How to finally pass meaningful gun control laws: “Don’t march in Washington” | Spanlish


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Sunday, May 20, 2018

How to finally pass meaningful gun control laws: “Don’t march in Washington”

AP/Andrew Harnik

AP/Andrew Harnik

After serving in Congress for 16 years, former U.S. Rep. Steve Israel, D-NY, took on a second career writing novels and teaching. His second and latest novel, “Big Guns: A Novel,” is a comedy about where guns, small Long Island towns and Washington politics meet.

Israel, who left Congress right before the Trump administration moved in, says that he mourned dozens of mass shootings while in office, but unfortunately, nothing changed. "The number one question that I faced, and virtually all of my colleagues after every one of those shootings, was when will Congress do something,” Israel told Salon. “I wanted to explain why in this book,” Israel continued, “through satire, snark and honesty.”

He sat down with us in Salon's studio recently for an episode of "Salon Talks." (This interview was conducted before Friday's deadly school shooting in Texas.)

This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

New York City is, of course, famously Democratic, but your district’s probably somewhat competitive. You survived for a long time, but there are a lot of Republicans in Long Island and in the suburbs. My sense from this book, "Big Guns," is that you have had some experience with Republicans out there.

I have, you know. I was elected in 2000 to a seat that was reliably held by a Republican, a guy named Rick Lazio, who left the seat to run against Hillary Clinton for the Senate. He's got 75-80 percent of the vote, and then this unknown Democrat comes along. And, I was elected with 48 percent, which was the lowest percentage for any Democrat in the entire United States Congress. And, it's 48 percent because it was a five-way race.

There was a third party, fourth party.

Exactly. There were a bunch of parties in there, so it was one big party for me because I won. And I was so skeptical about my prospects for reelection in this conservative Republican district — and so cheap a human being — that I refused to go out and buy a dresser for my apartment in Washington. I lived out of three supermarket bags. You know — my socks in one, my T-shirts in the other. And when I was reelected two years later, only then was I willing to invest in a $250 IKEA dresser.

Unfortunately, you didn’t have Scott Pruitt's connections.

At $50 a night in a beautiful condo.

It appears from his track record that in Oklahoma they do things a little bit differently, maybe, on the corruption front.

Not everybody, but he certainly set new standards, I have to say.

You've written this novel ["Big Guns"] but it’s not your first. You have a track record as a writer. In fact, you're a writing teacher at times now. You have a gig at Loyola University. And so this is a very funny book which captures a lot of stuff in Washington and in Long Island, where you're from in New York City.

Watch our interview with Steve Israel

A "Salon Talks" conversation with the former Congressman and "Big Guns" author

Tell us what "Big Guns" — and yes, it is a topical thing, we can get a little bit more serious about the issue later — but tell us about this book.

I'll tell you what inspired the book. I, having served in Congress 16 years, decided that I was in this environment of gridlock, Andrew. I was never going to be able to write a law that would make a difference. And so I decided I was better off writing books that would make a difference. I write satire, political satire unvarnished from the inside.

There were 52 mass gun shootings in America in the 16 years that I was in Congress — Virginia Tech, the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the church in Charleston, the elementary school Sandy Hook — and the number one question that I faced, and I think virtually all of my colleagues, after every one of those shootings was this: “When will Congress do something?” And that question didn't just come from progressives. It came from NRA members, it came from Republicans, Democrats, moderates: “When will you do something?” And I came to the conclusion that the honest answer was, “Never.”

And I want to explain why. I do that in this book, "Big Guns," and I explain it the only way I can — through satire with some snark, with some honesty and from the inside.

So, I wrote this book while serving in Congress, while sitting through these absurd debates over gun violence. And, if I had just written a serious book about congressional attitudes towards gun violence, maybe my mother would have bought it, maybe. But I find that when you write satire, it's a more accessible experience for readers.

To sum up the nature of the problem, as you perceive it and as you say, from the inside, I assume conservative members of Congress and other Republican elected officials are not monsters. They are personally affected when these kinds of horrible events occur. They wish they did not happen.

