Estelle Atkinson and Morgan Wisehart
Friday marked the nineteenth anniversary of the Columbine shooting, which left twelve young students and one of their teachers dead.
The continuation of school shootings into the twenty first century only further exposes the prevalence and urgency of such an issue. Media coverage from the recent Parkland shooting may be in decline, but it is crucial that the conversation does not end and continues until reform is effective. This article references the National Walkout on March 14, 2018, part of the national movement for stricter gun regulation. In our interview, we hear from the local township commissioner Richard Booker.
The primary focus of our interview was addressing Mr. Booker’s email to Radnor High School Principal Dan Bechtold and Superintendent Ken Batchelor, published in an article by Main Line journalist Linda Stein in the Delco Times, in which Mr. Booker expressed his concerns over administration’s handling of the walkout at Radnor High School. The article is linked below: http://www.delcotimes.com/article/DC/20180322/NEWS/180329846
Mr. Booker opened the front door before we even reached the steps, sporting a baseball cap with sunglasses perched atop and a grin. After shaking hands and saying hello, he led us directly into his home office, which contained a dark wooden desk and two leather chairs. Stacks of papers and pamphlets were scattered all around the room, a significant amount being Booker’s own campaign material. Upon sitting down, he launched into an account of all of his elections and reelections. He told us about how he was one of six Republicans to be elected in southeastern Pennsylvania. “That’s interesting,” Estelle said, to which he replied, “Is it?”. At this point we began the interview, with Booker agreeing to let us record it, albeit reluctantly.
To begin, our first question was asking why he felt that allowing underage “children” to walk out of school in the middle of class was wrong. He replied, “Why do you think that it was right for students to walk out of class in the middle of the school day? When you’re in school, you’re supposed to be in school. If you’re not in school, you’re cutting, right?” The first of many “right”s in the interview, such language appeared as if Booker was seeking validation in his assertions. “I cut plenty in my day when I was in high school, well a little bit anyway. People cut school, but you’re doing something wrong.” We were interested in the focus he placed in his email on the fact that the students were underage. Morgan asked, “Do you think that some of the seniors, if they’re over eighteen, had more of a right to walk out as opposed to the freshmen?” His answer was essentially yes: “If the issue is freedom of speech–if the issue was exercising the first amendment, the people who are over eighteen years old have a much firmer ground to operate on. But, my letter was not to the students, you see who I wrote this letter to.” This was a point he reiterated several times in the hour and forty five minutes we were there. It soon led the conversation into the issue of disruption, so we asked Booker if he could explain any instances of when he felt that learning was disrupted as a result of the walkout.
“Well yeah, I mean again that’s obvious. When half the class, or when a couple hundred, quote unquote, a couple hundred people walk out of class, that’s going to disrupt the school day. You can argue, well it’s a minimus of disruption, but having many several people walk out is going to disrupt the class.”
As a local politician, Booker’s stances on the issues sweeping our nation and the atmosphere of fear that current gun laws have created in our schools piqued our interest. When asked, he reflected, “I don’t think that there is an atmosphere of fear created by gun laws. An atmosphere of fear is created by perceptions of people, it’s not got to do with gun laws. It’s a much broader thing….Do you accept that there is an atmosphere of fear in high schools? I don’t know if there is or if there isn’t–I’m not in the high schools.” Halfway through his answer he stopped and said, “Atmosphere of fear,” and chuckled.
