Standing up to gun bullies

Extremists who block progress on gun safety make solving our other problems tougher too

Published January 31, 2013 12:45PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)
(Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Another day, another big Washington D.C. gun legislation event interrupted by news of more gun violence.

Just as a televised meeting of Vice President Joe Biden’s post-Newtown gun safety task force was upstaged by breaking news of another school shooting three weeks ago, so did Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing compete with chilling news reports of three more gun horrors: a Chicago teen who marched with her school band in the inaugural parade shot down in a park; an Alabama child taken hostage (and his bus driver murdered) by a known anti-government “survivalist;” three people shot, one dead, after an “office dispute” in Phoenix, barely two hours away from where former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was almost killed two years ago in Tucson.

Those competing gun-violence news stories are not technically a coincidence. With 30 gun homicides a day across the country, you’re going to have gun murders whenever you schedule an event to talk about it. We’re just finally paying attention to it. All of it.

Giffords herself testified at Wednesday’s hearing, which led Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin to apologize that her shooting, which left 11 others wounded and six dead, didn’t provoke similar hearings, task forces and ultimately, new legislation to curb gun violence. Jared Loughner might have been blocked from getting his guns by tougher background checks, and the thirteenth bullet in his 30-round magazine (new legislation would limit most purchases to 10-round magazines) reportedly killed nine-year-old Christina Taylor-Green.

"I'm sorry it's taken two years for us to convene this hearing, that it took Newtown, Conn., to finally bring us to our senses and to open this national conversation,” Durbin told Giffords’s husband, Mark Kelly.

Once again, the National Rifle Association’s Wayne LaPierre was revealed as a well-paid gun-shilling automaton, unmoved by evidence or even his own past statements as he inveighed against new gun regulation. LaPierre blasted what may be the most popular measure to result from the Newtown tragedy: closing gun-show loopholes and requiring background checks for all gun sales – even though he used to back such a move. Now he said they’d affect “the little guy,” but not criminals. Durbin shot back: "The criminals won't go to purchase the guns because there will be a background check! We'll stop them from the original purchase. You missed that point completely.” LaPierre is paid $1 million a year to miss the point.

Next to LaPierre, the most ludicrous testimony came from Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum, who claimed “Guns make women safer,” without noting that Adam Lanza’s mother Nancy was killed by her own legally purchased guns (or that guns hadn't made Giffords safer either.) Trotter singled out the AR-15, an assault rifle that was among the weapons Lanza used in his murder spree, as a particularly nifty choice for women. She wasn’t the only conservative unironically claiming that limiting guns hurt women; Sen. Lindsay Graham cited a woman who allegedly shot a criminal in her home: “There can be a situation where a mother runs out of bullets because of what we do here.”  Graham also brazenly suggested Americans need more guns to cope with police department cutbacks due to budget cuts he’s backed.

With reason as well as emotion, advocates of tougher gun laws bested their foes, at least in debate on Wednesday. It will be tougher to defeat them with Congressional votes. But the ongoing toll of gun violence, everywhere, makes it hard to imagine the forces of reason won’t eventually prevail. In addition to accounts from survivors of the Newtown and Tucson shootings, there was the backdrop of those awful gun murders in Chicago and Phoenix and Midland City, Ala., all mentioned during the hearing.

One of the most important features of the gun debate since Newtown is that it hasn’t been derailed by demands that we tie regulatory responses directly to what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, and only there. Background checks, for instance, wouldn’t have prevented the massacre, since Lanza got his guns from his mother, who public officials say got them legally. Newtown has become a big tent under which people appalled by all gun violence can unite. From his earliest remarks, for instance, a devastated President Obama included Chicago's gun-violence victims among the tragedies our inattention to gun regulation has created.

I’m sure he never dreamed that barely a month later the carnage would claim a 15-year-old majorette who’d just marched in his inaugural parade. Hadiya Pendleton is only one of 42 people to die of gun violence in Chicago this month, the deadliest January in 10 years. And there’s still another day to go.

Nor did he likely envision that a popular school bus driver in rural Alabama would be killed by a man the Southern Poverty Law Center listed as an anti-government “survivalist,” after he tried to stop him from taking two boys off his bus as hostage (he wound up getting one, a six year old who’s still his prisoner.) The rampage after an office dispute in Phoenix is a little more common: Too many “office disputes” are settled by gunfire.

Hadiya Pendleton’s godfather had a searing if unintended rejoinder to LaPierre’s post-Newtown nonsense that “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Duane Stewart, a police officer, told the Chicago Sun-Times about his happy honor-student god-daughter: “As usual, the bad guy aims, but he never hits the other bad guy . . . He hits the one that hurts the most to lose. I changed her diapers, I played with her growing up. My heart is broken.”

LaPierre derives his power from gun manufacturers as well as anti-government gun nuts who have gotten more extreme about fighting what they call the “tyranny” of the federal government. It gets worse under Democrats, rising under Bill Clinton and escalating sharply under Obama, most recently called a tyrant by Sen. Rand Paul for his modest gun measures. The opposition to common-sense background checks, supported by more than 70 percent of NRA members, derives from the paranoia of the fringe that somehow those government “tyrants” would use such a data-base to round up dissenters.

They’re the real tyrants, of course, blocking popular gun regulation with big money and also the threat of backlash. It took Tucson to turn Giffords and her husband Mark, both gun owners, into gun safety advocates; it took Newtown to turn them into activists.

But the same forces that block sensible gun laws also block action on other social problems. We have too many guns in this country; we also have too much poverty and inequality and mental illness, and they’re all tied together. It’s galling to watch LaPierre and others on the right pretend they care about mental health treatment, for instance. The same political stalemate that’s blocked action on guns has also made it harder to deal with other social problems that fracture us. While Hadiya Pendleton went to a good school and was shot in an upper middle class neighborhood not far from the president’s Chicago home, her assailants are reportedly gang members, and the plague of gang violence -- which springs from generations of chronic, festering and unanswered urban poverty and violence – has been ignored for too long because it rarely touches the people deemed to matter in our country.

Durbin mentioned Pendleton during the hearing, noting that her inaugural parade appearance was “the highlight of her young life.” Then she returned to a city “awash in guns,” he said. “The confiscation of guns per capita in Chicago is six times the number in New York City,” said Durbin. “We have guns everywhere and some believe the solution to this is more guns. I disagree.”

Gabby Giffords didn’t mention Pendleton in her moving testimony, but she did talk about children. “Too many children are dying. Too many children,” Giffords said haltingly. “We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold. Be courageous. Americans are counting on you.”

Giffords was talking about guns, and the children at Newtown, but her message has broader meaning. She was talking about Christina Taylor-Green and Hadiya Pendleton, and the unnamed six-year-old hostage in Midland City, Ala. Mustering the courage and political will to disarm LaPierre and his allies on gun issues will enable action on the country’s problems beyond just guns. Surrendering to them will make progress on everything else much harder.

By Joan Walsh