A Near Miss in Tucson

Memories of another threat to a lawmaker in Arizona four decades ago

The first weekend that Hubert Humphrey was Vice President in late January 1969, he visited Tucson, Arizona, a place he hadn’t often been but assumed was like his home state of Minnesota and the rest of the country. It turned out to be different. He discovered that guns were more common there than they were in his Midwestern turf of hunters, game, and wilderness.

Shortly after he arrived, the Secret Service asked for a meeting with him and his traveling staff, which included me, his press secretary. The agents’ message was that some guy on their nut list who had muttered about Humphrey to friends had disappeared from his residence with all his guns, including at least one high-powered rifle. They had searched his regular haunts and checked the building across from our hotel. Not a trace of the man could be found.

They asked Humphrey, whom they didn’t yet know well, to move quickly when we left the hotel and to get immediately into his car. It was a frightening discourse about vulnerability that came with his new office, and it scared the hell out of me—and, I assumed, out of my boss as well.

But Humphrey was Humphrey. When we exited the lobby onto the sidewalk, he spotted what couldn’t be missed—a huge crowd across the street, some with welcoming signs, many more cheering, and no one indicating any hostility. It fed Humphrey’s naturally ebullient nature, political instincts, and delight to shake every hand in sight.

In the instant gush of political euphoria that compelled him to press the flesh, Humphrey forgot about his meeting with those serious agents. He moved, without pause (and probably without thinking), across the street and shook hands and greeted just about everybody he could see. What could have happened didn’t. But it was frightening.

Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords wasn’t so lucky. Her state, where I have now lived happily in retirement for ten years, hasn’t changed for the better since that Hubert Humphrey moment of 42 years ago. Starting last year, it has been legal to carry, almost anywhere in the state, a concealed weapon without a permit if you’re over 21. Today, some legislators even want to permit guns to be carried into schools. A cowboy culture of holsters and pistols survives and grows.

As I think about our recent events here—of guns, wounds, and death—I also think about firearms elsewhere. I spent my first three decades in Minnesota, 35 years in Washington, a couple more in Louisiana (where I once stared at the bullet holes in the wall of the state capitol in which Senator Huey Long was fatally shot). I have lived in those places with significant gun cultures, yet here in Tucson there’s a different quality to it. We are a city with gun stores, shooting ranges, and an Old West nostalgia that seems to pollute the air and water.

People who believe gun ownership should be limited and strongly regulated, particularly now after the Giffords disaster, feel increasingly outside that mainstream. The overwhelming, almost limitless, outpouring of sympathy for the congresswoman, the outrage at the death or maiming of so many innocents, may have some positive affect. I hope it does, but I’m not so sure. I can’t wait another 40 years. Neither can this state.

Norman Sherman was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary.

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