For an improvised press conference in his attorney's office last week, Mark Kessler, the suspended police chief of the small coal region town of Gilberton, wore a suit and tie and behaved politely. The video he was suspended for, however, shows him cursing away while firing a gun at what he says is a poster of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. In another video, which has been viewed 148,000 times, the avowed Second Amendment warrior and founder of "Chief Kessler's Constitutional Security Forces" fires an automatic weapon while scolding Secretary of State John Kerry for announcing that the administration would agree to a U.N. treaty regulating the global arms trade.
The case of Chief Kessler could be dismissed as a sideshow illustrating the country's hopeless divisions on firearms and more. But there is hope in it for Pennsylvanians who support more gun regulation. Kessler's neighbors in Gilberton and nearby Frackville are certainly pro-gun, but many of them are deeply embarrassed by the conduct of the police chief, fearing it only hurts the cause he claims to be defending.
Even fervent gun-rights promoters understand that the fight over gun control is first of all a struggle for public opinion. They know that every time an apparently troubled person uses a gun recklessly or maliciously - like Rockne Newell, who is charged with killing three people at a public meeting in the Poconos last week - advocates of stricter regulation will be strengthened.
In the end, which image will prevail: unstable and criminal shooters, or responsible gun owners? Even avid supporters of gun rights might be persuaded to agree to certain precautions - if not because the weapons are inherently dangerous, then because the image of the sane and responsible gun owner needs to be defended.
Gun owners in Gilberton concede that firearms do not belong in the hands of unstable people or criminals. And Pennsylvania does run background checks on gun purchasers. But in 2012, only one in 100 requests was denied, and more than half were automatically approved by the Pennsylvania State Police's computer system, according to an annual report. Closer monitoring would protect the image of gun owners as well as the safety of the public.
There is also sympathy among gun-rights supporters for limits on powerful military-style weapons. The people of Schuylkill County do wonder why the police chief of a tiny borough would need an M16; as one resident said, "It's not like al-Qaeda is going to march down Main Street anytime soon." Many would also agree that it doesn't take a Ruger Mini-14, the semiautomatic rifle Newell used last week, to chase a burglar from one's property.
Finding such common ground on gun laws takes time and effort. But it might save lives.