BILL MOYERS: As we speak, Peter Yarrow is on his way to yet another performance. Francine and I are joined by her husband David. David and Francine Wheeler, I’m grateful to you for being here with me.
DAVID WHEELER: Thank you.
BILL MOYERS: The Sandy Hook Promise says this time there will be change. But there was no change after Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, or Arizona. How many more deaths is it going to take before the change happens?
DAVID WHEELER: Well, hopefully none. But that's not realistic. This is going to happen again. And the number of deaths at the end of a gun since Ben was killed is an astonishing number.
So what we're trying to do in our small way is approach this in a way that it's never been approached before. I think the numbers that people are hearing about percentages of the population in this country that approve or support the idea of something like an extended, expanded universal background check system, for instance, leveling the playing field for all commercial firearm purchases.
Those numbers, those approval numbers and the numbers of people in this country that support that are so very high that it becomes a question of, you know, how many voices can we raise and how many people can make their opinions known so that eventually our systems of government that are intentionally designed to do nothing very quickly will respond. So that's where we are.
BILL MOYERS: Can you remember what you were thinking as that, what you call, commonsensical gun bill in the Senate went down to defeat from a minority of senators?
DAVID WHEELER: Well, sure. When we went to Washington, and we met over the course of a little over 48 hours with over a quarter of the entire United States Senate.
BILL MOYERS: Individually?
DAVID WHEELER: Individually. And, well, in one meeting, we were speaking to two senators together. Most of them Democrats, Republicans most of them A-rated NRA senators. I remember thinking when that happened, you know, "We have had excellent conversations with these people."
We have had frank, open, and honest discussions about their support of the idea of background checks and other common sense solutions we were talking about. And I remember thinking, "Well, we have these relationships. We can go back and we can talk to them again and we can open up this communication again for the next time the legislation is brought up."
Now ultimately, we didn't get 60 votes on the background check amendment, on the Manchin-Toomey Amendment. But when we arrived in Washington on Monday, everyone in government was telling us, "We see no clear path to even get to cloture.” To even get this bill discussed. To begin the process, the democratic process, the enshrined democratic process of discussion that is the basis and the foundation of our government.
FRANCINE WHEELER: And they're still discussing it.
DAVID WHEELER: Yeah.
FRANCINE WHEELER: It's still being discussed. The vote was what it was, but--
DAVID WHEELER: So we didn't, they didn't see a path to even ending the initial filibuster to introduce the bill.
BILL MOYERS: Which would allow debate on the floor.
DAVID WHEELER: When we finished, it passed overwhelmingly. I don't mean to sound boastful, but I would think that anyone observing this would say, "Well, that was fairly effective."
BILL MOYERS: What is your next step, then? What do you plan to do now in regard to Washington?
DAVID WHEELER: Well, remember that, you know, I'm not a professional activist by any means. And I have to confess that my experience at the city of Washington and our national government was very, very limited. I had not visited the city many times as a child or as a young adult. I just had never been. So in terms of next steps, you know, we will just continue this. We will just continue.
I -- on December 13th. On December 13th, I was the father to two boys. And I'm still the father to two boys. I still have two sons. And I will continue to help in any way I can to do what I believe as a father is the right thing to do to make our country safe for our children. It is not simply a matter of this country's relationship to firearms, which is complex, a long history, a very difficult history.
Without even opening the door to a conversation about constitutionalism or the meaning of any particular amendment. It is a very complex topic. Other elements of this piece, other elements of this situation are as important, if not more so, than that part of it. We are choosing to work with the Sandy Hook Promise and allow them to support our voice being heard because of their holistic approach.
BILL MOYERS: Holistic?
DAVID WHEELER: Absolutely. Absolutely. Sandy Hook Promise, Saturday the 15th of December, a number of our friends and neighbors went out into the woods on this walk and they hiked up to the top of one of the highest hills in Newtown and they stood there and they said to each other, and this is all by way of second hand -- I wasn't there. But I'm told, they said to each other, "How can we approach this in a way that will change things? You know, enough already."
