Refugee, But Not Forever

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Belgian refugees fleeing the advancing German army, May 1940.

The other evening, after a satisfying dinner, I was lazily surfing the net when I came across a photo of a beach filled with Syrian refugees running across the sand, trying to climb aboard a rickety ship. Suddenly my heart started to beat faster, and my brain shifted back to 1940, when my mom, my younger sister and I spent restless nights in the dunes along Belgium’s coast. From our makeshift campsite we could see the border posts of our promised land: FRANCE. It had taken us three days to traverse the 90 or so miles that separated Brussels, our adopted home, from the Belgian-French border, but now we were not able to cross, even though we were German Jews trying to save our lives. We did not possess the correct documents. Belgian citizens had green identity cards, and foreigners like us had white ones with red stripes. For three days running we tried unsuccessfully to sneak by the guards. In the end, our repeated failures did not matter: the German troops were advancing and would vanquish both Belgium and France within days.

While in the dunes we bonded with other refugee families, which was a great comfort—especially for my mother, alone with two underage daughters. As a group, we finally gave up and returned to La Panne, a nearby Belgian summer resort. We rented a small house and managed to find enough food to make dinner. It felt good to wash, to use a real toilet, to stretch out in a bed. The respite was brief. The shelling began at 2 AM and did not let up until the next morning. The fifteen of us assembled in the house’s cellar. I sat on top of a pile of coal, Harry S. clutched his wife, my sister had her head in our mom’s lap, and Kurt S. pressed his head against the wall, continuously moaning, “Oh my god, oh my god.” At 5 AM an eerie orange light filled the cellar. The house next door had caught fire. Would it be safer for us to stay or to face the bombs, we wondered.

We did stay, and emerged when the shelling was over. The German soldiers strutted around the small town, offering chocolate bars to the distressed citizens. The upstairs of the little house was in shambles. Every window was shattered. A piece of shrapnel lay on my pillow, and glass shards had ravaged the upholstery.

Unbeknownst to us, the British had managed to evacuate their army from Dunkirk, a small nearby seaport. The saved soldiers formed the nucleus of the mighty armada that would start to liberate Europe in 1944, four years later.

As a group we decided to return from the Belgian coast to Brussels. At first we walked, sheltering at night with various farmers. I’ll never forget the cattle killed by shells or shrapnel, their stiff legs pointing up to heaven. Occasionally, when the sights became too grim, Gus, our leader, told his daughter and me to look straight ahead. In time we reached our non-violated homes in Brussels, thankful to once more feel sheltered. Two years later, we had to leave and hide. But once again our luck held, and we survived. (For more on this story, see At the Mercy of Strangers: Growing Up on the Edge of the Holocaust.)

Being a refugee, a migrant, or an undocumented immigrant is hazardous. One may drown in the process, end up in an extermination camp, or face a lifetime of struggling to survive on difficult, low-paying work. But there is also is a fair chance of landing on one’s feet and ending up with a satisfying, “normal” existence.

Another two years after emerging from hiding, I had to migrate once more. I arrived in New York in May 1946. Again I had to learn a new language and get used to the mores of another country, but my migrations had ceased. It took another few years for me to stop feeling like a refugee. Even though I was already a young adult, this country has allowed me to belong. For better or for worse I am an American. I am grateful, and I hope that I paid my dues.

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Need Cheering Up? Go See Stuart Davis at the Whitney Museum of Art

Stuart Davis: Owh! in San Pao, 1951

Stuart Davis (1892–1964), Owh! in San Pao, 1951. Oil on canvas, 52 3/16 × 42 in. (132.6 × 106.7 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 52.2. © Estate of Stuart Davis/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Want to forget Brexit, Trump, and the rest of the long, dark list of summer events that seems to be lengthening by the day? Go to the still sparklingly new Whitney Museum of American Art and immerse yourself in the Stuart Davis retrospective In Full Swing. It is a view of “America the Optimistic”—even though Davis himself was troubled by its economic inequalities and the Great Depression, not to mention his own personal tragedies.

