Gun control — is Pryor paying attention?
Last week I was invited to participate in “Take a Stand” an event showing my support for the gun control legislation to be voted on this week in the U.S. Senate. The event was held in front of Sen. Mark Pryor’s Little Rock office. I didn’t attend the demonstration. In the interest of full disclosure I voted for Sen. Pryor, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t participate. I was being lazy, it was raining, cold and I decided more dialogue would be prompted by my writing a few of my thoughts on the matter rather than standing outside in the rain with a homemade poster with folks either giving me a thumbs up or flipping me the bird as they passed. It’s sad that political discourse has devolved to such short-hand.
My suspicion is my writing won’t convert anyone’s perspective on this emotionally charged issue. However, in my on-going effort to bring about civility amongst those who disagree I’d like you to remember we can disagree without disrespecting one another. Not all people who are opposed to gun control measures belong to a backwoods militia movement who want to turn the public streets into the OK Corral for settling disputes. On the other hand, the vast majority of people in favor of reinstating the assault weapons ban are not in favor of large scale search and seizure by the ATF ending in the confiscation of your shotgun, 9 MM or AR-15, despite what the NRA tells you in its fundraising letters. In fact, the federal assault weapons ban which expired in 2004 allowed anyone who owned guns on the restricted assault weapons list prior to its start date to keep them with no questions asked as well as any high-capacity magazines you owned. It really wasn’t that restrictive, it was a part of a much larger piece of legislation called the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994” that prohibited the manufacture and import of certain semi-automatic weapons and magazines or “clips” that held more than 10 rounds.
There are differing opinions by various organizations on how effective the assault weapons ban was in reducing violent crime. There is not much concrete evidence showing it reduced gun violence overall. However, the number of these types of weapons used in violent crime did go down in some cities by as much as 72% between 1994 and 2004 according to a study commissioned by the George W. Bush Justice Department. This makes sense because for a decade fewer of them were being made. Death counts were significantly lower. Shootings were not, but lives were saved.
However, reinstating the assault weapons band won’t happen in the near future and much of what was initially proposed in the current legislation that would have made any of us feel any safer has been watered down. It appears comprehensive background checks, safety features on the guns such as push-button reloading and lower capacity clips may or not considered this time around. Those who work in the White House and on Capitol Hill report the “assault-weapon ban” is not a “politically viable option.” I have no reason to doubt this for they are in the vote counting business and I am a pastor not a political party whip in the U.S. House or Senate. However, I agree with the comments of Matt Bennett, a gun control advocate and a senior vice president at Third Way, a centrist think thank who said, “If there was a secret ballot it would pass overwhelmingly, because from a substantive point of view most of these senators understand this is the right thing to do. What is holding them back is pure politics.” Many members of the U.S. Senate and House are pro-life including Sen. Pryor. I just wish this pro-life position could be expanded to consider include the life of those children, teens and adults who could be mowed down in the future by gun violence whether it be by semi-automatic weapon gunfire or someone using high capacity magazines (ammo clips) with a single shot weapon.
Let us not forget some of this madness started in our own backyard in Jonesboro in the late 1990s at Westside Elementary School. The shooters that day aged 11 and 13 at the time were in possession of 13 fully loaded firearms including three semi-automatic weapons and over 200 rounds all taken from a family arsenal. They both belonged to shooting clubs, competed in shooting competitions that actually simulated moving human targets. One of the shooters shot several dogs in preparation for the Jonesboro killing spree. A total of fifteen Arkansans were wounded that day and five were killed.
Is placating the NRA and those who claim the 2nd Amendment gives them the right to have a mini arsenal at their home in case we have a zombie apocalypse led by the ghost of Osama Bin Laden more important than the safety of our citizens in public places such as schools, colleges, movie theatres and one’s work place? Actually, the NRA whose sole purpose is to protect the profits of companies who make all guns would have you believe you need them to protect you from an imaginary federal gun registry program that has not been proposed by anyone. The NRA is open for bu$iness and nothing more. They just change the name of the elected officials in their fundraising letters and say “they are going to take away your guns.” It’s quite an emotional marketing manipulation strategy that taps into patriotism and one’s cultural socialization. People promptly run out and buy more guns. I While it’s misleading, it’s quite a marketing campaign. I know, because I occasionally receive their propaganda in the mail. The impact of scare tactics on gun sales is not unlike the impact on grocery sales when the local weatherman forecasts snow. Afterwards the shelves are bare.
