When gun-industry vassals like Jay Dickey and Mike Ross throw in the towel, you start to think that Congress may finally be ready to try to stop the carnage in schools, churches and public spaces by passing effective controls on mass-murder weaponry.
After a gunman killed 20 children, six faculty members and himself at a Connecticut grade school, the TV networks searched everywhere for one of the gun fanatics to defend the National Rifle Association's absolute gun-rights stand. There were no takers until Fox News finally found the clownish Texas congressman, Louie Gohmert, who went on the air to declare that if principal Dawn Hochsprung had kept a military M-4 carbine behind her desk, as she should have, she could have blown away the crazy young man before he killed very many children and maybe even have saved herself. She was killed lunging for the man.
Even the NRA shut down its propaganda for a time, but when the NRA's Wayne LaPierre and his new herald, Asa Hutchinson, finally found their voice and came out guns metaphorically blazing (the solution, they explained, is to pack America's schools with guns), things got back close to normal.
We have been here before, and nothing important is going to happen, although President Obama and Vice President Biden seem intent upon proposing sweeping reforms. There will be more killing spectacles before Congress gets around to the first votes on gun control, if it does in this decade, and if something eventually passes it will be token.
Dickey and Ross, it must be remembered, no longer represent half of Arkansas in Congress. The men who represent their old constituency in Congress — Tom Cotton and Rick Crawford — follow the NRA's commands just as slavishly. They're joined by the Second District's Tim Griffin, who laps up more NRA campaign money than nearly every congressman in America. Once LaPierre and Asa had spoken, Griffin dutifully let it be known last week that he was going to be found with the NRA.
It is instructive now to review Dickey's and Ross's roles in modern gun nuttery. When the modern movement to control arms, supported then by the NRA, began in the 1960s in response to the threat of armed insurrection by the Black Panthers in California and the Kennedy and King political assassinations Dickey and Ross were young men who weren't studying politics. Dickey was a tennis player, not a hunter, but when he arrived in the House of Representatives in 1993 he became an immediate NRA subject. The spate of mass killings prompted the introduction of a ban on the sale of military assault weapons in 1987. But by the time Congress got around to acting on it in 1994 the NRA's friends in Congress, including Dickey, had filled the legislation with so many loopholes that assault weapons actually multiplied rather than shrank during the 10 years the ban was in effect. The NRA could argue that the ban was ineffective, so the ban lapsed in 2004.
Dickey was known mainly for loopy stuff. He denied there was a single homosexual in the Fourth Congressional District, and in an interview with Spy magazine he blamed President Clinton for ethnic cleansing in a fictional country called "Freedonia." (Freedonia was the country of which Groucho Marx became dictator in the classic movie "Duck Soup.") But he got things done for the NRA and the weapons makers. He deleted $2.6 million from the budget of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the amount the CDC had once spent on research on firearm injuries and deaths, and voted to prohibit the government from ever doing gun research.
Eleven years after his defeat by Ross, Dickey repented last summer. In an op-ed article in the Washington Post, Dickey said his amendment had sent a "chilling message" about research on gun violence. In the 10 years before he changed the law the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had sponsored peer-reviewed scientific research on the causes of gun violence, which concluded that people who kept guns in their homes did not, despite their hopes, gain protection but instead faced a 2.7-fold greater risk of murder and a 4.8-fold greater risk of suicide.
Now, Dickey believes that research should be resumed and that Congress should take bold steps to stop the staggering toll of gun violence. The government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars — $240 million since 1996 alone — researching automobile and traffic safety, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that it saved 366,000 lives from 1975 to 2009. Guns killed more people in the U.S. last year than vehicles, but nothing was spent on research to reduce that toll.
Ross picked up the Dickey mantle and was an NRA point man, the head of the House gun caucus. Two years ago, he led 65 House Democrats in denouncing Attorney General Eric Holder for saying the assault-weapons ban should be reinstated. He introduced a bill to repeal the ban on semiautomatic guns in the District of Columbia, making it easier for people to get weapons for mass killings.
On his way out two weeks ago, Ross said the Connecticut slaughter had changed his mind and that he now thinks it is ridiculous that people should be able to get high-capacity assault weapons. More than that, he derided the old NRA-encouraged notion that gun control was a foot in the door and that people needed big guns to overthrow a despotic government in Washington. "I think it is time we get beyond that," he said.
Boy, is it! But tell Cotton and Griffin, who still circulate campaign pictures of themselves in camo with guns. They're the past and the future.