TOO HOT FOR WORDS: I didn’t really want to talk to Richard Martinez. I just said I did. The guy scares me. Like the rest of the world, I first experienced the man shortly after six UCSB students were killed and 14 wounded in Isla Vista two years ago. Martinez’s 20-year-old son, Christopher Michaels-Martinez, was one of the fatalities. He happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is to say within eyesight and shooting distance of Elliot Rodger at the I.V. Deli Mart. In the wake of Christopher’s death, the elder Martinez would not fade quietly or discreetly to black. On TV, steam came out of his ears and smoke billowed off his head. He ripped into elected officials — “gutless bastards,” he indelicately called them — who did nothing to stop dysfunctional solar explosions like Rodger from buying handguns capable of spitting 40 rounds in 60 seconds. I would encounter Martinez in person soon after at the Sheriff’s department off Calle Real right before a major press briefing. There, even silent, he was searingly radioactive. No lead apron existed to contain the waves of grief. I asked a few questions but gave up. No words mattered, and I felt like an intruder. He, however, needed to talk.
In the intervening months, Martinez has done a lot of talking. He’s become the poster child of parental loss for Everytown for Gun Safety, an organization bankrolled by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to function as the political antidote to the National Rifle Association. Like a dog hit by a car, Martinez can’t stop running. In seven days, he’ll visit eight cities. When we spoke this week, he wasn’t sure if he’d be in Chicago, New York, Washington, D.C., or Los Angeles the next day. I was curious about his reaction to San Bernardino. Was it getting more than its allotted 15 seconds of fame because of our fixation that the killers might have been Muslim Manchurian Candidates? In the wake of recent carnage in Paris, I get it, but only sort of. Doesn’t anyone who sprays a contained mass of humanity with semiautomatic rifle fire — fish-in-a-barrel-style — automatically qualify as a terrorist in good standing? “Whatever the motives in this case,” Martinez asked in response, “how can we forget about all the other incidents?” As if to elaborate, Martinez proceeded to rattle off the names of at least 15 cities recently raked by similar mayhem.
When it comes to acute hot lead poisoning, we’ve all got our talking points. Since John Lennon was shot to death 35 years ago, 1.1 million Americans have been killed by gunfire. Since 1968, more Americans have been killed by “domestic” gunfire — 1.5 million — than in all the wars in the nation’s history, 1.1 million. A big debate is raging over what constitutes a mass shooting and how many people are actually killed in them. Depending on one’s definition, the number of victims ranges from 159 to 462. For Martinez, all this misses the bigger point. “The average American is 20 times more likely to be shot to death than would be the case in any other developed country,” he said. “Eighty-eight people a day are killed by gunfire in the U.S.” Two thirds of those happen to be suicides. The vast majority involve handguns. “How many people are killed on an average weekend in Chicago?”
Given Congress hasn’t pretended to address the issue since Martinez’s son was murdered, I figured he’d be madder now than ever. But on the phone, he sounded more tired and worn out. It had been a long day. But far from discouraged. Yes, he acknowledged, it is pathetic Congress couldn’t muster the votes to bar individuals on the FBI’s No Fly list of suspected terrorists from purchasing guns. (In reaction, it should be noted, Santa Barbara Congressmember Lois Capps has been among the five Democrats calling for frequent adjournment votes, the legislative equivalent of activating a fire alarm during school hours.) But even so, he insisted, there was genuine cause for hope.
Martinez and crew have spent the past 18 months focusing on statehouses throughout the country. Congress may be a dead-end, but state legislatures are decidedly otherwise. “In the past year, we’ve defeated 62 priority bills strongly backed by the NRA.” Typically, these have to do with strengthening background-check requirements. Last year, Washington State voters passed a statewide ballot initiative — for the first time ever — that would do just that despite intense lobbying by the NRA to kill it. Just this week, the Supreme Court opted not to hear a challenge waged by the Illinois Rifle Association to an assault-weapons ban enacted in the wake of the Newtown Massacre — 20 elementary schoolkids dead — by the City of Highland Park, Illinois. The petitioners argued on behalf of semiautomatic rifles, pointing out that they can accommodate ammo clips of 20 to 30 rounds. As one witness testified, this makes a significant difference when eradicating prairie dogs. “The volume of prairie dogs is such that sometimes it’s just more convenient to not change magazines quite so often,” he explained under oath.
The NRA, insisted Martinez, is not the omnipotent organization many Republicans and Democrats insist it is. The gun-safety side, he said, all but abandoned the field after winning passage of the Brady (background check) Bill in 1993. His group, along with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is working to rectify that. With 300 million guns in this country — owned by about one-third the population — Martinez knows it’s a tough genie to get back into any bottle. But if the experts figured out how to dramatically reduce the number of car-crash fatalities — from the ’50s and ’60s — by re-engineering cars, roads, and freeways, he’s confident they can do something similar with guns, if allowed. In the meantime, he’s still plenty mad. His son still won’t celebrate another birthday. And even exhausted, he’s still talking. “I refuse to accept we have to accept the unacceptable,” he said. This time, for whatever reason, he didn’t scare me.