It seems outrageous now, but cruising New Mexico streets while tossing back a beer used to be as common as hatch chiles in August. It was the culture, pure and simple, says Doug Fritzsche, who used to live there.
Not surprisingly, until the 1990s, New Mexico led the nation in alcohol-related deaths, the New York Times reported back in 2005. Carnage on the highways stirred outrage, which triggered new laws that reduced the number of deaths.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving was out front trying to change the culture by latching on to a singular, strategic focus:
“They said this behavior is killing people,” Fritzsche told me.
Change would also come to Texas, among more than two dozen states where it was still legal to drink and drive in the mid-1980s.
Why is MADD’s strategy back then still noteworthy now?
Fritzsche thinks focusing on behavior that presents a public-safety issue could work to change the culture once more as America wrestles with a different problem that’s killing people with disturbing regularity: gun violence.
It could be successful, he said, if it focuses specifically on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, like the ones used in the nation’s string of mass shootings. Highly militarized weaponry just doesn’t make any sense, “and it’s created a great deal of damage, so why don’t we do something about it,” Fritzsche said.
If you read these pages regularly, you might recognize Fritzsche’s name. A Presbyterian Church pastor now living in Austin and working in New Braunfels, he recently penned a powerful op-ed for us. Fritzsche wrote about how Gov. Greg Abbott put the Sutherland Springs church massacre in the context of historical evil.
Fritzsche took issue with the idea that evil is simply a fact of life and the message that sends: that we are powerless to do anything about it.
By the way, Fritzsche is no “anti-gun nut,” as he put it. In the Army, he learned how to use an assault weapon and he’s owned guns. He’s somewhat torn about the gun debate; guns have a function in society, he said, but not highly militarized weapons.
I also wrote about the Sutherland Springs massacre last week. I said it is long past time we do something about the mass shootings that have become the new norm in America.
Many of you wrote back. Some said you feel the same way – and you’re fed up that our lawmakers aren’t doing anything about it. I’ve heard from gun owners who can’t fathom how assault weapons have legitimate use outside the military.
Others said I’m another typical “knee-jerk liberal” intent on making this a political issue and on taking your guns away. Keep the guns. I understand the Second Amendment. I get why hunters and those who would protect their homes need their weapons.
I shared the latter reaction with Gina Hinojosa, the Austin Democrat who represents the 49th District in the Texas House.
“It’s a knee jerk-reaction. You don’t even say (gun control) and people put you in this camp,” she said.
Like Fritzsche, she couldn’t just sit idly after Sutherland Springs.
So, three days after the massacre, Hinojosa, a member of the state Homeland Security and Public Safety committee, joined a few fellow legislators at a Capitol news conference to urge state lawmakers to declare gun violence a public health issue.
“Let’s not confuse this debate into one about the Second Amendment or going after anyone’s guns,” Hinojosa said. “This is what common-sense people of good conscience who are law-abiding want.”
I’m appalled when I hear some people say that the massacres that snuff out innocent lives at churches, concerts, movie theaters and elementary schools are just the price we pay for our freedom.
But I find it reassuring that people like Fritzsche and Hinojosa are standing for the courage of their convictions and are looking for solutions and places where all can come to reasonable agreement. I’m heartened to hear that a bipartisan group of senators led by Texas Republican John Cornyn unveiled legislation last week to strengthen background checks for gun sales. A Quinnipiac University poll released the same day found support among Americans for universal background checks at an all-time high.
Americans aren’t powerless. We know that the man who massacred churchgoers at Sutherland Springs had a domestic violence conviction in military court that should have barred him from buying a gun. Yet, he bought a gun each year since 2014. We don’t have to let that stand.
The subject of gun violence is sadly ensnared in a culture war. But, I believe that common sense and good conscience can transcend ideology. A few of you wrote to say that’s naïve. Sure, the gun issue divides Americans — that’s plain to see. But in the end, we all share a common and decent humanity and a unifying respect for the common good.
Objectives aimed at preventing more mass shooting are ones all Americans can rally around. Doing nothing after each mass shooting is tantamount to throwing up our hands and saying, ‘Oh, well, life goes on.’ Yes, but at what price?
Castillo is the American-Statesman’s editorial page editor. You can contact him at email@example.com