December 23, 2012

Joseph A. Califano Jr. [“The lesson from LBJ,” op-ed, Dec. 17] has a selective memory of the gun control “lessons” learned from President Lyndon B. Johnson 44 years ago. He should recall the fate of Sen. Joseph Tydings (D-Md.). Johnson had a clear grasp of what was politically feasible. Undeterred, Tydings, who was widely thought unbeatable, announced that his 1970 reelection would be a “referendum” on federal gun registration and owner licensing.

Maryland gun owners mobilized one of the first grass-roots political campaigns in history focused solely on the ouster of a U.S. senator, even before he had an opponent. Our organization — Citizens Against Tydings (CAT) — gathered hundreds of volunteers who distributed more than 150,000 bumper stickers declaring, “If Tydings Wins, You Lose,” and attacked with statewide mailings, billboards, newspaper ads and local radio spots. Funded by small contributions, CAT got no help from the NRA.

Practically every other incumbent in heavily Democratic Maryland was reelected; Tydings lost.

The notion that outlawing semiautomatic guns and high-capacity magazines is impeded only by the NRA misjudges the national consensus required to enact such a law and thereafter to respect it. And nobody wants to broach the perilous issue of how it would be enforced.

Consensus cannot be built by ramrodding legislation though Congress as Mr. Califano suggested. In 1994 the Democrats lost control of the House of Representatives after the Clinton administration pressured enactment of the nation’s first “assault rifle ban.” The NRA couldn’t stop it, but the voters neither forgot nor forgave.

Michael J. Parker, Oak Park, Va.

The writer was a co-founder of Citizens Against Tydings from 1969 to 1970. He later became general counsel of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action, serving from 1975 to 1978.

Joseph A. Califano Jr. is wise in urging swift action on gun control, following President Lyndon B. Johnson’s legislative strategy in 1968 after the gun assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy. But Johnson also formed the bipartisan National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, chaired by Milton Eisenhower, then president emeritus of Johns Hopkins University.

By 1969, Eisenhower and eight others on the 13-member panel recommended confiscation of most handguns, restrictions on new handgun ownership to those who could demonstrate reasonable need, and identification of rifle and shotgun owners. Eisenhower received thousands of hate letters against the recommendations, and neither the new Nixon administration nor Congress acted. But the coalition-building lesson remained: A Republican like Eisenhower worked with Democrats and other Republicans to thoughtfully consider all options to reduce violence.

After the massacre in Newtown, Conn., the grass-roots coalition that is needed to aggressively force action with the likes of the Brady Campaign, Mayors Against Illegal Guns and the Children’s Defense Fund should begin with racial minorities, women, outraged parents, teachers, youthful voters,  grandparents and gay voters. 

In response to a movement that builds on such demographics, we need to transparently debate all options, as did the National Violence Commission. The task force that President Obama has formed to recommend meaningful action on these and many other options would be foolish not to first review the National Violence Commission’s final report.

Alan Curtis, Washington

The writer is president of the Eisenhower Foundation.