority for such a national firearms policy is not the much overused Commerce Clause, but the militia clauses and the Second Amendment. Militia duty was conscript duty. Privately owned weapons were a public resource [used for] public duty. They were placed on inventories and reported to the president of the United States ... Can the Judiciary Committee conduct a badly needed national civics lesson? There are no libertarian individual rights in a conscript military organization. After the Parker/Heller opinions there can be no constitutional objections.

The gun rights ideologues would, I think, be very eager to get a hearing for their rights. The business of serious political leadership is to keep them honest and hold them accountable.

A policy that actually entails some real responsibilities for those who consistently clamor about their “rights”? Sounds like a great idea to me...

May 11, 2009

Wish I Had Said That

One of my favorite sources of inspiration is the excellent magazine, “The Progressive Christian.” The April 2009 edition carried an excellent article by Charles Schuster, the following sections which I would like to share with you:

In the midst of a world economic crisis, it is important to revisit what has, truly, brought us through the fire, the flood, the terror, the famine, and the pestilence of the past. We have survived because we learned that we must care for each other rather than protect ourselves from each other. We have survived because we have learned to cooperate instead of compete. The human spirit has risen to its best when it has pondered the broad horizon and has been able to look past the tree that blocked us to see the forest that surrounded our ponderings ...

For those who want to purchase weapons of miniscule destruction, let us invite them to empty the bullets from their guns and assemble to fight the real enemies of the state that are found in the human heart, and to bear witness to the real cure for what ails us, which also is found in the human heart.

The time has come for religious people to be religious. The word religion is derived from a Latin word meaning “to bind together.” This is a time to bind together even as segments of our population want to separate us from each other.

This is a time for the fittest to lead in our survival, but fitness is not defined by power and might. It is defined by tenderness and compassion.

Amen, brother Schuster. I wish that I had said that myself...

April 27, 2009

April is the Cruelest Month

I have reached the age where I sometimes have difficulty remembering what I did the day before yesterday. However, shootings over this past weekend at Hampton University and the University of Georgia have vividly brought me back to me the events of Tuesday, April 20, 1999, with precision.

I will never be able to erase the memories of visiting Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, the day after the horrific mass shooting. The things that stick in my mind are the faces of the students and parents trying to make sense of the tragedy; the sight of all those crosses placed on a hill outside the school; and the school parking lot turned into a makeshift monument with flowers, cards, signs and teddy bears from across the nation. Another image that haunts me is the media circus that surrounded the school. An added insult was a few super-righteous religious zealots who seized upon Columbine to make a faux case for religious martyrdom.

Journalist Dave Cullen has just released a comprehensive account of the massacre. The book is simply titled, Columbine. You can read a review of the book by Gary Kris from the Washington Post.

Cullen claims to expose several myths about the Columbine tragedy, but one piece of reporting that was true was the ease with which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were able to acquire the guns used in the shootings. Harris and Klebold had young friends of theirs purchase these weapons at Denver-area gun shows from private sellers—cash and carry, no questions asked. One of these friends, Robyn Anderson, later said, "It was too easy. I wish it would have been more difficult. I wouldn't have helped them buy the guns if I had faced a criminal background check."

Colorado closed the Gun Show Loophole by referendum one year after the shootings, and for that we can credit the courageous work of many of the students and parents of the victims at Columbine. They banded together to take positive action to stem the easy availability of guns in our society and we should learn from their example. Now that federal legislation to close the loophole has been introduced in Congress by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), we have an opportunity to prevent thousands of criminals and other dangerous individuals from buying guns with no oversight whatsoever.

We should seize it, and ensure that we will have something positive to reflect upon as a country when the twentieth anniversary of Columbine is observed ten years from now.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain...
I will show you fear in a handful of dust

T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

April 20, 2009

Playing with (FOX)fire

The FOX television network and the Republican Party were major promoters of the “Tea Parties” that were held around the nation on April 15. These events, which were promoted as protests against tax policies, seem to have turned into a foul mix of anti-Obama and anti-government diatribes.

According to Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank, here in Washington, D.C., demonstrators carried signs with such slogans as “The Audacity of the Dope,” “One Big Awful Mistake America,” “Napolitano—Obama’s Gestapo Queen,” “Obama Bin Lyin” and “Hey Big Brother: Show us Your Real Birth Certificate.”

While such verbal assaults on the President and/or the government are fully within bounds of political dissent—and can even be clever—many of the things said at the various events bordered on incitement to insurrection. At a rally in Austin, Texas Governor Rick Perry suggested that Texans might at some point get so fed up they would secede from the Union. Here in the District, radio talk show host Mike Church treated the crowd to a mock fascist salute and said that “It’s time to have a little revolution, I think. We don’t have to fire weapons. You should own them, you should have a lot of ammo to go with them, but you don’t have to shoot them.” “Unless we have to!” someone yelled back.

