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Guns and Myths…

     “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than his, fewer people would’ve died, fewer people would’ve been so horribly injured.”

                                        Donald Trump on Meet the Press, October 4, 2015              commenting on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

– – – – –

One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.

Trump: More Myths About Guns

Trump: More Myths About Guns

And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.

The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.

But it is about the guns…

“It’s not the guns,” Trump said. “It’s the people, these sick people.” But in fact, as everyone really knows but few willingly admit, it is about the guns, particularly when there are essentially as many guns in the society as there are men, women and children in the country, vastly more guns by population than any other country on the planet.

It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.

“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”

Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week

Police search students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week

The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”

Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.

Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”

This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

                                      – Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution

The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

Former Justice John Paul Stevens

As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has brilliantly related in his little book – Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution:

“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”

…A Well Regulated Militia…

Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”

In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”

Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes  – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.

Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.

Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.

Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.

Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?

So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.

And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.


What We Permit We Promote…

What we permit we promote.

It has all become so predictable, the banality of mass death and guns and race in our exceptional nation.

It is so predictable...

It is so predictable…

The first reports still shock – briefly. How many? Is this happening again? Why?

The somber television announcers pronounce a people shocked. Round up the usual suspects for instant analysis. He had to be severely disturbed how else to explain it? The town – this time Charleston instead of Newton or Aurora or Binghamton or Ft. Hood or Tucson – mourns the preacher, the grandmother, the track coach, the innocent murdered in a church. By one count America has had at least sixty-one mass murders by gun since 1982 and the reaction has become so predictable.

What we permit we promote.

Some of us thought it might be different, finally, after all those little kids were killed in their school. The president, the one coming after all the guns, said it was a moment to come together and address the crisis. It wasn’t and isn’t again.

Obama-Charleston-Speech-VideoCharleston was the fourteenth time during his presidency that Barack Obama has issued a statement about a mass killing and the resignation in his most recent statement was perhaps also predictable.

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,” Obama said. “It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency. And it is in our power to do something about it. I say that recognizing the politics in this town foreclose a lot of those avenues right now. But it would be wrong for us not to acknowledge it. And at some point, it’s going to be important for the American people to come to grips with it and for us to be able to shift how we think about the issue of gun violence collectively.”

But this too will pass. We all know “the politics in this town” are unable to deal with reality. The candidates will move on, unable and unwilling to risk, well, anything. And we will move on, too. Once again we’ll explain it away as the inexplicable action of a disturbed loner. Guns aren’t the problem. Some will change the subject by saying it was more proof of a sinister attack on religion or that race had nothing to do with it or that as bad as it was – and will be again – these are not the kinds of problems government can fix.

We’ll talk about it on the Sunday shows. By next week the blood on the hands of the gun lobbyists will be wiped clean again and we’ll be reminded sternly that the Constitution protects our right to die in a church during a prayer meeting. Someone will invoke the Founders and someone else will remind us that a right invented by five conservative justices on the highest court in the land allows more handguns to exist in America than there are people in America. We should arm the preachers. That’s the answer.

The prayer vigils will be painful, but not so hopeful. We’ve done it so often before. The funerals in a few days will signal that we really can move on. The debate will soon enough take place about whether the young man who did it should die too. But soon his name and his actions and his .45 caliber handgun will fade away. It’s so predictable. It has happened before. Nothing more to see here. There is nothing to be done

What we permit we promote.

“The regularity of mass killings breeds familiarity,” the Economist notes, while the rest of the world stares gap jawed at our exceptional country.

“The rhythms of grief and outrage that accompany them become—for those not directly affected by tragedy—ritualized and then blend into the background noise. That normalization makes it ever less likely that America’s political system will groan into action to take steps to reduce their frequency or deadliness. Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard them the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing. This may, however, be a bit unfair. China seems to be making progress on pollution.”

Soon enough the painful and poignant stories about the victims will fade with only their families and friends left to wonder. The curious, deadly, hateful mix of violence and racism and guns that cut a gaping wound across American life and has since our beginnings will remain. It is so predictable.

