An express trains speeds past Ramsey station in this 2003 photo, ruffling Mayor Richard Muti's jacket, but not the mayor.

IN MY OPINION . . .

Resolving the gun rights/gun control dichotomy

August 25, 2017

Tags: gun rights, Second Amendment, gun control, NRA

I'm a gun owner and former member of the National Rifle Association, the nation's largest gun lobby. In 2003 when I ran, unsuccessfully, for state senate in New Jersey's 39th legislative district, the NRA gave me a B+ rating, an unusually high grade for a Democrat. I later resigned my membership over disgusting remarks made by rock star Ted Nugent, who sits on the NRA's board of directors.

At a 2007 concert, Nugent described presidential candidate Barack Obama as a piece of excrement, using the vulgar four-letter term. Obama can "suck on my machine gun," he said. Candidate Hillary Clinton was dismissed as a "worthless bitch." During the 2012 campaign, Nugent said publicly that if Obama was reelected, "I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year," prompting a Secret Service investigation.

Celebrities engaging in over-the-top political commentary is nothing new and, judging from the spate of anti-Trump tirades by Hollywood-types, à la Kathy Griffin, it may be a growing phenomenon. But hope for a more civilized discourse, at least as it relates to the gun issue, recently sprang from an unlikely source: rock star and, apparently, reformed provocateur Ted Nugent. In a radio interview last month, after the baseball field shooting that wounded Congressman Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), Nugent took a completely different tack.

"At the tender age of 69," Nugent told the interviewer, "my wife has convinced me that I just can't use those harsh terms. I cannot and I will not, and I encourage even my friends-slash-enemy on the left in the Democrat and liberal world that we have got to be civil to each other.

"The whole world is watching America, where you have the God-given right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," the rocker added, "and we have got to be more respectful to the other side."

No issue epitomizes the rift in our society more than the gun debate, if one can properly characterize the raucous verbal exchanges of fire emanating from both sides as debate. Could Nugent's recantation be an opening, a chance to begin the societal healing so many prominent Americans have called for, by confronting head-on the most volatile, and dangerous, issue of all? Well . . . maybe.

Nothing signifies the NRA's unwillingness to cede ground more than a striking performance by its then-president Charlton Heston at the organization's 2000 convention. Holding an antique rifle aloft, the veteran actor, in a Moses-like voice that would have caused Pharaoh to quake, proclaimed that gun control advocates may seek to take his gun away, but they'd have to pry it "from my cold, dead hands."
Gun Owners of America, another champion of gun rights, is even more unyielding, if that is possible. On its website, the Virginia-based group promotes its intractability with a quote from former congressman Ron Paul (R-Texas), who called GOA "[t]he only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington."

According to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, 90 percent of Americans, including most gun owners, support background checks for gun purchasers. What will it take to bring hardliners at the NRA and GOA closer to mainstream thinking? Thirty dead college kids at Virginia Tech in 2007 didn't do it. Neither did 20 dead first-graders in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Here's the problem. Gun rights stalwarts view any concession – even the mildest restrictions they'd concede in private as being prudent and necessary, like keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and terrorists – as a slippery slope, leading to the confiscation of all guns. That may be an unreasonable belief, but it exists and must be dealt with.

Gun control advocates have to face reality. There are already more than 300 million guns in America, with gun manufacturers pumping out more every year. Nothing is going to remove the bulk of those weapons from society. The AR-15 rifle, the weapon used by the Sandy Hook killer, achieved its greatest annual sales following that massacre, because of an anticipated future ban on its production.

One would think that District of Columbia v. Heller would have allayed gun owners' fears about confiscation. In that 2008 case, the Supreme Court declared, for the first time, that the Second Amendment protected an individual's right to bear arms, despite reference to "a well regulated Militia" in the wording of the Second Amendment. But that was a 5 to 4 decision, and it's easy to understand the concern of gun rights advocates that, precedent notwithstanding, the appointment of future justices with different leanings could alter the Heller outcome.

So what are we to do, we 90 percent of Americans who want to "keep guns out of the hands of criminals, felons, domestic abusers, and other illegal purchasers," the Brady Campaign's central theme? Should we continue the shouting match in an effort to overcome the political stranglehold gun lobbyists have on a majority of state and federal legislators? Or, should we engage with gun rights advocates to come up with a compromise that addresses everyone's concerns? To me, the latter approach makes more sense.

My suggestion is a new constitutional amendment to clean up language in the Second Amendment so that no future Supreme Court can take away an individual's right to bear arms. In exchange, the gun lobby and its legislative army would have to make specific concessions to allow reasonable gun control measures by state and federal government, the operative word being "reasonable." Those measures would be determined in advance, with every interest group having a seat at the table.

If Ted Nugent can preach civility and respect for others, there's hope our society can do the same.

Selected Works

Biography
A fast-paced, one-volume study of the most fascinating entertainer of the 20th century. The book isn't an academic tome, although it is extensively researched and footnoted; rather, it is designed to be a highly readable page-turner, for avid Sinatraphiles as well as more casual fans of his music and films. It examines the forces, both positive and negative, that made Sinatra Sinatra, with special attention given to the love-hate relationship he maintained toward Hoboken and New Jersey for most of his life. He once called the city of his birth a "sewer," but later observed, "When I was there, I just wanted to get out. It took me a long time to realize how much of it I took with me."
Essays
"Richard Muti's essays are smart and provocative, personal and political."
–Linda Fairstein, former prosecutor
and crime novelist
As this eBook is published, Gov. Chris Christie enjoys a 72 percent approval rating, the highest level attained by any governor in New Jersey history. Yet, the man still evokes passionate feelings from supporters and foes, alike.
"Much needed fresh air out of New Jersey, where the political atmosphere has long been foul."
Kirkus Discoveries
True Crime
"The Charmer is definitely one of 2012's 'must read' books."
True Crime Book Reviews
Novel
Filled with “brilliant plot twists, vivid descriptions, and great dialogue, with a smooth, easy-to-read writing style.”

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