I had a couple of interesting exchanges about gun control last week. One was a reasonable debate with a guy from the National Rifle Association who thinks Chicago (and everywhere else) would be better off if concealed weapons were legal. The other was with Mayor Daley, who didn’t like a question I’d asked him and suggested maybe he could make his point better by sodomizing and shooting me.

By now you’ve undoubtedly heard something about the mayor’s strange “joke.” It’s gotten around—a friend wrote me over the weekend to say that “halfway around the world in South Korea where I live, I still caught you in the news (or I should say caught your ass in the news).”

Daley had called a press conference to talk about what his administration is planning to do in the likely event that Chicago’s gun ban is overturned by the United States Supreme Court next month. He spoke in vague terms about lobbying for federal legislation and finding ways to pressure gun manufacturers and “extremists” like the NRA. “It’s really amazing how powerful they are,” he said, standing next to a table strewn with handguns, rifles, and even a machine gun that he said had been seized by police. “They’re bigger than the oil industry, bigger than the gas industry, bigger than Google, bigger than President Obama and the rest of them.”

He also decried the recent spike in violence here, which has left people dead and wounded in neighborhoods as different as Lincoln Park, Gage Park, and Chatham.

That’s when I asked the obvious question about whether he thinks Chicago’s gun ban has been effective: it’s clear people are getting and using guns in spite of it.

The mayor told me it was and then offered to show me just how effective. He grabbed a rifle, held it up, and looked right at me. He was chuckling but there was no smile.

“If I put this up your—ha!—your butt—ha ha!—you’ll find out how effective this is!”

For a moment the room was very, very quiet. I took a good look at the weapon. It had a long bayonet. I wondered: Was it seized during the Civil War?

“If I put a round up your—ha ha!”

The photographers snapped away. People started cracking up.

“This gun saved many lives,” Daley said. “It could save your life.” I think he meant that getting the gun off the streets might have saved lives.

Within hours video and audio clips of the incident were circulating around the Web, and the account of it that I’d posted on the Reader‘s site was linked to by scores of news organizations and bloggers. Many of them questioned the mayor’s mental balance and declared that he’d embarrassed the city. Many more cited it as an example of the idiocy behind gun-control legislation.

The next day I got an e-mail from someone with NRA News asking if I’d be willing to come on their satellite radio show and talk about the Daley presser. Why not?

The host, Cam Edwards, was eager to hear all about Daley’s bizarre antics and what I was thinking as it happened. I recounted the incident as well as I could—but then added that it didn’t mean I was opposed to gun control. Quite the contrary.

I expected Edwards to pounce and I got ready to defend myself, but I didn’t need to. Edwards as much as told me he thought I needed to see the light, but he was also polite, thoughtful, and armed with facts. “I’m sure if we got into policy discussions about specific issues you and I would find a lot of areas where we disagree, yet here you and I are able to have a perfectly civil conversation,” he said. “You ask a question—and again I think a very reasonable question of the mayor—and not only is he unwilling to give you a straight answer but it’s this non sequitur that’s designed to really minimize the question that you asked.”

And that, to me, was what this whole episode was really about.

At the end of last week the mayor said he’d merely been trying to teach a lesson to me and the rest of the press corps about how dangerous guns are, since it was clear from my question that we don’t get it. “I want to shock you, maybe scare you to realize, this is serious,” he said. “I want you to be as passionate as I am.”

Mayoral press secretary Jackie Heard translated, as she always does: “The person asking the question was missing the point that unrestricted guns are a devastating issue.”

Actually, they’re the ones missing the point, and they’re of course doing it on purpose. You don’t have to fire a gun to shoot the messenger.

This isn’t really about me—I just happened to be the one who set the mayor off this time around. I’m sure I’m no favorite of his, but he regularly lays into other reporters, aldermen, and underlings for the same sort of transgression—daring to question him.

But since he’s brought up my own personal ignorance and insensitivity, I’ll offer him just a couple of quick autobiographical details so he knows where I’m coming from the next time around. One of my uncles was slain in a gun accident years ago. When I taught at an alternative high school on the south side in the 1990s, my students and I narrowly avoided being shot during a field trip when a gang member chased after us with a gun. One of my students was later executed in an alley for crossing the wrong gang lords. As a reporter I travel all over the city—by public transit, since I don’t own a car or have a chauffeur—to spend time with people directly affected by violence. Like many other Chicagoans, I’ve seen people carrying guns on the train and witnessed attacks there. Just last week I was at a CAPS meeting on the west side where people talked openly about the shootings, gambling, prostitution, and drug dealing outside their homes.

None of this gives me special insight into urban violence. But like thousands of other ordinary citizens in this city, I have to confront the reality that Chicago isn’t a particularly safe place to live.

The real point here is that a critical discussion needs to take place about gun control, violence, an understaffed police force, neglected neighborhoods, chronic joblessness, the war on drugs, failing schools, and the priorities of public officials. Since the press conference several more people have been killed in shootings across the city (including two on the block in South Shore where I used to teach).

But Mayor Daley has shown no sign of being interested in talking about it. He’s decided what needs to happen, as if this gun ban will solve everything, and we’re either with him or against him. There’s no better illustration of his intolerance for debate, dissent, and transparency than his decision to hold a gun up and joke about shooting a journalist.

Mayor Daley once referred to former governor Rod Blagojevich as “cuckoo.” But Blagojevich sounded pretty rational the other day when he discussed the mayor’s gun-control policies on his radio show, according to a transcription posted by the Trib‘s Eric Zorn. “He’s basically trying to divert attention from the fact that in many communities in Chicago—unfortunately, disproportionately, the African American neighborhoods and Hispanic neighborhoods—gun violence is intolerable, unacceptable, and out of control,” said Blago. “And so the mayor has a political tactic where he comes out there, starts screaming, gets red in the face, proposes gun control legislation to send to Springfield, and doesn’t lift a finger to get that legislation passed.”

Sound familiar? I don’t fear being shot in the ass by the mayor. I just worry that his antics are going to distract us again. We can’t afford to keep missing the point.   v

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