Senate “NO” on Gun Control May Be The Tipping Point Toward Victory!

Readers of this blog know of my personal love of history. That perspective led me to look for the precedent of a major national event that changed history in favor of an issue popular with the citizenry but blocked by special interests.  Few would argue that special interests, mainly the National Rifle Association, derailed widely publicly supported legislation to introduce background checks into the process of gun purchasing.  The  Senate defeat, coming on the heels of the tragedy in Newtown,  has resulted in a public outcry with President Obama leading the charge. While the examples I will reference ( Newtown and The Big Burn) differ in many ways, both issues rose to the level of acute public passion.

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Just over a  century ago in 1910, America witnessed a devastating  national disaster that many historians have compared with the force of an atomic bomb. In August of that year a wind-driven forest fire raged through the states  of Washington, Idaho and Montana destroying  3 million acres of drought stricken timber lands, wildlife, dozens of frontier communities, and  killing 78 firefighters, many of them young college students volunteering on behalf of their belief in the newly created National Forest Service. No one alive in 1910 had seen anything like what author Timothy Egan describes in his book The Big Burn.

It is the back story here that begs for comparison with the fight for stricter gun legislation. There existed prior to the fire a bitter fight between President Theodore Roosevelt  and his Chief Forrester Gifford Pinchot and  the special interests  of the timber and mining industries. As  Egan describes it, ” The Robber Barons fought Roosevelt and Pinchot to the bitter end,  time and again derailing progressive legislation to protect the forests from the timber barons and the open lands from the copper mining interests.” Senator Weldon B. Heyburn of Idaho, the leader of the anti-conservationists  was a strident foe of any legislation to protect the land and it was his own law-firm ( no conflict of interest here)  that was the chief paid lobbyist for the timber and mining interests.  Quoting again from The Big Burn, Heyburn called federal forest reserves, ” an expensive, useless burden to the public.”

Following the fire, Roosevelt , now out of office,  seized the disaster as an opportunity  to try again to pass legislation creating national forests in  the West. In his effort to block the creation of any additional public land Heyburn  used  arcane Senate rules  to keep the executive branch from designating new federal forest land without congressional approval. Two years later, in 1912 , Heyburn was dead after suffering a stroke while ironically delivering a filibuster on the Senate floor. ( No 60-vote rule in 1910 a, just hours of talking to prevent a vote)

The Idaho, Montana, Washington inferno of 1910 became the tipping point on the public lands issue, what Egan calls, “The Fire That Saved America.”   Out of this  disaster came forth the enormous support for “public lands,” a National Parks System and  the conservation programs that are in place in America today.  Heyburn, his senate co-conspirator  Montana’s Senator William Clark and the timber and mining lobby were in their day comparable to the Senate opposition in today’s fight over gun legislation.   As a political lobby, Heyburn’s  law firm was the equivalent of the NRA.

If history repeats itself the hell-fire and public out cry created by  this weeks defeat of gun legislation in the U.S.Senate may be the Big Burn  of public indignation that results in the final passage of  even stronger  gun legislation.  Following the fire of 1910 , even though out of office, Roosevelt used his power to rally public support for public lands . Doris Kerns Goodwin’s forthcoming book on Presidents Teddy Roosevelt and  Robert Taft will further detail the enormous impact of the Bully Pulpit  on public policy.

After hearing  President Obama  and the father of one of the children killed at Newtown speak on Wednesday evening at the White House, there is little doubt that dedication, passion and leadership weigh heavily upon the likelihood that the public tipping point of public indignation has been reached on gun legislation and like the Big Burn,  will likely to be grasped from the jaws of defeat.

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