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AUG. 25, 2015
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Moment for Action on Guns
The New York Times
few weeks represent a once-in-a-generation opportunity to harden the nation’s
gun laws and reduce the threat of rapid-fire violence in America. A month after
the slaughter of 20 children and seven adults in Newtown, Conn., Vice President
Joseph Biden Jr.’s commission is about to present a series of recommendations
for new laws, and it is vital that his panel gets it right and that Congress
immediately takes action on its report.
Federal laws on guns have been kept so lax, for so long, that the Biden panel
could suggest scores of ways to improve public safety. But there are a few
policies that clearly have to be in any serious legislative package, the first
two of which were endorsed on Monday by President Obama: requiring criminal and
mental-health background checks on every gun buyer, including sales from
individuals; a ban on military-style assault weapons and high-capacity
ammunition magazines; a strong statute prohibiting gun trafficking; and an end
to the hobbling of the federal agency that enforces gun laws.
The need for background checks on every gun buyer has never been greater, now
that the Internet has made it easy for private individuals to buy and sell guns
without screening. The reason that both the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun
Violence and Mayors Against Illegal Guns have made universal background checks
their top priority is that 40 percent of gun sales now take place privately,
including most guns that are later used in crimes.
Requiring background checks at gun shows, parking-lot sales and Web sites would
reduce the cash-and-carry anonymity of millions of gun transactions, putting
buyers on notice that their sale is being recorded and can be traced. It is
largely supported by legitimate gun dealers, who already have to conduct the
checks and have long grumbled about competition from those who do not. And it
would have no effect on law-abiding buyers who want a hunting rifle or a handgun
to keep at home.
Such a law should be supplemented by a presidential order requiring federal and
state agencies to contribute to the background check system with criminal and
mental health information. Federal prosecutors, who have a dismal record of
pursuing charges against those who lie on a gun application, need to enforce the
The assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 should be renewed and tightened,
with a special emphasis on prohibiting magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
The millions who already own such weapons — unnecessary for hunting or
protection — should be required to register them and submit to a background
check to reduce the mass killing that produced this agonized debate.
A new law is needed to crack down on the trafficking of guns that an individual
has reason to know will be used in a crime, increasing penalties and making it
easier to track corrupt gun dealers. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms
and Explosives needs to have a permanent director, more financing and expanded
authority to inspect dealers, and an end to restrictions that keep it from
tracking all gun sales and retaining background-check data. Some lawmakers are
already talking about focusing on the background checks and bowing to gun
lobby’s opposition to an assault weapons ban. That shouldn’t stop the
administration and its allies from demanding that all these provisions be passed
immediately. With the deaths of Newtown’s children still so fresh, the public
will be repulsed by lawmakers who stand aside and do nothing.
The Moment for Action on Guns,
Separating the Moment
From What Came After
The New York Times
By SERGE SCHMEMANN
A few days
after Sept. 11, 2001, I received a stack of drawings and poems in the mail. They
were by schoolchildren whose teacher had given them the lead article from The
New York Times about the attacks and told them to write and illustrate a poem.
Because I wrote the piece, she sent them to me. Many of the children picked up
on my description of the planes as “gorged” with fuel, and their jets were huge
and red, dwarfing the doomed black towers before them. Some of the drawings also
had disproportionately huge stick figures falling from the towers.
I thought it was wise of the teacher to help the children come to grips with
horror this way. That’s how we all struggle with sudden and enormous terror,
searching for images and words that might help us fit the event into a framework
we can understand. From the time the first hijacked jet ripped into the north
tower of the World Trade Center, we had to find ways to explain and describe an
event whose enormity and evil were almost beyond understanding. Crisis focuses
the mind on the immediate tasks at hand, but it was hard that day to fend off
thoughts of the final, horrifying moments of those people in the planes and the
buildings before they died.
I had covered several suicide bombings in Israel before 9/11, and I always
admired the way Israelis rushed to clear away the carnage and reimpose “normal”
life, as if to say you can hurt us, but you will not change us. And I had always
wondered how Americans would react if it happened to us.