Yet they have absolutely and adamantly refused to pass anything that makes any meaningful difference whatsoever. We couldn't even get bump stocks banned after the Las Vegas shooting, which seemed extraordinary. Even the NRA seemed at least briefly open to that. Various Republican leaders said they were open to it. So what's the impediment? Is it that the NRA donates a lot of money, or is it more than that?

There are two categories of opponents to sensible, common sense compromises on gun violence. There are some who really believe that if you do anything to reduce gun violence it's in effect a repeal of the Second Amendment, in their soul — so they believe that every American has the right to any kind of firearm with no restrictions, no regulations, nothing.

They believe that the Second Amendment shouldn't be changed and was intended to cover all contingencies. I'll be honest with you — I respect those people, because they believe what they say.

But then there is the other category. There are those members of Congress who really want to do something but they can't because of the politics of the issue. The politics of the issue is best described in two words: voter intensity. Here's what I mean by that. It's not NRA money. I mean there are plenty of interests that spend a heck of a lot more than the gun lobby.

I think that's an important point, actually.

Very important, but—

Why people on the left or liberals don’t complain about that, yeah.

No, they don’t. The issue isn't gun money, the issue is called voter intensity, and here's what that means. You go back to your district, you see somebody who puts a member of Congress, goes back to the district, sees that, you know, that bumper sticker, “I'm NRA and I vote”?


Take that literally: the person who puts that bumper sticker on, Andrew, they will vote for their member of Congress as long as their member of Congress is pure on the gun issue. They will forgive their member of Congress and 99 percent of the rest. The only issue they vote on is guns.

And then you take the left — they want a member of Congress who is going to vote for universal background checks. If the member of Congress votes against universal background checks but is good on climate [science], good on women's rights, they'll forgive the vote against background checks and accept the other votes. That's called voter intensity. And right now all the intensity is on the side of a minority of Americans who vote on that one issue.

We've done a fair number of stories about this issue, and when you look at polling, even a majority of Republican voters will generally support some degree of regulation or gun control, but it never happens. And so it does seem to be that there are these single-issue voters who are focused exclusively on that. Is it more intense even than single issue voters on the abortion issue?

It is.

I'll take off my author's hat and put on the hat I used to wear as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. My job for four years was to beat Republicans and elect Democrats. In the upcoming midterm election there are about 62 competitive districts and six are being defended by Democrats, 56 being defended by Republicans. In the most hardcore Republican districts the most polarizing issue — or not the most polarizing, but the most intense issue — is guns and, I’ll explain that. This Congress has been so gerrymandered. Districts have been drawn to the far right that if you're a Republican in a Republican district you don't fear being beaten by a Democrat, you fear being beaten by somebody further to the right than you.

When Eric Cantor [in Virginia] lost his [primary] election — fundamentally the most conservative member of the House and a leader — when he lost to Dave Brat because he was considered too liberal, that was the death knell for folks in democracy.

That was actually an important moment.

A watershed moment, because what happened was every member of Congress looked at Eric Cantor's defeat. He was the House Republican leader, right? That guy gets defeated by somebody who is not only of the right of Eric Cantor but to the right of Genghis Khan. And they're all saying, “Well, I could be next.” And what issue is more intense in a primary challenge on the Republican side than guns? No issue.

It's an extraordinary testimony. And do you see any hope in terms of what happened with the Parkland shooting? What those kids maybe have managed to do is provoke some real passion around this issue among liberals and progressives where some people maybe may feel compelled to vote on this issue in certain elections. So, do you see a sign of progress there or is that too optimistic?

You know, I close the book on a note of optimism. I also leave the door open to some optimism through the satire, but I do see a different environment now. However, if these kids march in Washington, in New York, and that's it? Forget it.

They have a unique opportunity with this midterm election, which is going to determine whether it's a majority that will vote for gun violence reduction or majority that continues to block it. Don't march in Washington, in New York City, is my message to them. March into these competitive districts. Take a few weeks, go to Florida this summer. Take a vacation — don't wear your flip flops, but flip a district in Florida. This can happen.

You practiced that one, I think.

