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“It’s not what you look at that matters. It’s what you see.” – Henry David Thoreau
The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday was about guns.
Some of it was about looks.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) sat on the dais at the hearing just feet away from nemesis Wayne LaPierre of the National Rifle Association. The Senate panel summoned LaPierre and others to address gun violence in the wake of the massacre in Newtown, CT late last year.
One may have expected a conflagration between Feinstein and LaPierre when it came time for the California Democrat to question the witnesses.
After all, it was Feinstein who muscled the assault weapons ban into law in 1994. Just last week, Feinstein re-introduced the ban at an elaborate press conference, flanked by victims of mass shootings and chiefs of police.
“If anyone asks if we can pass this, the answer is we really don’t know because it’s uphill,” Feinstein said.
LaPierre’s NRA immediately blasted Feinstein’s effort.
“The American people know gun bans do not work and we are confident Congress will reject Senator Feinstein’s wrong-headed approach,” said the NRA in a statement, noting that she “has been trying to ban guns from law-abiding citizens for decades.”
Feinstein’s long been associated with America’s debate over firearms. After last week’s press conference, Feinstein spoke to reporters about how she found the bodies of San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone when they were assassinated at city hall in 1978. Feinstein said she “put a finger in a bullet hole” in Milk’s body to determine if he still had a pulse. Blood was seen smeared over Feinstein’s dress when she announced the deaths of Milk and Moscone at a press conference. Feinstein had been president of the board of supervisors. Days later, Feinstein succeeded Moscone as mayor.
So with this much combustible tinder, everyone braced for a verbal flash fire between hardened adversaries.
“I want to thank everybody for being here, particularly our witnesses,” began Feinstein. “Even you, Mr. LaPierre. It’s good to see you again.”
The crowd at the rear of the hearing room chortled.
“We tangled, what was it? Eighteen years ago? You look pretty good actually,” Feinstein said.
Murmuring from the crowd grew as Feinstein complimented LaPierre.
Feinstein then launched her questioning.
“Chief Johnson, I’d like to talk with you,” said Feinstein.
As quickly as Feinstein had sent LaPierre a verbal bouquet, she forgot all about him. Those itching for a verbal firebombing were disappointed as Feinstein directed her interrogatory to Baltimore County Police Chief James Johnson, the chair of the National Law Enforcement Partnership to Prevent Gun Violence.
Feinstein never asked a single question of LaPierre or any other witness.
Another tangle between Feinstein and LaPierre – much like those imbroglios of 18 years ago – would have made for good television. But it probably wouldn’t have looked good for Feinstein in her effort to re-up the assault weapons ban.
She opted for the high road as perception and looks were paramount at the hearing.
In fact, there were no real flare-ups during the nearly four-hour session. After the hearing, Johnson called out LaPierre for testifying that few gun crimes were every prosecuted in the U.S. But Johnson was nothing but complimentary when a reporter asked how he thought LaPierre and the NRA comported themselves.
“I think their delivery today was polite,” Johnson said.
Manners were important to the NRA for this meeting.
Earlier in the week, the NRA asked its members to fill the hearing room. But it cautioned Second Amendment backers that they’d have to “go through airport-like security.” It was a not-so-subtle hint to avoid any incidents with the U.S. Capitol Police, lest an NRA member cause an incident by packing heat. The NRA also discouraged supporters from bringing signs and placards. It instructed attendees to “dress appropriately for an event being held on Capitol Hill.”
The NRA didn’t want to ignite a televised inferno. Stoking such embers wouldn’t look good for the cause.
Looks were also important when it came to the weapons themselves.
During her testimony, Gayle Trotter of the Independent Women’s Forum explained that firearms were an “equalizer.” She argued that access to powerful weapons helped women defend themselves and their families.
“Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15 weapons are their weapons of choice,” said Trotter. “The peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened, violent criminals.”
Trotter testified that semiautomatic rifles such as an AR-15 were not only “light” and “accurate,” but the “scary-looking” factor helped embolden women who could intimidate potential assailants just by wielding one.
During his remarks, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) displayed a picture of a Remington 750, often used for hunting. Cruz displayed a pistol grip to demonstrate how “cosmetic features” could morph the rifle into an assault weapon.
LaPierre said possible restrictions under consideration are “based on falsehoods from people who do not understand firearms.”
Perceptions are everything.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) cited a liberal Harvard professor in 1972 who was confounded how President Nixon defeated Sen. George McGovern (D-SD) when everyone he knew voted for McGovern.
“I bet there are people on our side that can’t believe Obama won because everyone they know voted against him,” Graham said. “The point is that we have different perspectives on this.”
Someone who does have perspective on this is former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ). The former Congresswoman surprised many, arriving just before the hearing started to deliver a 72-word statement. Critically wounded by a bullet to the head, Giffords abandoned her wheelchair and walked to the witness table with the assistance of husband Mark Kelly, who also testified.
Giffords wore a crimson top, matching earrings and dark-rimmed glasses. Her hair was styled in soft curls to her shoulders. Everyone in the hearing room stood to see her.
“Speaking is difficult,” said Giffords, laboring to enunciate each syllable of her remarks. “But I need to say something important.”
The Arizona Democrat looked great. However, Giffords’ deliberate speech pattern betrayed the violence unleashed on her in a grocery store parking lot.
Most at Wednesday’s hearing focused on looks and perception. But what those on both sides of the gun issue really wanted was for people to listen.