Archive for May, 2007

The Iron Pipeline

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

How does it feel to be living in a state recently dubbed as a key element of “the nation’s Iron Pipeline”?

We’re not talking about a highway culvert. No, Virginia — particularly Northern Virginia — achieved this notoriety thanks to the torrent of guns that flows from here and into criminal hands along the East Coast.

Our area’s involvement in the gun trade was brought into focus after the horrifyingly murderous rampage of Seung Hui Cho at Virginia Tech. We discovered this severely mentally ill young man had been able to walk, unimpeded, into a Virginia gun shop and purchase one of his weapons of assault, despite having been ordered earlier into outpatient psychiatric treatment.

Just one day prior to this terrifying incident the chief of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action chillingly told members of NRA’s 136th Annual Convention that a mass tragedy on the scale of another Columbine would be “the Hail Mary of their [gun control advocates] playbook.” The answer to their prayers? How sickeningly cynical.

And the NRA Executive Vice President, speaking to the concluding session of the same convention, roared, “Today, there is not one firearm owner whose freedom is secure.”

These NRA rants reminded us that extremism isn’t limited to the Middle East. And certainly not to persons practicing Islam. Young Cho’s mother sought help for him from a Presbyterian minister. Timothy McVeigh, 1996 perpetrator of the nation’s worst terrorist slaughter prior to 2001, was raised Catholic, and had, in his youth, an “obsession for guns.” And Eric Robert Rudolph, the Christian anti-abortion, anti-gay fanatic, wired bombs that killed at the 1996 Olympics and at abortion clinics and gay bars.

Yet this nation continues to be led by policymakers who cringe at the electoral power of the NRA. And so the 35 gun shops in our part of the commonwealth, thanks to our nation’s weak gun laws, dish out thousands of handguns every year, a huge percentage of which end up in the commission of crimes, familial disputes and wonton killings.

According to the New York Daily News, guns from Virginia “at one point comprise[d] 47% of the guns our cops recovered.” Further, an attempt by the mayor of New York to set up illegal handgun stings in Virginia gun dealers’ businesses brought down the wrath of the Virginia General Assembly.

“As of July,” The New York Times editorialized this past Saturday, sting “investigators must be accompanied by state or federal police officers.” Yeah, right. You think the gun seller might suspect something when an officer of the law stands alongside a person trying to conduct an illegal purchase?

There’s something sick about all this. According to Canadian Coalition on Gun Control, 0.6 percent of homes in Japan have a firearm. That compares with 4.0 percent in England and Wales, 8.9 percent in Germany and 41 percent in the U.S.

When I covered the Illinois legislature, attempts to outlaw “Saturday Night Specials,” those cheap little guns that are used for weekend crimes, failed repeatedly. And Congress hasn’t even attempted a gun restriction in recent years.

No, they, and this chief executive, even embrace the gun lobby’s affection for assault rifles and the right of anyone to own one. You don’t use an AK-47 to pick off rabbits and deer; they’d be obliterated.

I guess the gun lobby thinks they can just wait for the tragedies, such as Virginia Tech, to fade from memory and their little corner of the world can go on, unabated.

Maybe one day this affinity for guns will diminish. But, given what we’ve seen lately, even in the wake of Virginia Tech, such laws don’t have a chance.

Nick Penning is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington Connection.

I Can’t Recall

Saturday, May 5th, 2007

While walking through Arlington’s Bon Air Park and staring at the wondrous beauty of its teeming hillside of azaleas, I began to think of my Mom and how I once told her, “This must be what heaven is like,” after a similar walk through the cherry blossoms on Capitol Hill.

She was a pillar of strength among the six of us post-war kids. Her beliefs, coupled with my Dad’s, taught us that honesty, love, and service to others should be central to our lives. And when we failed at any of those, particularly honesty, we felt, not a spanking, but the shame of having let them down.

One’s honor centers on that honesty our folks taught us, yours and mine; maybe that’s why it’s saddening and maddening to see the conniving, the convenient untruths — we might have called them ‘little white lies’ — that seem to dominate the words and actions among those who have given the lie to what used to be called public service.

Thirty-five years ago, before our little family U-Hauled our way out here from Lincoln’s hometown, I came to know a man whose integrity was legend in our state. The late U.S. Senator Paul Simon had just come off his first election loss in a race for governor of Illinois, and he decided, in his last months as Lieutenant Governor, to start a graduate program in public affairs journalism — his pre-politics profession — at the local public affairs university.

Twelve of us were in that program and we became reporter-interns in the watershed year of 1973, when public officeholders did battle over the Equal Rights Amendment in Springfield and Watergate in Washington.

WETA-TV in Shirlington brought that year back into focus the other night when it broadcast “All the President’s Men, followed by a Frontline documentary, produced for the 30th anniversary of the Watergate break-in.

It brought back my days in the Illinois State Capitol pressroom, a cavernous hall filled with clacking typewriters, ringing phones and questioning reporters. And squashed into the middle of this awakening experience, a black and white television set blared in the background the seemingly nonstop Watergate hearings out in the media cauldron of Washington.

As I watched WETA, again transfixed with this watershed event, I heard the narrator intone that Nixon’s chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, had repeated variations of “‘I don’t recall’ more than 100 times.”

My God, we just saw the same performance unfold last week!

“Senator, I honestly cannot recall.”

“Believe me, I wish I could, but I just don’t remember.”

“I’ve searched my mind, Senator, but I don’t remember.”

The news programs and newspapers told us that variations of that phrase were invoked more than 70 times.

Instead of hearing a chief of staff, we were “treated” to this performance by the Attorney General of the United States of America.

It’s happening, I thought, all over again. The “I don’t recalls,” the lies, the audacity and perhaps an unfolding constitutional crisis over “executive privilege.”

What is it that instills our top public servants, the people we hire to run our government, to think they can attempt to fool us? To take power and abuse it to fit their own desires?

My Mom never wanted to believe anything bad about anyone. But she knew and practiced truth; she knew and practiced service.

This remarkable woman, with nary a negative bone in her body, would have loved that stroll we took through the azaleas. And she would have sighed in sadness to see national leaders soil the notion of service, twist the nature of truth.

Nick Penning ( is an Arlington freelance writer. His column, “Penning Thoughts,” appears in alternating editions of The Arlington (Va.) Connection.