By Joseph C. Stillman
The Daily Star
---- — When I was nine years old, I killed my first deer, and at 19 after shooting my seventh, I decided that that was enough. Every male in my family had a gun and everything we killed, we ate. We were sportsmen and most of the hunters I knew were decent, law-abiding citizens who hunted to enjoy it and provide food for their families. I see nothing wrong with that.
Sometime during the Vietnam War, I decided that killing deer was something that I was not going to do anymore. For me, killing an animal with a high-powered rifle was far too easy, even when I was young. Bow hunting seemed a more evenly matched contest, and even though I enjoyed venison, I decided to end my hunting ways and stick to fishing. It was a personal, conscious choice on my part.
Twelve years ago though, I came across a garage sale ad in the Daily Star advertising an AK-47 for sale, and the first thing I did was contact then-Oneonta chief of police Jack Donadio to ask him if it was legal to sell an assault rifle at a garage sale.
“Unless there is a law in Otsego County prohibiting it, it’s legal,” he said. I knew there was a ban against assault weapons (which the Bush administration later allowed to expire) at the time, and it was a federal offense to buy such a weapon at a gun store, so I was surprised to learn you could purchase one at a lawn sale or at a gun show.
“What can we do as parents to prevent a young person or a criminal from buying a weapon like this?” I asked.
Jack said: “Have our county reps pass a law that we can enforce, and until that happens, there’s nothing we can do.”
A friend of mine who was also a gun-control advocate thought talking to our county reps would be a good way to start addressing what we perceived to be a potential problem in our area. After all, our local representatives were elected to protect the interests of all the people – or so we thought.
After setting up a meeting with three of our county reps and showing them the ad, they said they would have to talk to their constituents and get back to us. We were told that as citizens we couldn’t bring this up as a public referendum unless the board reps brought it forward.
A month later, we met again and we were informed that after their research that “there are too many widows whose husbands have died and left them with expensive weapons and if a law were passed preventing them from being sold, they would get stuck with them,” they said.
“You’re kidding,” I replied. “You mean to tell me that if some young person went to a garage sale and saw an AK-47 for sale for $300, you’d think it’s OK for him to buy one?”
“We have to protect the Second Amendment,” they replied.
Both of us looked at each other in disbelief. “What about those kids who were shot in Columbine? Who protected them? The Second Amendment?” I asked.
We walked out of the courthouse stunned. If the police chief couldn’t do anything, and was himself against assault weapons being owned by non-enforcement entities, and if Otsego County reps refused to take responsibility for passing laws that would make law enforcement possible, wasn’t that just passing the buck, or worse yet, just evading a controversial issue that could have serious consequences in our community?
We felt our county reps had really let us down on assault weapons, so we decided to hold a public forum and see what might happen. We asked a representative from New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV) to make a presentation, because we felt an informed populace would be the best way to learn the facts.
We learned for instance, that there are more guns in our country than people, more guns in our nation than the rest of the world, and more and more ways for assault weapons to get into the hands of criminals. A lawyer from NYAGV presented a compelling case why we needed to do everything we could to prevent assault weapons from getting into our community, because inevitably they are associated with illicit forms of crime like drug trafficking or even worse, domestic violence. I spoke about the tradition of hunting in my family and how in my lifetime, I had never known a hunter that needed an assault weapon with such a high capacity for a sport like deer hunting.
One of the attendees in the back of the room raised his hand and identified himself as a member of the NRA and talked as he held up a magazine.
“I can go to Walmart today and buy any gun that’s legal, and from this magazine I can then order a high-capacity magazine, a folding tripod mount and any number of other accessories that will turn a regular rifle into an assault weapon, and it’s perfectly legal,” he said.
“These accessories are manufactured within 200 miles of here,” he continued “and no matter what kind of law you legislate, gun owners are never going to stop getting what they want.”
As this gentleman was talking, my friend and I looked at each other and shook our heads. In our deepest of hearts, we knew that what he was saying was true. He wasn’t trying to rub it in our face; in fact, he was being very respectful and made a good point.
Our presentation in Cooperstown drew fewer than 35 people. We were disappointed that more didn’t attend, especially parents. We came away from the evening feeling deflated because we realized that gun lobbyists have succeeded in bullying politicians, which in turn, has made it difficult to legislate meaningful guns laws because it will affect weapon sales.
They have wrapped the Second Amendment, which in my opinion is an antiquated and irrelevant law in modern times, around civil liberties as if it were a god-given right that you’re issued alongside your birth certificate. What about the rights of people who are defenseless against people with assault weapons like those kids and adults in Newtown? Who is looking out for them? Don’t they have rights too? Should people be able to purchase grenade launchers or landmines as well? Some people think that the Second Amendment gives them that right – and no doubt the arms industry would benefit if they could.
When I was getting my hair cut last week, the news of the killings in Newtown had just come on the TV and the woman next to me in a chair repeated a phrase that I am sick and tired of hearing every time something like this happens.
“It wasn’t the gun that killed those kids, it was the shooter,” she said, as if somehow she felt compelled to defend the gunmakers. When are we, as a society, going to learn?
Since that evening 12 years ago when we tried to point out a few things to the community, there has been a hate crime shooting in Cooperstown and a tragic killing in Franklin of someone I had known and liked. My best friend lives in Newtown, Conn., where twenty young people and seven adults were murdered senselessly last week, not to mention the killings at a university in Virginia, a movie theater in Colorado or a shopping mall in Oregon.
“Gun violence” is a term that we, as a nation, have coined because we are the most violent nation on this planet. It is a mindset that permeates every aspect of our culture and quite frankly, a concept that’s incredibly scary when you think about it. An assault weapon can empower anyone who owns it to feel invincible.
Fortunately, most sportsmen aren’t like that. We are living in a state of denial if we believe that this is “no big deal” and that people who own assault weapons have rights that might allow them to kill innocent people just because of the Second Amendment.
Is that what we believe? Because if it is, then we, as a nation and as a community, will have to change this idea that there’s nothing we can do about it just because that’s the way it is. Hollywood, video games, music and popular culture have all glorified violence, which in turn has desensitized our country to the point where it’s not unusual anymore to read about it or to experience events like we saw in Newtown.
We are not a helpless, powerless lot. We are Americans who overcome and eventually right the wrongs that we face on a daily basis, at least most of the time. President Obama summed it up well I thought when he said, “What choice do we have?” I hope that the leaders of this nation and our community will do the right thing when it comes to creating a safe environment for every child, woman and man in our country.
I hope that in my lifetime, politicians will have the spine to finally stand up to the influence of the gun lobbyists and create meaningful legislation that might possibly prevent another Newtown. My heart goes out to every parent who has lost a child period or to any victim of senseless, gun violence because there is something we can do about it.
Creating a law in Otsego County making assault weapons illegal is at least a start. Who knows – it might deter some crazed individual who thinks they’re Rambo. I don’t want to see any more 6-year-olds (or others) lose their lives because we didn’t have the foresight to see this coming. I doubt anyone else does either.
When local representatives somehow make widows with guns a greater priority then the safety of the citizens of our community, then I for one, have to agree with the president when he says: “Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage, that politics are too hard?”
I certainly hope that’s not the case in this country, or in Otsego County.
Joseph C. Stillman is a filmmaker who has been a resident of Otsego County for 33 years.