Dispatch Column: ''NRA doesn't know when to hold fire''

The senior editor from the Columbus Dispatch, Joe Hallet, doesn't want to hear from you. Joe doesn't care what you think, and he dreads the email and voicemail messages he anticipates receiving (and plans on ignoring) after writing his latest anti self-defense editorial (which has been archived, and can be read by clicking on the "Read More..." link below).

NRA doesn't know when to hold fire
Sunday, April 20, 2003
Joe Hallett

On Tuesday, the Ohio Supreme Court heard arguments in a lawsuit challenging Ohio's 83-year-old prohibition against carrying concealed guns.

Also Tuesday:

On his son's third birthday, Kenneth ''Willie'' Knox, 24, was murdered, gunned down in broad daylight as he walked out of a South Side restaurant.

Two men wearing ski masks burst into a Franklinton home and shot David Daniels, 57, who died immediately, and James Davis, 40, who was in serious condition.

The Central Ohio Trauma System released a report showing there were more people in Franklin County killed by guns, an average of 99 in 1999 and 2000, than the 81 killed by motor vehicles.

Guns do kill people. The more of them on the street, the more people will be killed. The Supreme Court justices would be nuts to overturn the ban on carrying concealed guns.

And writing that last paragraph was a stupid thing to do, never mind its merit. Tomorrow morning, my voice mail and e-mail will be jammed with angry and personally degrading messages, making it seem as if every one of The Dispatch's roughly 700,000 Sunday readers supports a right to carry concealed weapons.

I know this from experience. The last time I wrote a column suggesting concealed carry is a bad idea, I was deluged by calls, e-mails and letters from outraged readers -- not just those in central Ohio, but across the nation.

Subsequent conversations with some of the offended readers revealed that it didn't matter to most of them that I steadfastly support the 2nd Amendment, am an occasional hunter and defend the right to own handguns. But because I also support gun-control measures such as bans on assault weapons and so-called cop-killer bullets, I am deemed an enemy of the National Rifle Association.

Robert J. Spitzer, political science professor at the State University of New York at Cortland and author of The Politics of Gun Control -- the third edition is due out this year -- listened to my lament last week and sympathized through the phone.

The heat generated against me, Spitzer said, ''is part of the pro-gun movement tactic to be in the face of people who disagree with it. There's a name for it: the hassle factor. Most people in Congress want stronger gun laws if you talk to them privately, but they don't want the onslaught, the hassle from the NRA.''

Rep. Bart Stupak, a Democrat who represents Michigan's Upper Peninsula, learned about the hassle factor in the election of 2000, the same year his son used a gun to commit suicide. A longtime opponent of gun control and one of the few House Democrats supported by the NRA, Stupak found himself on the NRA hit list after he voted in 1999 to require background checks at gun shows. Even so, Stupak defeated the well-funded, NRA-backed Republican to win a fifth term.

The NRA's insistence that gun-rights supporters adhere to all tenets of its agenda stems from the ''Cincinnati revolt,'' Spitzer said, referring to the 1977 NRA convention in the Queen City where ''a real hard-right group took control of the NRA and became more strident, more involved in politics.

''As late as 1975, '76,'' Spitzer added, ''the NRA supported a waiting period for handgun purchases, but after the Cincinnati revolt it repudiated every gun control you can think of.''

Built from the grass roots up, the NRA can muster masses of loyal troops and money to cow politicians, particularly Republicans, and influence their elections. The NRA spent $20 million in the 2000 campaign, helping George W. Bush carry West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas, although Bush lost three other NRA-targeted states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Mexico.

Last week, even Bush incurred the NRA's wrath after indicating support for renewal of the federal assault-weapons ban.

In a nation with 200 million guns -- three-quarters of them owned by just 10 percent of the adult population -- the NRA wields disproportionate political power by, in part, effectively portraying guns more as a symbol of liberty than a tool of murder.

There is room for debate and compromise on gun laws. But it is difficult to debate reasonable gun controls with an organization that sees virtually no need for them, and stands ready to savage anyone who disagrees.

I'll learn that lesson anew when I get to the office tomorrow.

Joe Hallett is Dispatch senior editor.

Click here to read the entire story in the Columbus Dispatch (subscription site - paid access only).

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