Yesterday was the day I made the drive down to Austin to speak to the Criminal Justice Committee of the Texas State Senate about guns on campus. As anybody who has been reading this blog knows, I'm against the idea of allowing concealed weapons anywhere near a college classroom, office or dormitory. In an ideal world, I would just stop there, because I would assume that any reasonable person would immediately understand why.
I have yet to live in a place, however, that has only reasonable people, and Texas, being bigger than most states (you knew that, right?), has more than its share of loonies. That's why I spent nearly five hours in my car yesterday and over four hours sitting in a hot, packed committee room waiting to testify. Whatever you might have imagined that experience would be like, it was more so. Grade A lunacy was on display, as were passion, conviction, eloquence and human witness to unspeakable tragedy.
The first instance of the latter occurred shortly after I arrived at Capitol Extension E1.016 at 1:45. Under discussion was a bill extending the reach of the death penalty so that it would be easier to execute people who had murdered children. The mother of a girl who was murdered 24 years ago at age eight spoke against it. She described the twelve years of ongoing criminal proceedings waiting for her daughter's killer to be executed as being far worse than the loss itself. I have never had a loved one murdered, so if I were to say that I can't imagine ever hating anyone so much as to desire that person's death, my words, though true, might ring hollow. When this woman made the same statement, she had the moral authority of a prophet.
She also set the tone for the rest of the afternoon. Every single victim of gun violence whom I later heard speak to the committee testified against extending the right to concealed carry. (I define a victim as someone who has actually been shot, not just threatened.) It seems clear that the more actual experience of gun violence a person has, the less likely that person is to believe that defensive weapons are helpful, and the more likely to want to reduce the number of weapons in play, not increase it.
This was not immediately evident, because when the gun bill finally came up at around 3:30, the "fors," following what is apparently standard procedure, were allowed to speak first. This was when the real lunacy came out for public viewing. The first person to speak was a student who wanted to make it clear that he was talking about defending his own body, and that his right to do so was absolute. He did not care in the least if the way he chose to defend himself made other people uncomfortable. Being comfortable isn't a right. Having guns is.
Several others offered similar opinions, including one man who appeared to truly doubt whether his 21-year-old daughter would survive until her 22nd birthday without the right to carry a gun with her at all times. He became deeply emotional as he begged the committee to save his daughter's life.
The real prize, though, went to a young man who spoke, he implied, for the honor of the State of Texas itself. We all knew, he assured us, that Texas is not like the rest of the United States. We value families. We believe in God. We don't let gay people get married, and we sure as heck need our God-given right to own guns in order to make it clear what good and moral people we are in the midst of a country rapidly descending into damnation. Let "them" defeat this bill, he told us, and "they" will stop at nothing until they have taken away every single right that makes us good, noble and human. Those who want to take away our guns clearly have no faith in God, no morality, don't care about marriage or families, and are determined to turn our entire country into a hellish Sodom of state-mandated atheism. Only Texas is good enough to stand up to this Satanic conspiracy, and the people must seize the moment before the devil can start sneaking into our homes at night and slitting our children's throats while they sleep. OK, he didn't actually use some of those words, but that was the gist of what he said.
Meet Senator John Whitmire, the balding, domineering committee chairman who alternately coaxed, chided and interrupted witnesses throughout the hours of testimony that were to follow. There was no doubt that Senator Whitmire and most of the rest of the committee were for this bill, but they were legally obligated to listen to everybody who wanted to testify, and they knew they were in for a long evening. Senator Whitmire's solution to being stuck front and center seemed to be entertaining himself by being alternately sarcastic and condescending, especially to the people who spoke against the bill. However, the testimony I just described was too much even for him, and he chided the young man for not acknowledging that not everyone who disagreed with him on this issue was a family-hating atheist. The man said he understood that, but did not retract any of his testimony. Several other witnesses also spoke of the God-given right to defend themselves with deadly force.
By the time I finally had a chance to speak, around 5:45, I had been observing Senator Whitmire long enough to have a pretty good idea what to expect. I had come with a carefully prepared written statement which I had timed to take exactly three minutes: the length of time that any citizen is allowed to testify. The good senator was remarkably capricious in enforcing this time limit - some speakers went on for what must have been ten minutes or more - but from time to time he cracked down and announced that everybody who had yet to speak should plan to stop after two minutes. This is what he told me as I took my seat at the witness table. I responded, politely but firmly, that I had written a three-minute statement and I intended to read the whole thing. Mock surprise on the senator's part: There was no need to read a statement; I should just tell them what I thought. It's so much more natural that way. I told him that I had a three-minute written statement and that I was going to read it, and proceeded to do so. After a couple of sarcastic interruptions that I barely acknowledged, he seems to have given up. I didn't hear another word from him, even though virtually every previous witness, no matter how well- or poorly-spoken, was praised for giving good testimony.
Just to make the good senator happy, though, I made a statement at the end that was not in my written speech. "In response to what was said earlier: My God told his disciples to lay down their weapons. It may be in the Second Amendment, but calling it a God-given right is blasphemy." I spoke the concluding word with what I hope was the appropriate degree of gravity, then left the witness table with absolutely no acknowledgment from anybody on the panel. I did get a fist bump or two on the way back to my seat.
At this point, I had to leave, since as it was I didn't get back to Waco until 9:30, and I still had a class to prepare for this morning. The "against" testimony went on for several more hours, and at the end the committee took no action on advancing the bill, apparently because they no longer had a quorum. At this writing it's not clear what their next move will be or when it will come.
During this process, I went through the extremes of nervousness, anger, stunned appreciation and, ultimately, deep-rooted spiritual calm. My words were my own, and I meant them all. I faced down a bully and left with my head held high. I don't know if I made any difference at all, but I'm glad I went.