By Dennis B. Roddy
WILKES-BARRE -- I was slumped next to the world’s noisiest air-conditioner waiting for a speech and trying to figure out why nobody here pronounces this town’s name the same way twice. Wilkes-Barry? Wilkes-Barruh?
The din was cut by the voice of a diminutive woman with the accent of Ruth Westheimer and the rhetoric of Yosemite Sam.
"I was going to wear my camouflage suit today, but it’s too hot outside," she said. She spoke of fire in her belly. The Second Amendment came up as it will when the NRA gets together to endorse someone. Then this:
"We are at war with our government at this time. Please come to the polls."
There are several ways to take this kind of talk. One can be grateful she followed the declaration of war with a call to vote rather than orders to lock and load. Too, there is the reality that the Tea Party Movement has raised the bar for oratory as voting day nears. Then there was that perverse little part of me that looked at this woman, gauged her German accent and smirkily wondered what her dad did during the last big war.
As it turns out, what Helga Schwartz Hooper’s dad did during the war was to die at Dachau. Duly humbled, I stopped over to ask her about her extraordinary politics. She talked about her own childhood in the camps. Torn from her family, she says she arrived at Bergen Belsen age 5. Older children sometimes looked after the younger ones. She recalled an adolescent girl from the next barracks who taught the little ones games and songs.
"She taught us Yiddish poems," said Mrs. Hooper. I asked her to tell me one but she declined. She said she didn’t want to risk crying in front of a stranger.
That girl, she said, was named Anne. Yes, she said, that Anne -- the one whose diary was found after the war. It’s not the first time someone has given an account like this because the Anne Frank who was so vibrant on those handwritten pages addressed to her fictional friend, "Kitty," carried her dreams with her after she was rousted from the attic in Holland. One can see her grasping those tiny hands and making ring-around-the-rosy.
Helga Schwartz came to the United States in 1958. In Germany her family had been hunters and the Jews were among the first to have their guns confiscated. In 1963, after John Kennedy was assassinated, the talk of gun control seemed not only reasonable but prudent to so many but, to a girl whose family’s guns were seized by the Nazis, the idea of being unarmed had an entirely different set of meanings. Hailing from a demographic usually identified with moderate-to-liberal politics and a fairly comfortable fit with gun control, Helga Schwartz Hooper found herself either on the fringe or in the vanguard, take your pick. Just don’t write her off as some sort of Bavarian hillbilly. She has a Ph.D., and worked as a child psychologist, something she said helped her to heal. In short: she does a lot of thinking and has reached a conclusion we have long thought fit only into the noggins of guys in orange vests and pickup trucks.
The nettlesome asymmetry of American politics consists of people saying things that don’t fit expectations to people who return the favor by making assumptions at once reasonable and so wide of the mark as to blot out the sun. We hear a German accent talking war and assume things that tell us more about ourselves than about the speaker. Not every person out there who likes guns is a "gun nut," much the way people out there who cherish the First Amendment are not necessarily "free speech nuts." Sometimes the argument has roots in something we cannot fully comprehend.
Each of us is afraid of being shot. A distinctive subset has learned to fear the inability to shoot back.
Guns are pretty deadly stuff. The First Amendment makes it possible for me to tell my neighbor I wish him dead. The Second Amendment makes it possible for me to follow up. The intervening barrier between idea and deed is a large argument called law and, written too broadly, it can prevent responses that, in the moment, be it a rape or a revolution, could let the innocent protect themselves.
So, when people who think the Second Amendment should be given the same broad interpretation accorded the First ramp up the stump talk, it sounds a bit scary. Metaphors of war and testosterone-scented adjectives spook people unaccustomed to firearms. I grew up around guns in Cambria County and they were only there to make the deer nervous. I lived around them in Northern Ireland for a time and realized how the deer felt back home.
It’s hard to tell what difference a gun would have made in the hands of Anne Frank or Helga Hooper’s father. The guns owned by Europe’s civilians in those days were much like the ones owned by the neighbors of my youth: sporting goods. It’s not likely that Americans are going to fight off foreign invasion or the government leviathan with sporting goods. Guns are, in larger measure, a totem used to sort out the candidates. A liberal talks of the need to register and regulate firearms, handguns especially, to prevent street slaughter. A conservative talks of individual rights, responsibilities and the need to pack a revolver to prevent being slaughtered in the street.
Nothing much really happens one way or the other, outside courts occasionally striking down laws that are overly broad or just constitutionally defective.
Tom Corbett, on the day Helga gave her speech about war with the government, accepted the NRA’s endorsement for governor.
"Tom is one of those people who recognize that self-defense is a part of the Second Amendment," said John Hohenwarter, the NRA’s legislative director. "The ability to defend yourself shouldn’t stop at the state line."
This is an interesting turn in the gun control debate because at the outset gun registration and restrictions were opposed by sportsmen -- hunters, or occasionally people who shot at targets for recreation. I never owned a gun as a youth, but the most ample supply of gun rights bumper stickers and buttons in the neighborhood was available at the local fishing supply shop. This long ago ceased to be about hunters worrying they wouldn’t be able to track deer and shoot down ducks. The gun control debate has gone to the core of Constitutional principle and people such as Helga Schwartz Hooper have become the inconvenient emissaries for a narrative nobody wants to think about: it’s not about hunting anymore.