America and Guns

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It’s been almost a week since the horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.  Unless one is a parent of a child who was killed there, no one can fathom the hell they’ve undergone.  But because this was such a brutal act, and the victims were innocent children, the entire nation feels a deep, deep wound.  Just last night I found my wife in tears.  When I asked her why she was crying, she told me she just saw a photo of one of the kids.

America was born out of violence.  If our colonist forefathers hadn’t said “Enough is enough” and shouldered their muskets to throw off their tyrannical governors, we would still be British subjects.  Since then we’ve employed violence for good and ill: to maintain a union of states; to free the slaves; to wrench land away from Native Americans and Mexicans; to topple fascism; to try to prevent the spread of ideologies we don’t like; to avenge ourselves against terrorism.

Hunting game is one of the most popular pastimes in America and a tradition that’s passed down from parent to child.  Our favorite sport, football, requires the athletes to practically dress in suits of armor to prevent serious injury (and it’s only now that we’re beginning to see a link between football and brain trauma).  Most evening television dramas feature a large dose of crime and violence, and it proliferates in Hollywood movies, video games, and many of the most popular types of music, particularly with young people.  One could almost argue that violence is in America’s DNA.

But there comes a point – and the slaughter at Sandy Hook may finally be that tipping point – when one has to emulate the forefathers, and say “Enough is enough.”  There’s something wrong when an entertainment industry and their Washington watchdogs deem it unacceptable to show two people making love, but it’s perfectly fine to show a man sticking a gun barrel in his mouth.  And there’s something wrong when it’s illegal to grow or smoke a plant that makes your head a little fuzzy, but it’s ok to go out and buy a weapon with a high-capacity magazine, whose sole purpose is to mow down masses of humans.

We’ll probably hear a lot of talk in the next few months about who is to blame: liberals or conservatives, parents or teachers, gun makers or Hollywood, the NRA or CBS.  Most of the talk now is about having a “national conversation.”  I’m not sure yet what’s meant by “conversation” and why it wasn’t held a long time ago, before Sandy Hook, Portland, Aurora, Tucson, Red Lake, Paducah, Columbine, etc. etc.  For me it’s pretty evident what needs to be done, at least with regard to guns.  We need far stricter gun laws at the federal level, beginning with an absolute ban on sale AND ownership of any type of weapon or ammunition (assault, high-capacity, whatever) that isn’t considered a handgun for self-protection, or a rifle for hunting or target shooting.  We also need to close the so-called “loophole” that exists to enable criminals, juveniles, and those with a history of mental illness to purchase guns at unregulated gun shows.  We also need background checks and licensing and registration of any and all firearms, similar to the licensing and registration requirements for operating automobiles.

Of course, arguments for the above legislation have in the past met with head-on opposition from the National Rifle Association (NRA), the oldest and most powerful lobby in America.  The NRA – or at least the leaders and most members – believes that any attempt to regulate the sale and possession of firearms is a violation of the Second Amendment to the Constitution – the right for a country to maintain a “well regulated Militia,” which guarantees that the right “to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”  It’s cloaked itself in the Second Amendment to time and again stonewall legislation that would address the hundreds of gun deaths that occur every day in America, not to mention the new American ritual of mass murder in public places.

And this is what lawmakers will be up against when they try to toughen America’s gun laws.  How should we interpret the Second Amendment, which was worded in 1791 in such a vague manner that multiple interpretations have been argued for decades?  Should we continue to adhere to a strict interpretation, as the NRA argues?  Or agree that gun manufacturing, sales, and ownership are permitted in America, but with sensible regulation and restriction?

It seems to me the Second Amendment has increasingly become a noose, and one that is getting ever-tighter around our neck.  For too long our politicians have cowered under the laser gaze of gun manufacturers and a powerful lobby’s “scorecard.”  But who elects these politicians?  In truth, there’s a lot of blame to go around: parents who won’t take time with their kids; an entertainment industry whose motto is “give the people what they want;” a gun lobby that has fought common-sense gun legislation at every turn; and voters who continue to vote for politicians who are bought and sold by special interests.

