A Legacy of Courage

JFK's legacy, 50 years after his presidency came to a shockingly sudden and violent end in Dallas, has received renewed attention and interest this month. New books have been written, TV specials have been aired and commemorative magazines grace the newsstands. Arriving into this current atmosphere of political divisiveness and acrimony, the anniversary might also reawaken that feeling of collective shock which descended upon most Americans regardless of political affiliation.

Less than five years later in 1968 the American psyche was rocked again, twice, by the violent gun deaths of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, killed just two months apart. These assassinations cemented American determination to address the ongoing threat to public safety caused by gun violence. Spurred both by emotions and the facts of what happened (the people who did it and their easy access to guns), Congress passed the Federal Gun Control Act of 1968, which regulated mail-order sales and named prohibited classes of people from owning guns.

Thus one legacy of the collective shock was the first federal government regulation of gun sales and ownership since the 1930s.

This year, just six months ago, Caroline Kennedy presented the 2013 Profiles in Courage award in honor of her father, to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who was shot while hosting a constituent gathering in a Tucson grocery store parking lot.

"Our family is still suffering from the heartbreak of gun violence," Caroline Kennedy said at the ceremony. "No one should have to lose a husband, a wife, a father, a child, to senseless murder. Out of that pain and tragedy, we must find the strength to carry on, to give meaning to our lives and build a more just and peaceful world."

As we mark this 50th anniversary of JFK's presidency cut short, we might also pause and consider Caroline as the six-year-old daughter and 11-year-old niece of gun violence victims. Kennedy, now ambassador to Japan, calls on all of us, not just family members of gun violence victims, but all of us to find the strength to carry on... and build a more just and peaceful world.

In this country we have found the political fortitude, periodically, to address gun violence as we strive for justice.

It is worth recalling the every major piece of gun safety legislation and regulation was birthed, sadly, in tragedy. Don't underestimate the massive emotional shock of those shattering murders. It weakens any underlying politically expediencies. Human tragedy usually trumps politics, but not always as the U.S. Congress recently demonstrated when a background check bill couldn't even be brought forward for a vote.

That's just one reason people are no longer looking to Washington for viable solutions. The action is in the states.

Another reason is that the last major piece of gun regulation passed by the U.S. Congress, and signed by then Pres. George W. Bush in 2005, was the gun manufacturers' protection act, described by the NRA at the time as "...the most significant piece of pro-gun legislation in twenty years."

By the way, that last significant piece of legislation referenced by the NRA was the 1986 Firearm Owners' Protection Act, signed into law during the Reagan administration.

In 1986 the NRA lobbyists succeeding in amending that pesky Gun Control Act of 1968 by loosening restrictions on gun ownership, re-opening interstate sales of rifles on a limited basis, legalizing the shipment of ammunition through the U.S. Postal Service (a partial repeal of the Gun Control Act), removal of the record keeping requirement on sales of non-armor-piercing ammunition, and giving federal protection for transportation of firearms across state lines where possession of those firearms would otherwise be illegal.

Which brings us to the question of what must we do now? How should we deal with the collective shock, that sick feeling which lands like a stomach punch when we learn of the latest random victims of gun violence such as six-year-old first graders at Sandy Hook Elementary School (20) or the college students at Virginia Tech (26), or moviegoers in Aurora (12)?

When Washington, unsurprisingly, fails to even get a vote on commonsense background check legislation the ball is unmistakably placed in the citizen's court. We can live up to JFK's legacy and demonstrate as daughter Caroline said this year, "the indispensable virtue that he most admired, courage."