Milton Bass: Of guns and gerrymanders

Sunday April 21, 2013


There are those who could say that what's going on now with the gun business (it definitely qualifies as a business) is our own fault, a Massachusetts invention that has turned our country from a democratic entity into a squabbling mess that can't get very much done. What we're talking about is gerrymandering which has given the Republican minority impregnable bases from which they can cause interminable blockage of the political process.

The technique goes all the way back to 1812 when Elbridge Gerry was in his second term as governor of the state. Gerry's Democratic-Republican party controlled the state legislature and a purging of Federalist office holders, including judges, resulted in a host of Democratic-Republicans taking over key posts. Thus emboldened, they also reshaped several districts to favor their candidates in elections. Some of the new districts had weird shapes, especially one in Essex County. People noticed that it resembled the body of a salamander.

A salamander is one of 550 species of amphibians in the order Caudata who look like lizards with slim bodies, short noses and long tails. They are famous for being able to regenerate various part of their bodies and because of this they go back at least 164 million years. We haven't learned to do that yet, but right now researchers are working on mice kidneys.

A federalist newspaper printed a political cartoon showing the regenerated Essex County district with a salamander's head at one end. They dubbed it the gerrymander and a new political term was created to cover the butchered districts that the politicians had turned asunder.


This is where our current political morass was created. The Republicans have not been able to elect a president for the past eight years, but they have been much more successful in state elections. Thirty states have Republican governors and Republicans control legislatures in 27 states. This has given them the votes needed to gerrymander various districts into odd looking but politically vital areas.

They have created Republican bastions that are immovable as far as elections go. It doesn't matter if a public survey shows that 90 percent of Americans want background checks of potential gun owners. The bastioneers do what they want from inside the impregnability of their biases. Neither rain nor sleet nor gloom of night can change their beliefs one iota. You either do it their way or the highway.

Just last week the head of the Alaska Republican Party, Debby Brown (Just how American can a name be?) was ousted from her post by tea party loyalists who are still fervent Sarah Palin supporters. Ms. Brown described it as just "shenanigans" but every one of those dissenters is probably a licensed gun carrier.

Which brings us to that little problem. The eight million people in this country who are licensed in their states to carry concealed weapons want to have their licenses validated in whatever state in which they are temporarily ensconced. In addition, we have Texas Rep. Steve Stockman, who is running for re-election. His bumper sticker reads, "If Babies Had Guns, They Wouldn't Be Aborted. Vote Pro-Life."

This isn't Stockman's first trip around the horn. In a dialogue with right-wing musician Ted Nugent, Nugent asked Stockman if the victims of gun assaults were "useful idiots or props for President Obama." And Stockman asked any unhappy or displeased gun manufacturers if they might like to move their operations to Texas. We have several gun producers in Massachusetts but they are content to keep a pretty low profile right now.

The final irony has to do with the late President Ronald Reagan, who was shot by a nut who thought the foul deed might enhance his prospects with actress Jody Foster. At the time, Reagan remarked that he could see "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying a loaded gun." Reagan has become the icon for the right-wingers but they only seem to listen to what they want to hear. It's a puzzlement.

Milton Bass is a regular Eagle contributor.


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