It has become the kind of speech more people have opinions about than have ever heard. Bits of it have been excerpted, reprinted and repeated as the context has faded and interpretations multiplied.
Colorado state Senate President John Morse, a Colorado Springs Democrat, delivered the three-minute speech on March 8, during the height of heated debate in the General Assembly over several gun-control bills introduced in the wake of last year’s mass shootings in Aurora and Newtown. The bills aimed primarily at closing gun-purchase background-check loopholes, limiting ammunition magazines to under 15 rounds and barring convicted domestic abusers from buying firearms.
Gun-rights supports launched a furious campaign against the bills and, when the bills passed, launched a recall movement targeting the Democrats who supported the laws. John Morse was at the top of the list and his March 8 “Sickness in our Soul” speech became a rallying cry for his critics.
Independence Institute President Jon Caldara has been chief among those critics. He has told audiences that recalling Morse is a good way to send a message to lawmakers across the country not to try and pass gun laws. He has repeatedly characterized the Morse speech as offensiv, arguing that what Morse meant was that all gun owners who opposed the bills suffer from soul sickness.
Morse calls that interpretation an absurd misreading and has asked people to view the speech themselves on the Web.
“To insinuate that I referred to gun owners as a ‘sickness from our souls’ is obscene,” Morse said Tuesday, according to KDVR. “As a former police officer and a gun owner myself, I believe in the right to bear arms. And as a legislator, I am committed to making our whole society healthier and safer.”
Caldara, a bluff showman for the libertarian right, recently challenged Morse to appear on his public television program and debate the meaning of the speech.
So far, Morse has shown no interest. He is busy elsewhere. Yesterday, he filed a cease-and-desist order against Xfinity broadcasting and Free Colorado, a group backing the Morse recall effort that launched a video advertisement disseminating the Caldara interpretation of the speech.
The recall election is scheduled for September 10.
How accurate is the Caldara interpretation? Not very. Watch the speech in full above and read the transcript [below], provided with brief Colorado Independent notes and analysis.
0:00 The first section of the speech is about the power of the gun industry and its lobby and what Morse characterizes as a single-minded business strategy designed to knock down any impediment to selling guns and ammunition. The strategy, according to Morse, amounts to determined political deflection rather than acceptance of the need to pass measures aimed at decreasing violence and increasing safety.
“Mr. Chairman I move Senate Bill 196. Members, under current law in the United States, gun dealers and manufacturers are immune from liability, even when they’re negligent. No other industry in the country enjoys this protection. This immunity is the direct result of a powerful lobbying effort that ironically is subsidized by our own government and taxpayers through the military and the police. We ourselves have experienced the power of this lobby in the last three months. In the wake of 6-year-old children being shot in the face, the gun lobby has actually argued we need more guns and has managed to convince Coloradans they will lose their guns if we impose reasonable restrictions on firearms. They’ve argued that the mental health system is broken and needs to be fixed, but they’ve not introduced a single piece of legislation, either here in Colorado or across the country to address mental health.
1:15 In the second section Morse quotes Robert Kennedy on the “sickness in our soul.” This is the section where interpretations veer onto different paths and head to different parts of the woods. The phrase, “sickness in our soul,” expresses a feeling, on the part of the soon-to-be gunned-down Kennedy and articulated in the days after Martin Luther King was assassinated, about how the push for civil rights in the sixties saw hate and violence begetting hate and violence. Morse draws a line connecting the ugliness of the clash over civil rights laws then with the ugliness of the clash over gun laws today. Morse points to the way tempers flared around the capitol debate and how ugly parts of our character in Colorado rose up to be revealed.
At 2:03, he implies in a one-word sentence that the people who have sent the ugliest of messages to lawmakers during the debate are exhibiting symptoms of the sickness of reactive and provocative violence described by Kennedy. “During the last three months, we’ve experienced hatred and vitriol that I haven’t seen since I was on the street as a police officer,” he says. “It’s included wishing rape, torture and death on legislators and their families…. Sickness.”
Samples of some of the messages Morse is referring to have been circulating online for months. They were sent to lawmakers or left as phone messages as the bills were introduced and as debate progressed from committee to committee, many of the worst sent in the 48-hour period before Morse delivered this speech. The messages are inarguably ugly and “sick.” In some cases, they drew criminal investigation.
To read this section as a blanket diagnosis of all gun owners, or even of anyone who opposes the Colorado bills, is at best a stretch, and more likely either a defensive or willful misreading.
Robert F. Kennedy said after Martin Luther King’s assassination that violence breeds violence, repression breeds retaliation and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our souls. Cleansing a sickness from our souls doesn’t come easily. It’s gruesome. During the last three months, we’ve experienced hatred and vitriol that I haven’t seen since I was on the street as a police officer; it’s included wishing rape, torture and death on legislators and their families; it’s reached its heights just this week as we’ve been considering these bills in committee and we’ve been preparing to consider them today on the floor. Sickness.
2:04 In the third section, Morse addresses the legislative system and how change is made, and he makes the case for the pro-gun-control efforts he is helping to lead at the capitol. He says passing new gun-control laws will be slow, because that’s how the legislative system is built, to move on the current of evolving public attitudes and opinions. He takes time to detail the “strides” made by the lawmakers who support the gun laws as a prelude to what is the official purpose of his speech, which is to effectively kill his own bill, one aimed at imposing gun-maker legal liabilities, because he recognizes it reaches too far too soon and will not pass.
Changes never come quickly in the United States and our system is designed to make sure that it doesn’t. We’ve made strides today, strides that will save lives, strides that stop bullets from piercing children’s bodies, strides that stop criminals from getting guns, strides that stop domestic abusers from killing their partners with a gun, and strides that will stop massacres of 85 people, including our children, with a hundred-round magazine.
2:37 The fourth section on the need to undertake this difficult debate, in which Morse argues that Coloradans aren’t all necessarily part of a mythic western population opposed to any or all gun laws. He says supporting the gun laws being proposed is not anti-Coloradan. He says the laws are reasonable and that supporters are acting in good faith with the best of intentions and they should do so proudly, despite the harsh resistance they are running up against. “We proudly stand here today as Coloradans who want the killing to stop and the cleansing to start.”
This debate on reducing gun violence in this country needed to happen, and it finally is happening, and I’m proud to be a Coloradan and proud to represent these Colorado values. We proudly stand here today as Coloradans who want the killing to stop and the cleansing to start.
3:00 The final section in which Morse withdraws his motion and kills his bill.
Mr Chairman I withdraw my motion and move that Senate Bill 196 lay over until May 10th.