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February 23, 2009

Missing Milk

Watching Sean Penn and Dustin Lane Black receive Oscars last night for their work on the film “Milk” reminded me of the great toll gun violence has taken on our political life. I can still recall the shock and horror I felt when the news broke that Mayor George Moscone and city Supervisor Harvey Milk of San Francisco had been gunned down in City Hall by former Supervisor Dan White. Once again, a gun in the hands of a disgruntled, deranged man had changed the course of American history.

Shortly after the shooting, Acting Mayor Dianne Feinstein came to Washington to participate in a press conference with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. I will never forget sitting next to Mayor Feinstein and seeing the pain etched on her face as she recounted the tragic events surrounding her discovery of the bodies of her friends and colleagues in City Hall. She would channel her grief into determination and help forge one of the nation’s toughest local gun control ordinances in the Bay City. Today, Dianne Feinstein continues to fight for public safety in the United States Senate, where she has served with distinction for 16 years.

Our nation readily recalls the terrible assassinations of great political figures like Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Bobby Kennedy. Let us hope the film “Milk” will awaken a new consciousness about Harvey Milk and what he meant not only to his city, but to our country.

These painful memories should also stir a renewed vigilance concerning contemporary threats on the life of our new President. Guns are still readily available to those suffering from mental illness in the United States, not only because of unregulated private sales, but also because the federal National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) database continues to lack millions of disqualifying records. Until positive action is taken to stem the easy availability of guns in our beloved nation, our leaders will remain in the crosshairs of those who would do them harm.

February 16, 2009

The Terrible Toll

Over the years that I have been involved in the gun violence issue, there is one thing that has bothered me more than anything else. Every day, I am barraged with stories of the deadly cost of our national fascination with guns. The ones that tear at my heart the worst are those involving children. These stories come in every horrible form imaginable: children who accidentally kill themselves with guns they find in their homes, depressed fathers who shoot and kill their loved ones, and even children who murder their own parents with firearms.

The toll of children and teens lost to gunfire has been well chronicled by the Children’s Defense Fund—one child or teen every three hours, eight every day, 58 children and teens every week; with more than five times that number suffering non-fatal firearm injuries. No other industrialized democracy in the world experiences anything like it; we are unique in putting our youth at such risk.

Fortunately, I have recently seen some hopeful signs that our elected officials are ready to do more to ensure the safety of children.

First there was the Obama Administration’s public declaration that they support making guns in this county childproof. For more information about these initiatives, visit the Million Mom March website.

Then there was the news that the District of Columbia will be including a Child Access Prevention statute in its newly revised gun laws. This provision will impose criminal liability on adults who negligently leave firearms accessible to children or otherwise allow children access to firearms.

Finally, after a series of shootings involving families with young children, the state legislature of Maryland is considering two bills which would give judges more authority to remove firearms when a victim seeks a protective order against a spouse.

Hopefully these measures will serve as an example to other states. No action, legislative or otherwise, is too ambitious when it comes to protecting our kids.

February 9, 2009

An Interesting Age

In 1936, Sir Austin Chamberlain, brother of the British prime minister, wrote to a friend: "Many years ago, I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, 'May you live in an interesting age.'"

Given the severity and depth of the economic crisis in which our country is enmeshed, it is safe to say that we are living in an interesting age. Our great depression is already having an impact on the crime rate in the nation. The Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) reports that certain crimes are up across the nation due to the financial crisis. At the same time, our state and local law enforcement agencies are facing severe budget cuts and hiring freezes. Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey has pointed out to the Washington Post that “cities may have to curtail successful programs that have flooded crime ‘hot spots’ with officers.”

An added factor is the recent upturn in gun sales. As one Forth Worth firearms dealer described it: “The volume is 10 times what we ever expected. It started with assault rifles, but at this point, people are buying ammunition, high capacity magazines, Glocks—it’s all flying off the shelf. With the economy the way it is, people are worried about instability. They are scared of civil unrest.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA), of course, is exacerbating these fears by telling gun owners that the Obama Administration plans to ban all firearms. In a recent editorial, NRA Board Member Ted Nugent described President Barack Obama as a “gun control zealot—typical of the loony, anti-freedom wing of the Democratic Party” and new Attorney General Eric Holder as a “Fedzilla ratfink” (no, I’m not making this up). In Nugent’s words, “they know the first thing that needs to be done to turn us from citizens to subjects is to disarm us.”

The Administration’s actual gun violence prevention plans are far more modest, and have been laid out publicly in their recent Urban Policy Agenda statement. The only ban being contemplated is a renewal of the widely popular 1994-2004 ban on assault weapons. The Administration will also undoubtedly be watching Congressional debate over a proposal to use a portion of Homeland Security grants to help state and local law enforcement agencies.

Reflecting back on Sir Austin Chamberlain’s words, let us pray that that the interesting days ahead turn out to be a blessing and not a curse. I have great confidence that the current crisis will provide our country’s leaders with tremendous opportunities to move forward and better the lives of all Americans.

February 2, 2009

Then What?

And now for something completely different…

Because I love a good, old story, I share with you today an exchange that is said to have taken place between the Greek philosopher Diogenes (412-320 BCE) and Alexander the Great:

Alexander: Diogenes, you are a man of great repute, yet you are a man without purpose and mission! All you do is sit about all day, untroubled, unperturbed, indulging in conversation and the pleasures of moment to moment life!

Diogenes: So, what is so much better about the life of Alexander the Great?

Alexander: I am a conquerer of nations!

Diogenes: So, conquerer of nations, unlike my purposeless life, what are you going to do next?

Alexander: I am going to conquer Greece!

Diogenes: Yes…then what?

Alexander: Then I am going to conquer Asia Minor!

Diogenes: Alright…then what?

Alexander: THEN I am going to conquer the WORLD!

Diogenes: Alright, then what after that?

Alexander: THEN I will relax and enjoy life!

Diogenes: Why not save yourself the trouble?

There is another story that someone gave Diogenes a wonderful cloak. A competing philosopher ran up and stamped the hem of the cloak into the mud, saying, "I stamp on your pride."

Diogenes replied, "And how proud you are to have done it."