And they looked at the history of the activism in this arena, and activism relating to other elements of this situation. And they realized that in many ways, the common approaches of the last 25 to 30 years have not been effective. So a new idea had to arise. A new approach, a new concept had to come to the fore. And you simply cannot demonize or vilify someone who doesn't agree with you. Because when you do that, the minute you do that, your discussion is over. Your constructive conversation finishes. It's over.
BILL MOYERS: When you demonize somebody who disagrees with you.
DAVID WHEELER: When you demonize. Exactly. And you have nothing left to say but goodbye. So you cannot do that. And we cannot do that any longer. This problem is too enormous. It's too big. It's too important.
BILL MOYERS: But here's what you're up against. There was this Minnesota radio talk show host who actually said on the air to, you know, "Tell the Newtown families to go to hell."
BOB DAVIS: I’m sorry that you suffered a tragedy, but you know what? Deal with it, and don’t force me to lose my liberty, which is a greater tragedy than your loss. I’m sick and tired of seeing these victims trotted out, given rides on Air Force One, hauled into the Senate well, and everyone is just afraid, they’re terrified of these victims[...] I would stand in front of them and tell them, ‘Go to hell.’
BILL MOYERS: Have you heard about this?
DAVID WHEELER: I hadn't. But I'm not at all surprised.
BILL MOYERS: So if he were here, what would you say to him?
DAVID WHEELER: I think I would, I'd ask him, you know, why he feels it necessary to -- I mean, I don't know the -- I mean, I'm sure that in his quote or in his speech, he gave a reason for that opinion. I didn't hear that part of it. I haven't yet heard, he probably gave some sort of a reason that he holds that very strong opinion. So I'd be interested in hearing about the underpinnings of that opinion.
Because I'm fairly certain that in the course of a reasonable conversation with this man, assuming it's possible, that we would find at least one small point where we could agree on something.
DAVID WHEELER: But I think there are some important elements here. I think people toss around the word, the phase, "tipping point." You've heard that before.
These things happen socially. There were tipping points in the civil rights movement. There were tipping points in the women's suffrage movement. There were tipping points in every major social movement toward equality and the arc of the universe bending toward justice, there has been some kind of a tipping point. And perhaps this is one.
BILL MOYERS: I know it's only been four months, and the Sandy Hook Promise is just really getting up and running, what are some concrete things that the folks out there listening to the three of us right now, what would you like to see them do?
DAVID WHEELER: Well one of the things they can do is if they have a representative who voted for the Manchin-Toomey Amendment, they can call them and thank them. And if they have a representative who didn't, they can call them and say, "Would you mind telling me why?"
The president has said it at least half a dozen times now. Nothing is going to change until the people demand it. Until the people ask for it.
FRANCINE WHEELER: He said that on December 16th to us--
DAVID WHEELER: He did, he did.
FRANCINE WHEELER: To us. And the people, the senators who voted against it, one of the things they said in their defense was, "Well, it was a three to one call from constituents who did not support this bill.”
DAVID WHEELER: Or four to one, or six to one.
FRANCINE WHEELER: You know.
BILL MOYERS: Right.
FRANCINE WHEELER: And so they were listening to those phone calls. So I would say, you know, get on the phone. If you support background checks and you support your senator to vote for that.
DAVID WHEELER: We know how well financed, we know how well organized, and we know how effective the other side of this particular part of this debate is. So it's an uphill struggle. There's no denying that. But does that mean it's not worth doing?
BILL MOYERS: All right, David. Suppose that I were Wayne LaPierre who's on totally the opposite side from you. And I were sitting here. How would you try to connect with me?
DAVID WHEELER: I would say, you know, it's well documented that he supported background checks in the past. That's not something that can be run away from. The importance of being honest and truthful and not prevaricate in any way to the people who listen to him cannot be overstated. You know, he has a family. There has to be, no matter who is sitting in the chair opposite me, there have to be points where we can agree on something.
BILL MOYERS: Well, you've said that there are some things we agree on. What are some of the things you think we agree on regarding guns?