My esteemed colleague, CSGV Executive Director Josh Horwitz, is publishing an exciting new book on this topic next month, “Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea.” He also has a marvelous new blog on the Huffington Post, “Insurrection Goes ‘Mainstream.’”

The blog focuses on the role of national news media outlets in promoting insurrection. In addition to the endless promotion of the “Tea Parties” on all of FOX’s “Fair & Balanced” programs, Fox News personalities Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Neil Cavuto and Tobin Smith were among the featured speakers at various Tea Party sites. Smith even began his presentation at the District of Columbia event by saying “On behalf of the Fox News Channel, I want to say welcome to the Comedy Channel of America, Washington, D.C.” He ended his speech by exhorting the audience to “Keep watching FOX, will you?

I cannot help but wonder if the Fox News Channel—in its relentless and forceful denigration of our current government—is not playing with fire.

April 13, 2009

Overlooking the Obvious

The writer of the Book of Matthew in chapter 23, verse 25 scoffs at “You blind guides, that strain at a gnat, and swallow a camel.” It is certain that the writer did not have in mind today’s news and headline writers, but he certainly could have...

This past week the American news media ran stories about the latest installment of the annual Gallup crime poll. The survey in question was conducted last October—before the recent spate of mass shootings in America. The headlines and TV news intros all blared: “Gun Control Support at an All-Time Low.”

The poll results of 1,011 adults surveyed showed that 29% of Americans favor a law banning the possession of handguns by private citizens. Without explanation, the poll totally disregarded the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2008 that the Second Amendment prohibits such a ban, thereby taking it completely off the table as a policy option. Nonetheless the response to this now irrelevant question was touted by several media outlets as “proof” that Americans don’t support gun control.

A closer look at the Gallup poll, however, reveals something far different. The survey found that 49% of respondents said they want laws on firearms sales to be stricter than they are now. Only 8% said that gun laws should be made less strict.

Let’s look at that ratio again. 49% want stronger gun laws—8% want weaker laws. And again, this was before a horrific series of mass shootings that began in Alabama on March 10.

In what universe is that a ringing endorsement for the gun lobby’s position? Why not carry a headline that states the obvious fact that last fall only 8% of the population supported weakening the nation’s gun laws? Why not stories about how the Congress of the United States is supporting that small minority of 8% over the 49% who want tougher gun laws?

Additionally, a quick look at recent polls commissioned by Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence demonstrates overwhelming majority support for new laws to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals.

This is a friendly reminder that the next time you read a story about the demise of the movement to reduce gun violence, be sure to read the whole story and not swallow the camel.

April 6, 2009

Does Anybody Hear?

As we prepare for Passover and Holy Week, we are mindful of the fact that over the past month there have been seven horrendous, high-profile mass shootings in our nation. These seven shootings have resulted in the death of 53 people. This is on top of the “normal” grisly daily total of 82 gun deaths.

There are two constants in these killings. First, all of the shooters have been men who were laid off from their jobs. Second, all of them had easy access to guns.

There is a third constant that rarely gets discussed in the media. Every one of those 53 victims left behind family and friends who are deeply scarred by their deaths. Over the years, I have been shocked and saddened by the aftermath of shooting deaths. I have seen families torn apart by the shooting death of a child. Children traumatized by the shooting of a parent—perhaps for life. Entire schools and communities scarred by tragedies. The pain continues to ripple out like waves from a pebble thrown into still water.

You can see anguish when you speak to people who lost loved ones at Virginia Tech or Columbine High School or any of the myriad of other similar events. Just listen to the voices on the news of the people of Binghamton, New York, as they express shock over the senseless horror that just occurred in their midst.

Gun violence spreads a pall over our entire nation. I remember the anguished cry of one young survivor of a shooting who asked, “Does anybody hear my cry?”

Does Congress hear these anguished voices or see the outward ripple of violence? Or will our elected leaders continue to ignore the results of the easy availability of guns in this nation?

March 30, 2009

Lest We Forget

My dear friends Jim and Sarah Brady have issued a call for Americans across the country to join them on Monday, March 30, at noon for a National Day of Prayer to End Gun Violence. They are asking for prayers “for a peaceable society where all children have the opportunity to grow and prosper, and where everyone can live without fear of being cut down by firearm violence.” 280 people are shot every day in the United States.

This day is of special significance as it is the day that Jim was wounded in the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan and it leads us into a month of anniversaries of gun violence that are all too familiar: April 4—Martin Luther King, Jr. assassinated; April 16—Virginia Tech tragedy; and April 20—shooting at Columbine High School. Because every day in America brings new tragedies, we must now, sadly, add another to this list: March 29—Massacre at nursing home in Carthage, North Carolina.