Given Mr. Booker’s stance on gun laws, we assumed that he would not align with the motives of the walkout and decided to ask what would be the best way to deal with the pressing issue of gun violence. To our surprise, he said, “I’m not saying I disagree with the students, I was addressing, so I’ve said this like, this will be on the tape like eighteen times. I’ve said I was addressing the administration.” In fact, Mr. Booker said he would’ve walked out himself, because it would have been “an opportunity for [him] to walk out of class and get away with it, right?” Admittedly, our walkout did not have one spoken purpose. In the words of Mr. Bechtold on behalf of us and the other student organizers, “The time will serve as an opportunity for students to reflect and remember those who have lost their lives as victims of gun violence….this time will also serve as a platform for civil discourse among one another on pressing topical subjects.” This was one of his concerns, as he expressed, “There’s a multitude of rationales for even the walkout, right? There’s a multitude of understanding, and all of that I think contributes to this nebulus type of a general student walkout. The whole concept was so nebulus that I think I had to respond to the administration because I thought that they could have done better.”
Morgan inquired, “Do you think that the student walkout was some sort of an attempted attack on certain individual liberties?” Mr. Booker then launched into an impassioned expression of his beliefs and questions he had for no one person to answer:
“It seemed, to me, to be a political movement aimed at restricting rights of United States citizens. Other people will say, ‘No that’s not what it was, it was remembrance!’….What is in your mind as you’re walking out? That’s subjective intent. It’s more than that–it’s how is it perceived by the media? How was it perceived by parents, students? How was it perceived by others? What is your knowledge of how it will be perceived, right?….Somebody said make sure you keep this simple. This is not simple. These are not simple contents. I mean, it comes down to what did you intend, right? Morgan Wisehart, what did Morgan Wisehart intend as she got up?”
So we asked, how? “Well, I think that it was wrong for Dan Bechtold to say he was proud of students leaving class without permission en masse. So, he could’ve done better by not being proud of students that are acting, that are taking, what’d I write?” At this point, he opened his computer to find the email he had sent. “My view was that Dan Bechtold saying he was proud of a walkout demonstrated affirmation and support of improper student actions. He could’ve done better by not being proud….When are you going to be proud, right? What can students walk out for and why are you proud of that?”
Well, we wanted Mr. Booker to answer one of his own questions: what can students walk out for? Was there a reason good enough? There was a long pause. “Well, I mean, you can never say never. I mean, who knows? Generally not though. It would have to be a really good reason, right?” He laughed.
One of the most unique elements of the movement for improved and increased gun control, mostly known as the #NeverAgain movement, is that it is largely comprised of America’s youth. Being involved in politics himself, we asked Mr. Booker if he thought it was important for young adults to develop an early interest in politics. His response was incredibly lengthy. It began with, “I think it’s important for students to understand the nature of this republic,” and went on to describe the nature of this Republic, the history of our constitution, and of natural law. Eventually, we got our answer.
“So should people be involved in the political system at a young age? Sure! If they have an understanding of [it]. What we must watch out for is that people involve others in a political context where they might be taking advantage of those who are not well versed in what they’re doing, or who are being manipulated for a political advantage of a few, so it’s a balance. When you have a free society, there’s always a balance. People have to be free to make their own choices, and yet people have to understand that free choices may result in bad outcomes in certain instances.”
To build on the last point, Booker says he is “always suspect when people want to reduce liberty of the people.”
The claim that gun control restricts liberty of the people is an argument that many second amendment supporters make. We wanted to grasp Booker’s stance on national politics and asked if he thought that the ban on bumpstocks or all automatic and semiautomatic weapons would factor into a decreased in school shootings–would he support such bans? Clicking his pen aggressively, Booker reflected,
“I think that … you can’t blame inanimate objects for any criminal activities that humans commit….We have a guy who was killed on Lancaster Avenue two weeks ago. Guy with his SUV hit him and took off….The human does that–that is not the inanimate object.”
After a long pause, he continued, “I don’t even know what a bump stock is. Maybe you can tell me what it is.” Estelle answered, “It helps you to automatically reload, so you can fire—” but was interrupted: “Right, but how does it do that? What does that mean? Where is it bumping? How does it, where does it bump? Where is it attached to on a gun, do you know?” We both replied that, indeed, we did not know.
This logic prompted the question of whether or not the Parkland shooter could have done as much damage, or taken as many lives, with any other inanimate object. He responded, “I think a variety of different inanimate objects could’ve been as successful, as damaging.”