I’ll tell you what, I went to my local town hall. I was a town councilor, before going to Congress, in Huntington, Long Island, which makes some appearances in this book. Any small town America is in this book. When I was a councilman in Huntington we couldn't get ten people to come to a rally unless we served pizza — free pizza. I went to this rally after Parkland — 3,000 people. Now, when you get 3,000 kids talking to their parents over dinner about the issue of gun violence and why Congress does nothing, that conversation changes the dynamic of an entire election. And, that may happen now.

Sure. If you were on the Republican side and you know that they're having the strategy sessions every day, how would you try to defend on this issue right now? What is their strategy going to be?

Their strategy is exactly what it has been. They believe that their survival as incumbents depends on their base and that their base is fueled up by those single issue voters. If they offer any compromise they lose those voters, it becomes an existential threat. So, they'll continue. Look, we had to do a protest on the floor of the House of Representatives. Remember that?

I remember that, yeah.

I was there. We had a sit-in because the Republican leadership wouldn't even give us a vote on something called “No Fly No Buy,” where if the federal government says you're too dangerous to get on a plane you shouldn't be able to get a military-style assault weapon. They wouldn't even give us a vote on that because their strategy anticipated a loss of support from their base on that one simple measure that 80 percent of Americans and a majority of NRA members support.

I know it's an incredible divide on that issue and there may be nothing else, with, as I mentioned earlier, the possible exception of the abortion issue, where a modest minority is able to drive the agenda to a significant degree. In terms of what happens this fall, you are the former chair of the DCCC. Whether it's ten districts that the Democrats flip or 60 — and I'm betting somewhere in between those two numbers —

Good projection, yeah. I will be there.

So, most people think they will probably win a majority. The question is, “How large?" Right? But almost all of the Republicans who lose seats are going to be the so-called moderates.

To take somebody who people probably have some respect for — Barbara Comstock in Virginia, who has been identified as one of most vulnerable members of the Republican Caucus and seems like a basically reasonable human being —  a lot of people like her are going to get voted out. The people like Dave Brat are going to come back. So, is the Republican Caucus in Congress going to be even more recalcitrant next year than it is right now?

They will, but they're going to be the minority and so they're not going to be able to block votes on “No Fly No Buy” or universal background checks. And what counts is who has the gavel? And so yes, moderate Republicans are going to lose this election. The real extremists, the Freedom Caucus, the people who just do what the gun lobby says, they're coming back. But if they come back in the minority they're not going to be able to block measures that a majority of Americans support on the issue of keeping their kids safe in their schools.

Sometimes when Congress changes control it feels like nothing much alters. You are faced with the same gridlock as before. That will be a real interesting opportunity. Now, in terms of your party, you were always identified as a consensus builder — probably something of a moderate in Democratic terms. Do you think that the continuing debate, or some degree of dissension, between people who identify as progressives and people who identify more as moderates or centrists within the party, do you think that's been healthy or unhealthy?

Look, we have an opportunity to win a majority and impose checks and balances on Donald Trump. And so my view is, and I’ve been outspoken on this, we need to stop aiming at one another and just win seats. And then let the conversation begin. But it's not healthy politically for us to be dividing ourselves and our vote at a time when we have a president who is engaged in these horrific excesses.

So I think we should keep our eye on the ball, and the ball is winning 24 seats. And I think they are going to win more. Win 24 seats, take the majority, and then we can all sit at the table in the majority and work out an agenda that includes the broad diversity of the Democratic caucus.

Spoken like a politician—

I haven’t lost that.

One of the things that really interested me in "Big Guns" — you have a portrait of this guy in his circle in a small town, in a town in Long Island, who is kind of a conspiracy theory, we can say —

Ralph Kellogg.

Yes, Fox News viewers, he doesn't think Fox News has sold out; by this point he might. And, it strikes me that I don't know if you started writing this book before the Trump campaign became a reality. Probably you were anticipating a little bit. Now, you were out there in real suburban America and you undoubtedly encountered these people for years. How did it move from there were three guys in your town who were watching Alex Jones and believed in all this crazy stuff . . . to that demographic actually electing a president of the United States? Where did the political failure happen that allowed that to happen?

Entire books will be written on that. I won't be one of them. I'm going to stick with satire. But let me relate that to the book. When I began, look, the conceit of the book is that Congress passes a law that requires that every American must own a gun.

