by Mike Shatzkin
The summer of 1968 may have been the last time the national conversation on gun control was as heated as it has become in the wake of the Parkland massacre last week. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4 that year and Robert Kennedy on June 4.
The core policy differences between original anti-Vietnam War Democratic presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy, who entered the race after it was clear that President Lyndon Johnson (who later bowed out) was in obvious electoral trouble, were around gun control — Kennedy was a big advocate and McCarthy was not a supporter of gun control legislation — and a focus on urban policy at a time when many cities were boiling over. RFK advisor Frank Mankiewicz frequently observed that “there are a lot of hunters in Minnesota,” which was McCarthy’s home state.
The Robert Kennedy delegate slate in California had a handful of students placed on it. One of them was Charles Eddie Anderson, a close friend of mine at UCLA. Eddie and I had been two of the four California undergraduates who signed an ad attacking McCarthy’s voting record, mostly on gun control and urban concerns.
Before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which convened at the end of August, a bunch of us student activists spent a few days on the campus of Kansas State University (in Manhattan, Kansas; quite different from the Manhattan I knew as a New York suburbanite) attending the National Students Association (NSA) annual meeting. Gun control was the top priority for some of us, even with the Vietnam war going on.
Glenn A. Leichman, who was a UCLA student government officer, and I wrote a resolution for consideration by the NSA. It called for the abolition of the personal possession of firearms. The guns would be bought back by the government at fair market prices. Hunters and sport-shooters could keep weapons locked up somewhere nearby where they hunted or target-shot. And six months after the personal firearms were retired, police would start leaving their guns in the station house and patrol, like British bobbies, unarmed.
It was a wildly ambitious and (from my now somewhat more mature perspective) unrealistic proposal — although it certainly was idealistic — even for the time. Glenn and I couldn’t get the ten signatures among the student delegates at NSA required to bring it to the floor for debate. The conservatives obviously hated it. But many on the left believed then that “we need guns to protect ourselves from ‘the pigs’”, one of the crazier notions from my cohort at that time. (But one that is echoed by some current right wing gun nuts who suggest that they need their automatic weapons to defend themselves from an oppressive government! Really: I saw that from a guy I grew up with on Facebook just last week.)
When we got to Chicago, the California students were being wooed as a bloc. The Kennedy loyalists, of which the California delegation was the biggest part, had become supporters of Senator George McGovern. Many Kennedy supporters just couldn’t abide McCarthy and McGovern ran largely to keep the delegate votes away from Humphrey, who had picked up Johnson’s mantel and would be the party’s nominee in 1968.
Senator Fred Harris, who later ran for president as a liberal firebrand, was then a more centrist Democratic senator from Oklahoma, bucking for the VP slot under Humphrey that ultimately went to Edmund Muskie. He was also married to LaDonna Harris, who was proudly Native American long before anybody heard of Elizabeth Warren. The young delegates and their entourage (that’s how I got in) were invited to meet with Fred and LaDonna Harris at their suite in the Hilton. The Hilton was the HQ hotel for both McCarthy and Humphrey. McGovern’s campaign was across a sidestreet at the Sheraton Blackstone. Both hotels fronted on Michigan Avenue, right opposite Grant Park, where most of the students protesting the Democratic convention were ensconced.
When Leichman and I showed off our proposal to Fred and LaDonna Harris, the Senator quickly moved on to talk to other people while his more liberal (and less political) wife engaged with apparent interest. But that was, pretty much, the end of that.
The next few days were a blur of activity that is now a big part of US political history. Leichman went back to the park with the demonstrators. (And he suffered a frightening incident when Chicago police surrounded his car, ultimately searching it in an experience that makes Glenn very glad to this day that he was carrying no guns, nor any other contraband!) I went back to my job as Pierre Salinger’s assistant on the fourth floor of the Blackstone, meeting such luminaries as Theodore White (the author of the many “Making of the President” books) when they came by to visit the very popular Pierre.
On the morning after the nominations had taken place, many of the delegates went out to demonstrate somewhere with their delegate badges on. Pierre Salinger’s son Marc told me that when his dad went out that morning, he said “Mike will love this.” And I did.
When Pierre came back and we were packing up, he asked me if I would be working on George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign.
“Oh, will he run?” I asked.
Pierre said, “My observation is that once a person starts to run for president, they never stop.” This has resonated with most of my experience ever since. It certainly seems true today of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. But it is true that Al Gore seems to have cured himself of the itch. Perhaps Hillary Clinton be the second observable exception to Salinger’s rule.
Meanwhile, our hopes for meaningful gun control just continued to recede. The Clinton Administration managed to pass a ban on assault weapons, a topic that wasn’t even on our radar in 1968! But that was achieved at an extremely high political cost. It was probably a big factor in the Republican sweep that elevated Newt Gingrich to Speaker after the elections of 1994. When the assault weapons ban expired in 2004, there was no Democrat in the White House to push it and no political appetite to renew it.
Perhaps the experience at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland will be seen as the moment when the American people woke up to the need for a sane policy on firearms. It is time to embrace a very simple and incontrovertible proposition: “more guns in people’s hands produce more gun violence; fewer guns will result in less.” That is a fact that only the wilfully blind could fail to see. The details are secondary.
Here’s to the new student activists created by this tragic event. May you all find the energy to keep up the fight for as long as necessary!