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No Father's Day: A Retort to the Second-Guessers on Gun Control

Neil Heslin’s Father’s Day custom with his son Jesse (who preferred to call it “Daddy’s Day”) was to go to the local historical society for an antique car show where, for the holiday, dads and their kids would get in free. To make sure that they got the deal, Jesse made a point of saying: “Jesse and Daddy here” when they’d arrived.

Neil Heslin, who is divorced, has no other children, and his own parents are deceased. This means that, with Jesse among the 20 first-graders who were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, this Sunday’s holiday is rendered technically moot. He was a father of a young boy; he is no longer. Thus the campaign he helped launch this week along with Rev. Samuel Saylor, a Hartford man whose 20-year-old son was shot last October: “No Father’s Day,” it’s called.

 “It’s very difficult to be coming upon [the holiday] by myself,” Heslin said this morning on a call with reporters.

It’s been six months since the Newtown shootings, and the half-year anniversary is marked by a striking mix of resolve and fatalism. On the one hand, as I reported at length in the current issue of the magazine, the push for gun-control legislation remains strong even after the narrow defeat in April of a bill to expand background checks for gun purchases. Heslin and other Newtown parents were on the Hill yesterday meeting with Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor, in hopes of reviving the legislation in the months ahead. “I’m certain that another bill will come up and fairly confident that if it does come up, there will be support to get the bill passed,” Heslin said today.

At the same time, there is still a fair amount of the demoralized second-guessing that has for so long characterized the pro-gun-control side of the debate. Gail Collins wrote a column today sharply criticizing Michael Bloomberg for his ads attacking the four Senate Democrats who voted against the background check bill and his letter to major Democratic donors in New York to withhold contributing to the quartet. “What’s the point?” she wrote. “The two senators in question who are up for re-election — Pryor and Mark Begich of Alaska — are going to be opposed by Republicans who are even more averse to weapons regulation…Maybe the only way to get serious gun reforms passed in Congress is to convince our elected officials that people who believe in reasonable gun control are as insane as the forces of the National Rifle Association.”

I’m a longtime Collins admirer, but this seems wide off the mark. What Bloomberg and his allies are trying to do right now is build the gun-control movement into a single-issue force of the sort that the other side has been for a long time, but that it itself has never managed to be – which sometimes means, yes, not playing by straight partisan logic. You can certainly quibble with tactical decisions the Bloomberg team has made–whether, for instance, it should have run ads as tough as the ones they’re running now (against both Democrats and Republicans, by the way) before the Senate vote, rather the more mild ones they were airing back then, which perhaps didn’t adequately signal to the wavering senators what they’d be in for if they opposed the bill. And you can ask, as Sen. Chris Murphy has, whether the current hard-edged ads are making it harder for the no-voting senators to quietly flip on background checks.

But to chide Bloomberg for going after Democrats? This is what a movement has to do if it’s going to be taken seriously. Mark Pryor, Mark Begich, Heidi Heitkamp and Max Baucus had a choice – they could have voted for this very moderate legislation with majority backing in the polls even in their own states, as did senators from similarly tough political territory, such as Mary Landrieu, Kay Hagan, Jon Tester, Joe Donnelly and Joe Manchin. But they chose not to, presumably because they feared that the ardent minority of gun-rights proponents who opposed the bill would punish them for supporting it. Bloomberg’s whole theory of the case is to change that calculus–to show that there is now also a cost to be borne when you vote against the preferences of the less-demonstrative majority that supports common-sense gun-law reform. It doesn’t matter to the Bloomberg side if ads like this help increase the odds that Mark Pryor will be replaced with a Republican–given how Pryor voted when it mattered, Bloomberg deputy Howard Wolfson told me, “a Republican would not be worse.”

There is also a broader critique of the movement, voiced by, among others, my colleague Marc Tracy: that the whole effort to reform national gun laws, while undoubtedly worthy, is a distraction from issues with higher stakes, such as climate change. Marc wrote:

“Bloomberg is passing up the chance to use his political clout to help set the agenda on the defining issue of our time in favor of buttressing an already existing, imperfect agenda on an important but, frankly, not-top-priority issue. (It’s a troubling thought-experiment, but gun control almost certainly would not be an issue in Washington right now had 20 children and six adults not been brutally murdered one month after the presidential election. Few would have batted an eye had Newtown not happened and a second Obama term passed without action on gun control). Guns are, in fact, a perfect issue for Bloomberg to tackle in a local and technocratic manner, as he did with the flood planning. In fact he has done this, utilizing different policing methods to oversee a massive reduction in gun murders (and all murders) in New York City. Since climate change, in contrast, does not know municipal boundaries, efforts at the national (and international) level are necessary.”

A few thoughts on this. First, gun control very much is a national issue, not a local one, because guns cross state and city lines all the time. That’s why Bloomberg got involved at the national level to begin with, because guns from the South were flooding New York. Second, I am more confident than Marc that Bloomberg has enough resources and bandwidth to push on both gun control and climate change–he has been doing the latter on both the local and global level.

Most of all, though, I’m not sure what purpose is served by the thought experiment Marc proposes. He’s right, we would not be talking about gun control as much as we are now if Newtown hadn’t happened. But it did happen. And as a result, many people, including plenty of politicians with A-ratings from the NRA, are upset enough that they’re willing to take this issue on and make at least some progress toward preventing future gun homicides. As Heslin put it this morning: “You’re never going to be able to stop all gun violence. But any step we can take to prevent it is worth it. For anyone to say it’s not worth it is wrong. I don’t know how anyone can look at the pictures of those kids who lost their lives and not say that something has to happen.”

Meawnwhile, he says, he won’t be going to the historical-society car show this year. “It’s something I can’t bring myself to do,” he said. “It’s a memory I’d like to preserve.”

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. Follow him on Twitter @AlecMacGillis