I was a college sophomore in 1964 when I went to my first demonstration against the Viet Nam War. There were maybe 10 of us; we stood outside an armed forces recruiting center in New York’s Times Square and handed out leaflets for an hour or two, had some very brief conversations with a few pedestrians, none of whom even knew where Viet Nam was, and then we went home.
Even though I continued to demonstrate against the war over the next few years, it wasn’t easy to get folks involved. Congress routinely voted military appropriations, most people, even those against the war didn’t really pay it much attention, and the government was able to convince a majority of Americans that we could still find a way to win.
The 1968 Tet offensive changed all that. For the first time, these rag-tag guerrillas called Viet Cong engaged front-line American troops throughout South Viet Nam, inflicted heavy casualties and almost overran our big air base at Da Nang. The photo above was part of a news film that played on every national news television program the 2nd day of Tet. It showed a South Vietnamese colonel shooting a ‘suspected’ Viet Cong sympathizer in the head. It was graphic, it was brutal, and it demolished our government’s argument that we were fighting for a good cause. If you know anyone who says they were not involved in an anti-war demonstration on a college campus after Tet, they are either lying or spent the whole year comatose or brain-dead.
The Congressional sit-in led by John Lewis may mark the beginning of the Gun Violence Prevention Tet offensive here in the United States. Because thanks to Orlando, the issue of gun violence may have finally come into its own. And what I mean is that, for the very first time in the fifty-plus years that I have been involved with guns, Gun-nut Nation isn’t setting or controlling the terms of the debate. If anyone’s walking through the House chamber saying that guns don’t kill people, people kill people, they are saying it to themselves. And while you can always count on Cam Edwards, an NRA-funded mouthpiece, to say something bizarrely stupid about anything that even remotely smacks of gun control, his referring to the Democratic lawmakers as ‘criminals and terrorists’ simply demonstrates how far off from center the pro-gun argument has gone.
When you stop to think about it, the loss of 50 lives and the terrible injuries suffered by so many others shouldn’t be needed to spur an honest debate about gun violence. And God knows it takes less than 24 hours each and every day for a good deal more than 50 people to lose their lives thanks to guns. But for most of us, until and unless we are immediately and directly affected by something, we quickly put bad things out of our minds. The assassination of the young man on a Vietnamese street by an Army colonel made it impossible in 1968 for anyone to pretend that the Viet Nam War wasn’t wrong.
I think right now that the Gun Violence Prevention community owns the discussion about guns. And the fact that Hillary has continued to raise the issue whereas Street Thug can’t even get his script approved by the NRA only increases the degree to which the terms and conditions that apply can be set by the side which often found itself unable to make any headway in this debate.
Advocates for Gun Violence Prevention should not make the mistake of thinking that because they were unable to get a bill through Congress means they cannot win the war. Tet turned Americans against the war in 1968 but the last U.S. troops came home in 1975. It’s going to be a long and difficult struggle; think of how difficult it is for folks who lost someone at The Pulse.