Gun Legislation: A Senator-Constituent Exchange
After the Newtown school massacre, I wrote to my two U.S. Senators and to my U.S. Congressional Member urging them to support sensible gun legislation measures. This was the first time I’ve ever directly contacted my political representatives. About anything. (I have signed some petitions over the years, but the emails I speak of were individually composed letters, written in the same sort of anguish that so many of us felt after December 14th.) I never heard back from Senator Richard Burr (Republican – North Carolina). I received a pro-forma ‘thank you for your concern about this important issue’ response from Democratic Senator Kay Hagan and from Democratic Congressman David Price.
No surprise. And more or less I forgot about my small venture into communicate-with-your-political-representative land, although I didn’t forget about the issue of gun legislation.
Today, however, a few things happened to remind me. One, Vice President Biden talked about his upcoming gun/violence-related recommendations. They sounded smart to me, and I wondered how my state’s elected folks would react. Two, I saw my Congressional Representative, David Price, appearing for the first time that I know of, on any network news program, saying vaguely supportive things about gun-related legislation. I mean, I’ve voted for this man for decades: hasn’t he ever attended the Chuck Schumer school of media relations? He’s got to have major seniority by now; shouldn’t he be on the Dem-Pol talking head circuit? And if he’s finally cracked the face-time code, shouldn’t he have something memorable to say? Guess not . . .
But then there was thing number three. Arriving in my inbox was an email from North Carolina Senator Kay Hagan. Wowzer! Her office had already sent a rote response (which is more than her Republican counterpart ever did), so was this something new? A more policy/legislative-specific update? A personal reply to my specific email? Interested, I opened the message, and this is what it said:
January 10, 2013
Thank you for contacting me regarding the horrific tragedy that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. I appreciate hearing your thoughts on this issue, and my thoughts and prayers remain with the victims and families of this senseless and appalling act of violence.
In the wake of the shooting in Newtown, which left twenty-six innocent members of the community dead, many of them young children, Americans across the country are searching for answers on how we can prevent such tragic events from happening in the future. I believe we must do all we can to put laws and policies in place to prevent future tragedies such as this one. Doing that will require a common-sense debate on a comprehensive approach that examines all relevant issues, including access to firearms, mental healthcare, and the prevalence of violence in video games and media. As always, it is important that we not unnecessarily infringe on the legitimate Second Amendment rights of responsible gun owners.
Like you, I have always been an advocate for Second Amendment rights. My family, like the great state of North Carolina, has a long tradition of hunting and gun ownership, and I take great pride in that heritage. During my tenure in the North Carolina Senate I continuously supported the responsible use of firearms. As your United States Senator, I will always be committed to protecting these fundamental, constitutional rights.
Again, thank you for contacting my office. It is truly an honor to represent North Carolina in the United States Senate, and I hope you will not hesitate to contact me in the future should you have any further questions or concerns. If you would like to stay informed on my work in the Senate, you can sign up for my e-newsletter, follow me on Twitter at @SenatorHagan, or visit my Facebook page.
Senator Kay R. Hagan
Well. What prompted this email on this particular day? It certainly didn’t say much, except that Senator Hagan’s staff is more energetic than Senator Burr’s (which doesn’t find it necessary to reply to anything) or than Congressman Price’s (which, so far, is content to send a thanx-4-riting message at the get-go and then to leave it alone). Perhaps, and I hope this is true, it indicates that Senator Hagan is trying to keep her ear to the ground about the issues surrounding mass murder via gun, and maybe even gun violence in general, or (less helpfully) violence in general. I praise her and her office for at least attempting to maintain a dialogue. And I suspect that Vice President Biden’s remarks today may have prompted this still-on-the-fence effort.
It’s not fair to say so, considering Burr’s silence and Price’s half-hearted and summarily abandoned response, but I found this communication somewhat irritating. So here’s my response to Senator Hagan, for what it’s worth . . . which is probably not much (I sent it to her office before including it in this blog). But I’d like to think that individual citizens reaching out to our elected representatives could be worth something, eventually. At least Senator Hagan is trying, however tepidly, to keep communications open. If I hear anything more, I’ll keep you posted.