What we permit we promote.


Packin’ in the Classroom

o-TEXAS-GUNS-CARS-CAMPUS-facebookIn more than 35 years of observing the Idaho Legislature I am hard pressed to remember another time when really controversial legislation – in this case the “guns on campus” bill – became law in the face of such wide-spread opposition from the people and institutions most directly impacted.

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s signature on the contentious legislation was no surprise. He signaled his support early but, given the unanimous opposition from college and university presidents, the Otter-appointed State Board of Education (SBOE), an array of student leaders and many in law enforcement, it can be counted as a mild surprise that the bill ever got to the governor. Similar legislation has died in the past.

University presidents argued that allowing concealed weapons on a college campus would inevitably lead to more overall security concerns, greater costs for law enforcement and might well impact recruitment of faculty, students and athletes. Former Idaho House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, a conservative who is also a pragmatic guy, was known during his long tenure as Speaker for killing his share of crackpot ideas. Newcomb now manages government relations for Boise State University and he told the Boise Weekly, “I had one professor tell me, ‘All my kids are going to get A’s.’ I think it changes the whole climate.”

But back to the dynamic of a part-time, citizen legislature and a governor willing to ignore the wholesale opposition of the people closest to the kids and issues on the state’s higher education campuses. More than ever the state legislature considers itself a collection of the 105 smartest people in Idaho. They’re experts on everything and never in doubt on anything. The SBOE says on its website that it “is a policy-making body for all public education in Idaho and provides general oversight and governance for public K-20 education. SBOE serves as the Board of Trustees for state-sponsored public four year colleges and universities and the Board of Regents for the University of Idaho.”

That statement is clearly not true. Some trustee that can’t impact such a fundamental issue of campus policy and safety. Some oversight, particularly when the legislature is willing to substitute its “judgment” for that of the people legally and Constitutionally charged with that responsibility. The State Board was on record early opposing the guns on campus bill and the college presidents weighed in on this issue more forcefully than on almost any issue – including budgets – that I can remember. They might as well have been shouting down a dry well.

Answer this

In the wake of the horrific Virginia Tech shooting – the seven year anniversary is in April – where a lone, mentally-ill student shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others, attorney Brian J. Siebel, then a senior lawyer with the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence, suggested a variety of questions regard guns on campus in an article published in the George Mason University’s Civil Rights Law Journal. Siebel’s questions are as valid today as when the Virginia Tech shootings were dominating the news in 2007.

Do student want guns in classrooms, Siebel asked? Apparently not if you believe elected Idaho student leaders. Will students feel safer if the person next to them in chem lab is packing? Will parents be inclined to support a decision for their little Jennifer or Cameron to attend schools where guns are openly allowed, or given the attitude of the legislature, openly encouraged? What about the pressure, academic and otherwise, that many kids feel during those formative college years when grades clash with ready access to booze and worse? And will more guns on campus contribute to more suicide now the third leading cause of death among young Americans age 15 to 24? All those questions still apply to Idaho and the handful of other states that allow guns on campus. These are the kinds of questions higher education policy makers deal with every day as they worry about the welfare of young people in their charge, but these questions were largely ignored or certainly given scant attention in the recent Idaho debate. And why is that?

It’s impossible not to conclude amid the sober sounding claims that guns on campus is merely a straight forward Constitutional issue – it isn’t, that when the National Rifle Association shows up touting a gun bill the NRA’s legislative soldiers fall immediately in line. No phalanx of college presidents or concerned students can trump the political power of the gun lobby.

In year’s past the kind of opposition that came together to oppose the NRA-endorsed Idaho legislation may well have prompted a few sober-minded lawmakers to counsel a go-slow approach or, as some opponents suggested this year, a year of cooling off to really consider the ramifications of such lawmaking. But such is the lock (and load) hold of the NRA on legislators in many states that any departure – any departure at all – from the gun lobby line is considered gun rights treason.