Born in 1892 to artist parents, little Stuart grew up with a paintbrush in his mouth. His parents were part of Robert Henri’s circle and Stuart indeed attended his art school. From the very beginning he developed his own style. In 1913, when he was 21 years old, five of his watercolors were part of the famous Armory Show. At that exhibition Davis familiarized himself with the work of modern and contemporary Europe’s painters, including Cezanne, Derain, Picasso, Léger and others. Ever thereafter Davis credited the Armory show as a turning point in his career.

Davis’s work, rendered in strong primary colors, looks amazingly fresh. Most canvases display letters or enigmatic words like “champion,” “else,” “fin” or brand names. Early pictures, looking like collages, play with the packages of Lucky Strike cigarettes, Zig Zag cigarette paper, or Odol mouthwash. The so-called Eggbeater series, based on common, deconstructed kitchen implements arranged on a square table, illustrates the charm of Davis’s highly original geometric style.

It is fitting that Stuart’s retrospective is held at the Whitney Museum. During the late 1920s, Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney bought several of Davis’s works, a windfall that enabled him to spend thirteen months in France. According to an exhibition caption, the sojourn did not change his style, but rid him of his inferiority complex.

Davis’s landscapes are often playful, with different parts of the locale, or even of widely different locales, appearing on the same canvas. In Landscape with Garage Lights, two dimensional street lamps compete with gas pumps, sailboats and trees. The largest work of the show is Swing Landscapea huge mural commissioned by the WPA for a Brooklyn housing project. The image, inspired by Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts, is densely packed with interlocking shapes derived from houses, sailboats and furniture and “swinging” with the rhythm of American jazz and throbbing colors. The WPA rejected the mural and it ended up at the Museum of Indiana University.

***

At the Whitney, as museum fatigue overtook me, I repaired to a lounge and sank into one of three comfortable couches. Through the enormous plate glass window I saw the tops of a platoon of birch trees, surmounted by a flawless blue sky filled with picture-perfect clouds.

One of the great pleasures of the new Whitney is its indoor character. The modest structures that not so long ago sheltered the city’s meat market hug the base of the new building. Tourists and New Yorkers fill the ground-floor café and the open plaza and outdoor tables. More people crowd the museum’s terraces and its outdoor stairs to savor the bird’s eye view of the Manhattan skyline: the Hudson, the Empire State Building, smoke stacks, Lady Liberty, the High Line, and the Freedom Tower. The Whitney is an oasis in our worrisome world.

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The Worsham-Rockefeller Dressing Room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

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Architectural woodwork and paneling in Arabella Worsham’s dressing room (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Two very different women, the socially striving Arabella Worsham and the retiring Laura Spelman Rockefeller, occupied the lavish Gilded Age dressing room that joined the period rooms in the American wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning in late 2015.

In 1877, Arabella Worsham, the Virginia-born mistress of railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, bought the thirteen-year-old brownstone at 4 West 54th Street from William P. Williams. She embarked on a “gut renovation,” renovating each room in a different historical revival style, thereby transforming a simple brownstone into an Aesthetic masterpiece adhering to the decorating principle of: if much is good, more is better. George A. Schastey was Arabella’s decorator.

The Worsham-Rockefeller house was torn down in 1938; the priceless ground it stood on became MoMA’s beloved Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden. Three rooms of the mansion survived: the Moorish Smoking Room, at the Brooklyn Museum, the bedroom, now at the Virginia Museum of Art in Richmond, and the Dressing Room, now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met). All three rooms illustrate the exquisite craftsmanship of the Gilded Age.

The Met’s dressing room is small and functional; most of the furniture—closets, chests of drawers, vanity, washbasin, and mirrors—being built into or set against the walls. The furniture is made from satinwood, enhanced by purple-heart inlays or appliques. Wood dominates the diminutive space, but an intricately painted ceiling and trim, and ornate chandeliers, relieve its severity.

The inlays—some consisting of combs, hand mirrors and scissors—define the function of the room, as does the delicate dressing table topped by an equally elegant mirror. Putti, frolicking among strings of pearls, fill the frieze and illustrate Arabella’s passion for jewelry.

