April 22, 2007 in City

Spin Control: Guns have killed political careers, too

Jim Camden The Spokesman-Review
 

National pundits dissecting the tragedy at Virginia Tech have been opining whether the killing spree will spark a new round of gun control legislation.

The general consensus so far is that it will not, even with Democrats controlling Congress, because of what happened after the tragedy at Columbine: lots of proposals, no new laws.

They’re probably right, but for the wrong reason. They’re making a comparison to the wrong tragedy, and because of that they miss the real political perils of gun legislation.

The lesson on what happens to politicians who support gun control in the wake of mass murder comes not from the aftermath of Columbine in 1999. It comes from the aftermath of Dean Mellberg at Fairchild Air Force Base, in 1994.

Mellberg hasn’t been mentioned in any of the summaries of previous shooting sprees, which is odd. Like Seung-Hui Cho, Mellberg was a psychologically troubled, socially awkward young man whose strange actions worried his roommate and other people around him.

Some of those people tried to get him psychiatric help, but there were limits on what they could do. Mellberg slipped through the cracks in the military medical system much the way Cho slipped through a safety net of psychological aid around the campus.

Both bought semi-automatic weapons and clips that held plenty of bullets. Both went on killing sprees on familiar turf, the site of their perceived torment.

After Mellberg murdered five and wounded 23 in the Fairchild hospital complex, the call went up for greater restrictions on military-style assault weapons, just as it had after previous killing sprees. But this time was different, because Mellberg’s killing spree occurred in the district of then-House Speaker Tom Foley, who came back home and toured the hospital where some of Mellberg’s youngest victims were clinging to life in intensive care.

Outside Deaconess Medical Center, Foley announced he would allow the ban, which had previously failed by two votes, to come up for another debate in the House.

The move shocked political experts. Foley, who’d had the support of the National Rifle Association in his 14 previous campaigns and had not voted on the previous proposal, went further than allowing the revote. He spoke in favor of the bill and voted for it – something he didn’t have to do as speaker but said he was doing because he was putting others on the spot with the vote.

This was not, as some would later say, a complete ban on assault weapons. It was a ban on the import of certain kinds of semi-autos, including cheap knockoffs of the AK-47, similar to the one Mellberg had used. President Clinton and some top law enforcement officials had called for the restrictions. The NRA and gun-rights activists saw it as the beginning of Armageddon and moved Foley from the position of favored son to sworn enemy.

That summer, some of Foley’s Republican opponents fell all over themselves trying to be the most pro-gun. At a GOP debate, one said that he thought folks should have a right to keep and bear just about anything short of nuclear weapons. Everything but nuclear weapons fired by bazookas, countered another.

A poll said two-thirds of the district’s voters supported the restrictions. Parents of some of Mellberg’s victims spoke publicly in support of the restrictions. At every opportunity in the fall, Foley hammered on his GOP opponent George Nethercutt for the “anything short of nukes” comment.

In the end, Nethercutt won.

National pundits wrote buckets about how Foley lost a close race because of term limits, which he opposed and Nethercutt supported, or because a national Republican tide swamped all Democrats or because Eastern Washington voters didn’t understand the importance of being represented by a speaker.

But make no mistake; Foley lost because of guns.

Every politician with more brains than a turnip has known since 1994 that abandoning support for gun rights, however narrowly drawn or timely proposed, is “a one-way ticket to Palookaville.” Chances of survival are about the same as jumping off the Monroe Street Bridge during the spring runoff: not strictly impossible, but really, who in their right mind is going to make the leap?

So people might talk about new gun laws in the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy. But odds are, talk is about all they will do.

About those Avista contributions

Avista Corp. is the biggest donor to Dennis Hession’s mayoral campaign at this point, as noted last week in a Spokesman-Review story.

That story prompted several irate Avista customers – and God knows why any would be unhappy, considering how low everyone’s heat bills were this past winter – to call and curse at utility employees for spending their heat money on politicians.

Not nice, people. As previously explained, Avista can’t spend customer money on political contributions. Those have to come out of the investors’ pockets.


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