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Vestal: Gun control rhetoric sounds tragically familiar

Christin McCarron would have turned 27 this year.

Would have, that is, if she had not been murdered by Dean Mellberg at Fairchild Air Force Base on June 20, 1994. The murder of the then-8-year-old McCarron and three others, and the injuries of more than 20, sparked a gun control debate so similar in nature and tone and result to our current one that these recent weeks seem like word-for-word re-enactments.

As if we were reciting lines on a stage, where the outcome – doing absolutely nothing as the NRA yanks on leashes – was predetermined.

We say these things, just like then.

We do nothing, just like then.

Actually, we do less now than then – when an assault weapons ban was passed, only to be later undone.

It’s still possible, of course, that ordinary citizens could drive a change that politicians will not. A petition drive has been launched to establish universal background checks in Washington state. The political failure to implement universal background checks on gun purchases, a proposal that enjoys massive public support in poll after poll, exposes a sickness in our political culture. And our hysterical history on guns suggests that all such efforts remain in doubt until the end.

In the meantime, perhaps we can revisit the arguments that were made, back in 1994, by those incited to passion over the murderous killing spree at a heavily fortified military base by a man with well-documented mental problems firing a semi-automatic rifle with a 70-round magazine, which he was shown how to operate by a store clerk in Spokane.

“Why should anyone have a gun that shoots 70 rounds?” asked McCarron’s uncle at the time. “Who needs to target practice with something like that?”

The father of two children, ages 4 and 6, who were badly injured by Mellberg, said this: “If he had a different type of rifle, my kids might have still been shot. But 20-some others might not have been. Some people that are dead might not be.”

But then, as now, the idea that merely some people might be saved – that just a little bit of death or injury might be averted – is not enough. Gun control proposals must be judged on the basis of whether they will eliminate all crime, all violence, all evil.

George Nethercutt – who rode the NRA’s ill wind to victory over Tom Foley that fall – expressed it thus: “These weapons are not used in any majority of crimes in this district or in this country. If I thought the assault-weapon ban would cure the crime problem in this country, it would be a different matter. But it doesn’t.”

There’s no need to do anything, in other words, if you can’t do everything. If any law is not the complete cure, then it’s utterly pointless.

Plus, there’s the Holocaust to consider.

“It’s in the best interests of keeping people alive to have these weapons available,” said Aaron Zelman, director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, back in 1994. “These are the ideal weapon for citizens to possess to use against government agents coming to murder them.”

In the aftermath of that shooting, Congress passed a ban on semi-automatic assault rifles – and our lawmakers promptly learned a difficult lesson about who they are meant to obey. Give you a hint: It’s not the people.

Tom Foley, among the most distinguished men to represent this region in Congress, was turned out of office, partly due to the fact that he embraced prevention over paranoia. He acknowledged that the assault rifle was not the primary tool of crime in the country. No one ever argued that it was, of course, just as no one argues that anyone’s guns ought to be taken away.

“But when it is used, it is with horrible effects,” he said of the assault rifle. “We have the reality here in Spokane. … These weapons have no place in the sporting environment. They are totally designed for one purpose – military assault, killing people.”

We are no longer discussing any kind of weapons ban, of course. We are no longer discussing any kind of limit on magazines – not the 30-round magazines preferred by the Sandy Hook killer, not the 100-round drums preferred by the Aurora killer, not the 70-round drum favored by Mellberg. We are no longer discussing – at least in Olympia or Washington, D.C. – asking felons to prove they’re not felons before hopping onto or heading to the fairgrounds for an AR-15.

Maybe the petition drive will change that. But maybe it won’t. Our memories fade, when it comes to mass murder, and they fade quickly, as just one more voice from 1994 reminds us.

“That’s what drives the debate – one high-profile event after another,” said Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center, a Washington, D.C., group. “It takes something really horrific; each one has to outdo the last.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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