DAVID WHEELER: I think we can agree that responsibility is tantamount. That nobody wants to be irresponsible in any way. On either side of this debate. I think everyone can agree that the kind of loss of life that this country has experienced is unacceptable. I don't think anyone would argue in their right mind that that is somehow the price we pay for our freedom here. I just don't think that's a rational explanation. So if someone has a reasonable approach to this issue, I think those are points where we can certainly find common ground.
BILL MOYERS: Suppose Wayne LaPierre said to you, "Do you think a background check would've saved Ben?"
DAVID WHEELER: That's not the point. That's a lovely diversion, and an interesting rhetorical tactic, but that's not the point.
BILL MOYERS: What's the point?
DAVID WHEELER: The point is, there are a tremendous number of firearms in this country, sales through the roof. Very responsible people are the majority of the owners of those firearms. Very responsible, respectful, safety-oriented, very conscious people. Good people. Our job as a society is to try to keep those tools out of the hands of the people who don't have the capacity to use them in a safe and rational way. It's -- we do it with almost everything else.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment carries the right to own an assault weapon? And if Adam Lanza had not had an assault weapon, do you think Ben would be alive today?
DAVID WHEELER: The Supreme Court has affirmed that there are limitations and restrictions to the type of weaponry that can be owned by the public.
The intended purpose of a firearm is to shoot a bullet out of the front of it. And at the highest possible velocity for whatever reason. Now, if you want to buy a weapon for target practice and for shooting on a range, of course, that's fine. And obviously the extension of this technology into the forces of our civil defense are incredibly important. No one's denying that.
You and I, could we afford it, could go and buy an open-wheel, Formula One racecar right now. And we could go out on Interstate 95 and see how far we could get before someone pulled us over and said, "You really shouldn't be driving that car here because it is a public safety issue."
So what I'm getting at is that's a technology discussion. The concept of lethality is a very difficult one to pin down. And people have been working on this problem for a hundred years. But it appears to me, in my opinion, that the one thing that makes a weapon lethal is the number of bullets you can get out of the front of that weapon as quickly as you can.
That's why machine guns were banned in 1934. So let's not get caught up in general terms of how we describe a gun. Let's talk about what the military needs to do their job in a firefight and what sportsmen and enthusiasts and target shooters and gun clubs, what they need. Because those needs are not the same. And the vast majority of people who own and use firearms in this country understand that. They get it.
BILL MOYERS: And yet?
DAVID WHEELER: And yet, there is an element that is powerful, well financed, historically entrenched, with its hands on the levers of power, that is not necessarily concerned with lethality. Not really.
BILL MOYERS: I read in The Promise's mission statement that you've launched an innovation initiative to foster new technologies that can reduce gun violence. What kind of new technologies?
DAVID WHEELER: I wasn't at the San Francisco initiative launch. But from my understanding, we're talking about technologies that would make it very difficult for someone who does not own that weapon to fire that weapon. Whether we're talking about some kind of a palm or fingerprint technology, whether we're talking about a smart gun lock, or whether that lock could be on some sort of a storage case or on the gun, a trigger lock itself, that kind of thing. And, you know, there's a lot to be done there. And it can be done now.
But I think there's a larger issue here. And we have to find a way as a society and a culture and this is going to take time, we have to find a way to release ourselves from the grip of fear.
BILL MOYERS: Fear of what do you see the fear as? And did you see it before the 14th of December?
DAVID WHEELER: Yeah. I did see it before. I did see it before Ben was killed, Ben and his classmates and his teachers. I did. You know? The minute there is an economic downturn, we all talk about uncertainty. Those kinds of things can foster this fear, or a type of fear. The world is a very complex place. And yet now, because of technology, everyone has the same size megaphone.
So that can engender this kind of fear. There is a certain media sensationalism. And often people refer to it, and we've heard this in this discussion from time to time, people talk about the culture of violence. That is certainly related to this. And there has to be some way that this darkness can be banished with light.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I notice that the Sandy Hook Promise, in some sense, is modeling itself on Mothers Against Drunk Driving. You know, that program on designated drivers, has probably saved hundreds of thousands of lives. And if I hear you correctly, you're looking not only for legislation, like the Senate bill that was defeated, but for non-legislative, voluntary efforts like that.
