Jeff Spevak, Writer

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If it were up to us

Jan Regan on gun control

Jan Regan.

Monday evening at The Little Café, a handful of the regulars were sitting at the usual table, passing around a copy of a letter to the editor that had appeared that morning in The Finger Lakes Times. I watched as people read it, silently nodding in approval.

The writer’s name was familiar to this group. Jan is not an uncommon name. Among Norwegian fisherman, even. More telling, she’s a Regan. That makes her sister of two other Regans in the room, Kerry and Scott, members of the band playing that night, Watkins & the Rapiers. Music enthusiasts in this town also know Scott as the host of Open Tunings, the smart morning music show on WRUR-FM (88.5).

Some of us have even met her in the past, maybe at a Finger Lakes winery. Jan Regan, a photographer, has been involved in music, for a while booking shows at Geneva’s Smith Opera. Monday night at The Little, she stepped into the gun-control debate. And nailed the issue perfectly. So damn logical, I expect gun advocates’ heads will explode when they read it.

I asked Jan for permission to reprint her letter:

To the Editor:

Singer-Songwriter Cheryl Wheeler wrote a song, “If It Were Up to Me,” in 1997 that speculates causes behind the horrific gun violence in the United States with an endless litany of societal ills: Maybe it’s video games, abuse, the internet, parents, schools, politics, and so on. Her last thought: “But if it were up to me, I’d take away the guns.”

I am with her. Not that I would venture into the dangerous territory of suggesting we ban ALL guns, but certainly the ones that appear again and again as “the weapon of choice” in so many recent mass shootings.

In many ways, Marc Thomas’s editorial “Clear Thinking Needed in Gun Debate” (March 4, 2018) makes exactly this case. He bemoans universal background checks as ineffective as so many mass shooters seem to acquire guns legally. He cites the “see something, say something” mantra as not enough (suggesting the somewhat scary notion that citizens “do something about it” on their own rather than wait out authorities). He notes the ineptitude of agencies to act on tips provided to them in the recent Parkland, Florida shootings, and the shocking reality of a professional armed guard hired to protect a school who simply didn’t act.

Exactly. These often-suggested measures to protect public spaces – background checks, reporting suspicious behavior, and placing “good guys with guns” in vulnerable places – can be important measures, but will always face human error.  A person suffering mental issues can fool everyone, and have no problems passing background checks. A parent or friend might think it impossible that this person they know, even if troubled, could actually shoot an innocent human being. An overwhelmed worker could mistakenly judge one of his or her many cases as non-credible. And if all of these checks fail, and a shooting does occur, armed personnel could, for whatever reason, be completely in the wrong place and have no impact in stopping the perpetrator.

One sure way to keep guns out of the hands of those who will use them to do evil is to eliminate the guns. At least to eliminate the ones that cause the most harm the fastest, with no other apparent purpose but to do just that.

Jan Regan


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What’s the problem with Alabama?

The two of us had arrived early at a downtown Rochester hotel, and the room reserved for the breakfast meeting with a handful of invited guests was locked. We stood in front of the door as a hotel employee wandered off to find a key.

“You look really tired,” I said.

He admitted that the week’s travel schedule had been pretty rough.

“Well, let’s sit while we wait,” I said.

So Al Franken and I sat down. On the floor.

This was in April of 2006. Franken was in town for a live broadcast of Air America’s The Al Franken Show at The Little Theater. I thanked Franken for his help on a story I had written some years earlier about the comedian A. Whitney Brown. The two had worked together on Saturday Night Live, and Brown had told me that Franken was very supportive of his battles with drug and alcohol addiction. I called Franken’s New York City office and left a message, asking if he’d comment. My expectations were low; Franken was a busy man, many people wanted a piece of his time. But to my surprise, Franken called me back.

Sitting there on the hotel hallway floor, Franken said he’d returned my call because Brown was his friend. Then we talked a little about the rumors that Franken was considering a run for the U.S. Senate seat from Minnesota, rumors he had neither confirmed nor denied. He then went on for a few minutes about what he’d hope to accomplish as a senator.

I said something like, “You know, you’ve pretty much admitted right here that you’re going to run.” He just smiled.

