Tom Diaz & I—The 94th & 103rd Congresses, and Now

After I’d read, mostly agreed with, and reviewed Tom Diaz’ The Last Gun (see last Friday’s post), I was curious about his background beneath the usual book blurbs, so I scratched a little deeper.

Turns out we had similar upbringings and nearly-identical policy experiences at the national level, where the issue of gun violence is concerned.

Diaz is seven years older than I, so he gets to go first.  From his blog’s “personal statement:”

I was born into a military family and raised largely in the American South, where I learned to shoot in the Boy Scouts and was on a rifle team in high school.  I attended a military prep school, served in the Air National Guard as a small arms specialist and in the Army National Guard as an anti-tank platoon sergeant.  I Worked for the Department of Defense (Advanced Research Projects Agency) in Thailand for a while during the Vietnam War.  I also served three years as a District of Columbia Police Department reserve officer.  I graduated from the University of Florida (BA Pol. Sci. 1962) and Georgetown University Law Center (1972, editor, Law Journal).

I practiced law in and out of government, became a journalist and spent six years as an assistant managing editor at the very conservative The Washington Times newspaper in Washington.  I then spent two years at a small think tank in Washington studying terrorism and international organized crime.  I went to work in 1993 (following the first WTC bombing attack) as a Democratic counsel on the U.S. House of Representatives Crime Subcommittee staff, where I worked on legislation and hearings involving terrorism and firearms.  I am a registered independent.

My parallels:

  • I grew up in a small town in the Northwest, one of eight kids raised by a civil engineer and a housewife.  We did not own guns, but they were part of our town’s and area’s culture.  I hunted and plinked with my peers, after passing through the recognized and respected rites of firearm safety, use, and ownership under adult supervision.
  • Thanks to a low number in the revived 1969 draft lottery and a small-town draft board, I enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves in 1970.  My service consisted of summer camps in 1970 and 1971; two years of ROTC classes in law school and a “butterbars” (2LT) commission; and six months’ Active Duty (Training) right after graduation and the bar exam.
  • My journalism experience was strictly amateur, serving as an editor and cartoonist for both my college newspaper, The Brown & Gold (don’t ask), and the Georgetown Law Weekly thereafter.  (For the record, neither of these official student rags could be even remotely characterized as “conservative.”)
  • I earned an undergraduate degree in political science and American history, as well, and graduated from Georgetown University Law Center a year after Diaz.  (No, I didn’t know him; it was and remains a big place.  Besides, my grades weren’t good enough to be invited to help edit the Law Review.)
  • I, too, went to work for the U.S. House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime as a Democratic counsel—19 years before Diaz did, when that party still held the majority.
  • Since leaving the U.S. Senate’s employ in 1979, I was nothing but a scum-sucking, bottom-feeding lobbyist for private-sector nonprofits—mostly in health care and insurance—until my current literary pretensions supervened.
  • I’ve been a registered Democrat since age 21, but most of my values could easily be mistaken for those of a 1968 Rockefeller Republican, if such an animal still existed.  Two huge hedges: my positions on civil liberties are those of the Grand Old Party’s 16th President and, on corporate power, the environment, and organized labor, their 32nd.

REP. JOHN CONYERS, Jr. (D-MI) chaired the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime in the 94th Congress and has been a consistent sponsor and supporter of gun control legislation all his 48 years representing the city of Detroit.

The strongest parallel, of course, was our disparate terms of service to the Subcommittee on Crime.  It was during his tenure, working for then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-NY), now the lead Dem among the Senate’s immigration reform “Gang of Eight”) that the Subcommittee produced H.R. 3355 , the “Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994”—the initial federal ban on military-style, assault weapons that expired after 10 years.  The law’s principal sponsors were the late Rep. Jack Brooks (D-TX) and former Senator Joe Biden (D-DE), the author of the Senate version.  All subsequent attempts to revive it have failed and it remains the only Congressionally-enacted set of significant federal restrictions on firearms ownership or transfer since the Gun Control Act of 1968.  What those two enactments had in common were precipitating cultural wounds.  In 1968, civil rights champion the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and sitting Senator and Presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy were murdered.  In late 1993, the World Trade Center suffered its first assault by Arab extremists.

