“All things considered, Douglas County is a pretty safe place to live,” newspaper editor and publisher Jeff Ackerman wrote. “That’s a credit to law enforcement and, I suspect, a citizenry that takes its Second Amendment seriously.”
As boss of both the business and editorial operations of the Roseburg News-Review, Ackerman takes the prerogative to pen columns for his publication. In February 2013, two months after Sandy Hook, his paean to gun possession anchored the local coverage of the national gun debate that followed in the wake of that mass shooting. In Ackerman’s paper — circulation 14,000 in the small southwestern Oregon city of 21,000 — there was not much up for dispute. The local sheriff had just lambasted the Obama Administration as anti-gun. A former sheriff had written in to support him. A stay-at-home mother and blogger penned a column titled “Why I am buying a handgun.“
The letters to the editor section bristled with passionate defenses of an armed citizenry and skepticism of the federal government. They derided “Barack Hussein Obama” for “completely ignoring the Constitution” and making America “like Communist China, the Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany” with his “illegal” executive orders, his pushing of a “United Nations gun ban treaty,” and his support for the “pro-illegal invader group ‘La Raza.’” At least three letters invoked Hitler to describe Obama’s alleged stance on gun policy. Another three decried “gun-free zones,” such as schools. One cited the White House’s “complete incompetence and its disinformation on Benghazi” as “the exact reason for the Second Amendment.”
There were a few dissenters: a gun owner who wrote in to decry the “paranoia” of Second Amendment extremists; a local pediatrician who lambasted his fellow citizens for believing nothing could be done to save more children while also respecting gun owners’ rights. But there was no mistaking the consensus on guns in Roseburg, a 90 percent white timber town with near double-digit unemployment and a vibrant (some would say aggressive) Tea Party chapter, the seat of a county that has voted Republican nearly 2-to-1 in each presidential election since 2000. As a community reads its newspaper, many local papers read their communities, occasionally indulging and flattering them, challenging their values only at great peril. Ackerman, a licensed concealed-carrier who describes himself as a “business conservative,” told me that in his three years in Roseburg, he’s learned that “it’s a pretty well-armed community. People are pretty adamant about their rights.”
Ackerman’s column that day in 2013, headlined “An armed citizenry deters criminals,” praised County Sheriff John Hanlin for firing off a plucky letter to Vice President Joe Biden, who’d just been tasked with the administration’s response to Sandy Hook, warning Biden not to “tamper with” the Second Amendment. He relayed Hanlin’s support of private ownership of heavily-regulated machine guns and other full-automatic weapons to create “a level playing field,” in Hanlin’s words. On the possibility that fewer guns might mean fewer crimes, Ackerman wrote, “the sheriff isn’t buying it and neither do I… I’ll listen to the experts over the politicians.” Ackerman was including Hanlin in the former category, and did not note that local voters had just overwhelmingly re-elected the sheriff, who had run unopposed, to a second term in his political post. “Lately, he’s a bit of a politician,” Ackerman concedes. “There’s a little bit of grandstanding on his part.” (As for the “experts”: as a body, they hold a more nuanced view than Douglas County’s elected sheriff. More than a decade of study by teams at the National Research Center and Stanford Law School indicates that relatively lax gun-carry laws are associated with an 8 to 33 percent increase in aggravated assaults. Such statistics, they suggest, may be the tip of a criminal iceberg.)
This was Roseburg in the years leading up to the city’s own mass-shooting last Thursday, when an imbalanced Umpqua Community College student took six of his estimated 14 legal firearms to campus and shot 18 people, killing nine, before reportedly killing himself during a shootout with police. It was the deadliest shooting in Oregon history, and the deadliest American mass shooting since 2013’s Washington Navy Yard killings.
It would be lazy, and hugely wrong, for observers to lay some blame for those murders on Roseburg’s consistently pro-gun, anti-regulation stance. Only one troubled, gun-obsessed young man is directly responsible. But the town’s self-identity as a Second Amendment stronghold, and the unlikeliness of that softening (Sheriff Hanlin has already doubled down on his position), is worth examining. Ackerman shared with me some thoughtful, moderate beliefs on firearms, but they rarely make it into his gung-ho gun columns. The result is a sort of performed stridency calibrated to fit the tone and content of the new firearms crusade, in which there is no room for moderation or reflection.
As reform advocates and leading Democrats make an increasingly fervent push for new gun laws, they confront the segment of gun owners that Ackerman is playing to in Roseburg, a segment whose adherents increasingly reject any role for government in reducing the litany of attacks like the Umpqua shootings. President Obama made a vivid point when he asked journalists to compare gun deaths to deaths from domestic terrorism, but the politics of the issues are just as importantly divergent. The war on terror, at least for a while, united ideological opponents. Gun massacres mostly divide.
“Your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights,” the erstwhile conservative celebrity Joe the Plumber intoned last year, after the Isla Vista mass-murders in which Elliot Rodger killed six and injured 14, half of them with handguns. Joe’s was a supremely callow expression of this new Second Amendment absolutism, but it was also a perfectly accurate distillation of the sentiment.
