Background Check. A Meeting with Our Congressman on Gun Legislation
On Wednesday April 3, along with Nick Alba, from the Shandaken Democrats, and Marybeth Mills, proprietor of the renowned local restaurant Peekamoose and a mother of small children, I met with my Congressman, Chris Gibson, at his new office in Kingston, to discuss the issue of gun legislation. Nick Alba had set up the meeting with Gibson, who is a Republican with an A rating from the NRA, after the frustrating actions of the Shandaken Town Board in backing a fiercely pro-gun resolution, and my equally frustrating conversation with Gibson’s gun issues liaison in Washington, Nick Czajka. Knowing that our two Senators, Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand, are on board with common sense gun legislation, we felt the need to do something constructive with regard to our Congressman.
We showed up at Gibson’s office well armed…. sorry, loaded…. damn, laden with hard data. (You see how difficult it is to even start this conversation?) After being kept waiting half an hour, we were ushered in to Gibson’s office where one of his aides sat throughout, mostly quietly, taking notes. Gibson was, as we anticipated, unfailingly polite and respectful. He is a decorated war hero with a Purple Heart among other medals, having served four tours of duty in Iraq amongst seven deployments that saw him rank to the rise of Colonel; he also has an MPA and PHD in Government from Cornell, and has taught American politics at West Point. In short, although he is sits very far on the right when it comes to gun issues, he is a smart and proven man, and his military experience has clearly enhanced and furthered his leadership skills. If part of the frustration over the issue of gun ownership and legislation in the USA today is that the two extremes are mostly shouting at rather than listening to each other, I would like to stress that this was a more positive scenario. Our two sides talked to each other, and listened to each other, for a full hour. (We had been promised only 15-20 minutes.) As the three of us each pitched our own little opening speech, Marybeth noted that while we clearly came to this issue from different sides of the road, she hoped that there was “a median strip” on which we could agree.
Did we find it? I am not sure. I presented the Congressman with a considerable amount of hard data, stating my belief that the USA has a “disease,” in that we are killing each other (and ourselves, per suicide) at a rate completely out of all proportion with all the other leading countries on the planet, and given that over 2/3 of our 16,000 homicides in 2010 and 50% of our 38,000 suicides that same year were the result of firearms, that this disease is directly related to the preponderance, availability and use of guns. (I will not list all statistics, but let it be noted that according to hard data, the USA has an intentional homicide rate four times that of my native UK and a firearms homicide rate 32 times higher.) I noted that I am a naturalized citizen, and that I love this country, but that we can not hold ourselves up as a perceived beacon of democracy if we continue to kill ourselves at such a rate. I also stressed that the majority of Americans support sensible gun legislation, and that regardless of what he might hear from local gun owners, we were there to represent that larger majority.
Marybeth, who admitted that Sandy Hook had provoked her to action, presented a study showing that States in the USA with stricter gun laws suffer less gun violence, recited frightening figures about domestic abuse gun homicides, and ended with a powerful quote from Thomas Jefferson about the need to amend laws as we go along (indeed, don’t we often forget the meaning of the word “amendment”?) even as she noted a reluctance to subscribe to that aspect of the debate that seeks out quotes from our founding fathers to justify their beliefs. (After all, again, when the Constitution was written, we still had slavery, and the likes of Marybeth – you know, the 51% of society that is female – did not have the vote. Surely we are not so absolutist in our reading of the Amendments that we have to presume we are living in 1776?) Nick, bless him, launched straight into the Congressman about the tactics of the gun lobby, such as the death threats issued to Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, and the appearance at a Moms Demand Action Rally in Indiana last week by gun huggers wearing loaded AR-15s. (As Rachel Maddow noted in her commentary on this appalling incident, “No one can hear what you are saying when you are shadowing a peaceful mom protest with a loaded assault rifle.”)
In many ways, Gibson’s first response was his most frustrating (I believe my wording to be exact: we weren’t recording the meeting), that “I don’t see anything [in the form of legislation] out there that is going to work.” This fatalistic approach by the gun lobby is akin to saying, ‘my child or spouse has a disease, but rather than seek a cure, I’ll just stand by and let him or her die,’ and while I didn’t put it in as many words, I did strongly challenge the Congressman on his ‘do-nothing’ approach. We heard him say that we had to change as a society, on which I would agree. But we then heard – politely, I must note – the usual arguments against doing so by acts of legislation.
