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Why Cartoonists Make the Best Case for Gun Control

The gun debate in America may have “jumped the shark” with yesterday’s Mother’s Day Parade shooting in New Orleans that left 19 wounded, including two children. When something as universally accepted as the idea of motherhood becomes a shooting gallery, any idea of a debate seems as absurd as Fonzie in leather jacket and bathing trunks riding those water skis over 35 years ago. Reuters ran with the story as their international headline the next morning, as the latest “look at the crazy Americans and their guns” story. But I’ll leave the real jokes to the real comics, who have already made their voice on the issue heard clearly in the short film "Cartoonists Demand Action to End Gun Violence," in which a bevy of big cartooning names try to make a serious point through the funny pages. While interests groups, the media, and even the government have failed to change anything, perhaps cartoonists can make the best case for gun control.

Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore narrate the short film featuring the work of more than 20 different cartoonists who range all over the spectrum in terms of political activism, which is one of the things that makes this film work. First, Hoffman and Moore list all the everyday places of American life sadly placed in the shadow of gun violence: schools, malls, street corners, movie theaters. The sight of Jim Borgman’s fictional, perpetually 16-year-old Jeremy from the daily comic Zits put into the context of gun violence at malls paradoxically made the reality even more striking for me. We don’t associate cartoon characters with the life and death realities of gun violence in America. We put them into a different, gun-less alternate universe. Sadly, we often mentally put real life teenagers into that gun-less alternate universe, too, at least until the real, gun-filled world shatters that false bliss. Sometimes it takes a dose of unreality to make the reality break through.

Before extolling viewers to agree that enough’s enough and to demand gun control, Hoffman and Moore list all the life roles—husband, wife, father, mother, family—gun violence interrupts. All along, images from cartoonists help us envision those roles. When they arrive at family, Jeff Keane’s The Family Circus strikes the point home poignantly. Begun by Bil Keane, Jeff’s father, over half a century ago, The Family Circus may be the most family-friendly, socially conservative strip in the history of mainstream American comics. Even Charles Schulz’s Peanuts looks radical by comparison. When the art of a real radical such as Ted Rall arrives on the scene soon after (as an angry mob about to awaken a sleeping congressman), you fully realize how this debate has grown beyond political ideologies and become a simple issue of human rights that has taken a darkly comic turn.

"Cartoonists Demand Action to End Gun Violence," organized by cartoonist Ruben Bolling of Tom the Dancing Bug, belongs to the larger Demand Action.org movement, which began as a campaign of American mayors against illegal guns. Even if you’re not a fan of cartooning or these cartoonists, pictures such as that of This Modern World’s Sparky the Penguin railing against a generic congressman with the U.S. Capitol dome in the background (shown above) by Dan Perkins (aka Tom Tomorrow; this year’s Herblock Award winner) should make you want to holler, too. Perhaps the absurdity of a politically active penguin’s the perfect symbol for the absurdity of the entire aimless debate. Lalo Alcaraz, Roz Chast, Mike Luckovich, Art Spiegelman, Garry Trudeau, Mo Willems, and many others heap scorn, satire, and absurdity eye high in hopes to open the eyes of viewers.

While gunfire marred Mother’s Day in New Orleans, four mothers from the Sandy Hook Shooting wrote an essay asking others to take the Sandy Hook Promise to honor their children by “do[ing] everything I can to encourage and support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence.” “As ‘Sandy Hook Moms,” we often hear the phrase ‘I can’t imagine what you are going through,’” the essay reads. “Well, please imagine it. Imagine what it’s like to lose a son or daughter to gun violence and encourage your elected officials to do the same.” Guns have claimed the lives of at least 71 children aged 12 and under in the five months since the Sandy Hook shooting, but that represents just a tiny fraction of the total 4,000 American lives lost to guns in that time frame. Each week I read #GunFail, a heartbreaking rundown of gun-related accidents both fatal and not but all darkly comic. "Cartoonists Demand Action to End Gun Violence" helps us imagine, as the Sandy Hook Moms, plead the consequences of gun violence. In response to the New Orleans parade shooting, Esquire’s Charles P. Pierce suggested that “[m]aybe we are not a good people. Maybe we should think on that for a while.” These cartoonists and their effort to stop the proliferation of guns in America gives hope that, if we’re not a good people, we can still try to be.

[Image: Dan Perkins, aka Tom Tomorrow. This Modern World.]

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