Dear Senator Hagan,
Thank you for your continuing contact with North Carolinians concerned about gun violence and gun safety issues. I realize that your office sends mass replies to people who've weighed in on specific matters. Nevertheless, I am disappointed by your letter. I don't imagine that anyone will read my response beyond being able to file it in an appropriate 'constituent concern' category, but if someone does:
(1) The reply makes assumptions about the North Carolina electorate that are not necessarily true. Not everyone is an "advocate for Second Amendment rights" because -- frankly -- being such an advocate is not necessary (not to mention that many of us do not choose to own guns, do not have a gun-centric family heritage, and do not vote on the fabricated need to protect Second Amendment rights . . . although I understand why a form letter would make such blanket assertions). The Second Amendment exists. The Heller decision narrows it (a-historically, in my opinion) to relatively unassailable rights of individual citizens to own guns. There is no movement to repeal the Second Amendment, nor is there any significant current challenge to Heller. Nor, certainly, to confiscate guns. Today, saying that one is an 'advocate' of the Second Amendment is often code for supporting everyone's 'right' to own every kind of weapon and ammunition, in unlimited numbers, including mass-kill military assault weapons and ammunition. In some circles, such 'advocacy' is also code for belief in imminent governmental totalitarianism (see today's Drudge report). In contrast, even Justice Scalia has said that unusual and dangerous weapons do not fall within Second Amendment protections. After all, individual citizens cannot lawfully possess rocket launchers or pocket nuclear bombs. Why then should the Constitution protect the 'right' to own assault rifles and mega-round ammunition cartridges? They are not needed for hunting, personal protection, or recreational shooting. The fact that they’re technologically cool and may be fun to discharge at targets is not sufficient justification: it's also fun to drive drunk at 100 miles per hour in a Lamborghini. It may even be fun to yell fire in a crowded theater.
(2) It obscures your own response to fairly clear-cut issues -- or worse, suggests that you will not have any distinct responses until 'public opinion' has been sampled conclusively (in a way that points toward future voting patterns) or until the NRA threatens you directly. Nonetheless, consensus (or, at least, serious discussion) is coalescing around a few actionable issues: banning the sale of high-ammunition clips and, perhaps, reinstating a tighter version of the expired assault weapons ban; instituting universal background checks, which would in the process close the 'gun show loophole'; increasing funding for mental health services, particularly for young adults. Where do you stand on these specific proposals? To say that we need a "comprehensive approach that examines all relevant issues" is to say more or less nothing. It's also a carton of apples and oranges. The federal government can pass some laws regulating guns and ammunition, and it can provide funding for various law-enforcement measures (many of which are already on the books) and mental health services. It cannot legislate a reversal of a culture of violence (which is arguably no more pronounced now than it was fifty or a hundred years ago). As many have said in the past month, the fact that we can't do/solve everything should not be an excuse for doing nothing.
(3) It represents a missed opportunity to stand for current Democratic Party principles, principles that have just been endorsed nation-wide in the November elections. In the old days, after Nixon's Southern Strategy had taken hold, there was a saying in North Carolina that you couldn't 'out-seg the Republicans.' In other words, Democrats could not win by outflanking their opponents' right wing. I don't think Democrats now can win in our state by 'out-conservatism-ing' the Republicans . . . or by being wishy-washy about key issues such as common-sense gun legislation. North Carolina Democrats cannot regain parity, not to mention ascendency, by kowtowing to what may seem at this fleeting moment to be the most popular (state-wide) stances on social and cultural issues. Society and culture -- and demographics -- are changing rapidly in this state as well as throughout the country. I truly believe that staying silent, or moving backwards, in regard to crucial matters is at best counter-productive and at worst self-annihilating for North Carolina Democrats.
Dr. Deborah Wyrick