Here some of those same gun-rights zealots will point out that most mass shooters passed background checks. Fair enough. It’s the dead kids killed with Hi-Point ammunition trafficked from legally untouchable gun stores, or the kids unintentionally shot by friends who find a parent’s gun (unsecured, as laws usually allow, and ever at the ready to take on spectral home invaders), that do not trump their constitutional rights — rights that the concealed carrier has merely “purchased … back from the federal government.” That quote comes from John Parker, the armed veteran and UCC student who decided against rushing across campus to try to intervene in Thursday’s attack. Some national journalists held him up as a voice of restraint and moderation. In fact, Parker had not checked whether he was allowed to carry his gun to school. “I don’t know what the policy is,” he told NBC. He believes the Second Amendment and the Oregon Constitution entitle him to take his gun where he pleases. He’s hardly alone in that view.
Roseburg has a lot of people who like to hunt. But it’s not a love of taking rifles into the backcountry that’s driving the area’s loudest gun rights voices.
Statistically speaking, the vast majority of gun owners in America are not members of the NRA or its even more hardline brethren, like Gun Owners of America or the National Association for Gun Rights. Many of these citizens are much more interested in target shooting and hunting than in open carrying in the fast-food line or planning for a takeover of a fascist government. They show up in the polls that reveal broad support for universal background checks – like the sort that Oregon passed last year, closing the private sale loophole in the state.
Roseburg has a lot of people who like to hunt, as Sheriff Hanlin himself has noted. But it’s not a love of taking rifles into the backcountry that’s driving the loudest gun rights voices of the area and those like it. In these corners of America, rugged individualists once put a premium on the idea that rights come with responsibilities and yes, limits. In May 1968, Senator Bobby Kennedy campaigned in Roseburg for legislation to limit cross-state mail-order sales of guns to the criminal and insane. He was met by pro-gun picketers, some more reasonable than others, but they let him say his piece. “If we are going to talk about this legislation, let’s talk about it honestly and not say that it does something that it does not do,” Kennedy said. The crowd may have disagreed, but it listened. Ten days later, Kennedy himself was shot and killed by a 24-year-old immigrant with a handgun and a history of mental issues.
Since then, in pockets of the country, the old mainstream, moderate pro-gun ethos has been supplanted by a new absolutism that equates social responsibility with socialism and submission to tyranny. To such extremists — some of whom hold mainstream positions of power — there are no common-sense gun laws, only reasons to man the barricades.
In August, five weeks before the rampage at Umpqua Community College, the Douglas County commission, headquartered in Roseburg, passed a resolution condemning its own state government for the new background checks expansion: “Douglas County strongly supports the right of the people to keep and bear arms as stated in the Constitutions of the United States of America, and Oregon … and vigorously opposes any state or federal law that unfairly and unconstitutionally restricts these rights,” the resolution read.
It was the culmination of a campaign that Hanlin — a visitor to local anti-government Oathkeepers rallies and meetings — has spearheaded, and one Ackerman has facilitated in the pages of the newspaper he runs. During the months after Sandy Hook, he profiled a semiretired grandmother who sold handguns in town and used the profits to fund meals for local seniors. “The current administration has been very good for the gun business,” she told him, before launching into diatribes about the IRS targeting political enemies and the Department of Homeland Security stockpiling ammunition, which Ackerman dutifully relayed to his readers, unchallenged. “I get that all the time,” Ackerman says. “There’s a lot of conspiracy theorists around here.”
Like de Tocqueville’s prototypical frontier American — a an archetype that’s still a point of pride to so many Americans, from Roseburg to Rosendale, New York, to Rosebud, Texas — Ackerman in his columns takes on the air of a straight-talking iconoclast. “Sometimes I wonder how much of what I’m writing is just to see who’s paying attention,” he says. When he caught flack this summer for his right-leaning vociferousness, he dismissed critics of his writing as politically correct “pansies.” “If you haven’t noticed, there is a lot of censoring going on in the name of hurt feelings,” Ackerman complained, lobbying for thicker skin and greater outspokenness on all issues.
Yet this weekend, in his first reflection to the massacre in Roseburg, the News-Review publisher would brook no criticisms of Sheriff Hanlin and no discussions of contentious public policies. “[T]his isn’t going to be about the killer… Nor is this the time to talk about guns,” he reassured the community, “or whether or not new gun laws would have kept the horrific event at Umpqua Community College from happening Thursday morning.”
Chatting with me, Ackerman was much more circumspect about the tragedy in Roseburg — and about the gun debate — than his columns for the reading public have conveyed. While complaining about the quickness and ferocity with which some gun-control groups had responded to his town’s massacre, he acknowledged that “there’s no black or white… I don’t think anybody needs an assault rifle, an AK-47 or an AR-15. There’s a place where [Sheriff Hanlin] and I might disagree.” If that’s the case, though, why has a more strident tone, and deeper indulgence of the Second Amendment absolutists in Ackerman’s backyard, permeated his columns and led the local debate? “It’s an evolution,” he said, perhaps working in his head on the next, more measured column as he spoke.
Whether Ackerman’s advocacy serves a grieving community is uncertain. What is clear is that the vociferous libertarianism he’s spotlighted, the ardency of Hanlin, the county commission, and the gun industry lobby, looks to most sideline spectators like the only way to be truly pro-gun today. Like Ackerman, the majority of gun-owning Americans — within Roseburg and without — likely recognize that the truth is muddier. Perhaps more of them may dare to complicate the dominant Second Amendment narrative of politicians by speaking out, as others have before. That, too, is a way to be a good guy with a gun.
[Photo: AP Photo/John Locher]