Steve Fish knows there’s a slew of petitions aimed at reining in American gun violence in the wake of the Sandy Hook school massacre. But the University of California, Berkeley, political scientist hopes his new initiative, Banguns, will exert extra pressure on politicians to stand up to the gun lobby.
Like other appeals, Banguns demands major changes in the country’s gun laws, including severe restrictions on the sale and use of firearms in schools, streets and other public venues. But unlike others, it isn’t primarily an outlet for people to express outrage and frustration over mass shootings in the United States, Fish points out.
Those signing Banguns’ petition, which is addressed to President Obama and members of Congress, pledge to vote for, or financially support, only those elected officials who engage proactively in effective new gun control legislation — whenever they run for public office in the foreseeable future, or in 10 or 20 years.
“We believe that our power of self-government springs from the ballot, not the barrel of a gun,” reads the petition. “We do not regard possession of firearms as the grounds of our liberty. We place our democratic faith in electoral institutions, not guns.”
Still, “It’s going to take years and years to really change our laws,” acknowledges Fish, professor of political science, leading authority on emerging democracies and regime change — and the father of two young children.
Fish was at the airport in Beijing when he heard about the Connecticut massacre, in which 20 schoolchildren and six adults where shot to death Dec. 14. Not one to normally sleep during a flight, he said that en route home to the San Francisco Bay Area he was especially restless and distraught thinking about what had happened.
“There was a feeling of helplessness in the face of evil,” says Fish, and that spurred him to type away on his flight from Beijing until his computer ran out of juice. His determined writings became a draft of the Banguns petition.
Recognizing the legislative obstacles to meaningful gun-control legislation, Fish is inviting prominent academics from across the country to help coordinate Banguns’ next moves, which will include a steady stream of pro-gun-control commentaries placed in newspapers, magazines and blogs.
That will help keep gun control on the political front burner when the media and others inevitably turn to other issues, he says. Academics are well suited to sticking with a cause for the long haul, according to Fish, noting that it’s common procedure for them to spend months on a scholarly journal article or years on a book manuscript.
“This time we cannot let the politicians do what they always do,” Fish says, adding that they have a tendency toward inaction until heat around hot-button issues dissipates.
Fish says he and others in Banguns also want to make it okay for politicians to stand up to intense pressure from the National Rifle Association and wider gun-lobby opposition to many restrictions on gun ownership and use.
“We are sickened and saddened that we live in a country where these kinds of incidents (like Sandy Hook) are commonplace, and where our political leaders lack the courage to do anything about them,” reads the Banguns petition. “We are not satisfied to watch our political leaders again merely express dismay and send condolences to the families of the dead.”
“We’re not Michael Bloomberg,” says Fish. “We don’t have the money yet to publish a full-page ad in The New York Times. But we’ve somehow got to create some rhetorical space out there for our side to be heard.”
While the word “Banguns” can be read as a political directive, it also is an old Malay/Indonesian term for “to rise, to stand up, to wake up.”