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Confronting Gun Violence

2016 October 25

I’ve just come home from watching a movie from my past – maybe yours too – 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk, by Rob Epstein. For those who don’t remember, or who weren’t born yet, the documentary tells the story of San Francisco’s milkfirst openly gay political leader and of his rise from community activist to become a city supervisor (councilor). But it’s also the story of his murder, along with Mayor George Moscone, by a disappointed office-seeker with a gun. Their attacker, Dan White, apparently intended to shoot several other officials as well.(1)

Then I came home, to pick up where I left off with this post on gun violence:

Maura Healey, the attorney general of my liberal state, Massachusetts, took a lot of flak recently for asking Congress to authorize the Centers for Disease Control to study the causes of gun deaths in the same way it studies deaths from auto accidents. She was joined in her appeal by the attorneys general of a dozen other states plus the District of Columbia.(2)  They’re calling for repeal of the gun industry-sponsored 1996 amendment that blocks the CDC from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Even former Republican congressman Jay Dickey, the bill’s original sponsor, has acknowledged that the amendment was a mistake – and Dickey was a life member of the NRA.

healey-2aIn any case, it makes no sense that merely studying gun deaths would automatically lead to changes or restrictions that a majority of gun owners would object to. Even if such a study concluded – as many hope and expect it would – that some form of gun regulation would be a good idea, any proposals to change current laws would still be subject to public discussion, undoubtedly fierce debate, and the need for legislative action.

“As the chief civil or criminal law enforcement officers of our respective states,” Healey wrote, “we are charged with keeping our communities safe, and wee that is ravaging our families and communities.” Her statement to the Boston Globe pointed out that more than 33,000 people die from guns every year in the United States, roughly the same number as from car accid need better evidence-based strategiehealey-2bs to combat the epidemic of gun violencents. Cars and drivers, of course, are already subject to regulations designed to promote public safety. Guns and their users are mostly not. If Harvey Milk’s assassin had been armed with a  modern assault weapon he could have wiped out the entire San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a great many others as well.

Healey had already attracted the attention and hostility of gun makers when she initiated an investigation into problems with the safety of guns made by Remington and Glock, both of which have sued to block her probe. Far worse, from their point of view, was her announcement of a state ban on sales of guns that are essentially identical, except for minor changes, to weapons already prohibited in Massachusetts.nra-5

Massachusetts’ 350 gun dealers immediately took advantage of the controversy, extending their hours and, in at least one case, announcing “Today is your LAST DAY to purchase a semi-automatic weapon in Massachusetts!”

The National Rifle Association’s response was predictable, accusing Healy of “overstepping her boundaries.” The headline on the organization’s website read Massachusetts: Attorney General Healey Attacks Your Second Amendment Rights!

Just for the record, I was a Junior NRA member in my teen years, and participated in shooting competitions with moderate success. I don’t hate guns and I don’t hate hunters or other reasonable gun owners (and, yes, I do still have my NRA medals, and my Boy Scout merit badge sash too.)

I do very much hate the climate of paranoia and hate that the NRA promotes.

In a Globe op-ednra-2, Healey wrote, “Here in Massachusetts, 10,000 assault weapons were sold just in the last year – each one nearly identical to the rifle used to gun down 49 innocent people in Orlando. In the week after the Pulse nightclub massacre, sales of weapons strikingly similar to the Sig Sauer MCX used at Pulse jumped as high as 450 percent over the previous week – just in Massachusetts.”

“There are myriad issues underlying each of these tragedies,” Healey wrote, “fear, racism, mistrust, hate. These are critical issues that we, as a country, have an obligation to honestly and forthrightly address…But there’s one issue that can be addressed right now — the proliferation of guns, particularly assault weapons.” She pointed out that 10,000 assault-style rifles had been sold in Massachusetts in just the prior year.  These weapons, she said, are “in the same category as weapons chosen by killers in Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino. These are not weapons of self defense. They are weapons used to commit mass murder. And they have no business being in civilian hands.”

No legislation with any hope of passing in the United States is going to prevent Americans from owning guns for hunting, target shooting, and home protection. Yet polling has also shown that most Americans – from 55% to 92% depending on the specific questions – are OK with the kinds of regulations, including  those proposed by AG Healey, that are currently being discussed.

Healey has taken a courageous stance – one which few public officials have been willing to risk. It will be an uphill battle, yet change is possible. I recall, several decades ago, listening to a couple of radio talk-show hosts railing about the infringement on liberty that would result from requiring car makers to provide seat belts. A little later, when our son was young, my wife and I were kind of shocked to hear other parents complaining about the requirement for infant car seats.

Today we buckle up without much thinking about it, and so do our kids, and the quest for better and safer car seats has fueled an entire industry. You could say our freedom has been “infringed,” but most of us don’t feel that way, and we’re all safer and better off for it.

As Healey pointed out, more people in this country die from guns than from auto accidents.

What are we waiting for?

 


(1)  For more information on Harvey Milk and his times, check out Randy Shilts’ book on the case, The Mayor of Castro Street. Sean Penn also starred in the film Milk “based on the true story,” but I’d suggest you stick with the documentary.

(2)   California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington

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