Armed America

The Gun Report blog of the New York Times reports today that, “the executive vice president of the National Rifle Association (Wayne LaPierre) spoke at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md., last week, and after equating freedom and individual rights with gun ownership, he painted a dire picture of a country with no defense but its armed citizenry.

“Freedom has never needed our defense more than now,” LaPierre thundered from the stage, as the Times put it. “Almost everywhere you look, something has gone wrong. The core values we believe in, the things we care about most, are changing. Eroding. It’s why more and more Americans are buying firearms and ammunition — not to cause trouble, but because we sense that America is already in trouble.”

This is the rhetoric of a dystopic Hollywood movie where a handful of heavily armed super heroes hold off the evil invaders. The only sane people in Wayne’s world are those armed to the teeth, because in the richest country on the globe with a long-enduring tradition of representative democracy, we can no longer trust the police, the courts, and our elected officials to keep our freedoms. Such is the mind set of an armed America and those policymakers who keep marching in lock step with the gun lobby, while completely ignoring the bloody reality of what the NRA’s agenda increasingly means.

The Times gun blog today recounts some recent headline gun news:

“A 2-year-old boy accidentally shot and killed himself with a handgun he found at a home in Broken Arrow, Okla., Tuesday night. It is unclear how the toddler got hold of the weapon. No arrests have been made.”

“Wesley Pruitt, 13, was killed in an accidental shooting at a friend’s home in Rains County, Tex., Wednesday afternoon. The victim and his 15-year-old friend were in a bedroom when the older boy pulled the trigger of a 12-gauge shotgun, not realizing it was loaded. No word on charges.”

“A 57-year-old man was shot in the face during a home invasion robbery in Sandpoint, Idaho, late Monday. Three men were arrested after an 11-hour standoff with police.”

And so it goes day after day.

The Gun Violence Archive reports as of today 2008 Americans have died in gun-related incidents since January 1, 2014 and another 3,305 have been injured. We don’t know how many guns there really are in America, but various estimates say 270 million, at least. That number grows every day. Don’t you feel safer?

Rolling Stone magazine recently offered some statistics to back up a claim that just given the numbers regarding issues like health care, prison populations and gun violence, the United States more-and-more resembles a third-world, developing county.

“The U.S. leads the developed world in firearm-related murders,” the magazine reported, “and the difference isn’t a slight gap – more like a chasm. According to United Nations data, the U.S. has 20 times more murders than the developed world average. Our murder rate also dwarfs many developing nations, like Iraq, which has a murder rate less than half ours. More than half of the most deadly mass shootings documented in the past 50 years around the world occurred in the United States, and 73 percent of the killers in the U.S. obtained their weapons legally. Another study finds that the U.S. has one of the highest proportion of suicides committed with a gun. Gun violence varies across the U.S., but some cities like New Orleans and Detroit rival the most violent Latin American countries, where gun violence is highest in the world.”

In the America of 2014, with lawmakers in both parties in a perpetual defensive crouch to ward off any NRA-inspired assault should they dare question any element of the gun lobby’s agenda, such facts are not merely inconvenient, but more shockingly not even discussed. In the armed America of 2014, the only acceptable political answer is more guns in more places, including now in Idaho the college library and who knows were else next time.

What Will It Take

130916190249-32-navy-yard-shooting-0916-horizontal-galleryHere are two numbers to fix in your mind as the nation once again visits an aspect of American exceptionalism that has become all-too-familiar. The numbers are 8,261 and 29 and I’ll return to them in a moment.

In the 1950’s and 60’s it took a landmark Supreme Court decision – Brown v. Board of Education – the courage and dignity of a black woman who refused to go to the back, the murder of innocents in a Birmingham church, a March on Washington, much death and violence and ultimately the breaking of Senate filibusters to begin to erase a society’s legacy of slavery and inequality.

