Gun Fight at Town Hall

Last night, I spoke at the Shandaken  Town Board Meeting. Shandaken – “Land of the Rushing Waters” – is my town, population app. 3,100, a rural enclave about 2.5 hours from Manhattan. It’s subdivided into twelve hamlets, and my family and I live in the hamlet of Phoenicia. While our local School Board is diverse and progressive, the Town Board is heavily conservative Republican (only one Democrat out of five sitting members), and like a lot of conservatives, they take issue with Governor Cuomo’s recent SAFE Act, which enacts the toughest gun laws in the country. I am optimistic about the SAFE Act, and proud Cuomo took this risky move.

In direct opposition to (and arrogant disregard of) many of his constituents, council member Vincent Bernstein, like several other legislators, drafted a “proposal in support of The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution.” (#58-13, seen HERE) In a nutshell, it states: “BE IT RESOLVED, that the Town Board of the Town of Shandaken does hereby oppose the enactment of any legislation that would infringe upon the Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms and consider such laws to be unnecessary and beyond lawful legislative authority granted to our State representatives, as there is no documented correlation between gun control measures and crime reduction…This resolution will be sent to every elected official from President Barack Obama to County Legislator John Parate.”

This proposal has no actual teeth, but simply “sends a message” to legislators, and ultimately to Cuomo and Obama, that “the Town of Shandaken” does not approve of the SAFE Act or Obama’s gun control propositions. The assumption that I would let it speak for me and my family made me furious.

What’s In Obama’s Gun Proposal

Like other gun advocates in New York State, the Shandaken Town Board (save one) seems to think Americans are entitled to a wide array of firearms, including semi-automatic weapons and high-capacity magazines. I don’t. I have no problem with hunting and self-defense with reasonable firearms, but I believe weapons designed for combat have no place in a home, and responsible government can and should help out in that regard. Like enforcing laws wherein an owner of an assault rifle bought after the ban is, indeed, a criminal. By contrast, the Shandaken Town Board, especially council member Bernstein, sees any action by the government regarding gun ownership as an infringement on their 2nd Amendment rights and the first step towards a tyrannical, totalitarian state. You’ve heard it before, from Ted Nugent to Wayne LaPierre: The Founders said so. Councilman Bernstein, in fact, used that very phrase “tyrannical government,” when, after much protest, he spoke in defense of his proposal. For his conservative base, that phrase resonates. To me, the notion that the Founders could conceive of semi-automatic weapons  fighting off, say, the current U.S. Armed Forces, with their drones and god knows what else, is absurd, but of course impossible to prove. (Franklin maybe, just maybe, could’ve foreseen.) Yet that unsupportable fancy gets trotted out repeatedly, as if it’s an ironclad truth. The Founders said so. Even going beyond that fairy tale into cruel reality has little affect on die-hard gun advocates; the facts of mounting gun violence and even the recent horror of Newtown bounce off them like grease off  hot Teflon.

As I sat waiting to speak, I kept thinking about an article by Garry Wills, written in a compressed rage after Sandy Hook, and well worth your time. It’s called Our Moloch. It addresses what my friend Clark Strand refers to as the “God shaped hole” in people. As a species, we’ve evolved  with devotional imperatives, and with the decline in church attendance and the rise of science in the face of faith, many folks have a God-shaped hole, a vacuum they may not even consciously acknowledge. But it is there, and it must be filled by hook or by crook, by Justin Bieber, Football, NASCAR, American Idol. what have you. (I fill mine with music, family, and books.) The post-Sandy Hook gun-owner hysteria – indeed, gun sales skyrocket after every massacre – seems of a piece with mass religious delusion, the kind that blights the history books, even the Bible.

