A Message from the President of Americans Against Gun Violence
June 24, 2017
The Elephant in the Dugout
During the mass shooting on a baseball field in Alexandria, Virginia on June 14, 2017, about 20 Republican members of Congress and their staffers hid in the first base dugout while their colleague, Representative Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), lay critically wounded on the field near second base. Three members of the Capitol Police assigned to protect Scalise exchanged gunfire for over three minutes with the lone assailant, who was firing a high power semi-automatic rifle from behind the backstop. One of the Capitol Police and two other Republicans were wounded, one critically, before local police arrived and the gunman was mortally wounded.
In interviews immediately following the shooting, several Republican congressmen who had been hiding in the dugout spoke of their fear that if it had not been for the presence of the three Capitol Police officers, the gunman might have entered the dugout and killed them all. Later in the day, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisconsin), who had not been at the ballfield, said on the floor of the House that Republicans and Democrats were united in their shock and their anguish. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-California) echoed Ryan’s words and said that the annual charity baseball game between House Democrats and Republicans would be played as scheduled the following day. On the floor of the Senate, after reports surfaced that the shooter, 66-year old James Hodgkinson, had volunteered for his presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont) denounced violence.
But no one mentioned gun control.
Later in the afternoon, it was reported that Hodgkinson had posted numerous anti-Trump messages on social media. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on Fox News that the mass shooting was consistent with a pattern of “an increasing intensity of hostility on the left.” Gingrich didn’t mention, however, that during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump had made what many interpreted to be a thinly veiled reference to the assassination of his opponent when he said:
Hillary wants to abolish – essentially abolish – the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks, although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.
Gingrich also didn’t mention that a former Virginia legislator, Republican Larry Pratt, had spoken on radio during the presidential campaign of “the bullet box” as being an alternative to the “ballot box;” or that Republican Sharron Angle had publicly referred to “Second Amendment remedies” as “the cure for the Harry Reid problem” during her unsuccessful run for Reid’s Senate seat in 2010. In fact, not even the most rabid supporters of the “insurrectionist” interpretation of the Second Amendment openly came to Hodgkinson’s defense.
And of course, Gingrich didn’t mention gun control.
On the PBS NewsHour on the evening of the shooting, a reporter described the events that had transpired earlier in the day. Segments of a cell phone video of the shooting were played, and Representative Scalise was shown grimacing as he was being wheeled off the field on a gurney. NewsHour host Judy Woodruff interviewed Representative Joe Barton (R-Texas), who had been holed up in the dugout with his Republican colleagues earlier in the day, but who was now standing in the Capitol wearing a suit and tie alongside Representative Michael Doyle (D-Pennsylvania), who had been coaching the Democratic baseball team on another field when he first heard of the shooting. The two expressed their concerns about Representative Scalise, who remained in critical condition after surgery, and their affection for one another and their other colleagues on both sides of the aisle.
Then Woodruff asked them, “Is this a time for coming together in some way and rethinking...”
I was sure she was going to ask them about the need for stringent gun control.
She finished the question, “…and rethinking some of the partisanship?” Both congressmen seemed happy to place the blame for the shooting on the vitriolic rhetoric of a few members of Congress other than themselves, and Doyle added that the media was partly at fault for focusing publicity on the most confrontational members.
But no one on the PBS NewsHour mentioned gun control.
One would think that at least some of the Republican Congressman who were hiding in the first base dugout while the shooting was going on would have seen the elephant in the dugout with them – the need for stringent gun control laws in our country comparable to the laws that have long been in place in every other high income democratic country of the world – countries in which mass shootings are rare or non-existent and in which overall rates of gun violence are much lower than in the USA. But if anyone saw the elephant, no one was willing to talk about it.
Other Republicans who were not present at the baseball practice quickly filled the void with the party line. Their answer to preventing gun violence in the country that has by far the highest per capita rate of gun ownership and by far the highest rate of gun violence of any democratic country in the world is, of course, more guns.
Representative Chris Collins (R-New York) announced that he would be carrying a concealed handgun with him everywhere he went. (He failed to explain the logic of this statement in light of the fact that there were three armed Capitol Police at the ballfield specifically assigned to protect Representative Scalise when he was shot; or that research shows that someone carrying a gun at the time of an assault is four times more likely to be killed than someone who is not carrying a gun.) Representative Tom Garrett (R-Virginia) used the occasion of the mass shooting to plug his bill, H.R.1537, to weaken Washington D.C.’s laws concerning registration and safe storage of firearms and to make it easier to get a concealed weapons permit. (Never mind that registration and safe storage of guns was not at issue in the Virginia ballfield shooting; or that individuals with concealed weapons permits have committed hundreds of criminal shootings, including mass shootings and shootings of police.)