1) The Assault Weapons Ban of the 1990s didn’t prevent Columbine. To which: a) We all know that it was ridden with loop-holes, the Ban that is. b) That incident alone is not a reason not to keep it; how many other potential massacres were averted because we did have the ban? (We know we have prevented at least 120 school shooting since then through a myriad of tactics. Unfortunately, we were not able to prevent dozens that did take place.) c) Closing the gun-show loophole, which Colorado only did after the massacre, and even then only because the electorate demanded it in a referendum (their legislature was too cowardly to do so for itself, though thankfully that has no changed) would have certainly made it harder for the murderers to attain their weapons. d) as I reminded the Congressman, 25 of the 62 mass shootings since 1982 have occurred since 2006. (The Assault Weapons Ban “sun-setted” in 1994. Assault weapons have been used in the majority of these more recent attacks. Draw your own conclusions.)
2) Background checks are an invasion of privacy. Gibson is consistent about privacy, having voted against the Patriot Act’s provision for warrantless wire-taps for that reason. But given that 90% of Americans want criminal background checks, given that we have to submit to credit checks all over the place to make major purchases, and given that all private cars are registered and can’t be purchased without a license, I would submit that his concerns in this case are the equivalent of a road-block to avoid setting up a mere “speed-bump.” The Government does not maintain records of firearms purchases beyond 24 hours, nor has it proposed anything different. Over 76,000 firearms purchases were denied last year for people who failed a background check; who knows how many lives were saved as a result? I can not help but conclude that gun owners want to have a free pass on their responsibilities as members of a supposedly advanced society, typically based on…
3) The Second Amendment. Gibson did not get as deeply into this as much as he pursued the “slippery slope” argument. He quoted Joe Biden as saying that current gun legislation is “just the beginning.” (Acknowledging the frustrations so many Americans feel about the Senate’s watered-down gun legislation, which fails to address the majority of the public’s concerns and desires, “That doesn’t mean this is the end of the process. This is the beginning of the process,” Biden said during a conference call organized by Mayors Against Illegal Guns pushing for the gun control measures. BTW, I was on that call. Biden also stated that 68% of guns recovered from crime scenes in NY State that can be traced, are traced as having come from outside the State – which, to another of Gibson’s arguments, that individual State’s strict gun controls don’t work, in fact demonstrates the need for stricter Federal legislation, to prevent the easy distribution of guns across State lines.) Gibson also cited NY Governor Cuomo’s statement that “confiscation could be an option.” Cuomo could possibly have been smarter than to have said this and provided his opponents with such readily flammable fuel, but then I’ve not been able to find Cuomo’s statement in full; unfortunately it is only quoted online by right wing blogs and the original Fox News broadcast of the radio show that doesn’t allow for any preceding context. Allowing that he was talking about legislation that was not yet on the table (the NY Safe Act, which was passed in January, giving NY some of the strictest gun control measures in the country), and having no idea what question he was asked or how long the conversation had been going, Cuomo is heard stated “Confiscation could be an option. Mandatory sale to the State could be an option. Permitting could be an option – keep your gun but permit it. There are a number of options.” BTW, I would like someone who carries a loaded AR-15 around with them – especially to a peaceful demonstration by mothers with small children – to have that gun confiscated, but unfortunately, it’s not against the law in Indiana.
Gibson was not able to come at us too hard with the “law-abiding citizen” argument as we pre-empted it. If you’re a law-abiding citizen, you abide by the law; that’s what makes you law-abiding. Once you decide certain laws don’t apply to you, you are no longer law-abiding. It’s that simple. Gibson was also not able to raise the video games red herring as we pre-empted that as well, Marybeth noting that other countries that play video games don’t suffer the same gun violence issues, and my presenting the Congressman with factual accounts of the gun industry paying for product placement in the same games that the NRA accuses of inciting crime. (Not so incidentally, I don’t approve of rampaging video games, so I’m not interested in defending them.) He did use a tactic I’ve heard from other pro-gun veterans, pointing out that in his case he “took shrapnel for this country.” I said that I didn’t believe it was worth him doing so if this country wasn’t interested in protecting its own people first.