We can certainly be proud of the dignity with which New Yorkers, and Americans,
and much (alas, not all) of the world responded that day, whether it was the
police and firefighters who rushed to the scene, or Mayor Rudolph Giuliani
taking charge, or the thousands of people who lined up to give blood until the
hospitals could accept no more. At The Times, several reporters commuted to
ground zero by bicycle, showing up in the newsroom covered with ash and sweat to
file a report and then heading back into the hell. Yet I also remember,
monitoring the rush of information in the newsroom, a sense of shame that our
president chose to fly around in silence all day, as if his safety was more
important than standing with his badly wounded nation.
And how should we assess our actions since? Millions of words are being written
around this 10th anniversary about the meaning and the legacy of that day; on
its consequences for America and the world; on whether Americans rose to the
challenge; on whether we got suckered into needless wars and, worse, into
betraying our values; on whether we have become nobler or meaner.
There is a lot to criticize and regret. But can we really determine at this
stage to what degree 9/11 was a cause, a symptom or a harbinger of all that has
come to pass over the last decade? Perhaps if it had not happened, Americans
would not have consented so readily to the erosion of their cherished liberties,
and we might not have become so obsessed with homeland security. But in many
other ways the world was already in flux since the end of the cold war a decade
earlier. The Bush administration was already beginning to irritate the world,
and already plotting a war in Iraq; the Middle East, as usual, was smoldering.
The fact is that that single day soon became associated in our national
narrative with all that has happened — the military quagmires in the Middle
East, the resentment of the Islamists, the decline of American global authority,
the erosion of American self-confidence. Like “the fall of the Berlin Wall” a
decade earlier, “9/11” has become shorthand for a momentous shift in
But this is not what comes to my mind when I think back on that day. I see the
long river of ashen, dazed people flowing up 11th Avenue as I made my way down
to Times Square. I recall the brilliant clarity of that morning, which must have
made it easier for those murdering pilots.
Most often, I don’t know why, I recall the subway ride home in the small hours
of the morning. A woman sitting near me began humming loudly. My first, shameful
reaction was damn, who needs this? But then a man across the aisle, slumped in
his seat in exhaustion, began humming along. Someone else joined in, and soon I,
too, closed my eyes and let the music take over. Drained of emotion and thought,
we surrendered to the refuge of sweet harmony.
Within days, the first massive cranes were rumbling past my windows on their way
to ground zero. Acrid fumes from the smoking ruins moved through the city with
the shifting winds. American flags appeared in windows. From Washington there
came talk of war. We were in a new era, which 10 years later we are still trying
Separating the Moment From What Came After, NYT,
At a School in Kansas,
a Moment Resonates
January 21, 2009
The New York Times
By DAN BARRY
JUNCTION CITY, Kan.
Shortly before lunchtime on Tuesday, a strange quiet settled over Junction City
Middle School. Strange because quiet does not come naturally to a collection of
875 students in the full throes of adolescence. But this clearly was a moment, a
time to set aside childish things.
The sixth and eighth graders had shuffled into the auditorium of the year-old
school, past the signs saying no gum, drinks or food, while the seventh graders
took seats in the adjacent cafeteria, redolent of chicken patties frying. All
were silent, and not only because the expressions of the adults hovering about
signaled the need for communal reverence.
They gazed up at large screens to watch the presidential inauguration in
Washington, nearly 1,100 miles away, though the distance sometimes seemed even
farther. While the audio feed remained steady, the video stream stopped and
stuttered, like old NASA images from space, so much so that Aretha Franklin
seemed to start singing “My Country ’Tis of Thee” before opening her mouth.
But this glitch only added to the moment’s import, as if to echo other firsts —
sending a man to the moon, say — along the American continuum. And these
YouTube-era students never snickered; they only watched, some wide-eyed, some
sleepy-eyed, the flickering images of power’s formal transfer.