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Wall sconces by mirror in Arabella Worsham’s dressing room (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Arabella was always most secretive about how she had met Collis Huntington, the railroad mogul. During her tenancy at 4 West 54th Street Arabella was known as the “widowed Mrs. Worsham,” though most likely her marriage to Mr. Worsham was a pretense. Her so-called husband did not really die, but returned to Virginia, where he rejoined his legal wife.

In 1884, after Collis’s first wife died after a long struggle with cancer, he married Arabella. Henry Ward Beecher, whose fierce sermons stirred the North’s emancipatory fervor, officiated at the ceremony. The new Mrs. Huntington moved around the corner to Park Avenue to an even greater palace. Collis adopted Archer, Arabella’s young son. After Collis died, Arabella married Collis’s nephew Henry Huntington.

John D. Rockefeller Sr. bought 4 West 54th Street in 1884. His wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller, had little use for Arabella’s ostentation. Service to her family, the Northern Baptist Church and education would define Laura’s life. In 1915, after his wife’s death, John Sr. closed his Manhattan home. By then his son John D. Rockefeller Jr. had built himself a much grander brownstone at 12 West 54th Street.

In 1938 both houses were razed. As noted, some of the rooms were donated to museums, and some of Schastey’s enormous fireguards constructed for 4 West 54th Street were moved to the Rockefeller estate in Pocantico Hills. In an extremely sentimental gesture, the exterior bricks of 4 West 54th Street were reused to construct the Sleepy Hollow home now occupied by David Rockefeller Sr.

The disparate women who used the Met’s dressing room left their impact on America. Arabella collected great art and together with Henry Huntington founded the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanic Garden in San Marino, California. A few of Arabella’s great paintings ended up elsewhere. One of these, Rembrandt’s Aristotle Contemplating the Bust of Homer, ended up at the Met in New York in 1961.

The Rockefellers were more serious. To begin with they supported education. In 1882 they granted $250 to the nascent Atlanta Baptist Female Seminar, which educated African-American women. The basement school blossomed into Spelman College, dedicated to Laura Rockefeller and her abolitionist parents.

Both Laura and Arabella imbued their only male descendants with lofty principles. John D. Rockefeller Jr. spent his life developing modern philanthropy and judiciously distributing a large part of the immense wealth accumulated by his father. Archer M. Huntington founded numerous museums including the Hispanic Society of America and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.

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HAPPY BIRTHDAY: Doing it all over again?

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According to Facebook, I have a birthday coming up, and it is high time for me to locate that the magic mill that I read about when I was an eight-year-old way back in Germany.

***

THE MAGIC MILL

Adapted from Traumereien and Einem Französischen Kamin (Dreams at the Fireside of a French Fireplace) By Richard von Volkmann-Leander / Suzanne Loebl

1

The magic mill was located in Apolda, a small village tucked away among the mountains of eastern Europe. It looked like a giant old-fashioned coffee grinder, except its crank was at the bottom. A large funnel crowned the building and a ramp, snaking around the outside of the entire building, connected the top to the bottom. Two strapping millhands stood in front of the mill ready to turn the handle.

Toothless, humpbacked, wrinkled women and flabby, hunched-over men journeyed to the mill from every corner of the land. Once they saw the mill they moaned and sighed. They slowly inched up the ramp, entered the chute and vanished.

The millhands turned the crank, once only. A heart-wrenching, deafening, blood-curdling, bone-chilling noise filled the air. Even before the sound had completely died down, rosy-cheeked, smiling young people sauntered out of the mill’s bottom.

When those waiting in line asked whether the procedure had hurt, they were invariably told that it was pain free.

One young girl said: “It feels like waking up, after a good night’s sleep, on a lovely spring morning. All at once you feel the warmth of the sun streaming into the room, the sound of the birds singing in the garden and the rustling of the wind in the trees. When you stretch your joints crackle a bit, and then you get up and feel fine.”