Shandaken Town Hall was crowded, largely with the constituents who elected the current board, many of whom have been in the area for generations. They express categorical distrust of government, for the DEP, the DEC, the EPA, etc. I’ve been in this area as a permanent resident for eleven years, so the Libertarian-esque suspicion of government is nothing new, and frankly, sometimes it’s hard to argue with. In fact, the locally-run nonpartisan Rotary Club did an amazing job of mucking out, feeding and cheering Irene-ravaged Phoenicia, long before FEMA and the Red Cross got here, and the few times I’ve crossed paths with a deadbeat teacher at my son’s school (exceedingly rare) my inner, home-schooling Libertarian has risen.

But for the most part, I abhor the politics of the majority of the town council, as well as their supporters’ politics. Outside of politics, however, we get along. Most of these people are sharp, kind, some – like Bernstein – are distinguished veterans deserving of deepest respect, and a couple know how to command a room, which, as showfolk, I admire even when I hate the message.

While listening to that message, and joining in debate about it, a notion I’d harbored crystallized into a certainty: they’re scared. The cultural tide of America is turning away from them, and the man in the White House, with help from Latinos and gays, is pivoting towards a less conservative vision of America, a more inclusive complexion, a more level playing field economically, etc. So the conservatives, even those who will benefit from Obama’s economic policies, are understandably freaked out. And Obama’s tough – although yet-to-be-enacted –stance on guns, combined with Cuomo’s politically risky SAFE Act,  gets them where they live, literally. And Bernstein is consolidating fellow frightened constituents, gunning (pun intended) for a repeal of the SAFE Act. It’s actually a gutsy political move on Bernstein’s part, a circling-the-wagons gesture designed to galvanize put-upon conservatives. Rumor has it Bernstein has aspirations beyond town councilman, so perhaps this is his opening gambit, reaching out to those who feel recently disenfranchised by the folks in the mansions on the hill. Time will tell.

I was nervous about walking the gantlet. I do a lot of public speaking, and I’m a performer, but last night I sought support. Both my son Jack and my wife Holly were there, and it gave Jack, who is politically curious and astute, a chance to see democracy – or rather representative republicanism – in action. He witnessed hubris, courage, contempt, anger, dignity, humor, and even a little drunken idiocy play out in real time. He came away inspired by the many people who spoke against Bernstein’s resolution. He said they gave him hope. Only one person spoke in favor of the resolution (a former gun dealer), and only one supportive email was read, out of at least a dozen. I was proud of my fellow protestors, all of whom had succinct, incisive, and sometimes withering criticism for the proposal. In voice, we were in the majority.

We lost, though. Although Town Supervisor Rob Stanley, citing the divisiveness and questionable merit of the proposal, had called for it to be tabled. Council member Doris Bartlett (D), was clearly moved by emotional testimony, especially after reading an email from someone who knows parents of a slain Sandy Hook child who was shot six times. Bartlett emphatically asked first for a tabling, then voted NO, but the resolution passed 3 to 1 (Stanley was absent) and the supporters cheered.

Today the Shandaken Dems  are abuzz with talk of a petition to counteract the resolution, which will happen. I am disappointed about the resolution, but not really surprised. Perhaps this will help to get more Democrats on the board, in which case Bernstein’s gambit may backfire. I’ve seen that happen in local politics. Pride before the fall. The whiplash of hubris. People getting just pissed off enough to vote individuals out of power. It can happen. I will be doing my part to make sure it does.

In the meantime, I’ve pasted below my letter. if you’d like to read and comment, please do. Discussion is good. And feel free to browse around the blog while you’re at it, maybe even sign up to get my erratic but pretty much once every three-weeks postings.

Thanks – RBW

VIDEO OF MEETING
Me at 6:40

2-4-13

To the members of the Shandaken Town Board:

I come to you tonight with respect and thanks for your service. My family and I are proud to be Shandaken residents going on eleven years. We chose to live and pay taxes here, and we’ve raised our son in the shade of these mountains. We feel good about him going off into the world after he graduates Onteora with memories of this diverse community as the bedrock of his life. It is for him that I speak against your proposed resolution to overturn Cuomo’s recent tighter gun control laws. Cuomo’s actions come not only in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre, but also the Aurora massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Columbine massacre, the Westside Middle School massacre, et cetera, all real-life horrors that have occurred since I became a parent in 1998. You clearly want to send a message as “the voice of Shandaken” that, among other things, you object to any effort to control, prohibit, or monitor the sale of any type of guns or ammo, even those used in the aforementioned massacres. In your proposal, you do not speak for me or for my family.