From the 1820’s until the great Civil War the subject of slavery could barely be touched in our nation’s political process, so national calamity came calling. The south’s domination of American politics from the 1890’s to the 1960’s meant that civil rights legislation, including anti-lynching laws, access to public accommodations and the ballot box were essentially denied to black Americans, but then something changed. The American people, at least enough of them, acting through their elected representatives decided that society needed to change. A black preacher and a president from Texas, one calling us to live out our creed and the other breaking with his own and his region’s history, began to move us, as Hubert Humphrey once said, “out of the shadow of states’ rights and…into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

The change was slow, too slow, and uneven. For decades our Constitution was interpreted to allow discrimination and thereby ignore and avoid our peculiar and exceptional history. Ultimately the Court had to change along with society and politics and change came.

The political process, paralyzed thanks to special interests, fear, tradition and the next election, had to change and finally it did. The little black girls who were murdered and the white woman who was killed represented a change that, to many Americans, seemed impossible, but wasn’t impossible, only hard and necessary. The passage of the landmark civil rights legislation nearly 50 years ago did not, of course, end discrimination or stamp out racism. Ending those evils remains a constant work in progress, but few would say that America is not a different place in 2013, with a black man in the White House, than it was in 1963 when the young black preacher wrote from his Alabama jail expressing “hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.”

A Too Distant Tomorrow

This morning Priscilla Daniels woke in Washington, D.C. under her own dark cloud. Her 46-year-old husband, Arthur, was killed Monday at the Washington Navy Yard in the most recent mass shooting in America. Priscilla Daniels’ 14-year-old son, Arthur A. Daniels, was shot and killed in 2009 – as his father was Monday – in the back while fleeing his murderer.

“The parallels between the deaths of her husband and son are not lost on Priscilla Daniels,” the Washington Post reports. “Aaron Alexis, the shooter in Monday’s rampage, had repeated run-ins with his military superiors and the law and was cited at least eight times for misconduct for various offenses, according to documents and Navy officials.

“The person who shot her son in 2009 — Ransom Perry Jr. of Northeast — had been arrested nine times before, including as recently as January of that year, on a charge of carrying a pistol without a license. He was sentenced to 24 years in prison. Friends say the family was just starting to come to terms with the loss of their youngest child.”

8,261 and 29

Back to those numbers I mentioned earlier: 8,261 is the number of Americans – at least 8,261 and likely more  – who have died as a result of gun violence in America since the Newtown school shootings last December 14. That is an average of more than 29 gun-related deaths in the United States every day since the death of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary.

I’ll leave you with this, the words of Chief Medical Officer Dr. Janet Orlowski at MedStar Washington Hospital Center where the dead and wounded were taken Monday:

“I may see this every day…but there’s something wrong here, when we have these multiple shootings, these multiple injuries—there’s something wrong. The only thing I can say is, we have to work together to get rid of it. I’d like you to put my trauma center out of business. I really would. I would like to not be an expert on gunshots…We just cannot have one more shooting with so many people killed. We’ve got to figure this out. We’ve got to be able to help each other.

“So I have to say, it’s a challenge to all of us—let’s get rid of this. This is not America. This is not Washington D.C. This is not good.”

You really have to wonder what it will take.


For ‘Em, Or Agin ‘Em

Normally there is something to be said for consistency in politics. No one likes a flip flopper. Just ask Mitt Romney. And when it comes to consistency, blind, unyielding, not one inch consistency, no one does it better than the National Rifle Association – the NRA.

As it has accumulated political power over the last 25 years and become the most feared lobby in the country, the NRA has been nothing if not brutally consistent. For the NRA there is no room for compromise on guns and gun issues – none. If you’re in public office you are either for the NRA down the line or you are soft on the Second Amendment and not to be trusted with public responsibilities and very likely a one of those willing to standby when the government comes for the guns.

Maybe, just maybe, in light of the horrors of Sandy Hook Elementary where some of the six-year-olds suffered 11 gunshot wounds, the NRA’s brutal commitment to consistency has, at last, become a liability.

