INDIANAPOLIS — It could have been Gov. Eric Holcomb’s “Sister Souljah” moment.
It could have been his chance to do what Bill Clinton, as governor of Arkansas, did in 1992 — tell someone who is ostensibly in your political camp that they’d gone too far, that they are wrong about some things.
Imagine if Holcomb, when he went to the National Rifle Association convention in Indianapolis on April 26, had told them it was time that they listened to the majority of gun owners in the nation who support universal background checks and other steps to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people. What if Holcomb — who, like his wife, is a lifetime member of the NRA — had said being for responsible gun ownership meant keeping battlefield weapons off the market while still allowing handguns for protection, and rifles and shotguns for sport?
Holcomb was speaking about two months after a workplace shooting in Aurora, Illinois, killed six and wounded six more; six months after a shooting at a student event in Thousand Oaks, California, killed 13 and injured more than a dozen; seven months after 11 were killed and seven injured at a Pittsburgh synagogue; and a little more than a year after 17 were killed and 17 wounded at a Parkland, Florida, high school.
Instead of asking the NRA to join the effort to keep high-powered assault weapons and high-capacity ammo magazines off the market, Holcomb went to the NRA to sign into law a bill that among other things expands the places people can carry guns in Indiana.
“We want to keep the good times rolling!” Holcomb told the NRA.
Last week, a group of ministers from around Indiana went to the Statehouse to urge Holcomb to support universal background checks and a ban on assault weapons. They wanted to meet with the governor, but were turned away. Instead, they left a letter asking for a meeting within 60 days. The governor’s office says the request is being reviewed.
Former Fort Wayne Mayor Paul Helmke had his own “Sister Souljah” moment in 1998 when he was running for the U.S. Senate and didn’t back off his support for gun control, including the 1994 assault-weapons ban.
At a Southern Indiana candidate forum in the primary, Helmke recalled, he was asked how a Republican could take that stance.
“I could see the crowd getting this sort of angry look,” he recalled. His answer was simple: “I came to this issue as a law-and-order Republican. And it was too easy for bad guys to get guns and they were getting very powerful guns.”
He won the primary but lost the general election. He went on to become, from 2006 to 2011, the president and CEO of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. Now a professor at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Helmke said he once had students compare how cities approached problems. Students were stunned to discover the crime rate in Indianapolis was higher than that of Chicago. In fact, FBI data showed that in 2017, Indianapolis had 1,334 violent crimes per 100,000 residents; Chicago’s rate was 1,099.
“It doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom,” he said. “Indiana’s got a problem with gun violence… And when you look at the laws on the books, generally we don’t do much of anything.”
Though the state was one of the first to pass a “red-flag law” that lets guns be taken away from someone deemed dangerous until a court can review the case, the state has moved in the opposite direction, allowing lifetime concealed carry permits and expanding the places a gun can be brought.
Even background checks are hindered, Helmke said, by Indiana’s poor response to a federal law encouraging states to provide the names of people who have been deemed by a court to be mentally dangerous. Police and courts at the state and local levels all said it was someone else’s responsibility.
“If those records aren’t in the system, those people are going to be able to get a gun, despite the red-flag law,” he said. “You just need the governor to say, ‘here’s who is in charge of this process and let’s get this job done.’”
“We don’t have to wait for a Dayton, Ohio, shooting in Indiana for the governor to do this,” Helmke said. “We don’t want to wait for a mass public shooting to do something. We can learn from other communities. Let’s take some preventive measures. You’re never going to stop all violence. But you can take some steps to make it harder for these horrible things to happen.”
— Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College student journalists.