DAVID WHEELER: This is very important to be clear about. The idea that cultural change is what's required is I think that that's the kernel of success in there. It's a cultural shift to change the way people think about something they do regularly. The way Mothers Against Drunk Driving did, the way we've changed our relationship in this country to many things, many, many things that used to take many lives, and still do to some degree, but certainly, you know, we've made life better in many ways.
BILL MOYERS: How do you move from the grieving and from the respect for each other's individual needs at this moment of catastrophe to the kind of political action that can win 51 percent of the vote, whether it's background checks or assault weapons ban, or whatever. FRANCINE WHEELER: You have Columbine people, Aurora people, Tucson people we've all gotten to know who are still working together. So if that's the path that you're choosing to take, and I'm not even saying that this is -- I don't know where our paths are going with this. But we work with a whole bunch of people from different tragedies.
Urban, you know, city people too, who are on common grounds with this, who can work together like this. So it's not, you know, I'll get texts from one mom from Aurora who says, you know, "Hang in there," one day. Just a text. "Hang in there. Thinking of you." That's what it's about, right?
DAVID WHEELER: Yeah.
FRANCINE WHEELER: So.
DAVID WHEELER: Yeah. Our system is set up in such a way that the change is going to take time.
BILL MOYERS: What would you say to a community listening to us right now that has not experienced the tragedy, the catastrophe, the death that came to Newtown. What would you have that community do? What would you urge them to think about?
FRANCINE WHEELER: We have, the church that we belong to, Trinity Episcopal Church, that has started a community-based group called Ben's Lighthouse Fund, which Ben loved lighthouses. It was in honor of Ben, his name, but it really speaks to the youth in the community.
DAVID WHEELER: It's an outreach program.
FRANCINE WHEELER: It’s an outreach program.
DAVID WHEELER: For everyone.
FRANCINE WHEELER: For everyone, religious, nonreligious, a place for kids to go that can be listened to, activities, people to counsel. It's a place of -- it's safe for them to talk or to celebrate together. And that's a positive thing. It's hugely positive. That is also part of the promise.
We have to remember that a lot of this change, from what we experienced listening to Peter talk in the concert, I have to remember when I have my angry days, there’s positive change. Ben tells me, you know, "Mama, there's positive things. Remember love wins." He's right.
BILL MOYERS: Tell me about your angry days.
FRANCINE WHEELER: We have gone to a grief counselor and other counselors who talk about, you know, it's not “you're sad and you're angry then you start to get over it,” or whatever--
BILL MOYERS: The seven stages of--
FRANCINE WHEELER: You know?
BILL MOYERS: Right.
FRANCINE WHEELER: It doesn't work like that.
DAVID WHEELER: It doesn't really apply to our situation.
FRANCINE WHEELER: It's all mixed up, right? So one day, I'll tell you what happened last week. I saw one of Benny's good friends. And they were like brothers. And I saw him -- his mom, I couldn't, for like, three months, see him because it was too hard. And finally I said, you know, "Bring him over." They came over and he had a tooth missing.
And Benny never lost a tooth. So I was angry that he didn't lose a tooth. And he kept saying, "Mama, when am I going to get to lose a tooth?" I said, "Soon, soon, soon, soon." So yeah, I get angry. I get angry that my kid's not going to get older. Yeah. I get angry.
BILL MOYERS: So you're taking action with The Promise, is that helping you to get over it?
FRANCINE WHEELER: Well, personally, just my path has to do with sometimes helping them with legislative change. But it also has to do with me singing through it. So I'm going to be singing through my grief. I'm going to be bringing our other son in these communities like my church has started. Because that's how I'm going to help change.
BILL MOYERS: What are you doing with your grief?
DAVID WHEELER: I wear a pendant. It's a locket, well, it's a vial, as does Francine, containing some of Ben's ashes. I keep it with me. I don't hide from my grief. There is no way out but through. So I go through.
