Speaking to a crowd of an estimated 1,500 on the steps of the Douglas County Courthouse in Roseburg, Oregon, a U.S. senator made an impassioned appeal for federal gun control legislation in the wake of violence that had shocked the nation: “A person who is insane, a man with a long criminal record of killing a dozen people, can go in and buy a rifle,” he said.
The date was May 27, 1968, less than two months after the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr. The senator delivering the plea was Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who was seeking to win the state’s presidential primary election.
Eleven days later, gunman Sirhan Sirhan shot and killed Kennedy with a .22 caliber revolver at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
Now, nearly 50 years later, Roseburg is reeling after a gunman killed nine and wounded nine more at Umpqua Community College. Two present-day U.S. senators seemed to echo Kennedy’s speech last Friday as they spoke at the new Roseburg Public Safety building — on the same street and just blocks away from the county courthouse where Kennedy made his plea decades ago.
At the time, the senator addressed a crowd described by news reports as skeptical, and now, Democratic Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkeley faced similar challenges.
“It is clear that it has to be more about words and good intentions if this carnage is to finally end,” Wyden said. A solution to mass gun violence will require “compromise that is about rights and responsibilities.”
Merkley told the assembled crowd of media and local residents that he had been personally affected by the tragedy at Umpqua. The great-granddaughter of his first cousin, 18-year-old Rebecca Ann Carnes of Myrtle Creek, Oregon, was killed by the shooter. He spoke of the “responsibility to ponder what we can do,” and cited 18 school shootings and 45 mass shootings in the United States in 2015 alone.
Oregon may be known for its progressive politics — pot was made legal for recreational users 21 and older on the day of the shooting — but outside of the liberal bastions of Portland and Eugene, particularly in southern Oregon, the state is largely red. The day after his 1968 Douglas County Courthouse speech, Kennedy lost the state’s democratic presidential primary to Eugene McCarthy.
In recent years, Barack Obama won the state during both of his presidential elections, but he lost Douglas County to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012. As the president prepares to arrive in Roseburg to meet with family members of Umpqua Community College victims and survivors, he may be find a chilly reception if he chooses to discuss the issue of gun control, particularly with the visible anger and frustration he expressed in a speech from the White House on the day of the shooting.
Dennis Acton was a young teacher in Roseburg when Kennedy made his 1968 visit. His grand-niece Cheyenne Fitzgerald survived last week’s shooting at Umpqua and remains hospitalized in fair condition with a gunshot wound. Acton told MSNBC that guns mean something different in Roseburg than they may in Washington.
“I think people on the outside need to understand that families are thick,” he said. “Guns and knives, if used appropriately, you know, they’re very safe. And I just think that everybody, you know, needs to respect, to respect our interests, our way of life.”