To be clear: I’m fine with the second amendment, and I have no problem with rifles, pistols, or the use of these firearms for sportsmanship, or even self-defense. Assault rifles designed for military use, however, have, in my opinion, no place in a home, just as a rocket-propelled grenade launcher has no place in any citizens’ backyard. None of us can prove the Founders couldn’t conceive of assault weapons, but that is what I believe. With my friends who see any limits on gun ownership as a slippery slope towards loss of liberty, or who see tighter restrictions as a means of making citizens less prepared for self-defense on a grand scale, I can only disagree. Outside of Hollywood, there is no precedent for the scenario of a takeover in which citizens need to fight off enemies in the streets. In the real world, by contrast, we witness mounting scenarios of assault weapons in the hands of deranged citizens who brutally murder innocents. Gun control opponents say this is mainly a mental health issue, but I maintain: you cannot legislate crazy. You can, however, as an elected official bound to the wellbeing of the general public, legislate semi-automatic weapons, the controllable common denominator in the aforementioned tragedies. The fact will always remain that if these shooters had no access to their weapons of choice, the death tolls would either be much, much lower, or nonexistent.

Our culture moves ever further from facing real-life horror head-on, and I believe that willful blindness is part of the problem. As a child watching the nightly news, I was repulsed by images of torn, mortally wounded soldiers being carried off the battlefields of Vietnam. But in recent decades, the military has forbidden battlefield cameras. These days, we see a young vet getting new arms, but we do not see him losing those arms. We don’t see the blood, the bodies, the anguish of those left behind. Those images are rare. It has become ever easier to shut out the horror until it is on your doorstep.

It is now, and forever will be, at the doorstep of Veronique Pozner, mother of youngest Newtown victim Noah Pozner. She insisted Governor Malloy view her son’s destroyed face in his open casket, in the hope that Malloy would keep that image in mind when gun legislation crossed his desk. She said, “We all saw how beautiful Noah was. He had thick, shiny hair, beautiful long eyelashes that rested on his cheeks. He looked like he was sleeping. But the reality of it was under the cloth he had covering his mouth there was no mouth left. His jaw was blown away. I just want people to know the ugliness of it so we don’t talk about it abstractly, like these little angels just went to heaven. No. They were butchered. They were brutalized. And that is what haunts me at night.”

It haunts me, too. I have known parents who have lost children to disease, to overdose, to accidents. No elected official could have prevented their loss. But elected officials can indeed stem the tide of gun violence. It will take time, likely decades, but it can and must be done and it must start now. Anyone who opposes any effort to stem that tide does not speak for me, for my family, or, I daresay, untold innocents. Thank you.

Robert Burke Warren and family

Phoenicia

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30 responses to “Gun Fight at Town Hall

  1. beautifully written. eloquently spoken. thank you for sharing your voice of reason.

  2. Well written Robert, and I’m sure powerfully delivered. Thank you for your courage in taking this on. Ron Aja

  3. Robert, you spoke exceptionally well last night; from the heart but with good valid observations.

  4. Beautiful, Robert — a weird word to use in this context but nevertheless…thanks for speaking out, and for your lack of cynicism in the face of unreasoned opposition.

  5. Wow, Robert, you excelled yourself here – not just with the letter but with your fresh write-up of the event itself and the underlying thought process (and fear factor) that led to it. Thank you.

  6. Thank you Robert. I watched the meeting on television and cheered after you spoke. Once the Town Board voted I felt the outcome was predetermined and nothing anyone said could have changed it. The only recourse is to change the Town Board.