Mr. Booker went on to talk about another point of his:
“The other thing is, you’re going to be eighteen, when I was eighteen I signed up for selective service. When you’re eighteen years old you can go to war. We call on eighteen year olds to go. Guys who are younger go to war a lot of the time, too. So, we call on them to use firearms at that age, I don’t see how is it you could, and you probably know people who go hunting, you know, from the time they’re kids. I used to go, I would go to camp, so I would go to shoot targets, shoot twenty-twos, practice, and when I was a little kid, six, seven, eight, ten years old, also would shoot skeet, so, I think that there needs to be a recognition of all the fundamental rights, right?”
Estelle began another question: “So you mentioned—”, but was cut off: [to Morgan] “She’s getting frustrated with me!” Estelle continued, “No, not at all. So you mentioned hunting, why do you think people feel the need for semi automatic/automatic weapons? Because you don’t really need that to hunt.” Mr. Booker leaned back in his chair, arms crossed. “Have you ever shot a bear?” “N-no,” Estelle replied. “You ever had a bear coming at you? A grizzly bear coming at you? One shot won’t stop a grizzly bear, right?” He laughed.
“You know, this is one of the items that I’ve heard about and I’ve read a lot of the comments about my article, in one of the comments somebody said, ‘well Rich is right there are many things that could’ve happened there, there was failure but allowing guns was one of those things and he’s ignoring that’, right? Allowing an eighteen year old to have a gun— but again, I think if you allow an eighteen year old to go to war, how do you not allow him to go hunting, you know, have a gun? But the issue that you raise about the restrictions, and why do you need an automatic weapon? Because the second amendment doesn’t say hunting, it’s not, it’s not about hunting. Now another complexity, what does the second amendment say? How is it interpreted? And in District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008, Supreme Court basically, in the majority, gave their opinion on how it’s interpreted. It is interpreted, it’s written, it says a militia being, a well-regulated militia being necessary for a free state. The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. So the right is to all the people and that’s been interpreted not just for militia by the Supreme Court but also for hunting and self defense. So the issue is, if you don’t need it for hunting, but you might need it for other purposes, and I don’t know if anybody hunts with an automatic, but I do know that a grizzly bear with one shot won’t necessarily stop coming at you, and wants to eat you. You might want to be able to reload for a quick, I don’t know, I don’t hunt. I don’t even fish. I don’t fish! Do you fish? Have you gone fishing?“
Morgan had and said so. Mr. Booker proclaimed,
“People like to fish! People like to fish! I’m like, it’s like a practical joke on the fish! Oh it’s food, it’s food! You throw it back, and you pull it out of the water, and you put it back. I don’t do that, and I mean hunting, I don’t go and shoot animals. Some guys like, you know, the blood sports. I don’t shoot, I don’t know what they do.”
Several times in the interview Mr. Booker highlighted his four main beliefs: lower taxes, smaller government, greater individual liberty, and personal responsibility. Again, one of the arguments presented by advocates for protecting the second amendment and combatting further control over gun purchases is that it is a violation of individual liberty. Based off of his stated beliefs, Estelle asked a question he seemed to see coming: “So, would you still have sent this letter if the protest was students fighting for what they—”, Mr. Booker interjected, “Second amendment rights!” Upon our confirmation that this was indeed our question, he replied,
“Well, if you’re allowed a remembrance day, or people who are against second amendment rights… say there was twenty kids that walked out of the two hundred, ‘a couple hundred’, say there was two, say there was twenty that walked out because they are, they want to eliminate, they want to abolish all gun rights in the United States. Well, should you allow twenty kids who are for that right? This is part of the slippery slope.”
