The Ethical Spectacle March 1995 (

A Letter to Mr. Gingrich

I sent the following by electronic mail to Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich on February 2. Mr. Gingrich may be reached at Dear Mr. Gingrich:

Please do not violate your Contract With America by repealing the ban on assault weapons.

The Contract says nothing about such a repeal. Your party received a mandate from the American people only to carry out those actions promised in the Contract. To take other important initiatives not mentioned there is literally and metaphorically a breach of contract (your metaphor). By adding items to your agenda not mentioned in the Contract With America, you would undermine the integrity of that document, by implying to the American people that it was an incomplete or misleading summary of your platform.

Various members of your party are claiming that the November elections gave them a mandate to carry out a right-wing agenda by implementing social changes never mentioned in the Contract. It is your responsibility as Speaker to reign them in. You are governed by, and owe consummate respect to, your own metaphor of a contract, which served you so well in these elections. If I hire you to build my house, I expect it to be built according to the blueprints we established. If you build a shooting range or a chapel I never asked for, you have breached the contract.

The ban on assault weapons was popular with the American people. To paraphrase Count Talleyrand, the great-grandfather of all practical politics, to repeal it would not only be morally wrong-- it would also be a mistake. It would support a belief that your party was a captive of special interests, rather than representative of the people who voted for them. While the majority of your electorate--I mean the "November Republicans" nationwide, not just your district in Georgia--is not in favor of an absolute gun ban, they are firmly in favor of a ban on assault weapons. Just have your pollsters ask the right questions, and you will see.

Assault weapons are semiautomatic weapons which can fire a lot of bullets in a short period of time through repetitive squeezing of the trigger. They are not accurate weapons for hunting or target shooting. They have one reason for existence: to take down as many people as possible in a short period of time. They are constantly being purchased and used for this purpose by unbalanced people such as the Long Island Railroad gunman, the killer of the Cambodian school- children in California, the recent abortion-clinic gunman, and the student who killed his fellows on the Berkshire college campus a couple of years ago. Each of these individuals bought his semiautomatic weapon in a gunshop. Each of them would have been able to kill many fewer people without it. None of them were hardened prior killers or (with the possible exception of the schoolyard gunman) the kind of criminal who would have been able to obtain an illegal gun if a legal one hadn't been available. And here's a key point: Since most of them had minor prior criminal records, or none at all, no tougher laws, no three strikes and you're out, would have had them off the streets and prevented the killings. These murderers committed their first, second and third strikes all at once.

You have claimed immense moral authority in your position as author of the Contract With America and as speaker of the House. Some comments and actions of yours recently have indicated you have doubts about the assault weapon repeal--you have asked the NRA to wait until after the first 100 days of Contract With America legislation, and you apparently don't want your crime bill to become a gun bill.

You must go further than this and use your moral and practical authority as Speaker to prevent a great harm from happening. If your party permits the banned assault weapons to return to America's streets, it will implicate itself in every murder in which these weapons are used afterwards. The President, the minority Democrats, everyone with an ethical sense and open eyes will make the connection between mass murderers, legal assault weapons, and the repeal of the ban. The NRA is on a wrong and self-destructive tack on this issue, and there is no reason for the Republican Party to follow them. It will be like a repeat of such early Clinton debacles as the gay rights issue. It is up to you to make sure your party fights the right battles, and doesn't lose energy, momentum and moral energy fighting the wrong ones. Returning assault weapons to our streets and schoolyards is a wrong battle.

Mr. Gingrich never replied to this letter.