The congressional Democrats didn’t talk about the elephant in the dugout either. After all, it wasn’t their dugout. It had been their parking lot, though, when Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona) was critically wounded by a gunshot to the head at an open air town hall meeting outside a grocery store near Tucson in 2011 in a mass shooting in which 18 other people were wounded and six people killed. Giffords was left with significant brain damage that forced her to resign from Congress, but she was able to comment in 2013, following Congress’s failure to enact any gun control legislation after the Sandy Hook Elementary School mass shooting in December of 2012:
In response to a horrific series of shootings that has sown terror in our communities, victimized tens of thousands of Americans, and left one of its own bleeding and near death in a Tucson parking lot, Congress has done something quite extraordinary — nothing at all.
Following the mass shooting last week that left another member of Congress bleeding and near death on an Arlington, Virginia ballfield, it can’t be said that the Democrats did “nothing at all.” They invited the Republicans to have dinner with them on the day of the shooting. They defeated the Republicans 11-2 at the annual charity baseball game the next night, but they joined the Republicans in prayer on the field before the game, and they let them take the winners’ trophy home after the game to place in Representative Scalise’s office. At a press conference, Representative Doyle summed up the take home lesson from the mass shooting: “When the leadership of this country is civil towards one another, maybe the public will start being civil towards one another too.” But the failure of even a single Democratic member of Congress to even mention the need for more stringent gun control was truly extraordinary.
Democratic members of Congress haven’t always been this timid and myopic. In 1968, following the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, the late Senator Thomas Dodd (D-Connecticut) saw the elephant and spoke frankly about it. He said:
“Pious condolences will no longer suffice….Quarter measures and half measures will no longer suffice….The time has now come that we must enact stringent gun control legislation comparable to the legislation in force in virtually every civilized country in the world.”
There was no constitutional obstacle at the time to the adoption of stringent gun control regulations. The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled unanimously in the 1939 Miller decision and subsequently reiterated in the 1980 Lewis decision that:
The Second Amendment guarantees no right to keep and bear a firearm that does not have “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia.”
It would not be until the 2008 Heller decision that a narrow 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court would reverse over 200 years of legal precedent in ruing for the first time in U.S. history that the Second Amendment guaranteed any kind of individual right to own a gun, an interpretation that the late Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger had called “one of the greatest pieces of fraud on the American public” that he had seen in his lifetime.
But even without the constitutional hurdle created by the Heller decision, Congress failed to enact the stringent gun control legislation that Senator Dodd called for in 1968. And as a result of Congress’s ongoing failure to enact definitive gun control legislation, since 1968, more U.S. civilians have died of gunshot wounds than all the U.S. soldiers killed in all the wars in which our country has ever been involved.
I don’t fault the members of the Republican baseball team for hiding in the first base dugout as the shooting was going on while one of their colleagues lay critically wounded on the field in front of them. And certainly, there should be less partisanship and greater civility among our elected leaders, beginning with the President. But following the mass shooting on the Virginia ballfield last week, avoiding partisanship and being civil is no excuse for the failure of members of Congress on both sides of the aisle to even mention – much less act upon – the urgent need for the enactment of stringent gun control laws in the United States comparable to the laws that have long been in place in every other developed country of the world.
In 1996, there was a mass shooting in Australia committed by a man using a semi-automatic rifle and a semi-automatic shotgun. It took the Australian government just 12 days after the shooting to agree to ban civilian ownership of all semi-automatic rifles and semi-automatic shotguns. Since that time, there have been no further mass shootings in Australia, and the overall rates of firearm related deaths and injuries, which were already far lower than in the USA, have declined even further, while legitimate hunters and target shooters have been able to continue to practice their sports.
Monday, June 26, will be the 12th day since the mass shooting on the baseball field in Arlington Virginia. Please contact your members of Congress during the week of June 26 to urge them to shed the blinders placed on them by the gun lobby and to openly acknowledge and act upon the need for the passage of stringent gun control measures of the kind that Senator Dodd call for in 1968, that Australia adopted just 12 days after the mass shooting there in 1996, and that have long been in place in every other high income democratic country of the world.
And if you haven’t already done so, please also join Americans Against Gun Violence, and please consider making an additional donation if you’re able. Americans Against Gun Violence is the only U.S. organization that openly advocates the adoption of the kind of definitive gun control measures described above. Some people say that we’ll never be able to stop the epidemic of gun violence that afflicts our country. We’re confident that some day we will. The only question is how many innocent people will die of gunshot wounds before that day arrives. With your help, we can make that day come sooner rather than later.
Bill Durston, MD
President, Americans Against Gun Violence
Note: Dr. Durston is a board certified emergency physician, a former expert marksman in the U.S. Marine Corps, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War, decorated for courage under fire.