My one direct and personal engagement with the NRA’s brand of no prisoners, no negotiation politics dates back to 1986 and the moment has left a deep and jagged scar where I once naively thought actions and intentions meant more than blind allegiance to an NRA that has clearly become little more than a front group for gun manufacturers.

For those old enough to remember the 1986 race for governor of Idaho was a tough, competitive and ultimately extremely close election. As a newcomer to politics – I’d covered the business, but not been of the business – the campaign and election were a graduate education in bare knuckles, character assault and, with regard to the NRA, old-fashioned smear politics. The candidates were my boss, Cecil D. Andrus, a Democrat and as big a hunter, sportsman and gun owner as anyone I have ever known and then-Lt. Governor David H. Leroy, a young man definitely on the rise in Idaho GOP politics. Andrus had an edge with experience – he’d twice been elected governor and served in the Carter cabinet – and he spent most of the campaign emphasizing his desire to boost economic development and improve schools. Leroy, who had already been a successful statewide candidate as both Lt. Governor and Attorney General, was smart, ambitious, both well-spoken and well-funded, and determined.

The candidates and their campaigns displayed many differences, one being that in a state where hunting and fishing defined many voters’ weekends, Dave Leroy wasn’t really a hunting and fishing guy. Andrus was and still is. Enter the gun lobby.

The NRA came close – very close – to playing the spoiler in that 1986 race and, as they are wont to do, they entered the contest at the absolute 11th hour with what seemed then, and still seems, a blatantly dishonest smear.

As I look back on the race, with some years of accumulated political experience, I can see clearly now that the campaign was a see-saw affair throughout the summer and into the fall. I distinctly remember a weekend of panic in October when Andrus quietly and determinedly disappeared from the campaign hustings for three long days in order to disappear deep into the Idaho hill for his annual elk hunt. I lived in fear that some enterprising reporter would demand an interview or insist on knowing why the candidate wasn’t campaigning given how close the race had become. Knowing now what I didn’t fully appreciate then, I should have issued a statement announcing that in keeping with annual tradition the Democratic candidate for governor was, for the next few days, only making campaign appearances at his elk camp.

Andrus had not missed an Idaho elk hunt for years and nothing, not even Dave Leroy breathing down his neck, would keep him out of the hills. He’s been known to joke – yes he filled his tag last fall – that with a full freezer and a little luck he might make it through another winter. (I called the former governor yesterday to check my recollection of the NRA’s involvement in the ’86 race and it took him a while to get back to me. He was in a goose pit most of the day.)

Some people live for work, or boats, or football, or skiing, or book collecting. Andrus lives for his hunting and is proud of his gun collection, but that didn’t keep the all-knowing, all-powerful NRA from branding him as “soft” on the Second Amendment doing so at a stage in a political campaign where he barely had time to refute such lunacy.

One of the major gun-related issues at the time involved a robust national debate over the legality of so called “cop killer bullets,” Teflon-coated ammunition that it was said could penetrate a bullet-proof vest, the kind of body armor police officers had begun to routinely wear. In responding to the NRA’s always over simplified and overly dramatic candidate questionnaire, the once and future governor allowed that he hadn’t much use for Teflon-coated bullets or rapid fire assault rifles for that matter. He would later joke that he had never “seen an elk wearing a bullet-proof vest,” but such a policy position, even one coming from a life-long hunter, gun owner and supporter of the Second Amendment was heresy to the “our way or the highway” crowd at the NRA.

On the final weekend of the 1986 campaign, anti-Andrus NRA propaganda started appearing in Idaho mailboxes. Radio ads told Idaho hunters that the hunter-governor had earned a “D” rating from the gun lobby and the political operatives at the NRA had endorsed his non-hunter opponent. I spent that last weekend of that campaign writing and slapping together response ads attempting to refute the smear. In the days before email and the Internet, getting a radio ad on the air on the Saturday before an election was no mean feat, but we did it and by a narrow margin Andrus won the election.