  7. I think you’ve got it right … the old guard is scared … scared because things are changing and their old ways of doing things and ‘old thinking’ are on the way out …
    not acceptable anymore, not relevant, not peaceful. This country is in the midst of a transformation … thank god! … and what we’re seeing is their last grasp at the power and influence they have enjoyed for too long. Your speech must have been very moving to hear in person, but reading it gives me hope for a (less violent) future. There are many many many of us who feel the same way you do. Thank you for speaking out.

    • Thanks, Judy. I hope I am right. I’d be scared if I was them, although on the local level, they’ve got a little more confidence today than they had yesterday. Tomorrow? We shall see.

  8. Very well-written, Robert. Maybe you don’t speak for evryone in your district, but your words are my thoughts. They’re what I try to relay to my students when I ask them to write about Sandy Hook and what it means to all of us.

  9. Right on, Robert! Thanks for your very thoughtful remarks.

    • Thank YOU, Karen. I was emboldened by your words, too, as they were read. We shall see how this plays out, but it feels good to know so many people are galvanized by the Board’s move. Looking forward to seeing you in real time.

  10. Thank you Robert. I was very moved reading this today – and am grateful that there is such an articulate and willing witness speaking up for many of us. You set a beautiful example. More thanks.

    • Thanks, Susan. I really appreciate the feedback. I’m sure this conversation is far from over, and it’s helped a lot to know so many people are on the same page regarding guns. I think we all feel connected to families we will never know, past, present, and future, and we know we must make an effort to connect to them, speak for them, and if we can, protect them with whatever we’ve got.

  11. Excellent missive Robert and great title. In addition to your wonderful statement at the Town Hall the thoughts on Vinnie Bernstein are incisive as it seemed that these are his views the rest of us have to lump. Especially disconcerting in light of all the school shootings is that his wife was a school teacher.
    The trouble with getting up and talking at the Town Hall is that I think the next day of so many other things I wished I’d said, especially in relation to the Gun Club and its “600 members”. I now wished I’d asked those members if they as an organization have drawn up a resolution like this and sent out letters to all the people mentioned in the Town Hall resolution.
    If they had – good on them. We live in a Democracy and members in any organization if they so vote on it can write whatever letters they want. Entirely appropriate.
    If they hadn’t – then why not? Instead they unload their views as representative of the “People of Shandaken” (who are not able to vote on it) and they stick their finger at the overwhelming opposition to it as demonstrated at the Town Hall meeting. Entirely inappropriate.
    I hope you’re right that it will come back to bite with galvanized opposition to the way the majority of this Board is acting. Thanks, you’re doing a fantastic job and so glad to see Jack there as it won’t be too long before he can exercise his right to vote!

    • Thanks, Tom. The hubris of the gun movement, the power they wield, the assumptions they make, even in the wake of the continued massacres… it’s all quite awesome, in the old sense of the word. Paradoxically increased by the continued violence. They are emboldened like crusaders of old, who thought they had God on their side. But we must not despair, we must begin.

  12. Robert, you are my hero, and it’s nice to see you looking well.

  13. Good thoughts Robert; I agree with your premise and laud your courage in speaking out. One note: Rotary is non-partisan, not bi-partisan.

  14. That was great Robert. Eloquent and succinct. And kudos to having the guts to go up ands speak your heart. Bravo!

    • Thanks so much, Chuck. I’m glad this conversation is starting and, while Cuomo’s SAFE Act is imperfect, it is a gutsy start. Few politicians – especially those with eyes on the White House – have the balls to actually ENACT tough gun laws. Hopefully he’ll do the same re: fracking. We’ll see. Thanks again…

  15. Robert, Here is the link to my friend David testimony in CT.
    http://tv.msnbc.com/2013/01/30/a-sandy-hook-parent-gives-testimony-the-senate-should-have-heard/

    He is far more eloquent than my email to the town board. And you did an excellent job there in person. Thank you. Marnie

  16. I’m so proud to call you my friend, and you also speak for me and mine. XOXO ❤

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