Opinion: Mike Royko (and Me) on Guns

The day after Robert Kennedy was shot by an assassin, Chicago Daily News columnist Mike Royko decided to re-write the Star-Spangled Banner, in honor of what he proposed as our new national symbol, the handgun.

    Oh, say can you see by the pawn shop’s dim light
    What a swell .38 with its pearl handle gleaming.
    In a gun catalog is a telescope sight;
    I’ll send for it quick, while the sirens are screaming.
    And the TV’s white glare, the shots ripping in air
    Give proof through the night that our guns are still there.
    Oh, don’t you ever try to take my guns away from me
    Because the right to shoot at you is what I mean by liberty.

We haven’t had a political assassination since 1968. Our elites have learned to insulate themselves from violence, as they’ve learned to insulate themselves from all the other unpleasantness of American life. But the average citizen, going about his daily business, has never been in more danger of being gunned down. After Sunday’s massacre of six worshippers at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, the only question is whether the next mass murderer will open fire at a street festival, a baseball game, a concert, a school picnic, a crowded beach or a restaurant. Whenever you go out in public now, you’re going someplace that has been, or could be, the shooting gallery for an armed young man acting out his political or psychological issues. Or, you could be accidentally shot by a gangbanger who missed his rival because he didn't go through gun safety training.

In America, the right to bear arms is more important than the right to feel safe. The Constitution doesn’t guarantee every American the right to shoot as many people as he wants, but it does guarantee him the opportunity. The National Rifle Association says massacres could be prevented by armed citizens, but do we want to live in a society where you have to carry a gun everywhere to guarantee your safety? I don’t. And I wonder what talented doctors, engineers and computer programmers in China, India and Korea think when they read about America’s massacre-of-the-week. That they might have a better chance at long careers in Canada or England?

After John Lennon was assassinated in 1980, Royko wrote a satirical column describing himself as the founder of the National Association for the Legalization of Machineguns, Bazookas, Hand Grenades, Cannons Land Mines and Anything Else That Goes Boom.

“If somebody can claim it is his constitutional right to keep a .38 in his dresser drawer, I don’t see why we can’t buy machineguns,” he wrote sarcastically.

Royko later developed a middle-of-the-road position on gun control, after he was mugged at gunpoint in the lobby of his Lake Shore Drive condominium. He ridiculed the idea that he could have fired back at his muggers, he never liked the NRA, and he wrote annual “Gun Owner of the Year” columns mocking people who accidentally shot themselves or their friends.

Toward the end of his career, Royko wrote a column entitled “2 Extremes Miss Target Over Guns.”

[M]any gun lovers seem to believe that any gun-control law that imposes any restriction on gun ownership is a bad law.

If you carry that to its illogical conclusion, we would have no gun laws and no restrictions. It would be legal for anyone-responsible citizen or nut-to buy a gun as easily as a bottle of root beer. And for anyone to carry it everywhere and anywhere, openly or concealed.

We need gun laws. How restrictive they should be, I don't know. But reasonable people should be able to agree on terms that would help keep guns away from dangerous hands while letting decent people protect themselves.

Unfortunately, we haven’t found that balance yet. 

 This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $2.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.

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