(Excerpted from RFK: His Words for Our Times)
Robert Kennedy’s approach, successful in head-to-head 1968 Presidential primary contests with McCarthy in Indiana and Nebraska, had no traction in Oregon. Kennedy’s message never connected with voters in a state the candidate privately described as one giant suburb; as Kennedy told one reporter, “Let’s face it; I appeal best to people who have problems.” McCarthy had pulled out of Nebraska early and committed his best organizers to Oregon and California, and their efforts were matched by phone banks and similar support from friends of the administration within the AFL-CIO official structure, aiming to embarrass the candidate they felt would be Vice President Humphrey’s only viable challenger.
Gun control became a flash-point issue in Oregon. Co-sponsor of legislation regulating firearms, with his brother’s death by a mail-order gun a constant reminder, Kennedy did not duck the topic. The day before the primary, he visited Roseburg, Oregon, in the state’s southwest corner, where timbering drove the economy and recreational hunting was widespread. Warned by the local sheriff that he’d face hostility, Kennedy’s face was “grim” (according to the traveling New York Times reporter) as he approached the microphone on the steps of the Douglas County courthouse in front of a crowd estimated at fifteen hundred—roughly a tenth of the town’s population. Before him were signs reading “protect your right to keep and bear arms”.
“I see signs about the guns,” Senator Kennedy began. “I’m wondering if any of you would like to come and explain.”
According to the New York Times report, [A] heavyset man in a lumber-jacket stepped forward and said:
“I’m Bud Stone. The signs refer to the Senate bill [recently passed] and we think it’s a backdoor bill for the registration of guns and it would let the Supreme Court make the final decision.”
When the candidate got the microphone back, he said he understood that gun legislation was a big issue in this lumber town and that there had been broadcasts on the local radio station opposing the Senate bill.
“If we are going to talk about this legislation, let’s talk about it honestly and not say that it does something that it does not do.”
All [the legislation] requires is that when somebody purchases a gun through a mail order or you send a gun or a rifle across a state line that you abide by the law of a particular state . . . At the present moment, a person who is insane, a man with a long criminal record of having killed a dozen people, can go in and buy a rifle. Now if you think that that makes sense for all of us . . . A person who is four years old can buy a rifle now . . . A man on death row in Kansas, who had killed a half a dozen people, and someone there sent for a rifle, through the mail from Chicago, for him to have a rifle while he was waiting on death row, after killing people . . . and the rifle was sent to him.
Now, does that make any sense, that you should put rifles and guns in the hands of people who have long criminal records, or people who are insane or people who are mentally incompetent, or people who are so young they don’t know how to handle rifles and guns? I’d just ask you.
I just present the case—it’s presented to you, and I know that it’s presented on the radio here, and—[gesturing] I’m not making any reflections on this gentleman—is presented by the John Birch Society as somebody who is going to come in, the federal government is going to come in and take your guns away and take your rifles away. Nothing is going to happen about that. Anybody can have—just as you can have an automobile. I hear that . . . here in this community, it’s described as the way Nazi Germany started. Well you can say that registering an automobile is the way Nazi Germany started.
All we are talking about is having guns not in the hands—anybody can have a gun, anybody can have a rifle—but a person who’s got a criminal record or is in an insane institution or is mentally incompetent shouldn’t have a rifle or a gun. Is there anybody out here that thinks those people should have rifles or guns?[Smattering of applause and Nos]
That’s all the legislation does. It doesn’t stop anybody from having a rifle or a gun, so [your sign] protect your right to keep and bear arms is just misleading the American people and is misleading everybody else.
Nobody is going to come in and take your guns away.
. . . With all the violence and murder and killings we’ve had in the United States, I think you will agree that we must keep rearms from people who have no business with guns or rifles.[A man in a cowboy hat booed loudly and shouted, “They’ll get them (guns) anyway,” the New York Times reported.]
The next day, Eugene McCarthy won the primary by six points, the first time a member of the Kennedy family had suffered a defeat in twenty-seven electoral contests.
The day after the primary, at a press conference in California, Kennedy read a prepared statement that said “these results represent a setback to my prospects for receiving the presidential nomination of my party, a setback, as I have previously stated, which I could ill afford.” Characteristically, in response to a question, he took complete responsibility: “I lost because I didn’t do well enough. The only fault is me.” Kennedy made a point of sending an early and gracious congratulatory telegram to McCarthy, who had not extended a similar courtesy after Kennedy’s victories in Indiana and Nebraska.
This wasn’t to be the last time Roseburg and gun violence made national news. On October 1, 2015, a twenty-six-year-old student at Umpqua Community College fatally shot an assistant professor and eight students, and wounded eight others. The killer was wounded in a shoot-out with police and then killed himself. It was the deadliest mass shooting in Oregon’s modern history.