I’ve always taken some satisfaction in knowing – Idaho is a small state – that many Idahoans who might have been inclined to vote in that election solely on the basis of gun issues had firsthand knowledge that their once and future governor actually owned and used guns. In this case the NRA’s smear didn’t work, but it left an impression. These guys don’t know the meaning of nuance and they are blindly partisan. You’re either for ’em, or agin ’em.

In the years since, the NRA has, if anything, become even more dogmatic, shriller and less open to any discussion of policy. As we now see, even in the wake of the first grade massacre in Connecticut and even given the stark realization that more than 1,000 Americans have died at the barrel of gun just in the days since Sandy Hook, the NRA tolerates no deviation from its hard line in the dust. The suggestion that constraints on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines or that national firearms policy might include sensible background checks on gun buyers brings the immediate charge that the sacred Second is being trampled, the president ought to be impeached and the “jack booted thugs” are coming to take the guns. It’s a level of political paranoia and fear mongering completely devoid of reality and on par with theories that the moon landing was faked or that an American president was born in Kenya.

The Andrus Idaho experience nearly 30 years ago, as bitter as the taste remains, actually seems pretty tame compared to the NRA’s response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. The NRA leadership seems to believe that it can just ignore a moral issue that requires sober, reasoned, civilized response. Time will tell whether the real sportsmen who climb into Idaho’s hills every fall and crouch in goose pits in sub-freezing weather will continue to agree.

Americans have a way of coming around to change policy and even change society in ways that once seemed impossible. Moral questions from ending slavery to establishing child labor laws to ensuring voting rights of African-Americans took years – even generations – to be addressed and some of society’s big challenges clearly remain. But perhaps, just perhaps, a civilized, moral nation can come to the realization that a constructive debate about how to try and prevent a future Sandy Hook is a mighty low threshold for a decent people to step across.

The most feared lobby in Washington did not become so feared by being constructive, reasonable, rational or fair. The NRA amassed power the old fashioned way using the same kind of intimidation and arrogance that it accuses its opponents – and even its opponent’s children – of practicing.

Emerson famously said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” The NRA’s foolish consistency in the awful aftermath of the assault gun murders of 20 innocent children does not yet mark the end of the gun lobby hold on our politics, but it may – just may – mark the beginning of the end.


Guns and Guts


In 1963 when the young black activist, John Lewis, who later became the distinguished Congressman from Georgia, was nearly beaten to death during a civil rights march in Alabama, the cautious John F. Kennedy knew he could not fail to push forcefully for meaningful legislation that would attempt to bring blacks into the mainstream of American life.

Bending the curve of the epidemic of gun violence in a gun deranged society presents Barack Obama with the same kind of challenge. It has been suggested that the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre will be Obama’s defining moment as president; more significant than being the first African-American president, more important than hunting down bin Laden or dealing with the worst economy since the Great Depression the aftermath of the awful school shooting will define Obama’s legacy.

Read what Kennedy said about civil rights almost 50 years ago and apply the same words to Obama’s defining moment today.

“We face…a moral crisis as a country and a people,” Kennedy said in a television speech on June 11, 1963. “It cannot be met by repressive police action. It cannot be left to increased demonstrations in the streets. It cannot be quieted by token moves or talk. It is a time to act in the Congress, in your State and local legislative body and, above all, in all of our daily lives. It is not enough to pin the blame on others, to say this a problem of one section of the country or another, or deplore the facts that we face. A great change is at hand, and our task, our obligation, is to make that revolution, that change, peaceful and constructive for all. Those who do nothing are inviting shame, as well as violence. Those who act boldly are recognizing right, as well as reality.”

Right as well as reality. Kennedy immediately introduced civil rights legislation that he did not live to see enacted, but the important political fact is that he seized the moment to declare that the Nation faced a “moral” crisis. No less a crisis confronts Obama’s Nation on the cusp of 2013.

