A Bill To Make Every American Bear Arms, In The Novel 'Big Guns'

Apr 29, 2018
Originally published on April 29, 2018 7:46 pm

Guns and gun violence are all over the news, especially after the massive demonstrations led by the teens who survived the shooting at their high school in Parkland, Fla., in February. The teens are insisting that this time will be different from previous violent attacks in the U.S. where much was promised and little changed. But if a bracing new satire by a former congressman is to be believed, maybe not.

A new novel called Big Guns is set in a fictional town on Long Island that becomes ground zero for a pitched battle over gun rights and gun control. Its author, Democrat Steve Israel, represented New York's 3rd Congressional District until he decided not to run again in 2016.

In Israel's fictional small town, the mayor decides that she wants to ban guns amid a national uproar. But the town also has a prominent summer resident: the CEO of Cogsworth International Arms. Here's how Israel described it:

"He's one of the largest gun manufacturers in America and he decides that instead of constantly going on defense when there's a horrible mass shooting, that he's going to go on offense," Israel says. "And what's the offense? He's going to use the gun lobby to pass a bill in Congress that mandates that every American must own and carry a gun — with common-sense exceptions for minors under the age of 7."


Interview Highlights

On coming up with the premise of requiring every American to carry a gun

I'm sorry to tell you, it's based on fact. After Sandy Hook, after that shooting, the small city of Nelson, Ga., decided to pass a city ordinance that required that every resident carry a gun. And I decided to take that kernel of truth and embellish it, and apply that to the United States Congress and a president of the United States who are more fearful of the gun lobby than they are of gun violence in their own districts and communities.

On the relationship between the gun lobby and politicians

There's a common belief that the gun lobby pumps tons of money into the campaigns of candidates — it's really not that. It's the intensity of so-called gun voters. I remember talking to my colleagues after they voted against sensible things like "No Fly, No Buy" which says that if you aren't allowed on an airplane you shouldn't be able to get a military-style assault weapon. Or they voted against additional funding for research of gun violence. And when we went onto the members-only elevator — which is one of the few places where you can speak confidentially to your colleagues — they would tell me they were ashamed of their votes. And I would say: Well, why did you vote against those things? And the answer was: I can't go home to my district and face those NRA voters who will not forgive me for those votes. And that's why we're in the mess we're in.

On writing a satire

The fact of the matter is that the United States Congress has had opportunities to act to reduce gun violence. And on each and every occasion it hasn't. The No. 1 most-asked question in America after a mass shooting is: When will Congress do something? ... And the most honest way I could answer the question is to expose the truth with satire. Now, I could have done, I guess, a dry policy book explaining voter intensity among gun voters versus non-gun voters. But, you know, other than my mom I don't know that anybody would have bought that book.

On how he squares the cynicism of his book with encouraging Parkland students to speak out in support of gun control

So after the Las Vegas shooting I actually did a piece for The New York Times that the Times headlined: "Nothing Will Change [After the Las Vegas Shooting]". And I explained why Congress will not act. Now, since Parkland, I'm a little bit more hopeful, but my hopeful is tempered by 16 years of witnessing some of the reasons to be cynical.

And the point for these children and these kids is this: It's very important to march — and I spoke at one of the marches — but they've got to march to the right places. They've got to go into ... the most competitive congressional districts in the country in the upcoming midterm where you have a pro-NRA incumbent who's being challenged by somebody who will take on the gun lobby. There are about 15 of those districts. So my point is: You can have hope, but you've got to be strategic, and you've got to be savvy. And we need to go into those districts, make the phone calls, knock on doors, make the case. Because if we can only win five of those 15 districts, that will make a change in Congress.

And what do I mean by that? There is nothing more elucidating to a member of Congress than seeing his or her colleagues lose to an ideology. And when that happens — when they see members of Congress losing their election — you will not be surprised at how quickly those who remain in Congress change their positions.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we want to tell you about a fictional treatment of a serious policy debate - guns. Since the Parkland shooting and massive demonstrations around the country led by a vocal group of teenagers, advocates for gun control have expressed the hope that this may be a turning point for them. But if a bracing new satire by a former congressman is accurate, then maybe not.

The novel is called 'Big Guns' and the author is Steve Israel. He is a Democrat. He represented New York's 3rd Congressional District until he decided not to run again in 2016. Steve Israel joins us now from our studios in New York. And we'll let him try to describe the crazy plot without giving too much away. Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVE ISRAEL: Well, thanks for having me on. Appreciate it.

MARTIN: All right, well, let me start, and then you can kind of pick up the thread here. The novel starts in Chicago. The mayor there wants to do something about the gun violence that's spiraling out of control. So he calls on other cities around the country to ban them. And in this little town on Long Island, the mayor there decides that she wants to do that. And then it becomes this battle royale. Go ahead. You pick it up from there.