Seeing that this answer had some potential to go off on a tangent, Estelle asked again, “But would you had sent this letter if the kids out there, that is what they were saying?” Mr. Booker again launched into a passionate rant:
“I don’t think it ever would have come to pass because I don’t think they would have been allowed to do it, right? That’s kind of my point. We wouldn’t ever have this conversation, because they wouldn’t have been permitted. Dan and Ken would not let them do it, right? The question I have is, “Now that you’ve let this other one happen, why won’t you let that one happen?” Right? And wasn’t there a kid who, for The Radnorite, who wrote about all the gun rights? That had an article? Who was it, who was the guy?”
This guy is Sebastian Bryant, who, on March 13th, published an article in The Radnorite on why we should allow teachers to bear arms. Mr. Booker clapped loudly. “Sebastian! That guy’s got a lot of bravery. I mean that’s really, I really respect that. I don’t know him, but I heard about it….Now, you know, why shouldn’t that be a right for anyone that agrees with him, to walk out?” We still had not gotten an answer, so we tried again: “So, hypothetically, if Sebastian and like-minded people walked out, and Mr. Bechtold was to commend them on their bravery, as you have, do you think this letter would still be needed?” His tone changed as he replied, “Again, I would say, ‘Sebastian, and everyone, needs to do this on Saturday.’” He laughed, “Right? Or after school, right? But my issue is, once you allow this other one to be able to walk out, and you said you were proud, now if Dan is gonna be consistent, right? And say ‘well we’re proud,’ okay. Well then, now you have to be proud any time these kids come up with anything they want to do….This is not about what eighteen year olds, or sixteen, or seventeen year olds do, right? It’s not about that. It’s what do the grown, what are these guys, that, you know, these guys get paid a lot of money. You don’t know what Ken Batchelor gets paid do you?” He was correct, we did not, but now we do. At this point, his voice lowered into a whisper, “This is on tape.” However, he told us anyways, or an approximation. Then he whispered again, “That’s a lot. These guys need to know that these guys are paid to do a job.”
Our last question referenced an article published on the Booker Family in the Main Line Times in October of 2017. The article mentioned the many “spirited debates” the family engages in, so we inquired whether gun control is the subject of any such debates. His response came quickly: “Well, my daughter doesn’t think I know what I’m talking about.” He simultaneously burst out laughing and jumped out of his chair, leaving us unsure of whether or not to follow. “Hold on,” he exclaimed from another room. Mr. Booker returned holding two copies of the magazine, offering them to us. “You mean that? Want a copy? Yeah, Candace [his daughter] doesn’t think I really know what I’m talking about.” We asked if she walked out, to which he replied “What’s that?”, so we asked again, and he said, “I don’t know if she did; I think she did.” Morgan prompted, “Do you think that demonstrates a generational disconnect in ideology?”
Mr. Booker remarked, “You know, none of my kids really see eye to eye [with him] on all these issues. And I didn’t with my parents, and my parents didn’t with their parents, right? So, but, what I think happens is when you get to be thirty, forty, fifty, you’ll look back and say, ‘Boy, those fifty year olds, when I was eighteen, they made a lot more, they had a lot more, it makes a lot more sense what they were talking about than it did back then.’ So I think that all of you will understand a little bit more.” At this point, Mr. Booker left the room again and returned with a homemade family tree of sorts and walked us through his ancestry, gesturing to a bonnet on a distant relatives head. “That’s politics,” he said.
Mr. Booker concluded the interview in the same way he began it, discussing his political career and reelections and then offering a final point of clarification: “I want to make sure that I give Ken and Dan a nudge, ‘Hey, you guys aren’t politicians–you don’t necessarily know how this works. So let me help you out a little.” At this point we stopped recording, but after we did so, he offered a strange sort of apology. The tone of the conversation changed drastically. He said amidst other things, “I know you guys wanted me to be this bad guy,” which we rejected, but he seemed set in this opinion. Our differing political views were realized during the interview; perhaps he believed we came with an attempt to vilify him. This was more or less where we left things; we thanked him and were on our way.
Here is a link to the full transcript: