RFK's 1968 Gun Control Speech in Roseburg, Oregon

RFK on the campaign trail
in Oregon, 1968
In May 25, 1968, ten days before he would be assassinated in California, democratic candidate, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, called for gun control in Roseburg, Oregon, the site of this country's latest school massacre.

The 1968 British television news magazine, 24 hours, hosted by Cliff Michelmore, gave context to RFK's speech on gun control and reported how he was heckled in Roseburg by protestors who held signs that read: "Protect your right to keep and bear arms." (This was the NRA slogan that earned ridicule from gun control advocates with signs in response that read: Protect your right to keep and arm bears").

"Ever since his brother's death," Michelmore explained, "Robert Kennedy and all his family have been particularly aware of the violence of American society and the ease with which Americans obtain guns."

An excerpt from the 24 Hours program:

Walter Cronkite reported on the same speech in his nightly news broadcast where RFK highlighted the lack of controls on guns purchased through mail order.

What made RFK choose Roseburg to talk about guns? Was it coincidence, or has it long been a focal point of the gun rights argument? The Roseburg sheriff tasked with handling the unimaginable tragedy at the local college, a strong gun rights advocate, wrote to the Vice President after the massacre at Newtown to protest any improvements in the gun laws. He also once posted a Newtown "truther" video on his Facebook page that has since been deleted. Does Roseburg, like the rest of this nation, have the will to look inward on gun violence?

Does that mean Roseburg is responsible for this insane act? No. Of course not. The first responders were heroic. One of the victims, Chris Mintz, was shot charging the perpetrator and likely saved lives. Another lay still after being shot while the gunman yelled at her, "Hey, blond girl." That's courage.

No matter what the sheriff's or any other resident's position on gun rights, this massacre was committed by an assailant who was a loner, who bought or obtained his guns legally, who had a lack of contact with his father or a father figure, who had known emotional and mental issues.

That may not define all school shooters, but if we see a pattern, can't we address it? If we see a pattern of gun violence in cities like Chicago where children die, can't we address it?

Whether Americans are for or against gun control, or simply uninterested in politics, is it time for all of America to ask what can be done and then to do it.

President Obama has requested that news reports include a side by side comparison of gun deaths vs. terrorism deaths. The results are staggering. Since 2001, there have been 406,496 deaths by gun violence vs. 3380 deaths by terrorism.

The losses in Roseburg could be considered both, since the gunman, it is reported, asked the victims about their religion prior to shooting them. It was, at the very least, a hate crime. Whether the gunman knew about Roseburg's history on gun rights or not, the community that saw innocents lose their lives at Umpqua Community College heard a warning in 1968 by a young candidate for president at their very doorstep; a candidate who lost his brother four years before and would lose his own life to a gun just ten days later.

President Obama and Hillary Clinton have both called for the gun control debate to get out of the NRA's hands and to the American people. Bernie Sanders has called for changes in the laws. Martin O'Malley has done the same. The GOP candidates, all of them, have refused to consider any change. Their response is summed up in the now infamous comment by Jeb Bush: "Stuff happens."

"Somehow this has become routine," President Obama said. "The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We've become numb to this. We talked about this after Columbine, and Blacksburg, after Tucson, after Newtown, after Aurora, after Charleston. It cannot be this easy for somebody who wants to inflict harm on other people to get his or her hands on a gun."

In Roseburg, in 1968, RFK made the same argument about the ease with which dangerous people could obtain guns. One of those guns would kill him days later.

On the British television show from 1968, 24 hours, Cliff Michelmore interviewed a representative from the NRA, who cited the Constitution:

"In Great Britain, you don't have a written constitution, we do."

Great Britain and Australia, after more recent and horrific gun massacres, changed their gun safety laws with gun buyback programs, closed loopholes, and requirements for relicensing guns after a certain period of time, among other measures. Their gun violence went down exponentially, Constitution or not, which raises the question: Would the framers have wanted Roseburg to happen? Would they have responded with "stuff happens"?

President Obama, in his blistering and heartbreaking speech following the Roseburg tragedy, and who cited Great Britain and Australia's successes, stated:

"This is a political choice that we make to allow this to happen every few months in America. We collectively are answerable to those families who lose their loves ones because of our inaction. When Americans are killed in mine disasters, we work to make mines safer. When Americans are killed in floods and hurricanes, we make communities safer. When roads are unsafe, we fix them to reduce auto fatalities. We have seatbelt laws because we know it saves lives. The notion that gun violence is somehow different--that our freedom and our Constitution prohibits any modest regulation of how we use a deadly weapon, when there are law-abiding gun owners all across the country who could hunt, and protect their families, and do everything they do under such regulations--doesn't make sense."--President Obama on the shooting in Roseburg, Oregon

Who speaks for Americans? To whom must Congress respond? Is it their constituents or their donors and lobbyists? It's time for that debate RFK tried to start in 1968. It's time for Americans to decide what kind of society they want. It's what the framers intended.


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