The gun fighter

April 02, 2000|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Words like "crazy" and "insane" frequently crop up in Michael Barnes' conversations. Maybe those were always favorite adjectives back when he was a left-leaning congressman from Montgomery County. But now, as the newly minted head of a national handgun control advocacy group, Barnes again and again turns to the language of mental dysfunction to describe the state of gun laws in America.

"Like many of my generation, I was affected by the assassinations of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King," he said during a visit to his office here last week. "Since they were killed, over a million Americans have died in gun violence. I regard that as absolutely insane."

Though he is only 56, Barnes' hair has completely whitened since his last Congressional term ended in 1986, when he tried to trade up into the Senate only to run into the steamroller that was Barbara Mikulski. But in a crisp white shirt and dark, pinstriped suit, he looks as trim as ever and on this day is talking very tough about leading the charge for major changes in gun control.

Barnes didn't need the job as president of Handgun Control Inc. and its affiliated Center to Prevent Handgun Violence, both of which are chaired by Sarah Brady, the gun control activist married to former Reagan press secretary Jim Brady. Barnes was a partner in the super-charged Washington law firm Hogan & Hartson. But when the position opened at Handgun Control in February, Barnes deemed himself especially suited because of his experience in fund-raising and in politics.

Plus, he said, "It is one of the issues about which I care profoundly. I just get angry at the insanity of gun violence in our society. It's not necessary for us to have 12 children dying every day in America."

Like any modern-day Washington-based zealot, he is a fountain of statistics like that. For instance, he points out, in a normal year, "more people die in Maryland of gun violence than in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, Canada, Great Britain, France and Germany, combined. You could throw in even more, but you get the point. More people die in Maryland from gun violence each year than in automobile accidents."

Barnes said the new job satisfied his eagerness to return to public service. That continuing yen for public life helps explain how he got into one of the memorable embarrassments in recent Maryland political history. After the death in 1998 of Louis Goldstein, Maryland's long-time comptroller, Gov. Parris Glendening intended to appoint Barnes, a close political associate, to the job. But that was before William Donald Schaefer, the volatile former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor, was heard from. Barnes abruptly de-materialized.

Now he's back, and in a job that will likely make him more visible than ever before. At least that's his goal. "I think it's fair to say that the gun-safety movement in America is ready to be taken to a new level," he said. "My charge is to help make that happen by increasing the resources available to the cause and increasing the aggressiveness of our efforts on behalf of the cause."

Barnes, the father of two daughters, is no stranger to firearms. As a kid growing up in Montgomery County, he owned a .22 rifle, and as a former Marine, he knows his way around weaponry.

Since assuming his new job March 1, he has already lent a hand to his old pal Glendening, promoting the governor's proposal to require gun-safety locks on handguns. "I have appeared at two events in Maryland to promote it," he said. "We submitted testimony to committees in the House and Senate to support the governor, ... but frankly it's tragic that they're having to fight so hard for things that are just common sense."

In terms of tactics, Barnes has found a convenient, if ironic role-model. "What we want to do is what the gun lobby has done, although we want to do it better," he said. "We want to beat them at their own game. The gun lobby has convinced politicians that it is dangerous to their political health to oppose the gun lobby. We're going to show those politicians that it is dangerous not to oppose the gun lobby because the American people overwhelmingly support our cause."

Already, he said, his organization has helped engineer the primary defeat of an incumbent Democrat in California deemed soft on gun control. In the fall campaigns, he said, "We expect to be very active in 30 to 40 house races ... and six to eight Senate races." Additionally, Barnes said, he wants voters to know that in the presidential contest, Al Gore is for handgun controls and George Bush is against them. "Voters will have as clear a choice on this issue as is possible."

To affect the political races, Handgun Control is upping its fund-raising goals, hoping to bring in $2 million in 2000. The most it has raised in any previous year is $300,000. "It is our plan," Barnes said, "to do more in every way than we have ever done before."

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