In 1975—after the Judiciary Committee and House had disposed of that pesky Watergate thing—the Subcommittee on Crime, chaired by current Committee Ranking Member Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), focused on a more specific problem: interstate traffic in cheap handguns used in crimes, known as “Saturday Night Specials.”  It was a significant undertaking.  Throughout 1975, the Subcommittee held eight days of hearings, two in Washington DC and one day each in Chicago; Detroit; Cleveland; Denver; Atlanta; and New York.  Each of the “road” hearings was televised live by local PBS affiliates—a template we’d borrowed from similar hearings conducted by the late Rep. Claude Pepper (D-FL).  We produced a prodigious hearing record just short of 3,500 pages, in eight volumes.  The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency held parallel hearings on their side, focusing on oversight of enforcement of the Gun Control Act of 1968.  On April 13, 1976, the full Committee reported H.R. 11193, essentially prohibiting the manufacture and importation of handguns with certain characteristics and establishing mandatory penalties for their use in crime, by a bipartisan 20-12 vote.  The Senate demurred to await full House action; a similar, Senate-passed bill died in the lower house the preceding session.  Long story short: the House bill was abandoned by its principal sponsor between the committee and the floor because it was “too watered-down.”

This little trip down memory lane rustled up two easy-to-read references that pretty well capture my own sense of déjà vu about my experience, after reading Diaz.  One is a New York Times review of Robert Sherrill’s 1975 book, The Saturday Night Special.  After cataloging the “real” forces in play around gun control—the manipulative greed of the gun industry, the polemics of the NRA, and a Congress populated both by political cowards and get-rich-quick con artists (sound familiar?)—Sherrill argues that regulation alone is an inadequate response to deeper-rooted societal ills.  As the review itself predicts, Sherrill’s thesis—“too little, too late”—became the template used by the National Rifle Association to deflect attention away from any proposal to reduce gun violence, which Wayne LaPierre has since elevated into a schizophrenic, non sequitur art form.  Another is a response to anti-regulation arguments from the late Rep. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit, attorney, and former law school dean who was a member of the House Judiciary Committee at the time.  It stands for the proposition that arguing with a lunatic is a fool’s errand, especially when the lunatic shifts the burdens of both production and persuasion by demanding proof of a negative—that is: “Show me how any gun control measure will not result in total disarmament of ‘law-abiding’ patriots.”

Next Friday:  Tom Diaz & I—My NRA Experience.


  1. Ezequiel Naysmith

    The second amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American the right to bear arms. Has any law ever been so ambiguous? What are arms? What does it mean to bear them? At least with the first amendment we know exactly where we stand: Freedom of speech. It couldn’t be any clearer. But, the right to bear arms leaves the second amendment open to different interpretations. We need gun permits to carry a concealed weapon. Do we need knife permits? No. Yet both can, and often do, cause death. We can own a gun, or a rifle, or a sub-machine gun, or a machete, and dozens of other tools to kill, even our own bare hands. So, gun control is a debate in our country that makes no sense unless you broaden the ban or acceptance to include all instruments of death.`”

    Ciao for now

    1. E.G. Fabricant


      Thank you for your comment. Our Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in the Heller case was their first clear pronouncement that the Second Amendment confers on individual citizens the right to own firearms for self-defense but–like all other rights guaranteed by our Constitution and its amendments, including freedom of speech–it is not an absolute right. My contention, in my review of Diaz’ book and recounting my own experience with the issue as public policy, is that we’re allowing the NRA and its allies to control the message and, therefore, the debate. We should be focusing not on abstract rights but on the public health consequences of virtually unrestricted gun ownership in America in the same manner as we’ve considered other hazards, like tobacco use and automotive safety, by gathering and analyzing data and measuring the problem as addressed in other developed societies. The guiding question should be: Is it acceptable to us to continue to absorb the human and economic consequences of over 30,000 firearms fatalities and 100,000 injuries annually, or is there more we can do at the federal level to reduce those numbers and, if so, what is it? My proposed guiding rule is: Don’t pick and choose and don’t change the subject; respond to what we know with your best arguments. If it’s your position that something is unlawful or unworkable, you have the obligation to prove it. Opinions are not facts.


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