President Reagan’s experience with gun violence, while horrifying, was far from unique. In the brief history of our nation, we have had 44 Presidents. Four of them were assassinated with guns while in office; six others were the victims of attempted assassinations:

Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed on April 14, 1865.

James A. Garfield was shot and killed on July 2, 1881.

William McKinley was shot and killed on Sept. 6, 1901.

John F. Kennedy was shot and killed on Nov 22, 1963.

Ronald Reagan was shot and severely wounded on March 31, 1981.

Andrew Jackson was shot at in the Capitol building on January 30, 1835, but avoided injury.

Theodore Roosevelt was shot in 1912 while campaigning for president.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was shot at on February 15, 1933, in Miami, Florida, just three weeks before his inauguration.

Assassins attempted to shoot and kill Harry Truman on November 1, 1950 but were stopped in a gunfight outside the Blair House.

Not one, but two, disturbed individuals attempted to shoot and kill Gerald Ford during his brief time as president.

As Sarah Brady has said in issuing the call for a Day of Prayer: “In this new day of hope and optimism, let us acknowledge our individual and collective power to create change through prayer.” Let us all do our part at noon today, as we envision a better future for America, “a future where criminals and dangerous individuals attempt to obtain guns and find it difficult or impossible to do so.”

March 23, 2009

Hobson's Choice a Faustian Bargain

Way back in June of 1783, nearly 400 soldiers of the Continental Army marched on the U.S. Congress in Philadelphia demanding back pay for their duty during the Revolution. The Congress called upon the Executive Council of Pennsylvania to stop the mutiny.

Pennsylvania's subsequent failure to protect the institutions of the national government, however, was a primary reason why the framers of the Constitution decided to create a federal district distinct from the states, where Congress could provide for its own security. The delegates therefore agreed in Article One, Section 8, of the United States Constitution to give the Congress the power "to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States."

In 1790, Congress created the District of Columbia to serve as the new federal capital. The small seat of government foreseen by the Congress has now grown into a major international city with more than half a million residents.

Unfortunately, the District of Columbia is the only jurisdiction in the United States where Americans fulfill all the responsibilities of citizenship but are denied equal rights. Americans living in Washington, D.C., have no voting representation in either chamber of Congress. They truly suffer from “Taxation Without Representation.”

Recently, Congress took up the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” (H.R.157/S.160), bipartisan legislation that would grant one voting Representative to District residents for the first time ever.

This act of democratic sanity somehow struck a chord of fear and opportunism in the National Rifle Association (NRA) leadership in Virginia. The NRA quickly convinced lawmakers to attach an amendment to the Voting Rights Act which would remove the city's firearm registration requirements, repeal the District's ban on assault weapons, and prohibit the D.C. Council from regulating firearms in the future. The Senate then passed the bill with the NRA amendment, prompting this response from D.C. Council Member Phil Mendelson: "The irony here is that on one hand they vote to give us voting representation, but on the other hand they strip any local representation in regards to our gun laws."

The bill is currently pending in the House of Representatives, where the Democratic Leadership is unwilling at this time to press for a vote, fearing that the NRA amendment will pass as well. Millions of D.C. residents are now facing a Hobson’s Choice: get one vote in the House of Representatives and sacrifice public safety in your city, or remain totally unrepresented in the People’s House. As an American citizen who has resided in the District of Columbia for the past 50 years, I deeply resent the attempt of a partisan right-wing political lobby to force such a choice on me and my fellow D.C. residents.

One thing is certain: the NRA’s “Ensign Amendment” is a clear and grave threat to public safety in the District of Columbia. Now is the time to fight back against the gun lobby’s cynical and cold-blooded ploy and stand together for the principle that is at the foundation of the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act”: self-determination.

March 16, 2009

March Madness

I can't help being struck by the irony of American college students being warned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to stay out of Mexico during Spring Break because of the danger of gun violence created by the assault weapons that are being trafficked south of the border from our own country. Authorities have confirmed that U.S. guns stores and gun shows are the source of more than 90% of Mexico’s crime guns. The American weapons of choice for Mexico’s drug cartels? 9mm pistols, .38 Super pistols, 5.7mm pistols, .45-caliber pistols, AR-15 type rifles, and AK-47 type rifles.

Just four days before the ATF travel alert, 22 Democrats joined Republicans in the U.S. Senate to approve a National Rifle Association-drafted amendment to the D.C. voting rights bill that would force the 600,000 residents of Washington, D.C. to legalize assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in the city. The bill, which is supposed to stand for the principle of self-determination, has since been stalled in the House of Representatives because Democratic leaders cannot figure out a way to overcome their own party’s supplication to the gun lobby.

Then, last Tuesday—in what can no longer be called a coincidence in our gun-obsessed and violence-ridden nation—a man who had failed in his dreams to become a U.S. Marine and police officer went on an assault weapons shooting spree in the Alabama countryside. Discharging more than 200 rounds from two assault rifles with high-capacity magazines that were taped together, Michael McClendon killed 10 people and then himself.