A few hours later, 300 people in the theater and a large group standing outside, hoping to get in, heard Franken dedicate his entire show to voices from Rochester. This was in the midst of the George W. Bush presidency, and there was plenty to talk about. Congresswoman Louise Slaughter and Mayor Robert Duffy were there. Eric Massa, a Navy veteran running for a seat in the 29th Congressional district. David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning financial writer. Rochester Institute of Technology professor Robert Manning, discussing predatory lending practices. And Dr. Mark Noble of the University of Rochester, explaining the importance of stem-cell research.

Ten months later, Franken officially announced he was running for the Senate. He won by the slimmest of margins, and was re-elected six years later. This despite ridicule from some folks that a guy who’d been catapulted onto the national stage because of his career in television wasn’t qualified for the job. Yet it happened, just as we’ve since seen that even a fellow who is famous for shouting “You’re fired!” at TV reality-show apprentices can some day be president.

So now we see Franken as one of the prominent names in this astounding wave of powerful men being accused of sexually assaulting women. And I am dismayed, not only because my two brief interactions with Franken were so positive, but because I like what he’s done in the senate since then. He’s taken the job seriously, and worked hard on behalf of issues that are important to me.

I look at all of this news through several lenses. Virtually all of these men come from the worlds of media, entertainment and politics. And almost all of the accusations against the media and entertainment figures had resulted in firings, resignations and the end of careers: Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Garrison Keillor, Russell Simmons, Charlie Rose, Mark Halperin…

But politicians such as Franken, John Conyers, Roy Moore and Donald Trump – George H.W. Bush even! – have not retreated into the weeds.

Here’s another lens to use when examining this news: Democrats and progressive-leaning figures on that list – with the exception of Conyers – are apologizing for their actions. Whether you think the apologies go far enough is debatable, but those men are at least taking some responsibility for their actions. Republicans and conservatives have chosen a different tactic. They are denying, denigrating the women accusers and attacking the media for reporting the story.

Perspective seems important, but I can’t decide where we should be standing when looking at sexual harassment and assault. Is Franken equal to Moore? Is Weinstein equal to Keillor? As someone who’s never been sexually harassed or assaulted, I wonder if I even have the right to express an opinion on the issue.

A few days ago, My Friend Bill passed along this essay by a progressive activist, G. K. Potter, “A Survivor’s Defense of Al Franken.” I don’t know the details of her experience, but Potter does identify herself as a sexual-assault survivor. You can read her entire essay here, but these are some of the words that caught me:

I’m sick of my traumas and the traumas of other survivors being exploited for political gain and emotional satisfaction on both the left and the right. Physically. Sick.

Potter charges Leeann Tweeden, the women who first accused Franken of assault – several others have since stepped forward – of taking “the traumas of the women and children that have been the true victims of sexual violence and used them for her own personal gains and the political goals of the Republican Party.” She writes:

Al Franken’s tasteless joke didn’t make her fear for her life. It didn’t make her burn the clothes she was wearing that night. It didn’t make her scrub herself clean in the shower until her skin tore off. This joke didn’t keep her up shaking and puking and sobbing on the floor of a shower as she bled down a drainpipe. It didn’t send her to the clinic for STD tests.

Al Franken’s joke didn’t crush her notion of who she was or how she could walk in this world. This joke didn’t give her PTSD or depression or any of the lasting forms of struggle that true rape and assault victims must face minute by minute. It hasn’t informed every relationship she’s had since.

Potter points out that the USO tours that Franken and Tweeden were a part of are highly sexualized shows meant to entertain the mostly male members of the armed services. They have been since World War II, and on into the Bob Hope years, which we used to watch on television back home. Which makes me wonder: Should the U.S. government be subsidizing such attitudes as we read news reports of rampant sexual assault in our military?

And Potter then returns to the idea that this is political:

It clearly cannot be denied that sexual violence exists on both sides of the political aisle, but it is the Republican Party that has perfected the technique of weaponizing and exploiting these traumas for their own personal gain.  

The idea that Franken is not the same as Moore resonates with me. But so too does the idea that no level of sexual harassment and assault is tolerable.

Here’s another aspect of the debate that I’m seeing. This isn’t a new problem. Powerful men exploiting women has been happening for centuries. Yet this new wave of outrage – led by women – appears to be resonating with the country. Can we find a way to focus this outrage as well on other issues that Americans are clearly in favor of? Gun control, health care that’s readily accessible to all as it is in European countries, and closing the vast disparity between the rich and the poor?

What drives a corporation such as NBC to dump Matt Lauer, or Netflix to cancel Kevin Spacey’s television show, is the fear that associating with them will hurt their product. It’s economic populism that might work.