The fame of the Magic Mill had spread near and far, and reached Mother Klapproth, a very old woman. She decided to journey to Apolda and have herself re-ground.

She packed a small bag and started on her adventure. She climbed over mountains, waded through streams, braved dark forests, and endured thunder and hail. At night she slept under the star-studded sky. Her bones ached, she coughed, fretted, rested, and persevered. Finally she reached Apolda.

“My goodness, Apolda is a long way from home,” Mother Klapproth told one of the millhands who was sitting in front of the mill. The lad was obviously bored. His hands were buried deep in his pockets and his pipe was clenched between his teeth. “I want to be young again,” the old woman said.

At first the man did not respond. “I want you to re-grind me,” she repeated. Finally the millhand, stifling a big yawn, asked for her name.

“I am old Mother Klapproth,” she answered.

“Sit down,” he said, disappearing inside the mill to consult a large register. Eventually he came out again holding a long sheet of paper.

“Is that my bill, young man?” asked the old woman.

“No,” said the millhand. “The re-grinding is free, but you must sign a contract.”

“Sign a contract,” the old woman repeated. “I guess I have to sell my soul to the devil? No thanks. I won’t do that. I am a God-fearing woman and hope to go to heaven when I die.”

“No, it is not that bad,” laughed the lad. “The sheaf only lists all the dumb things you did during your entire life. Look, this is the exact record of what you did, and when. If you have yourself re-ground you must promise that you will do everything all over again, exactly as you did it the first time around, in precisely the same order, at the same time and place.”

The young man looked at the list and smiled. “I can see it is a bit much, my dear Mother Klapproth. From the age of sixteen until you were twenty-six you did one reckless thing a day, two stupidities on Sunday. Afterwards it got a bit better. But when you turned forty, you again overdid it. Towards the end your life was just ordinary, like everyone else’s.”

Poor Mother Klapproth looked at the list and sighed. “My dear child,” she said, “what is the point of having oneself reground, if you have to do the exact same thing over again?”

“You are quite right,” said the lad. “For most people it does not pay. That’s why our job has gotten to be so easy. We have seven free days a week. Last century business used to be brisk, but ever since our mill has been idle.”

The old woman stroked the cheek of the millhand. “My dear boy, let me cross out a few of the items on the list,” she said. “I only want to cross out three things. If I absolutely have to, I’ll repeat the rest.”

“Nothing doing,” said the lad. “Either you do the whole thing—or it is no-go.”

“Keep the list,” said the old woman, after she thought it over. “I lost my taste for your stupid old mill.” Then she turned on her heel and left.

She went up the mountains and down the other side, forded streams and slept in the woods. When she finally got back home her friends and neighbors looked at her with surprise.

“Mother Klapproth, you are just as old now as when you left. That mill does not work?”

The old woman coughed and answered: “Oh yes, the mill is working fine, but I was too scared. After all—being young is overrated.”

***

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Richard von Volkmann-Leander

Note: The Franco-Prussian conflict of 1870-1 was one of those useless, personal interest wars provoked by Otto von Bismarck, chancellor of the kingdom of Prussia, the future Emperor Wilhelm I and Emperor Napoleon III of France. Much of northeastern France was laid to waste; it toppled the French emperor, resulted in the unification of Germany.

The author of the fairytale, Richard von Volkmann-Leander, was a German army physician and poet who was obviously horrified by the war. During the hostilities he was lodged in the houses abandoned by civilians. Volkmann dreamt of the poor displaced families whose spirits still lingered around the fireplaces of the erstwhile homes. His lovely tales are filled with moralistic thoughts about greed, love and accepting many of the unpleasant cards life deals us.

Simplistic as Volkmann’s tales were, they comforted me during the years I too hid to escape the horrors of World War II. I too fantasized and wrote to deal with reality. My heart goes out to the tens of the thousands of refugees that roam the earth today and hope that like me, they find a place they can once again call home.

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Trump and the Bully Pulpit

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Photo by Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0)

As of today, Donald Trump has won a virtually unobstructed path to the Republican nomination.

