First, I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican. I vote for people, not parties.
Second, I am neither a liberal nor a conservative. I worry about people, not ideology.
Third, I am not a gun owner.
Ah. Changes things, doesn’t it? I was safe on the first two, a common-sense type of guy. But as soon as I wrote that third item, some of you said,
“Friend,” and others said, “Enemy.”
And it is exactly that all-or-nothing reaction that was on disgusting display last week as legislators tried to do something, anything, to stem the flow of weapons into the wrong people’s hands.
It seemed, on paper, to be a no-brainer. A proposed law requiring background checks of people buying guns at gun shows. The background checks would show if the buyer had a criminal record or a history of mental illness. It is hard to imagine anyone — even the most fervent gun lover — in favor of giving weapons to convicted felons and loony-birds.
Besides, background checks are already required for licensed gun dealers. But these gun shows — and there are more than 4,400 of them in the United States each year — have long been a private dealer’s loophole, an arms bazaar where anything goes. Even kids can walk up and buy pistols if someone wants to sell to them.
So in the wake of the Littleton disaster — where several weapons used were purchased at gun shows — you’d think common sense would say pass this law.
What’s common sense got to do with it?
The same old politics
The simple fact is that when it comes to guns, it’s like that old Paul Simon lyric. A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. The National Rifle Association, which sees any legislation as a threat, was against the gun show bill. And since the NRA gives a ton of money to Republican candidates — and targets those who oppose it — Republican senators were against the bill as well.
Sen. Larry Craig, from Idaho, who is a Republican and an NRA board member, led the fight to kill the proposal by offering a useless alternative of “voluntary checks.”
And so, a seemingly unarguable idea for the safety of all Americans went down to defeat, 51-47, in a vote that followed — surprise again! — party lines.
What? You thought only impeachment did that?
This was America at its worst. Political influence, money, lies about whose interests lawmakers are protecting. So obvious was the selfish, narrow-mindedness of this act, that the next day, something highly unusual happened.
The Senate reversed itself.
After President Bill Clinton said “For the life of me, I can’t figure …why they passed up this chance to save lives” and after Attorney General Janet Reno bitterly denounced the decision and after their phones started ringing, Republicans scurried back and reworked a proposal calling for background checks at gun shows — with a few caveats.
And the battle continued.
The same old rhetoric
Now, the saddest part of this whole thing is how few people are willing to look past their own interests for the greater good. Come on. Drop your ideology for a moment. How on earth can checking if a gun buyer has a criminal past — maybe even murder — be a bad thing?
And while we’re at it, how can raising the age for gun use from 18 to 21 — so that high school seniors are not eligible gun users — be a bad thing?
The truth is, it can’t. But who sees the truth?
The NRA sees any restrictions as limiting its power, so it objects.
Politicians don’t want to lose support from gun lovers, so they object.
Gun manufacturers don’t want a drop in sales, so they object.
Hunters worry about hassles when they buy guns, so they object.
Second Amendment advocates — who have been misinterpreting the Constitution for years — scream about their rights, so they object.
And on it goes. If you try to argue that a small step is better than no step, that fewer guns in the wrong people’s hands can’t help but cut down — even to a small degree — our crime and random shootings, what you get is rhetoric.
You get, “Guns don’t kill people, people do.”
You get, “If parents spent more time with kids, we wouldn’t need gun laws . .
You get, “What about alcohol? . . .”
You get a million ways to skirt this issue, and none to address it. But then, you know that. Chances are you made up your mind about me — and this topic — by the third paragraph of this column, didn’t you?
And until that changes, nothing will.
MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 1-313-223-4581.