The term "March Madness" is taking on new meaning this year.

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.
“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

March 9, 2009

The Duty of Every Individual

The U.S. Senate has always embraced tradition and precedent, and one of the chamber’s great traditions is to read George Washington’s Farewell Address every year on the birthday of our extraordinary first president. This year, the honor of reciting this wonderful speech went to newly-elected Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska.

Washington’s Address is a remarkable commentary on the virtues of our Constitutional Government which seems as relevant today as it was 212 years ago. In the speech, Washington makes clear our duties and responsibilities as American citizens:

“This Government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and unawed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence in its measures, are duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true Liberty. The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government.”

Indeed, Washington advised American citizens that “your Union ought to be considered as a main prop of your liberty, and that the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”

Listening to the Address again, I couldn’t help but think of the current debate over gun control in America. One of the ideas that has gained great currency among right-wing commentators in our country is that the Second Amendment grants individuals the right to stockpile firearms against our Government and take violent action should it become “tyrannical.” This disturbing argument was advanced by the National Rifle Association (NRA) in its amicus brief in D.C. v. Heller (“The Framers sought to effectuate their purpose of guarding against federal overreaching by guaranteeing the right of the people to keep and bear arms … Arms dispersed among the people would prove far more difficult to confiscate”) and even gained currency with Justice Antonin Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion in the case (“When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny”).

I wonder if Justice Scalia has ever surfed the Internet. If he had, he might have seen comments like this one left on my blog by a pro-gun activist last week:

“The 2nd Amendment was written so that ‘the People’ will NOT be ‘outgunned’ by ANY military/police force, foreign or domestic … Military and police have access to weapons civilians are ‘forbidden’ to own i.e. machine guns etc. How is a civilian with a bolt action rifle or revolver or semi-auto handgun with a magazine restriction supposed to combat against someone else with better weapons and a larger magazine capacity?????”

What would Washington have thought of this insurrectionist chest-beating? Well, his reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 provides us with clear answers to that question. The rebellion involved a series of violent attacks on excise agents that were launched by farmers in the western counties of Pennsylvania. The rebels were angered by a new federal tax that had been imposed on whiskey in 1791.

In a proclamation, President Washington described the rebels as “insurgents” and condemned their “overt acts of levying war against the United States.” Nearly 13,000 state militiamen were called up by the president, and they marched into Pennsylvania and quickly quelled the rebellion. The incident, however, was still on President Washington’s mind two years later in his Farewell Address:

“The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government ... All obstructions to the execution of the Laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels, and modified by mutual interests. However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people, and to usurp for themselves the reins of government; destroying afterwards the very engines, which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”

Washington’s warning still rings in our ears today as the gun lobby continues to encourage Americans to arm themselves against our Government. Let us hope that our Members of Congress, who pay tribute to our great Founding Father annually, take his words to heart and explore the publicly-stated rationale for opposition to sensible gun laws in this country.

March 2, 2009

The Shimmering Mirage

As I sit here and watch the snow that threatens to blanket much of the entire east coast of the country, my thoughts run to the words of the noted philosopher Howard Thurman from his book of meditations, Deep is the Hunger:

“All travelers somewhere along the way, find it necessary to check their course, to see how they are doing. We wait until we are sick, or shocked into stillness, before we do the commonplace thing of getting our bearings.”

This Sunday, the New York Times Magazine ran an article by Bathsheba Monk titled “My New Gun.” Ms. Monk, a writer and resident of Allentown, Pennsylvania, described how—due to “the worsening financial news”—she has purchased a gun for “protection.” “You might as well get used to a .38 [caliber handgun]” a friend and gun enthusiast told her. “You want it to make a nice big hole.”

Ms. Monk wrote that a clerk at the gun store where she made her purchase told her that many handguns were out of stock. Background check records indicate that arms sales around the country have been increasing “in inverse proportion to the collapsing economy and in response to the unsubstantiated buzz that the new administration is going to tighten gun control.”

This chilling story brought to mind a poem by Australian poet/theologian, Bruce D. Prewer entitled “Thoughts in the Desert”:

“Those who dare to test their wits
In dry inhospitable territory,
Where no one is waiting
To receive them,
Return with
a word;

The dire danger to the adventurer
is not demoralizing gibber plains
nor ridge after ridge of sand,
but the distracting lure
of the shimmering mirage.

To distinguish reality from the illusion
And to keep one’s bearings and course
In spite of the mink’s treachery—
This is the ultimate test for the pilgrims
and prophets.

City prophets have a variation on this word:
Deserts take victims swiftly, savagely,
But urban mirages work slowly,
Day by day diverting prey
And destroying souls
still smiling.”