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Opinion | Sen. Jay Hovey may have meant well, but he was wrong

Gun legislation can’t eradicate the evil that instigated the Dadeville massacre. But it might make such tragedies less likely.

A woman embraces Dadeville High School football player Antojuan Woody at a prayer vigil on Sunday, April 16, 2023, outside First Baptist Church in Dadeville, Ala. Alabama law enforcement officers were imploring people to come forward with information about a shooting that killed multiple people and injured over two dozen others during a teenager's birthday party on Saturday, April 15. AP Photo/Jeff Amy
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The Auburn Republican spoke from the Senate floor on Tuesday about the horrific tragedy in Dadeville, which is part of his District 27 territory. And God bless him for that. Because what happened in Dadeville is heartbreaking, and needs our full attention.

Six suspects – Ty Reik McCullough, Travis McCullough, Wilson LaMar Hill Jr., Willie George Brown Jr., Johnny Letron Brown, and unnamed 15-year-old– have been accused of shooting up a Sweet 16 party at a dance studio. Four young people were killed. Another 32 people were injured.  

Hovey did the right thing by honoring the lives lost on the Senate floor. Philstavious Dowdell, Shaunkivia Nicole “Keke” SmithMarsiah Emmanuel “Siah” Collins, and Corbin Dahmontrey Holston. May God comfort the loved ones whom they’ve left behind.

But then Hovey reportedly said this: “People are going to try to politicize this event, as so many others that break our hearts. But I’m going to tell you now, and you’ll hear me say over and over again over the next years that we work together, that we’re never going to be able to legislate morality. 

“The evil in this world that continues to devastate the communities across the country can only be defeated in the hearts and minds and homes and churches of these communities. There will be discussions on this floor and in legislative bodies across this country about the responsibility of legislators. And while of course we have the responsibility to do everything we can to protect our communities, this war will only be won by changing hearts.”

Eloquent words. Eloquent, but wrong.

Wrong, because evil has been defeated by laws. The American slave trade was ended by the 13th amendment to the Constitution. (Slavery itself continued in other forms – such as convict leasing – but it ended as an open market industry.)

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Women, once deprived of the right to vote, got it thanks to the 19th amendment to the Constitution. (Of course, discrimination against women hasn’t ended. But we have more weapons to fight it because they can vote.)

And Jim Crow’s demise started with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and continued with the 1965 Voting Rights Act. 

Not that all of Hovey’s lofty lines were wrong.

He’s right about our inability to legislate morality. Whatever evil lurks in any of our hearts can only be eradicated by a combination of choice and love.

But the war against evil has a powerful ally in legislation. Laws keep evil from running rampant. They contain evil, often constraining it to being nothing more than a fantasy or impulse that is never becomes reality.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. explained it this way during a speech at Western Michigan University on December 18, 1963: “It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can keep him from lynching me. And I think that is pretty important, also. So, there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.”  

Don’t buy into the myth that legislation or regulations can’t decrease the chances of another Dadeville. “Religion and education must play a great role in changing the heart,” Dr. King said during the same speech. “But we must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart, but it can restrain the heartless.”

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Legislation can keep teenaged boys away guns – or at least decrease the chances they can access them. It can encourage parents and other adults to think twice about how they store and secure their weapons. Legislation can make a gun retailer or private owner extra vigilant about whom they decide to sell a weapon. It can create background checks and waiting periods that decrease the chance that dangerous or mentally challenged people can buy guns.

Common sense gun legislation can’t eradicate the evil that instigated the Dadeville massacre. But it might make such tragedies less likely.

David Person is a media personality and consultant who has been working in the Huntsville market since 1986 as a talk show host, columnist, and director/producer. David co-hosts the podcast Alabama Politics This Week.

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