To demonstrate how readily one’s words can be used against then, consider this. Gibson asked me, and I appreciated it, what I would like to see happen or change. I told him that the idealist in me would like to see this country move away from its dependence on gun culture, on its glamorization of guns, on what I consider the fetishization of guns, in the interests of making the country a safer place. I noted that I considered Hollywood culpable in this problem, and I observed that this change is nonetheless already taking place, in as much as that the rate of gun ownership has declined from 60% of homes to barely 33% of homes in just four decades. (Although that minority of gun owners now own significantly more guns, a frightening concern for the rest of us.) I then said that the pragmatist in me recognizes that the most that Gibson is going to be asked to vote on in this calendar year is probably a bill passed down from the Senate that would impose universal background checks, and stronger penalties for “straw” purchases – a scenario, incidentally, in which the law-and-order element get something equally as strong (in form of punishment) as the gun control lobbyists (in form of prevention). A few minutes later, I was being cited – politely of course – for my desire either to do away with guns or take away guns. At least he didn’t respond by calling me names.
(Someone with the wonderful handle of Bubba Hillbilly recently came on to my Twitter account to tell me that “All Teachers in Israel classrooms required to be armed,no school shootings since mid 70s #FightCrimeShootBack ?#StandYourGround” I researched his claim and sent him back a CBS News Story which shot multiple holes in what turned out to be, surprise surprise, one of the NRA’s many false claims. I received, by way of apology for my fact-checking: “You #MaoLovinMarxistLibs are never taking 2 things,This Republic or our guns that gave birth to it. #NRA @NRA #KinOfFounders”)
Was there anything that we agreed on – Gibson and the three of us, I mean? Actually, I think we agreed that arming teachers is no solution at all. (Gibson asked us to consider that just because he had received a $2500 donation from the NRA did not mean he was in their pocket. I think he is principled enough to be telling the truth there. I’m more concerned about what his A rating represents than the $2500.) Personally, I don’t disagree with the Congressman that punishment for severe crimes has to be equally severe, though I certainly stop short at the death penalty. I had cited the case of the shooting murder of two firemen in an ambush on Christmas Eve as part of our systematic disease, and I agreed with Gibson that the 62-year old man in question, having already been convicted of murdering his grandmother with a hammer, should not have been left freely unattended in society. (Nor should have he been able to purchase AR-15s, legally or, in this case, illegally.) And, given my involvement on the school board, we ended with mutual agreement that the system of funding schools in NY State has to change. Oh, and as Gibson promised to visit Peekamoose one day, we were able to chuckle about the fact that Marybeth’s restaurant once turned away Gibson’s Democratic predecessor, Maurice Hinchey, having not recognized him.
(How did we, as constituents, go from Hinchey to Gibson, overnight? It’s a good question. Hinchey retired last year. At the same time, NY State’s Districts were redrawn following the 2010 census. Some might say they were gerry-mandered. Because, indeed, how else do you go from an old District that was resolutely Democratic to a brand new District that suddenly finds you in Republican territory? That’s the way politics works – as anyone who lived through Thatcherite Britain in the 1980s can also testify.)
At the end of the meeting, we got something short of a promise. “Background checks is something we can look at.” And at the end of this current Congress, background checks may indeed be all that the House of Representatives is asked to look at, in terms of a vote. Appalling as it is that the House has not seen fit to put a single piece of its own gun legislation up for a vote in 2013, disgusting as it may be that our Democrat-dominated Senate appears too weak-willed to support truly meaningful gun legislation that might reduce access to military grade assault weapons or high-capacity magazines in society, the hard fact remains that if Gibson is asked only to vote for universal/stronger background checks, and stronger penalties for straw purchases, and he eventually does so – and that he does so in part based on listening to his constituents – then our meeting will have proven a success. To paraphrase Joe Biden, that would be a start.
I would like to thank Congressman Gibson for agreeing to see us, and for extending so much time to the conversation. I dearly hope that he will take time to read the folder of documents I brought for him. I believe these dialogues are vital if we are to see progress. And I ask everyone I know who lives in the United States and cares about this issue to contact their Congressman, and their two Senators, and to express their support for sensible gun legislation, so that we can start down the process of curing this national disease.