ISRAEL: Well, the problem that this small-town mayor has is her town happens to have the summer residence of Otis Cogsworth, who is the owner of Cogsworth International Armaments. He is one of the largest gun manufacturers in America. And he decides he's going to use the gun lobby to pass a bill in Congress that mandates that every American must own and carry a gun with common-sense exceptions for minors under the age of 7.

MARTIN: Well, let me just read a passage from the point of view of the head of public relations for a big gun manufacturer. And you write, she gazed out a window toward the Capitol, already shimmering in Washington's early morning heat. There was a time she'd been inspired by the site. Now, she thought of it merely as a massive cash register sheathed in marble. She put money in. She took money out. OK. So Shakespeare you aren't, but (laughter)...

ISRAEL: (Laughter) I never pretended to be.

MARTIN: OK, but is it really that bad?

ISRAEL: You know, there's a common belief that the gun lobby pumps tons of money into the campaigns of candidates. It's really not that. It's the intensity of so-called gun voters. I remember talking to my colleagues after they voted against sensible things like no fly, no buy, which says that if you aren't allowed on an airplane, you shouldn't be able to get a military-style assault weapon. Or they voted against additional funding for research of gun violence.

And when we went onto the members-only elevator, which is one of the few places where you can speak confidentially to your colleagues, they would tell me they were ashamed of their votes. And I would say, well, why did you vote against those things? And the answer was, I can't go home to my district and face those NRA voters who will not forgive me for those votes. And that's why we're in the mess we're in.

MARTIN: So I do want to mention you don't just write snarky novels. You wrote a piece after the Parkland shooting encouraging teenagers to say, OK, you know, marching is one thing, but you can make a difference in competitive districts. And you pointed out...

ISRAEL: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...Some of those competitive districts. And I'm just wondering how you square that against the tone of this novel. I mean, one of the reviewers for Newsday, for example, said that, you know, harder to swallow is the book's relentless cynicism, which at times registers as sour, even cheap. "Big Guns" feels oddly resigned. And I have to ask you about that. Yes, it's a novel.

ISRAEL: (Laughter) Sure.

MARTIN: I get it. It's a satire. I get it. But it does have this feeling of there is nothing you can do. Nothing's going to change, ever. And how do you square that?

ISRAEL: Well, look, I could not write a book - whether it was satirical or not - that puts any kind of glow on this issue. The fact of the matter is that the United States' Congress has had opportunities to act to reduce gun violence. And on each and every occasion, it hasn't. The number one most-asked question in America after a mass shooting is when will Congress do something? I lived through it - over 32 mass shootings in my 16 years. And I decided to answer the question. And the best way that I can answer the question was from the inside, where it is most absurd. And the most honest way I could answer the question is to expose the truth with satire. Now, I could have done, I guess, a dry policy book explaining voter intensity among gun voters versus non-gun voters. But you know, other than my mom, I don't know that anybody would have bought that book.

MARTIN: (Laughter) I understand. I think the question I'm asking you, though...

ISRAEL: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Is that I guess I was just struck by the optimism and the sense of mission...

ISRAEL: Right, right.

MARTIN: ...That you expressed in your op-ed...

ISRAEL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Where you're telling these kids to, you know, go out here and make a difference, and this is how you can make a difference. And then I read your book...

ISRAEL: Yes.

MARTIN: ...Which seems to say that nothing matters. That is honestly what I was struck by.

ISRAEL: So after the Las Vegas shooting, I actually did a piece for The New York Times that the Times headlined "Nothing Will Change." And I explained why Congress will not act.

Now, since Parkland, I'm a little bit more hopeful, but my hopeful is tempered by 16 years of witnessing some of the reasons to be cynical. And the point for these children - these kids - is this. It's very important to march - and I spoke at one of the marches - but they've got to march to the right places. They've got to go into what is a temporary alignment right now of the most competitive congressional districts in the country in the upcoming midterm, where you have a pro-NRA incumbent who's being challenged by somebody who will take on the gun lobby. There are about 15 of those districts.

So my point is you can have hope, but you've got to be strategic. And we need to go into those districts, make the phone calls, knock on doors, make the case because if we can only win five of those 15 districts, that will make a change in Congress. And what do I mean by that? There is nothing more elucidating to a member of Congress than seeing his or her colleagues lose to an ideology. And when that happens - when they see members of Congress losing their election because these young people were able to motivate voters - you will not be surprised at how quickly those who remain in Congress will change their positions and maybe start voting on some measures that will reduce that gun violence.

MARTIN: Steve Israel is a former congressman from New York. His latest novel is "Big Guns."

Mr. Israel, thank you so much for speaking with us.

ISRAEL: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.