FRANCINE WHEELER: Yeah.
DAVID WHEELER: And I have amazing friends and family who support me. But I don't deny it.
BILL MOYERS: So, what do both of you hope for? How do you want us to get to what you want?
DAVID WHEELER: Right. Don't stop talking about it among yourselves, among your family, among your community. Whether that's your community of faith or your town or your city or your state, on the national stage. Do not think that this problem will go away. Because it won't. It hasn't in the four months since we lost our son, and it's not going away any time soon. It is an enormous problem.
So contact your elected representatives and if they don't give you satisfactory answers, then allow them to understand the expression of political will in its most democratic sense. Someone in Washington told me, a senator said, "There has to be something worth going home over. There has to be a vote that you know in your heart is worth going home over." So on the most basic level as citizens, let your elected representatives know what vote you think is worth going home over.
BILL MOYERS: I'm intrigued by what you think of those senators who voted against even a background check. I don't mean it in any punitive way.
DAVID WHEELER: No, I understand. I understand.
BILL MOYERS: But how do you read them?
DAVID WHEELER: I don't harbor ill will toward these people. I understand they have difficult choices to make. And I understand that the states that they represent and the constituencies they come from are very, very different than the place where I live and the people that I have in my life. There's a tremendous cultural difference. But there are also cultural similarities. And I am not willing to give those up. Not in a million years. We are parents. We are caring parents and grandparents.
FRANCINE WHEELER: And I think that instead of being angry at them, because I don't focus on what other people are thinking about what we're doing. I don't even focus really about that senator that voted no. What I focus on is saying, "We are here, this is what we believe, this is what we hope for, and we're going to continue to talk." It's almost like standing at a doorway and saying, "Okay, well, you can close the door and then we'll keep knocking and then maybe you'll open it again." And they will. They will.
BILL MOYERS: Why do you think this is such a difficult problem? Why do these issues involving guns create such emotion?
DAVID WHEELER: Our very republic, our existence as a nation, is founded in the concept of liberty. A new idea at the time. And I can't think of a human concern or part of our human experience that is more essential to our survival than the idea of our liberty.
BILL MOYERS: Including, I assume you're about to say, the liberty to own a gun?
DAVID WHEELER: Certainly. I understand that. But also enshrined at the top of that list is the right to live your life. The right of my six-year-old son to go to school and live his life and get off the bus at the end of the day. It is a thorny, thorny problem. I recognize that. But as a nation, we have to be better than that. As a culture, as a society, we have to be better than that.
BILL MOYERS: David Wheeler, Francine, thank you very much for being here.
DAVID WHEELER: Thank you.
FRANCINE WHEELER: Thank you.
DAVID WHEELER: Yes, how many times must a man look up…
PETER YARROW: Before he can see the sky…
DAVID WHEELER: Before he can see the sky?
PETER YARROW: Francine, how many ears must one man have…
FRANCINE WHEELER: How many ears must one man have Before he can hear people cry?
ENSEMBLE: Yes, how many deaths will it take till he knows That too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowin' in the wind The answer is blowin' in the wind.
BILL MOYERS: There have been eight school shootings since Newtown and more than three thousand eight hundred gun deaths. The killing field that is America never calls a truce.
In Kentucky this week a two-year-old girl was accidentally shot and killed by her five-year-old brother who was playing with a rifle he received as a gift.
In Alabama a 24-year-old mother holding her 10-day-old baby in her arms was killed by a stray bullet fired nearby. She fell to a couch by the door still clutching her child.
Hold that image in your head and your heart. It’s so emblematic of a country that has taken leave of its senses. And remember all the dead from all the solitary shootings and all the massacres.
If, as David Wheeler suggests, this is a tipping point for the movement against gun violence, the moment has come to push harder than ever. So, make the promise, “This time, there will be change.”
We’ll link you to the Sandy Hook Promise and other groups working to end gun violence at our website, BillMoyers.com. I’ll see you there and I’ll see you here, next time.