Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer An Early Casualty

By Jackson Baker

JULY 13, 1998:  On that dreadful March day that a mass murder of children by children occurred in a Jonesboro schoolyard, Governor Mike Huckabee joined virtually every other political or law-enforcement dignitary – in Arkansas as elsewhere – in decrying the presumably inscrutable cause of the disaster.

Sometimes the fault was narrowed down – to the church or the community or the family. Sometimes it was expanded, Jimmy Carter-wise, to include some vague disrepair or malaise in the moral climate as such.

Speaking to the Memphis Rotary Club just the other day, Governor Huckabee offered the example of a key scene in the 1981 film Raiders of the Lost Ark, the scene in which Indiana Jones, being chased through an Arab bazaar by a machete-wielding assassin, suddenly turns in his flight, shrugs, and plugs the villain from some 20 feet off with a single shot from a handgun.

The scene is played for laughs, and the audience laughter, said Huckabee gravely to the Rotarians, represented society’s growing indifference to, and contempt for, human life. What seems not to have occurred to the good governor is the obvious: that people laughed because, instead of waiting patiently to be sliced and diced, Indiana Jones cut his adversary off at the pass the Smith-and-Wesson way. So much for the Old World and its quaint rules of combat.

Three decades ago, in the aftermath of the killings of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, even Charlton Heston – now the Moses of the National Rifle Association – was moved to sign a petition for gun-control legislation.

Certainly the Police Chiefs Association of Arkansas, where I was then working, were for such legislation. So, at first, was the gubernatorial candidate I was working for in that tragic spring of 1968, one Frank Whitbeck of Little Rock, a businessman reformer who had been a force for change during the school-desegregation controversy and whose ambition was to rid the Democratic Party of the lingering elements of the old Faubus machine. In certain polls and by certain pundits, the well-financed, progressive-minded Whitbeck was regarded as a likely winner.

Whitbeck was a decent man, eager to do the right thing, and we had scheduled his first major statewide TV address for the week after the Kennedy slaying. It was a comprehensive cover-the-waterfront address. (In those days you could actually intrude on viewers for as much as 30 minutes – even an hour – of their time, preempting their favorite TV programs). Almost incidentally, with the air of it-goes-without-saying, our guy called for a modest form of gun-control legislation in the state of Arkansas. “The time has come,” he said.

It was one simple proposal among several more elaborate ones, and making it doomed his campaign. Organized sportsmen, the NRA, opportunistic opponents – you name it. They all piled on poor Whitbeck, who in the end was forced to recant. By the end of the campaign, he was forced into desperate formulations like, “I am unalterably opposed to giving some bureaucrat the power to confiscate your weapons.”

It was too late. Poor Whitbeck would end up finishing far down in the field – an early casualty of the gun-control wars. And, though he eventually regained his stature as an advisory force in Arkansas politics, he never again figured as a serious political contender in his own right.

Whitbeck’s example was surely one reason – perhaps the basic one – why the Mike Huckabees of the world keep surveying the landscape, looking for explanations of why these guns keep going off, and keep coming up with every possible explanation except the most obvious one.

But three decades later, in the season of Pearl and Paducah and Jonesboro and Springfield, Frank Whitbeck’s politically bold statement still holds: “The time has come.”

Jackson Baker is senior editor of The Memphis Flyer.

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