Politics by intimidation
Three days before the December massacre in Newtown, Conn., a 22-year-old gunman named Jacob Tyler Roberts opened fire at the Clackamas Town Center, a suburban shopping mall in Portland, Ore. He killed two people before killing himself, though it could have been much worse. His stolen semiautomatic AR-15 rifle jammed early in his shooting spree.
Ginny Burdick, 65, a veteran state legislator, is probably the fiercest gun control advocate in the Oregon Senate. In recent years, however, as the chairwoman of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, she had focused most of her attention on tax policy and budgetary issues. Then came the horrors of Clackamas and Newtown.
“I said to my fellow legislators, ‘Sorry folks, I have to put this back on the front burner,’” she told me the other day. She had already sponsored a bill to limit magazines to 10 rounds or less. She immediately sponsored several other bills, including one requiring background checks for private gun sales. (Thanks largely to Burdick, Oregon was one of the few states that had already closed the “gun-show loophole.”) Another would make it illegal for people with concealed carry licenses to take their guns into an Oregon school.
“We were in the middle of a special session on a very important tax bill,” she said. “I was right on the middle of it. I said, ‘We’re going back to guns.’”
Although there is widespread gun ownership in Oregon, Burdick has consistently been re-elected because most of the state’s gun owners — like many gun owners across the country — are in favor of sensible gun regulation. But most of Burdick’s initiatives over the years have been thwarted by the National Rifle Association, which strikes fear in Oregon legislators, just as it does lawmakers across the country.
Which is also why Burdick felt so strongly that Clackamas and Newtown, horrible though they were, offered a unique opportunity. Many gun extremists, however, realized the same thing. They fought back. In mid-January, two men began walking around a Portland neighborhood with assault weapons strapped to their backs. Even as schools in the area were locking down, the men insisted that they were “educating the public” about their Second Amendment rights. A month later, at a pro-gun rally at the state Capitol, a number of gun owners openly wielded their weapons — even bringing them into the building.
Burdick began receiving, as she puts it, “the usual threatening emails” — as did a fellow gun control advocate in the Legislature, Mitch Greenlick. He told The Oregonian that the email he received from gun extremists was often abusive, obscene and anti-Semitic. He predicted that gun legislation would go nowhere because legislators were too frightened to act. “Politics by intimidation,” he called it.
And then there was Burdick. She was scheduled to hold a town-hall meeting on March 4. But at an earlier town hall held by several other legislators, gun advocates badgered them with angry questions. One of the questioners admitted he was carrying a concealed weapon. Fearing that someone might show up with a gun at her town hall, Burdick decided to postpone it. Not wanting to inflame the situation, she said she had a scheduling conflict.
On the evening of March 4, two men sat in a car across from her home and videotaped her. They showed her driving into her garage and taking out her garbage. Having “proved” that Burdick did not have a scheduling conflict, they then put together a short video of Burdick at home. Jeff Reynolds, the chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party, who also claims to be a citizen journalist, posted the video on a website he runs.
When I spoke to Reynolds, he conceded that the videographer was a friend but refused to divulge his name. He said the video had nothing to do with the gun issue. “She lied,” he told me. “She is accountable to we the people.”
He added, “This was no different than what Mike Wallace used to do at ‘60 Minutes.’ There was no intimidation.” Sure.
These days, Democrats control both houses of the Oregon Legislature as well as the governor’s office. Moderate Republicans running against incumbent Democrats are being beaten in legislative races. The Republicans even lack a credible candidate to take on the current governor, John Kitzhaber, in 2014.
The extremist tactics of people like Jeff Reynolds and his videographer friend are clearly part of the reason why — they’ve helped delegitimize the Oregon Republican Party. But the tactics have other consequences, too. The gun bills filed in the Oregon Legislature, by Burdick, Greenlick and others, are by no means assured of passage.
“Other legislators look at what happened to me, and they say to themselves, ‘Do I really want to get involved in this?”’ Burdick said. “My argument is that this is our job. But it is tempting to look the other way.”
Thus is the gun battle fought in the post-Newtown world.
Joe Nocera is a columnist for the New York Times.