Who would’ve thought a simple questionnaire could become a campaign flashpoint? But this one was not an ordinary fill-in-the-blanks bio that shuffles past candidates every election year.
In gun-shy Maryland, this Q&A could have been explosive. It was from the National Rifle Association and its questions were no doubt as loaded as a bear trap.
Ben Jealous, the Democratic candidate for governor, issued a double-dare, something no seasoned candidate would do (unless it’s an iron-clad gotcha). Republican Gov. Larry Hogan was ready with a “yo momma.”
Jealous challenged Hogan to return any and all NRA campaign contributions and to release his responses to the NRA campaign questionnaire. Hogan scoffed, his campaign saying he had no intention of filling out the questionnaire, according to reports. Gun laws are settled business in Maryland, and that’s that.
Hogan is a nimble politician who has generally avoided the culture wars that bedevil many conservatives and has concentrated mainly on fiscal issues. Otherwise, he has given Democrats much of what they want.
Jealous is getting an object lesson on the advantages of incumbency. Jealous met at a Starbucks with a group of students from Great Mills High School, where Jaelynn Willey, 16, was gunned down by a spurned classmate. Hogan invited representatives of the same group to a meeting in the imposing office of the governor in the antique State House.
There, Hogan agreed to reject any contributions from the NRA and added the promise to support a national background check system to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill, long a dream of gun control advocates. The students were awed. Hogan had expressed the same commitment in an op-ed in the Annapolis Capital, where five employees were slaughtered with a shotgun by a manic reader with a long-standing grudge over a lawsuit against the paper that he lost.
The moral of the story is clear: This could be the generation of adults that learns from its children. Where adults have been submissive, if not dismissive, the voices of hundreds of thousands of children may eventually drown out the threats and warnings of the NRA’s human trumpet, Wayne LaPierre, who denounces gun-weary teenagers as opponents of freedom.
Students across the country are pushing to get beyond the predictable “thoughts and prayers” reaction of elected officials and enhance legal protections from gun violence at their schools. And the kids on the streets are getting a lift from pin-stripers in boardrooms. Since the mass shootings earlier this year, a number of major corporations have ended their business ties with the NRA, which could affect the organization’s purchasing power with vendible elected officials.
The kids are on to something where adults have failed. They have seized the moral authority on the issue of gun regulation which began as a national movement after 17 schoolkids and teachers were gunned down by a deranged schoolmate at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., whose warning signs were ignored by the adults in charge. The gunman’s weapon of choice was the ever-popular AK15 assault rifle, dubbed “America’s gun,” one of nearly a dozen weapons in 19-year-old Nicholas Cruz’s personal arsenal.
The teenagers who’ve seized the momentum on the issue are poised, articulate and knowledgeable on the issue of guns and sincere in their grief over the loss of classmates in a spray of bullets from military-style weapons that are, literally, shredders. And they are angry.
The last time young people got riled up – with results – was during the convergence of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War. They took to the streets and in 1968 their “Kiddie Crusade” helped drive President Lyndon Baines Johnson from the White House and later forced President Richard M. Nixon to end the draft and eventually the war. (More recently, the “Occupy” Movement fizzled under government pressure to pull down their tents and vacate public property.)
In Maryland, the push for gun regulation has had a few toothsome twists. In March 1969, Joseph D. Tydings (D), then a U.S. senator from Maryland, wrote an article in Playboy magazine, then the bosomy bible of male fantasies, denouncing the gun hucksters from the NRA and calling for greater gun regulation following the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.).
Tydings also received splashy unwanted national publicity in his 1964 campaign when it was revealed that a Playboy “Bunny” was volunteering at his Baltimore headquarters after her day job at the old Playboy Club on Light Street in Baltimore.
A year later, in 1970, when Tydings was up for reelection, the gun lobby unleased its money and its manpower to help defeat Tydings. The state was plastered with bumper stickers and placards that read, “Playboy Joe/Has Got to Go.” There were other, more compelling explanations for Tydings’ defeat, but the gun lobby’s all-out attack was a small but noisy contribution. (Back then, the NRA was more of a gun education and safety organization than the weapons merchant that it is today.)
And Maryland, it should be noted, enacted the nation’s first modern and most stringent gun control law in the nation at the time, in 1973. (New York’s Sullivan Act was adopted in 1911, but it was mainly a patronage law to determine which friends of Tammany Hall were awarded gun permits. And under the nation’s original gun control law, Dodge City required all gun carriers to check their weapons upon entering a saloon.)
Since Maryland’s first gun control law, the state has steadily tightened ownership requirements and other regulations to the point where it’s among the most restrictive in the nation. Many of the guns seized in crimes in Baltimore, though, are illegal imports from other states, notably Virginia. During the past session, the General Assembly outlawed “bump stocks,” the add-on gizmo that converts a semi-automatic weapon into a machine gun.
At the national level, President Trump has marched up the hill and back down again on the issue of tighter controls on guns. But mostly, Trump has pledged fidelity to the NRA and its gun-loving agenda, which had spent $30 million to help elect him. Trump has flopped around on the gun issue like a fresh-caught flounder on a wet deck.
The Republican-led Congress is in no mood to change existing gun laws. In addition to the $30 million the NRA spend on electing Trump, it also contributed $9 million to members of Congress over the last election cycle. The NRA, and the Republican Party, are fearful of a Democratic takeover of Congress in this year’s midterm elections, which could change attitudes toward gun control legislation.
As for those pesky questionnaires, they are a nuisance to candidates and a bundle of contradictions that, if compared side-by-side, could get a candidate into serious believability trouble. They come by the basket-full and have no real benefit to candidates except to comfort the senders.
Better if candidates simply wrote a polite letter of acknowledgement and enclose a detailed bio and a list of accomplishments – if there are any. That way, the risk of questionnaire A contradicting questionnaire B is delicately avoided. No candidate wants to be called a liar or a double-dealer in the middle of a campaign.
Guns don’t kill, people do. Yes, but they do it with guns.