The grandstanding and uncouth utterances of the Republican campaign over the last few months remind me of the tirades that filled the Fascist airwaves in Germany during the 1930s. My four-year old sister Gabrielle and I were too young to understand Hitler’s twisted philosophy, but old enough to be scared and scarred by his shrieking, yelling and thundering.

Young as we were, we understood that as Jews we were no longer welcome in Germany, a country my family had lived in for centuries.

Whenever Hitler was about to harangue his minions, my parents, Hugo and Gretel Bamberger, discussed whether or not to listen to his speeches. Wanting to be up-to-date, my father listened; my mother opted out.

One Saturday afternoon, nobody noticed that Gabrielle vanished during one of Hitler’s lengthy Saturday radio rantings. She reappeared around dinnertime, wanting to know “how much Hitler had berated the Bambergers.”

Eight decades later, my daughter Judy is working with Carlos,* a precocious six-year old Mexican-American child at a Manhattan elementary school. Judy and Carlos have become close buddies. Recently he asked her where she was from. “I was born here,” she said, “but my mom was born in Europe. She had to leave because of a bad man.”

Carlos was not surprised. “A bad man like Trump, who wants to kill Mexicans?” he asked.   “My mom and dad are from Mexico,” Carlos continued, “but I was born here. That’s why I am Mexican and American. I wonder what Trump is going to do to my mom?”

Do we want to burden our children with fear, even if we think that Trump does not really mean the outrageous statements he makes? Or perhaps he might mean some of them. To begin with, Hitler only wanted the Jews to get out of Germany. Later he thought that that was not enough.

*Names and identifying details have been changed.

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Pergamon, and my Belgian History Teacher, Come to the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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‘Eros Sleeping’ at Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, on exhibit at the Met through July 17, 2016.

As soon as I entered the Met Museum’s magnificent survey of Hellenistic Art (Pergamon and the Hellenistic Kingdoms of the Ancient World, April 18-June 17, 2016) the voice of Miss Feytmans, who taught at my high school some 75 years ago, resounded in my head: “Alexander the Great, born in 353 BCE in Macedonia, died in Babylon…spread Greek culture…conquered the ancient world…gave rise to the Hellenistic culture…”

It was quite clear from Miss Feytmans’ tone that in her mind, great as Hellenistic art was (lasting from the death of Alexander in 323 BCE to the suicide of Cleopatra in 30 BCE), with its realism, fluid lines, and emotionalism…it was not quite as magnificent as the art of the idealized art of Greece’s Golden Age (480- 323 BCE). But then everybody, even my idol, is entitled to their prejudices. Antiquity’s best-known statues, or sometimes their Roman copies, date from Hellenistic times. These include, for example: the Nike of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo, both at the Louvre, and Laocoön and his Sons, now at the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The Met Museum is justifiably proud of the 265 Hellenistic objects it has assembled for this magnificent show. They range in size from small jewelry to a 13-foot marble statue of Athena. Some of the art on view seems extremely familiar. Alexander Astride his Horse Bucephalus, created by Lysippos 24 centuries ago, could easily take its place among Central Park’s 19th century statuary, as could the pudgy Eros Sleeping (150-100 BC), with his folded wings, who has been charming Met Museum visitors since 1943. Other familiar statues include the Dying Gaul, a slain Amazon, a sleeping hermaphrodite, and Spinario, a sculpture of a young boy pulling a thorn from his foot that has inspired sculptors throughout the ages.

Objects related to Pergamon, however, are the center of the exhibit.

The Berlin Pergamon Museum, which has reconstructed the west façade of the Altar of Zeus, is under repair and lent the Met Museum a third of the objects in the exhibition. The large bas-reliefs depicting the battle between the gods and the giants were too large to travel, but images and smaller panels provide an idea of the majesty of the monuments that according to many are the most famous of all surviving Hellenistic sculptural ensembles.

The Met exhibition also presents wonderful small objects: inlaid glass bowls, engraved gems and coins, leafy gold diadems, a plate painted with elephants and much more. Make sure to go; it is easier to go to Manhattan than to Berlin or Asia Minor.

