Sunday, September 24, 2023

Mansfield, guns and statesmanship

by By Bob Brown
| June 8, 2022 12:15 PM

I think the difference between a politician and a statesman is that the people believe a statesman will do what he or she believes is the right thing regardless of the political consequences. When it gets down to it, a statesman would rather be right than reelected.

It is generally accepted that Mike Mansfield was Montana’s greatest statesman. In my younger years I had two wonderful opportunities to have extended conversations with Mansfield. He was “as common as an old shoe” as the saying goes. When he passed in 2001, national newspaper columnist David Broder wrote that we had just lost the greatest living American.

That’s true I think, not because “Mike” as he preferred to be called, was a power broker, or strong-arm dealmaker like some of his more prominent contemporaries. It was because he was totally genuine. His constituents and his colleagues all knew they could totally trust him. They knew he was simply incapable of placing his personal political interests above what he believed was the public interest.

In keeping with that attitude, Mansfield was for gun control. The murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kennedys doubtlessly influenced his thinking about guns, but there is a less well known personal side to Mansfield’s philosophy toward guns which he revealed in a speech on the Senate floor published in the June 10, 1968 Congressional Record.

In that speech, Mansfield said, “We ought to think not only of public persons – and their deaths are indeed tragic – but also the ordinary people, such as the two marine lieutenants, one of them from Fishtail, Montana, who were shot in a little hamburger stand in Washington during the past week; of the bus driver who was held up and murdered; of the high school boy from Wilson High School who a week or ten days ago was assaulted and murdered, and of the thousands of little people, who are likewise entitled to just as much protection as are public figures….”

In the same speech Mansfield said, “I favor, and have favored, the registration of all firearms,” and “As far as hand guns are concerned, it is my belief that they should be outlawed.” There can be little doubt about what Mike would think about the assault weapons of today.

Well, those views made news in Montana and triggered the first serious election challenge Mansfield had faced in a dozen years. His opponent, Harold E. “Bud” Wallace had never run for office before, but he was the proprietor of the Elegant Elk gun store in Hamilton. He made guns his sole reason for running. When the returns were in, Wallace received an astonishing 40% of the vote in the 1970 general election. Two out of five voters had rejected Mike Mansfield in favor of that unknown “gun guy.” That wasn’t lost on Montana politicians, and guns have remained untouchable in Montana politics ever since.

Now, after a decade-long series of senseless shootings, one wonders if a change in public sentiment might not be developing. Americans account for less than 4% of the world population, but we own over 40% of the world’s guns. According to the FBI, the number of mass shootings in the United States has doubled since 2018. Clearly, “Thoughts and prayers” haven’t been working.

Paralyzed by its own rules, the U.S. Senate has been impotent in carrying out its responsibility to “insure the domestic tranquility.” House passed HR 8 provides for simple background checks, which are overwhelming popular, but the bill has been trapped in cold storage in the Senate of Mitch McConnell for so long that it has freezer burns on it. Similarly, commonsense proposals for limiting the capacity of clips cannot even obtain a hearing.

In the tradition of Mike Mansfield, Senators Jon Tester and Steve Daines, could defy the gun guys and act in the public interest. They are both family men who know the difference between right and wrong. It wouldn’t have to take any more slaughtered toddlers to convince statesman Mike Mansfield to follow his conscience if he were with us again. How about it Jon and Steve?

Bob Brown is a former Montana Secretary of State and State Senate President.

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