Can Another Children's Crusade Control the NRA?

Becky O'Malley
Friday February 23, 2018 - 11:51:00 AM

Another day, another massacre. The script by now is depressingly familiar.

“We have them in our prayers.”

Really? Don’t blame your god, whoever he/she might be, for this one. The culprits are easily found, and their allegiance is to the Devil Himself, proxied by big bucks from the National Rifle Association.

The difference, this time, is that the victims were a bunch of schoolkids.

Their impassioned and articulate surviving classmates don’t intend to be victims forever. They’ve taken on the National Rifle Association’s Florida lackeys, travelling to the state capital to confront those most responsible for the carnage, the Florida legislature, which has consistently refused to enact sensible gun control measures .

Tallahassee, where the legislature meets, is far, far away—seven hours by bus—from Broward County, where the Parkland murders took place. That county, represented by a Democrat, is usually considered the most civilized part of a famously corrupt backwater state.

Most Florida legislators have always looked and acted like the denizens of the cartoon swamp where the possum Pogo tried to make some sense out of the world, famously observing, ”We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Four decades or so ago, when I was an investigative reporter, I did a juicy story for New Times Magazine on how the Disney corporation bought off enough crooked Florida electeds to bypass the state’s environmental laws to build Disney World.

Not much has changed since then. The enemy is still Us—or at least those we choose to represent us, if they're corrupt. Now it’s the NRA which has bought the Florida Legislature off. 

You might think that even Florida pols would feel bound to do something this time. Everyone from the White House on down is pretending to have solutions to the problem of mass shootings, but—what a surprise—the proferred fixes are mostly phony balony. Offers from officials, federal and state, are weak as water, carefully calibrated not to perturb the money men. 

Increase mental health spending? No, proportionately the U.S. already puts approximately the same per person amount into treating mental health problems as other developed countries do. And also, mentally ill people are not significantly more likely than anyone else to commit mass murder, and it’s wrong to stigmatize them. So more money won’t change anything. Not that it's a bad idea on general principles, of course. 

Raise the age for gun buyers? Well, if the under-21s don’t get such easy access to assault weapons, that’s a percentage of guns out of the market, but not a significant one. There are still plenty of men (yes, it’s not women) over 21 to kill more than enough people with guns. 

Improve background checks before sales? That process is only as good as the data which goes in to it, and most mass murderers don’t have a prior record that would prevent them from buying guns. Also, unless private sales, not just dealers, are covered, it has little effect. 

An excellent New York Times piece from last fall charted the statistics behind the dubious claims which are cited to justify such fixes.There was just one bottom line after all was said and done: “The only variable that can explain the high rate of mass shootings in America is its astronomical number of guns.” Full Stop. 

Nothing else. It’s the guns, stupid. We have many, many more guns per person than any other country, Period. From the NYT story: “a country’s rate of gun ownership correlated with the odds it would experience a mass shooting.” Lots of guns, lots of killing. Not rocket science. 

How about banning assault weapons? These weapons, disgusting though they are, actually are a relatively small fraction of all the many kinds of guns which are used to kill people. “Bump stocks” are even less frequent culprits, though one was used in the Las Vegas massacre recently. All kinds of guns cause needless carnage. 

A lot of harm is done with hand guns. Often overlooked is another grim statistic tied to America’s fascination with firearms. The majority of gun deaths, around 60%, are suicides, usually with hand guns or rifles. 

Anton Chekhov said that for dramatic realism a gun on the wall in the first act of a play should be fired by the third act. Keep a gun in the house, and it’s likely that sooner or later it will be used to shoot someone, deliberately or accidentally. I’ve lost two friends, needlessly, to the disastrous practice of keeping a gun around, victims of momentary suicidal impulses which would probably have been regretted if the opportunity had not been there to act rashly. 

One effective limited fix to America’s insane gun laws is already in place in California. Assemblymember Tony Thurmond points out that “California is one of few states that has an extreme risk protection order (ERPO) law, which allows law enforcement to temporarily remove weapons from the possession of individuals reported to pose extreme risk.” In the few states that have adopted this rule, there has been a reduction in both suicides and homicides. Other states should enact an ERPO (also called Red Flag) law if they really want to reduce gun deaths. 

Supporting gun control is a mixed bag for politicians. I still have in my kitchen a tattered potholder with a picture of Don Perata, President Pro Tem of the California Senate from 2004-2006, with the legend “Most Wanted by the NRA”. He was a strong gun control advocate, responsible for a 1999 law which strengthened the state’s assault weapons ban. After he was termed out of the state legislature he lost a bid for mayor of Oakland, but his loss was probably caused by the novelty of ranked choice voting, not NRA opposition, which is a plus in liberal Northern California. 

Will passionate young people succeed in changing the lethal gun violence paradigm nationwide? Many adults doubt it. Headlines in Thursday’s San Francisco Chronicle sum up the pessimism: 

“Gun-control push may achieve little”  

“Impassioned advocates can expect only modest change” 

“Even after school massacre, little change is likely” 

But it’s happened before. 

In 1963 the Black children of Birmingham marched out of their schools and into the streets to confront White segregationists in what was called “The Children’s Crusade”. Many were arrested and jailed. Their witness is credited with being a major turning point in the civil rights struggle. 

The Birmingham kids were led by adults, but the teen-driven movement which started in Parkland could turn out to be even more powerful. They’re off to an impressive start. Let’s see if the Florida legislature can withstand them.