Everywhere except Alabama, where the accused pedophile Moore may win a senate seat because, as Trump says, that’s better than losing it to a Democrat.

What’s the matter with Alabama?

Do you still believe these issues aren’t about politics?

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A part of the uniform, or a sign of a sick society?

The World Series is special. That awesome Game 5, with the vast pendulum swings of lead changes. And Game 7, with starting pitchers thrown into relief roles as if there’s no tomorrow, which there isn’t. We even had one of the victorious Houston Astros ending his post-series television interview by asking his girlfriend to marry him.

And at the opening ceremony of the final game, we were presented with a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by four members of the Los Angeles Police Department. Except why were those officers wearing sidearms? And I tweeted out that question. Then, on with the game.

And this morning, I’m thinking I’m bothered by more than just the hypocrisy of armed police officers creating beautiful music. It’s a piece of a much-larger picture.

If I were in the position of needing a gun for self defense, I’m sure I’d be happy to have it. But few difficult questions have just one answer. There are usually 30,000 gun deaths in the United States each year. Very few of those victims were criminals shot while committing a home invasion. Most committed suicide, were killed in an accident or were murdered, either by a stranger or, more likely, someone they knew.

Thirty-thousand deaths is an epidemic.

Guns are not only tools for killing people, they are political tools. Politicians use fear to move forward their agendas. We have one such politician/carnival barker in the White House right now. We’re being encouraged to fear anyone who is not a white Christian American. Left unsaid: Trust only straight, rich men. That’s also a part of their equation. Everyone else is either a potential terrorist or someone who wants a free ride on your tax dollars. And the answer is point a gun at them, or build a wall.

It’s a fact that, in this country, most victims of terror attacks were killed by a socially disconnected white American male with a pile of automatic rifles on the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel (58 dead), or who invaded a Connecticut elementary school (26 dead), or brought a gun to Bible study in a Charleston church (nine dead) or parked a truck rigged as a fertilizer bomb in front of an Oklahoma City federal building (168 dead).

Any threat, be it terrorism or the faulty maintenance of amusement-park rides, should be taken seriously. But fear is used to cloud perspective. One of seven Americans will die of heart disease. It’s the same numbers for cancer. Those numbers are of no concern to Congress or the president  as they work to disembowel the Affordable Care Act.

Nor do our leaders react to a list being compiled by The Washington Post, which says 813 citizens have been killed this year by police. places the number at 994. The National Safety Council, The National Center For Health Statistics and the Cato Institute calculate that over your lifetime you have a one in 8,359 chance of dying in an incident involving a police officer. But those odds can go up, depending on circumstances. The most-frequent victims are white males armed with a gun or some other weapon. One in four people killed are mentally ill. Black males represent one-fourth of the people killed each year.

Of that average of 1,000 people killed each year in recent years by police, how many were unarmed? The Washington Post says it was about one in 10 in 2015. That percentage has dropped slightly each of the last two years. So we’re getting better? It depends on your reaction to one of those videos where it appears clear that a pissed-off cop executed an unarmed black man.

Numbers are easy to dismiss. Those same charts also reveal that over our lifetime, we have a one in 1,600,000 chance of dying from an asteroid hitting the Earth. I’ve never even heard of anyone being killed by a space rock. That number is simply an actuarial calculation based on the knowledge that humongous meteors are out there and the planet has been struck in the past. And if one the size that wiped out the dinosaurs hits us again, civilization is done.

Unlike meteor strikes, we see terrorist attacks frequently. Yet the Cato Institute calculates your chance of dying at the hands of a foreign-born terrorist as one in 3.6 million, and that includes the 3,000 people who died in 9/11.

So a story’s not told simply in numbers. In the just-completed World Series, was the excellence of the games, and the home-run record, a matter of great hitting or lousy pitching? It’s your perspective. We cheer when Air Force fighter jets fly low over a sports stadium. If you’re a shepherd in Afghanistan and you see a low-flying jet, you run. At a football game, people stand for the National Anthem. But when athletes kneel in protest of police violence against black people, outrage follows. Both are political messages. But one is allowed, one frowned upon.

One respondent to my pre-game tweet about the LA police quartet insisted guns are “part of the uniform.”

No, comfortable trousers are a part of the uniform. Guns are a whole other, and very ill-fitting, accessory in civil society.

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