Ralph Gardner Jr: No Hostility Allowed

Jun 9, 2018

I held a debate last Friday. The debate was whether to have a drink on my sundeck on a lovely spring evening or go to Hudson High School for a discussion about guns.

I headed to the high school because I thought there was going to be a spirited back and forth about guns and school safety.

Instead it was a panel discussion that included John Faso, the Republican congressman for New York’s 19th congressional district, as well as Democratic Assemblymember Didi Barrett, Columbia County Sheriff David Bartlett and

Maria Suttmeier, the Hudson school district’s superintendent.

The only no show, disappointingly, was Malcolm Nance, the author, terrorism expert and WAMC Roundtable panelist.

Mr. Nance was the main attraction as far as I was concerned and not just because he’s knowledgeable, articulate and unembellished in his opinions. I suspected elected officials in a swing district would pull their punches regarding guns and gun control.

Nance might also have challenged Congressman Faso, a friendly, likeable fellow whose opinions on subjects such as guns and the Affordable Care Act are so carefully nuanced it’s sometimes hard to tell what they are.

But the discussion wasn’t even a discussion. The panelists sat on a stage, spoke for a few minutes each and then took written questions from the audience, no follow-ups allowed.

Apparently law enforcement was operating under the same misconception I was regarding the raw emotions the event might unleash because when I arrived at the high school there were signs on the doors, essentially telling everyone to behave themselves.

And once you entered the school there was a somewhat intimidating phalanx of cops along the corridor, from different agencies, as if manpower might eventually be necessary to separate those with differing views.

I hope they weren’t collecting overtime because they weren’t needed.

The evening tiptoed up to controversy only once when a question, to pent up applause from at least some in the third-full auditorium, asked whether Congressman Faso, a recipient of the NRA’s largesse, would refuse to take their donations.

The congressman gave a serpentine answer that included this moment of unintentional levity: “I think the problem inherent to the question, it assumes that one’s support in politics is somehow contingent on receipt of campaign contributions.”

Well, yeah.

At the end of the congressman’s spiel, which included citing his support for the Second Amendment and among sportsmen – you could almost see them at that moment hunting game in the purple dusk of the Catskill Mountains, which, by the way, also serves as a beautiful backdrop for the high school -- you could have been forgiven if you’d forgotten the question. Not everybody had.

“Yes or no about the money?” came shouts from the audience.

“The answer is no,” the congressman answered.

“No, what?”

“Moving on,” the moderator said.

The congressman had also raised his sponsorship of a bill, “to reauthorize school based health clinics bringing primary, dental and mental health services to schools that currently don’t have those kind of services.”

I suppose that was meant to address the idea that if only we were better at identifying disturbed people we could reduce violence.

The problem with that narrative is that the United States doesn’t have a monopoly on the mentally ill or even the just very angry. Yet deaths by gun violence vastly exceed those in other nations, at least those that aren’t in the throes of things like anarchy and civil war.

So logical minds might deduce the reason for much of the gun violence, school shootings and suicides are the 300 million guns in the United States. According to the Congressional Research Service that’s twice as many guns per capita as there were in 1968. Half of those deaths, as Assemblymember Barrett noted, are suicides.

This is the point in the discussion where one is supposed to stress their support for responsible gun ownership. And I do. While I don’t hunt others do on our property. I have no problem with that. Indeed, I believe hunters are some of the best stewards of the land and wildlife.

Also, that sometimes a weapon is important in standing your ground. Against woodchucks. If I had a gun right now I’d give serious thought to dispatching the woodchuck burrowing ever more elaborate accommodations for himself and his growing family and destroying my backyard.

But downing a deer for sport or food doesn’t require military grade weaponry.

Another wacky notion is that teachers should be armed. I was encouraged to see that nobody on the panel thought this was a good idea. “They should not be running around with guns,” Sheriff Bartlett said.

As a New York State firearms instructor of many years, he added that you need training, frequent training. “It’s not something you get once a year,” he said. “We need to leave that to the professionals.”

I sometimes think those most to blame for our current crisis are the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood and the myth that a good guy with a gun can neutralize a threat half a mile away. Oh, and while on horseback.

The Democratic Congressional primary is coming up on June 26th. And I know at least one of the qualities I’m looking for in a candidate. A good debater that can engage Congressman Faso and help voters decide which candidate is best equipped to make us, as well as Hudson’s and the nation’s students safer when they head to school in the morning.

There’s something seriously wrong in a country where active shooter drills are part of a kindergartner’s school day.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.