Also watching, also looking up, was Ronald P. Walker, 55, the schools
superintendent, from a cafeteria table he was sharing with six seventh-grade
girls. He wore a dark suit, a white shirt and a red tie — the same attire as the
president-elect now striding across the screen above.
Mr. Walker grew up in an all-black town in Oklahoma, worked his way through the
ranks of education, and is now the only black schools superintendent in Kansas.
He worries about budget cutbacks as a result of the economic crisis throttling
his state and his country, but he saw in the man appearing above him a thinker,
a statesman, the embodiment of hope.
“And his emphasis on education is critical for all of us,” Mr. Walker said.
One could argue that many of the students in Mr. Walker’s charge have more at
stake in this far-off Washington ceremony than most. Junction City may be a
place of about 20,000 in the flat plains of Kansas, but it is as diverse as any
place in the country, mostly because in many ways it serves at the pleasure of
Fort Riley, a major military base a few miles away.
Slightly fewer than half the students are white, more than half receive free or
discounted lunches — and a full third have some connection to Fort Riley, which
adds both a cultural richness and an uncommon kind of stress.
School officials say the students worry less about grades and friends than about
when a parent will be deployed, when a parent will return, whether a parent will
These are not daydream worries, what with 3,400 soldiers from Fort Riley now in
Iraq, and the knowledge that 159 soldiers and airmen from the base had been
killed in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by the end of last year.
Not too long ago, there was a report of graffiti in the bathroom at the high
school. The culprit was a girl, and what she had written, over and over, was: I
Miss My Dad.
So here they were, the children of a place called Junction City — a community
proud of its distinctive Kansas limestone buildings, struggling still with its
honky-tonk, “Junk Town” reputation of long ago — looking up at screens, waiting
for a new and different show. Gazing up, too, were many adults, most of whom had
thought they would never see the day.
Here was Ferrell Miller, 63, the school’s principal, whose father used to say
the “N” word as if it were just any other word. Dr. Miller came to Junction City
more than 40 years ago as a soldier, met and married a young woman from the
Philippines, return to his Ohio hometown — and then moved back to Junction City
because that place in Ohio “didn’t have the diversity we were looking for.” But
Junction City did.
And here were the cafeteria workers, white, Hispanic, black, most of them
wearing hairnets, taking a break from food prep to share in the moment. Margaret
Langley, 73, a German woman who married a G.I. in the mid-1950s, is proud to be
a naturalized citizen; Nellie Vargas, 29, from Houston, married to a soldier
stationed at Fort Riley; Phyllis Edwards, 46, of North Carolina, married to a
retired soldier and with a son in the eighth grade here.
“I’m just so nervous,” said Ms. Edwards, failing to find the words to match her
Finally, the moment. The announcer asked people in Washington to please stand;
the students of Junction City remained seated. The chief justice of the United
States said, “Congratulations, Mr. President”; those students burst into
As President Obama began his Inaugural Address, the seventh-grade students began
their lunch. They filed into the kitchen to collect their trays of chicken-patty
sandwiches, fries and chocolate milk. Few opted for the peas.
Kimberlee Muñoz set down her tray and rendered her review of the Inaugural
Address — “It was the bomb!” — while at a table nearby, Reggie Campbell ate his
lunch in forced exile, having gotten into it with another student who was making
fun of him. He said he lived with an uncle who was in Iraq at the moment, and he
said he enjoyed watching the inauguration.
“I think it’s nice to have a black president for once,” he said.
Meanwhile, the adults at the middle school began the orderly transition from
historic to mundane. Ms. Edwards took her place behind the buffet table, wishing
all the while that she was in Washington. Ms. Vargas left her cafeteria work
early to drive her husband to the airport; an emergency leave had ended, and he
was returning to Iraq.
And Mr. Walker, in his dark suit, white shirt and red tie, set off for another
meeting in another building in Junction City, leaving in his wake one word: Wow.
At a School in Kansas, a
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