So much of the initial reaction to Sandy Hook seems so small, so completely fanciful or so focused on treating the symptoms of gun violence. The sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wisconsin suggests, amazingly, that armed guards should be posted in every school and every public place. Others tout arming teachers or bullet-proofing the backpacks of six-year-olds. Obama, already on record supporting reinstating the assault weapons ban, must know from reading the morning paper that such weapons are flying off the shelves as Americans beef up their arsenals in expectation that Congress might take a step that few really believe will have much impact. Thousands upon thousands of such weapons are already in circulation and even Sen. Diane Feinstein, the California politician with first-hand experience with gun violence, concedes that a new assault weapons ban won’t impact those weapons already abroad in the land. And the president’s one specific proposal so far, an interagency task force headed by Vice President Biden, seems so inside the beltway, so bureaucratic as to invite a Saturday Night Live parody.

A moral crisis, JFK knew, required more than a task force or a what will amount to a slightly better than symbolic ban on military-style weapons sitting in the corners of American closets. Obama must know this and that makes his Sandy Hook response his own moral crisis.

The assumption underlying all the small thinking about how to prevent the next school massacre is that our Nation cannot – ever – confront the real issue – too many guns and too few controls over who owns them and how they are bought. Australia, not exactly a nation know for its wild-eyed liberalism, decided to do something about assault weapons and launched a national “buy back” effort that has dramatically reduced the number of such weapons. Canada imposes a 28 day waiting period to purchase a weapon and then requires that two people vouch for the purchaser. We have certain requirements in place that require mental health reporting, but many states ignore the requirements. A serious moral response to Sandy Hook and Tucson and Columbine and on and on demands a serious and deeper look at what must be done to break the curve of violence.

As Adam Gopnik writes in The New Yorker, “Gun control works on gun violence as surely as antibiotics do on bacterial infections. In Scotland, after Dunblane, in Australia, after Tasmania, in Canada, after the Montreal massacre—in each case the necessary laws were passed to make gun-owning hard, and in each case… well, you will note the absence of massacre-condolence speeches made by the Prime Ministers of Canada and Australia, in comparison with our own President.”

In places like Idaho and Wisconsin all the disquieting talk about tougher controls on guns will be greeted with completely predictable outrage. The NRA will soon move from crisis management mode to Capitol Hill assault mode and the gun lobby’s champions in public office will fume against attacks on Second Amendment rights and, many American will hope, that the same old politics will replace images of funerals featuring tiny caskets. If such comes to pass Obama’s moral moment will recede and the belief that nothing can be done will continue to rule our streets and schools.

Serious – really serious – steps to control guns will be intolerable to many Americans. John Kennedy’s civil rights speech in 1963 carried just as unpalatable a message for many Americans in Alabama and Mississippi and many other places. Kennedy told his brother, the attorney general, that television images of police dogs attacking civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham made him “sick” and convinced him that the South would never reform short of strong federal civil rights action.

As TIME noted in a 2007 essay on JFK’s slow conversion to the cause of civil rights, “Although Kennedy’s assassination five months [after his civil right speech] deprived him of the chance to sign the civil rights bill into law, he had finally done the right thing. That its passage in 1964 came under Johnson’s Administration should not exclude Kennedy from the credit for a landmark measure that decisively improved American society forever. Although J.F.K. had been slow to rise to the challenge, he did ultimately meet it. That gives him a place in the pantheon of American Presidents who, in his own words, were profiles in courage.”

Civil rights became a bipartisan national cause, not for everyone, of course, with dead-end southerners like Richard Russell fighting to the bitter end, but a national cause nonetheless. Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen, for example, understood both the politics and the morality of the moment and stood on the right side of history with Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King. The current moment begs for such leadership from both sides of the political divide.

No single law, no task force, not even essential improvements in mental health will stop American gun violence, but Barack Obama must know, as Sandy Hook Elementary enters American history in the same way Selma and Montgomery and Birmingham did a half-century ago, that half-measures aren’t adequate to confront a moral crisis. Unfortunately racial divide still exist in America since no single law could end that moral crisis either, but after Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 the United States was a different and better place. Such a moment is upon us again.