For the record, while I am no fan of the NRA I do believe they have every right to lobby Congress on behalf of their interests. All citizens have this right. The problem is average citizens can’t compete with the political organization of a juggernaut like the NRA. I sometimes get the feeling our federal officials forget who voted for them, but don’t forget who financed their campaigns.
Let me be clear – I am not in favor of overturning the Second Amendment. It is a safeguard against all kinds of power grabs both foreign and domestic. But one wonders if you have a handgun to protect you from an intruder do you need a 30-round clip? Do you need a gun that requires a speed loading push button release to pop in another clip? When I was a soldier, the M-16 I was issued had both of these features but it was a weapon designed for war not hunting or personal protection.
Gun Rights advocates have stated the shooting in Newtown, Conn. illustrates the futility of gun control due to the strict gun restrictions in Connecticut. However, a University of Alabama at Birmingham study reports states requiring comprehensive background checks before gun purchases had lower death rates. A study from the University of Toronto shows fewer deaths in states that ban assault weapons, require trigger locks and require secure storage for guns.
It’s interesting the Second Amendment is always highlighted in this debate. The Second Amendment was ratified in 1791 and written by James Madison when firearms were flintlocks that could only fire one shot at a time. Being able to take up arms was on the mind of Americans we had just finished fighting a revolution against the British Monarchy. Then, we were not battling “mass murder” on the home front and we had a sense of community that we were all in this together or we would have never liberated ourselves from British rule. Is the “common good” a dead virtue? Is being able to shoot a 30 round clip at Ducks more important than taking some pro-life steps in the right direction? Morris Berman, a cultural historian and author of “Question of Values,” (2010) offers the following thoughts. “This thing (shootings) comes out of nowhere supposedly. Then we wring our hands and say ‘we must do something,’ and we don’t do anything, and then we repeat the thing six months later, I doubt that things would change if there were a Newtown every day.” Berman said, “Americans’ extreme individualism blinds them to opportunities to form a societal consensus about gun ownership and gun use in a way that’s out of whack with the way the rest of the world handles its affairs.” Berman stated, “I found it particularly creepy after Newton when gun sales skyrocketed, people going into gun shops saying, I want the gun Adam Lanza used.’ Lanza was the killer at Sandy Hook.”
The Associated Press states that the U.S. has roughly 31,000 gun deaths a year, 87 a day, 30 homicides. So that’s 57 a day that are accidental, suicides or fall into another category. Yet the argument I’ve been hearing from the NRA lately is more guns mean less gun deaths. It’s ironic that we think reducing the number of nuclear warheads reduces the chance of nuclear war but we don’t think more guns with high capacity clips increase the chances of a shooting death.
Our forefathers could have no more seen the evolution of automatic-weapons with high capacity clips than they could have foreseen the splitting of the atom.
So let me ask you to consider the following thoughts which I attribute to the writings of Federal Judge Larry Alan Burns, as they appeared in the Los Angeles Times last December. “Half of the nation’s deadliest shootings occurred after the ban 1994 assault weapons ban expired, (assault-weapons) including Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.” In November of 2012 Judge Burns sentenced Jared Lee Loughner to seven consecutive life terms plus 140 years for a shooting spree at an Arizona grocery store. This incident which took place in January 2011 left six people dead, more than 18 injured including Congresswoman Gabby Giffords. Since then, six shootings more deadly than this one have taken place. Jared Lee Loughner used a 9 MM in his rampage but he was only able to be subdued when he emptied his 31-round clip and was attempting to re-load. This clip was forbidden under the assault weapons ban of 1994.
So, my question is if our political climate and culture is such that we don’t have the courage to take on the NRA or banning weapons solely designed for spraying large amounts of ammo at living breathing human beings in a war zone, what about a real discussion on magazine limits and gun safety features? Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, used a 30 round clip, James Holmes opened up fire in the Aurora, Colo. movie theater using a 100-round drum. Judge Burns, a republican appointee (George W. Bush) to the bench asks a great question, “How is this not an argument for limiting the number of rounds a gun can fire?” Sure this won’t stop all the nut jobs out there from going on a shooting spree, but it makes those considering such heinous acts face a bigger challenge and we would likely save some lives in the process with a 10 shot magazine limit. Burns even voices support for amending the 1994 assault-weapons ban to do away with the grandfather clause. “Ban the manufacture, importation, sale, transfer and possession of both assault weapons and high capacity magazines. Don’t let people who already have them, keep them. Don’t let ones that have already been manufactured stay on the market. I don’t care if it’s called gun control or a gun ban I am for it.”