This is what Steve’s book is about. That every American has to own a gun.

Congress is now considering a law that the gun lobby drafts, that every American must own and carry a gun. And so it's the story of the debate in Washington and the clash in D.C. If I just focused on that, it would just be a funny Congressional Record.

I wanted to make it impactful and the way I made it impactful was to bring it home. To bring it to a small town, put this town at the center of this national controversy over this legislation. And I also didn't want to just provide a view that I may have on gun violence, I want to bring everybody into this book. So, I created this character who was based on, you’re exactly right. Based on people with whom I dealt —

Wrote you handwritten letters a lot of the time.

Most of them death threats. And I was a town councilman in the town of Huntington, and so these are real people. But I wanted them to have a voice in the book. And, there are some people who really do believe that if they don't have an Uzi, you know, under the bedside that the Muslims, the Mexicans, the socialists, the Trotskyites are going to invade and impose Sharia law on their town. And Ralph Kellogg, among others, has that view in the book.

I'm from California, and when I was a little kid the Black Panthers showed up at the State Capitol in Sacramento carrying guns, and the governor at the time, whose name was Ronald Reagan, essentially ran inside the building and got the state legislature to pass gun control laws so that these black people wouldn't show up carrying guns. So, there is a problem with "all Americans" carrying guns that the NRA might not be so excited about some of those folks. Right?

Actually, this premise that all Americans must own a gun — I wish I could say that I was that inventive and creative, but I’m not. It's based on something that happened after Sandy Hook. I was reading The New York Times and I saw a story — I had convinced myself that The Onion had infiltrated the editorial offices of The New York Times, because the story—

I recognize that feeling, yeah.

— that the small city of Nelson, Georgia, after Sandy Hook was so repulsed by the state and local governments that were passing sensible gun violence reduction laws that they went in the opposite direction. They passed a law requiring that every resident of Nelson, every household, have a gun. I saw that and said, “Well, satire has to have a kernel of truth. That's my truth, it's happened, I'm going to federalize it and bring it to Capitol Hill.” So, it was tried.

Give us a little teaser — how does this work? What do you want to say about how this proposal works out that all Americans have to own guns?

That’s a great question. I'll give you a teaser without blowing the ending.

Yes, good.

The American Freedom from Fear Act requires that every American have a gun. What I loved as I wrote this is that nobody in Congress, in the leadership, thinks this is a good idea. The Republican Speaker of the House hates it. The Republican Senate Majority Leader hates it. The President of the United States hates it. The Supreme Court hates it. And yet it keeps moving into Congress. And I was an eyewitness to that kind of thing, where bills would be introduced and everybody would look at it and we’d scratch our heads and say, “Well, that's a dumb idea,” but it would keep moving. And so I wanted to tell the story from inside Congress — how does that happen? How is it that a bad idea works its way through [the system] and what motivates that? What are the impulses that affect that kind of legislative movement?

Right. We were talking earlier, how does a tax bill get passed that was pen written on the back of the paper at 2 o'clock in the morning or whatever it was? Yeah, you've been there so, OK. You, at least in the technical sense, were colleagues for some amount of time with Congressman Kevin McCarthy.


The House majority leader at the moment. He said on an open mic that he thought that Vladimir Putin was paying Donald Trump. Was he kidding?

The line between kidding and truth in Washington, D.C., is completely obscured right now, so I don't know whether he was kidding but, look, Kevin, I will say, is just a very likable guy. I disagree fundamentally with him on many issues, but he's one of those members who, he's called the members' member. He kids, he's jocular. He wants to help members of his caucus to do anything they want. If his dream is to be Speaker of the House — and this perplexes me that now in the middle of trying to save their majority the Republicans are now invested in this internecine leadership fight — I'd be surprised if Kevin becomes Speaker of the House against the blue wave that I think we're looking at now.

Yeah, I think that's true. Very diplomatic —

Did you see how I just went right around it?

I did see that.

You can take the guy out of Congress but you can't take Congress out of a guy.

Source: How to finally pass meaningful gun control laws: “Don’t march in Washington”

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