We’ll never totally eradicate gun deaths and events like what recently occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School and Portland, Oregon.  But we can at least try to minimize them.  It’s time to show the rest of the world that America has civilized a little since the days of the Old West, and violence is not in our DNA.  We owe it to the memory of 6-year-olds Jack Pinto and Noah Pozner, who were buried Monday in Newtown, Connecticut.  And to all the victims, at Sandy Hook and elsewhere, whose senseless deaths by firearms could have been prevented.

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“Lincoln”

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It’s a perfect storm: Abraham Lincoln (our greatest president), portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis (Oscar-winning actor), and directed by legendary Steven Spielberg.  How can you go wrong?

Having seen the film last weekend, not much did go wrong.  The movie LINCOLN is based on the book “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by historian Doris Kearns Goodwin (Goodwin is the redhead with a slight Boston accent who appears on a lot of PBS documentaries, and who occasionally offers pungent historical perspective on Sunday morning news programs).  I hadn’t read “Team of Rivals” so I didn’t know the plot of LINCOLN.  Would it be a full-scale bio-pic, or focus on Lincoln’s relationship with his generals?  Actually, neither.  The movie deals with Lincoln’s efforts to persuade Congress to adopt the 13th amendment to the Constitution – the first amendment in 60 years – and which officially outlawed slavery (the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential decree that freed slaves in the rebellious states).

The major players here are Lincoln himself, first lady Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Field), radical abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), and Secretary of State William Henry Seward (David Straithairn).  All are mesmerizing, but Day-Lewis and Field are absolutely uncanny.  Field conveys the strangeness, paranoia, and fragility that we associate with Mary Todd Lincoln.  And though we obviously don’t have recordings or film of the 16th president, it’s hard to imagine a more spot-on characterization than Day-Lewis’s (who is British, no less!).  His tender voice and touch of a Kentucky accent remain with you long after the movie ends.   Day-Lewis gives us a Lincoln who is profound and sometimes humorous, yet whose seemingly endless patience can be shattered by moments of terrifying anger.  Or in the case of his deceased son, grief.

Spielberg uses lighting that accurately depicts a pre-electric age, and props that convey 19th-century antiquity without being obtrusive.  In one scene Lincoln is holding a mottled notebook.  The colored mosaic pattern on the cover is exactly like old whaling logbooks I’d seen in the maritime library at Mystic Seaport.  And in one of the many stories and anecdotes Lincoln uses to win over critics of the amendment, he uses whale hunting as an analogy, confounding everyone around him!

Just a few criticisms: some of the minor characters seem exaggerated, particularly a couple timid anti-amendment politicians. Also, a few scenes seemed overtly politically correct.  The opening scene has Lincoln being lectured after a battle by a young black soldier.  It may have been intended to emphasize Lincoln’s renowned modesty and liberality, but this would have never happened (the Black Panther Party was still a hundred years away).  And one of the last scenes has Thaddeus Stevens climbing into bed with his black housekeeper, who then recited him the text of the newly-minted amendment.  Although Stevens supposedly did have a common-law relationship with his “quadroon” housekeeper, I thought this was a bit of overkill (though at least one person I know felt just the opposite!).

Other than these small criticisms, LINCOLN was one “whale” of a movie.  Even if you don’t care for history on an intellectual level, this film is a two-and-a-half hour time trip, with great acting to boot.  It’s also a reminder that, as harsh as the political climate in America is today, it was nothing like during the War Between the States.  It’s a small miracle that the country had a man like Lincoln, who physically and figuratively towered over everyone around him.

I give this movie 3 1/2 out of 4 stars.  And if Day-Lewis and Field (and possibly Jones) don’t win Academy Awards, I’ll eat my stovepipe hat.