Paul Fanlund is editor and publisher of The Capital Times. A longtime Madisonian, he was a State Journal reporter and editor before becoming a vice president of Madison Newspapers. He joined the Cap Times in 2006.

The Names of Disaster

It comes at a terrible cost, but there are increasing signs of support for gun control — not just from protesters like these Michigan high school students rallying in support of students who were killed in the Parkland, Florida, shooting earlier this year, but also in national opinion polls. 

It’s been about a week since the nation’s latest mass shooting, this one in a California country music bar, and the gun debate has already begun to fade, replaced by the Trumpian outrage of the day.

For future reference, you can count on this sequence of events after a mass shooting: shocking first reports, somber-faced officials lacking details, accounts of first-responder heroism, details of the shooter’s troubled past, pictures and biographies of lives cut short, candlelight vigils, an effort to “make sense” of it.

Dipesh Navsaria, a pediatrician at American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, has seen it often: “Articles about gun violence and the effects of it have almost become evergreen because … this stuff happens so often.”

Navsaria, speaking in his role as vice president of the Wisconsin chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, pointed to his group’s website: “Every time there’s a mass shooting, there are articles we can just pull out: How to talk to your child about these things. How to comfort them. How to console them. How not to let them get unduly anxious.”

Yet, at long last, there are signs the ground beneath gun issues may be shifting.

Support for gun regulation is 52 percent compared to 44 percent for gun rights, the reverse of two years ago, according to a recent national survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. Another recent poll by the Kaiser Foundation showed that gun safety is now the third most important issue to Americans, wrote Robert Spitzer, a political scientist and the author of five books on gun policy, in a recent New York Times op-ed.

During the midterm elections in Wisconsin, Democrats swept statewide races despite heavy support for Republicans from the National Rifle Association. Defeated incumbent Gov. Scott Walker had received $4 million of NRA money during his 25 years in politics, including $740,000 this election cycle, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Like many Republicans, Walker was reliably pro-gun, signing the state’s “concealed carry” law and its “castle doctrine” law protecting homeowners who shoot intruders. He also ended the state’s 48-hour waiting period for purchasing handguns.

To be sure, the gun issue did not attain the high-profile status in the gubernatorial campaign that health care, roads and education did, but neither did it hurt the winner, Democrat Tony Evers. Recent Wisconsin poll results suggest strong support for background checks and a close divide over banning assault weapons and also skepticism about whether more gun laws would reduce gun violence, Marquette University Law School Poll director Charles Franklin said in an email interview.

But around the country, candidates embraced a gun-safety agenda with a fervor not seen in nearly two decades, Spitzer wrote.

Then, right after the election, the NRA made a colossal blunder by sticking its finger in the eyes of physicians who worry about gun violence. The American College of Physicians released a paper on reducing firearm injuries and deaths in America. The NRA tweeted in response: “Someone should tell self-important anti-gun doctors to stay in their lane.”

Many doctors reacted with fury.

“Wanna see my lane?” tweeted a doctor, along with a picture of an office chair. “Here’s the chair I sit in when I tell parents their kids are dead. How dare you tell me I can’t research evidence-based solutions?”

Tweeted another: “Who do you think removes bullets from spines and repairs (or tries to) livers blasted by an AR-15? The tooth fairy? This literally is in medicine’s lane.”

A third referenced past mass shooting tolls: “If a virus killed 20 children in 5 minutes, if a virus killed 58 people in 15 minutes, if a virus killed anywhere — in schools, churches, businesses, concerts, if a virus killed more and more over time. They would be SCREAMING at us to do something. THIS. IS. OUR. LANE.”

And a forensic pathologist tweeted: “Do you have any idea how many bullets I pull from corpses weekly? This isn’t just my lane. It’s my (expletive) highway.”

More than 10,000 medical professionals signed a letter calling on the NRA to collaborate with medical professionals on solutions. It read in part: “We are not anti-gun. We are anti-bullet hole. Let’s work together.”

Maybe it’s the cumulative arrogance from years of bullying foes that convinced NRA leaders they could get away with anything. For example, a recent New York Times project showed the increasingly incendiary evolution of NRA magazine covers back to 1917.

For decades, the “American Rifleman” was about sports hunting, but later it turned to viciously caricaturing opponents. That included Barack Obama at least six times. It once labeled him “King Pinocchio” for allegedly lying about his stated tolerance for sports firearms. Last year one headline read: “Do you have Trump’s back?” and pictured the current president with the NRA leader.

But public opinion seems to be turning, hastened perhaps by the medical profession and political non-combatants like Dr. Navsaria.

“We talk about all sorts of things besides guns,” he said of pediatricians discussing health hazards. “We talked about swimming pools. We talked about car seats. We talked about childproof medications, medication bottles, and this is just another element of safety.”

He continued, “Can you imagine if the swimming pool industry said to us: ‘We are against putting fences around pools and locked gates. We don’t want any of that. Go away.’ Well, we would be like, ‘OK, but how many kids drown in swimming pools?’ ”

The answer is “quite a few if they’re not safely done. The swimming pool industry has made a safer product. They are all for fences and gates and signs asking people to make sure the kids are supervised,” Navsaria said.

“That’s what this ultimately comes down to, and I would hope that no one, irrespective of what party they are, thinks that dead children are a good idea.”

In the New York Times op-ed, Spitzer concluded that the gun control issue has ceased to be politically untouchable, so we’ll see.

At least here, in this month, in Wisconsin, it’s one more bit of political sunshine.

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