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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?