Senator Pryor said last week when he was told that the Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg was funding television ads in Arkansas on gun control. “I don’t take gun advice from the Mayor of New York City. I listen to Arkansans.” My hope is that he and all the members of the Arkansas Washington delegation would be open to sound counsel no matter who it comes from.
If it sounds like I am picking on Sen. Pryor, he’s the only person I know of representing the people of Arkansas who gets the sacred privilege of representing Arkansans on such matters who I think might even consider taking time to invest himself in this issue. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t hold out much hope that Tim Griffin or Sen. John Boozeman would give this issue a second thought. I am also aware of the reality that Pryor’s up for re-election and may face Tom Cotton, who is not above wrapping himself in the flag. He also represents the Fourth District where guns almost achieve the status of idol worship, so I am somewhat empathetic to the political realities before Sen. Pryor. I believe Sen. Pryor listens to Arkansans, I am not convinced yet he listens to them as closely as his father did, but maybe this will evolve. Sen. David Pryor was known for saying, “Arkansas Comes First” and “I’ll always listen to you.” Well … I am calling your hand, Senator.
I am an Arkansan who is in favor of exploring all avenues of reducing gun violence and death not only in the Natural State but all across the fruited plain. I am fairly certain the federal government can’t solve this problem alone but it doesn’t mean they should not take some bold steps to get things moving in the right direction. Abraham Lincoln said (paraphrase), “Government is to do for the people what they need to have done, but which they cannot do at all, or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”
I think this includes standing up to the gun lobby. I am an Arkansan who wishes legislative leaders representing us would do something to help prevent history from repeating itself. I am referring to the horrible things I witnessed as an Emergency Room Chaplain at a Little Rock Hospital where I saw many killed or crippled from gunshot wounds. Death eventually comes for us all, wouldn’t it be great when they write the history of this era in the U.S. Senate and House those representing us in little ole Arkansas really dug into the nitty-gritty of this issue and worked to find a common sense solution to lowering gun violence and death in our nation while still respecting the Second and Eighth Amendments? This week’s vote is the short game and is likely a lost inning and you may have to kiss a shotgun or two to get re-elected but then what? You cited your religious beliefs as your reasons for being pro-life – a somewhat risky stance with a “D” next to your name. I offer you some thoughts from scripture as I conclude. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.” You along with the rest of our delegation have been entrusted with a lot Senator by the people of Arkansas. Our state motto is Regant Populus – the people rule. Cynically I ask: do we really? Jesus tells us the greatest commandment is “Love the Lord Your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Do we love our neighbors and God enough to stop this Merry Go Round of Murder being run by the Merchants of Death?
If you want gun advice from an Arkansan, here I am. I am an Arkansan. An Arkansan whose brother was shot in a drive-by shooting on his way to work on I-40 just south of Conway when he was a college student. Praise God he survived, his having a gun on him could not have prevented this shooting. Police speculate it was a gang initiation. My family was very lucky that night. He is now happily married with two beautiful children and works as a Little Rock Firefighter. I am an Arkansan. An Arkansan whose family lost a wonderful man, my uncle who was robbed in the parking lot of his place of business, shot, run over in his car, placed in the trunk and dumped in the Arkansas River. He left behind four of the most wonderful women in the world – my aunt who is a living saint and three wonderful daughters who are now very accomplished women with families and professions that serve a great number of people. My life has been personally impacted by gun violence on two occasions. How many times has your life been so impacted? I am an Arkansan, are you listening?
Jason Ferguson grew up in Benton and after sneaking out of UALR with a degree in journalism he worked in public policy, campaign politics and journalism before shocking the world by attending and then graduating from seminary. For the last 12 years he's served as a pastor and hospital chaplain in Kansas & Arkansas. He is the pastor of 1st Christian Church of Sherwood (sherwoodfcc.org). Send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.