A .22-Caliber Mayor with .357-Magnum Ambitions

The decision last week by the nation's largest gun manufacturer, Smith & Wesson, to produce safer, less child-friendly handguns came about because one mayor had the courage to step forward and challenge the gun industry. That man's name is Marc Morial, the mayor of New Orleans.

It was Morial who filed the first lawsuit in the country against gunmakers. It was Morial who braved the first firestorm of criticism from the National Rifle Association. And it was Morial who made it clear the fight he was waging wasn't about money, but about saving lives.

Morial quickly gained the support of another mayor, this one with a familiar name: Richard Daley, the mayor of Chicago. Daley filed suit on behalf of his city in November 1998, a few weeks after New Orleans.

The gun lawsuit was both politically opportune and morally right for Mayor Alex Penelas
Steve Satterwhite
The gun lawsuit was both politically opportune and morally right for Mayor Alex Penelas

On January 27, 1999, the first city on the East Coast joined the battle, and that city was none other than Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Oh yeah, Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas filed a similar lawsuit that day, but it was only after the other mayors had braved the political land mines. One area in which Penelas didn't lag behind, however, was posing before the cameras at the White House last week when the agreement with Smith & Wesson was announced. Mayor Morial was unable to make the victory celebration because he had to stay in the Big Easy and attend to the affairs of his city.

But not our Alex. Apparently Miami-Dade County is running so smoothly that, between fundraising events in Tallahassee and New York and everywhere else special interests have been stuffing his pockets full of cash, our sexy little mayor had time to fly off to Washington to have his picture taken. Heaven help the man, woman, or child who gets between the mayor and a bank of cameras.

Was the lawsuit a good idea? Certainly. The gun industry was far too slow in responding to the growing number of accidental shootings involving children. Under its agreement with the White House, Smith & Wesson will provide trigger locks to all gun buyers and design safety features that should reduce the number of these tragedies. The lawsuits filed by New Orleans, Chicago, Bridgeport, Miami-Dade County, and more than twenty other cities, as well as a couple of states, forced Smith & Wesson to take steps the company should have taken years ago.

But I have a problem with Penelas regarding his motives. Do I believe he filed the lawsuit because he thought the gun industry should be held accountable for the consequences of its practices? Yes, I do. Do I believe Penelas hoped the lawsuit would save lives? Once again, my answer is yes. Do I believe those were the primary reasons he filed the lawsuit? I'm sorry, but the answer is no.

This lawsuit was a chance for Penelas to step on to the national stage and curry favor with the White House. It was intended, first and foremost, to advance the name Alex Penelas, and if in the process it eventually managed to save a few lives, then all the better.

Now, you're probably wondering: If Penelas wanted to make a big name for himself, why didn't he rush to file a lawsuit against gunmakers before New Orleans? Doing so would have required courage and vision, and Penelas has neither. Too often his instinct is to avoid taking risks, which makes courageous action impossible. Likewise his sight is obscured by a myopic fear of failure. Coming in third or fourth with a lawsuit must have felt comfortable for Penelas. That way he could say he was one of the first mayors to file suit without actually being the first to break down the door and draw a hail of politically risky gunfire.

I've had this argument with Penelas supporters before. They maintain that challenging the gun industry and making a lifetime enemy out of the NRA took guts. And that Penelas did so because it was the right thing to do.

Realistically what choice did he have? As the Democratic mayor of a major American metropolitan area, Penelas knew he couldn't sit on the sidelines. Gun control and gun violence have always been the key wedge issues Al Gore intended to use against the Republicans during the presidential race. If Penelas wanted to show his fidelity to Gore and demonstrate why he should be tapped for a cabinet-level post should Gore win the presidency, then participating in the gun lawsuit was the very least the mayor could do.

Ironically, though, the lawsuit's success comes at a time when relations between the vice president and the mayor have grown chilly. Karen Branch's story in Sunday's Miami Herald was right about the tension between Penelas and Gore. Branch, however, did not identify the source of that tension: the commercial development of Homestead Air Force Base. Believing he had the backing of the White House, Penelas last year all but guaranteed residents of South Miami-Dade that the air base would be developed into a reliever airport. But Gore, fearful of alienating environmentalists, has allowed the project to languish.

Penelas's allies have dismissed the notion of any friction between the two men, asserting that Penelas is keeping his distance from Gore because the mayor needs the support of his Cuban-American constituents to win re-election, and as they are overwhelmingly Republican, actively campaigning for a Democratic presidential candidate wouldn't help Penelas. Pollster Rob Schroth was quoted in the Herald saying Gore needs Penelas far more than Penelas needs Gore. A Penelas ally told me the same thing recently. But I'm not so sure that's correct.

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