Coming back to my own story: Miss Feytmans was my favorite teacher ever. She was a bachelorette living in Brussels with her sister Elise, the school’s Latin teacher, and perhaps her parents. I admired her unshakable love of Greece, her ability to make history come alive, her attitude, her neatly coiffed hair and her elegant suits. I was her star student, an achievement that contrasted with my usual lackluster scholastic performances.

I lost track of Denise Feytmans after I came to America in 1946, but 35 or so years later I attended a rheumatology congress in Canada where I met a Belgian physician. When he found out where in Brussels I had gone to school, he asked whether his great aunts Elise and/or Denise had taught me. He told me that Elise was still living in Brussels, but that Denise had married the director of National Museum in Athens. She was in the process of writing a book on Greek vases. Every so often she was about to finish it, but then she discovered another “must include” new vase. Who says that you can’t have paradise on earth?

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The Only Common Sense Solution to America’s Gun Problem

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The New Yorker, December 14 (art by Eric Drooker)

“Une vie ne vaut rien, mais rien ne vaut une vie.”
“A life has no value, but nothing is as valuable as a life.”

Thus wrote Andre Malraux, the great novelist, in 1933. In the United States, Malraux is best remembered as the French minister of culture who fell in love with Jacqueline Kennedy and loaned her France’s Mona Lisa in December 1962.

Lately some members of our human family have ignored both the sixth commandment and other ethical considerations, going on senseless, murderous rampages that have become all too common to read about in the news.

Some Americans’ response to this senseless slaughter is to support the ready availability of guns. Indeed, as the cover art of the December 14 issue of the The New Yorker of illustrates, buying a gun is becoming as easy as buying a dozen eggs. Personally I was shocked to see the display of guns at Willey’s Sports Center in Ellsworth, Maine where I buy some of my clothing. 

You will not find me buying a gun, even though I, like anyone else, am moderately afraid of being attacked by robbers, terrorists, drug users, or psychotics. Guns are meant to kill, and I, like most normal people, am horrified by the thought of killing one of my fellow humans.

I also know that being armed would be of little use for me. I would be unable to pull the trigger. If provoked, my assailant would strike first, disarm me, and he or she might harm me with my own weapon. This personal assessment is corroborated by science: many studies indicate that few people use guns for self-defense, and that it is ineffective when they do.

The United States has more guns per capita than any other country. As a matter of fact, at 310 million firearms and counting, this country has more guns than people. Expressed differently, 32 percent of all households, and 22.4 percent of all individuals, own guns. (Statistics from NORC at the University of Chicago.)

And firearms cause upward of 30,000 deaths annually.

The gun lobby stresses that the Constitution of the U.S. guarantees citizens the right to bear arms—though expert say that our founding fathers intended to grant that right to the states’ militias. I doubt that the patriarchs wanted to equip thirty percent of the population with small arsenals. According to Gallup, 29% of gun owners possess five or more guns—entirely too many for the rest of us to feel safe!

Let us imagine that the Constitution had granted citizens the right to drink and drive, regardless of the consequences. In 1980, a mother grieving over the needless death of her 13-year-old daughter founded Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). By 2014 the organization had been able to reduce the highway slaughter caused by drunk drivers from 25,000 annually to 10,000. The measures it took to achieve this 60% drop in no way impaired the nation’s ability to enjoy wine, whiskey, beer or other alcoholic beverages.

Like the majority of the American people I am in favor of reducing this domestic arsenal, but for the time being I would settle for more modest measures. Increasing background checks associated with the sale of firearms, eliminating unlicensed gun dealers, or not providing people on terrorism watch lists with licenses would not interfere with the joy of hunting or clay-pigeon shooting. (Nor, sadly, would it realistically have much of an impact on gun-related deaths in situations like suicide or domestic violence.)

But background checks may keep some guns out of the hands of child-murderers, religious fanatics or people who are obviously unwell. It has nothing to do with freedom; it is simply common sense. It boggles my mind why the National Rifle Association (NRA) or anyone else would object.

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