WASHINGTON – Maryland Sen. Joseph Tydings was fed up.
After winning the important California Democratic primary in 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was shot and killed, just five years after his older brother’s assassination.
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The two were close friends. When Kennedy announced his intention to run for president on the Senate floor, Tydings stood with him. He was there, campaigning, when Kennedy was shot.
So when R.K.F’s staffers asked him to take their boss’ place on NBC’s “Meet the Press” a few days later, Tydings agreed. He knew just what he wanted to talk about: gun control.
As Congress debates new gun control measures proposed after the Dec. 14 school shooting in Newtown, Conn., Tydings’ story is increasingly relevant as an example of what can happen when a politician draws the ire of the gun lobby.
Tydings says now that he wanted “to say something meaningful so that (Kennedy’s) death meant something.” The 84-year-old is looking over the atrium outside Dickstein Shapiro, the white-shoe law firm where he’s worked since 1996.
But Tydings wanted to go beyond words, so he introduced the Firearms Registration and Licensing Act. The bill would have mandated registration of all purchased guns and created licensing requirements intended to keep guns out of the hands of criminals and chronic substance abusers.
Tydings never expected the bill to pass, he said. He also never expected that it would end his political career just two years later, at 42.
He understands, perhaps better than anyone, the risks taken by any member of Congress — Republican or Democrat — who steps too far or moves too quickly on gun control.
Already, the National Rifle Association has made its mark on Capitol Hill by limiting the scope of this year’s debate and “beating back” efforts to ban assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition magazines, said Todd Eberly, a political science professor at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
The Senate is getting ready to vote on whether to proceed with a bill expanding background checks. While most Democrats support more restrictive measures, they can no longer rely on support from across the aisle.
“It’s too bad we can’t get a courageous Republican senator,” Tydings said. “The NRA intimidates so many senators.”
Back in 1968, initial reaction to Tydings’ words on television was favorable, he said. NRA offices were picketed, and those close to the Kennedy family appreciated Tydings’ resolve and determination to bring about something positive from the tragedy.
The bill made it out of committee and onto the Senate floor. While it was voted down, the bill garnered support from both Midwestern Democrats and Republicans.
But then, Tydings said, the NRA “got to work.” As he began to run for re-election in 1970, Tydings started to feel the opposition forming. The signs were literally all around him, as bumper stickers reading “If Tydings Wins, You Lose” became a common sight on the state’s roads.
In an ironic twist, hunters in particular were targeted, told that Tydings’ bill would prevent them from hunting.
“We didn’t realize the power of the National Rifle Association and their ability to twist the facts,” Tydings says now.
Hunting is part of Tydings’ DNA. He grew up on his family’s duck farm, nestled between Aberdeen and Havre de Grace on the Chesapeake Bay. His father, Millard Tydings, was a U.S. senator and a very busy man. So the younger Tydings cherished time together in the family’s seven duck blinds.
“I had probably done more hunting than most of the members of the board of the National Rifle Association,” said Tydings, who owns seven shotguns and still hunts occasionally.
The ads took their toll. On Election Day 1970, Republican Rep. Glenn Beall Jr. defeated Joseph Tydings.
“In contrast to the Hollywood version of events, sometimes when you do the right thing it doesn’t work out for you,” Eberly said.
While Beall’s campaign was aided by a rainstorm that suppressed turnout in Baltimore City, Tydings said, he has no illusions about the NRA’s impact.
“They raised money all over the nation to bring to Maryland to beat me. And bragged about it,” he said.
Tydings tried to regain his seat in 1976, losing in the Democratic primary to Rep. Paul Sarbanes. Sarbanes went on to defeat Beall in the general election and to a 30-year career in the Senate.
Tydings’ loss “was pretty much an object lesson of how intense minorities can create very real political consequences,” said Herbert Smith, a political science professor at McDaniel College in Maryland and the author of a book about the state’s political history. “There was no real expectation that he was in serious trouble.”
Tydings also faced opposition from Citizens Against Tydings, a grassroots organization that worked to defeat him because of his stance on gun control.
CAT’s members were NRA members, but the group was not sponsored by the NRA, said Michael Parker, who was its president then and later became general counsel for the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Parker, a Virginia lawyer, threw water on the NRA’s role in Tydings’ defeat, saying that it was an “overgrown gun club” at the time.
Citizens Against Tydings formed organically, he said, in response to a series of gun control measures proposed by the Montgomery County Council in 1968.
The council received an overwhelmingly negative response when it scheduled a series of hearings to discuss the measures. The crowds were so large that the first of three hearings had to be moved to a larger venue. The raucous meetings made national news.
In the face of such strong opposition, the council abandoned the measures.
“They’d have been lynched I think if they went through with it,” Parker said. Still, the entire group was voted out.
Parker viewed Tydings’ bill as an attempt to expand to a national level what the council had proposed.
“(Tydings) thought he could speak over the heads of his constituents and appeal to the nation generally,” Parker said.
Parker’s reasoning for opposing the registration requirement in Tydings’ bill — that registration is a prerequisite to outlawing a class of firearms — is still popular today.
“If you have an effective argument, you don’t let it go just because you’ve been saying the same thing for 40 years and it’s never happened,” Eberly said.
Looking back, Parker said what happened to the council was a “precursor of what was going to happen a year later” to Tydings.
Forty-five years later, Tydings readily admits he didn’t “need” to introduce the Firearms Registration and Licensing Act.
He had already opposed the Vietnam War, a stand that put him at odds with many of his more conservative-leaning constituents in Maryland’s smaller counties.
But, Tydings said, he has no regrets, beyond wishing that his controversial bill had passed.
“It’s something that (R.F.K.) would have wanted. Obviously he wasn’t there to do anything. But he would have liked the fact that I did it. So would his brother, President Kennedy. And so would my father,” Tydings said.
A former U.S. attorney in Maryland, Tydings went back to practicing law. He has served on various state educational commissions and is a familiar face in Annapolis, where he often advocates for measures supported by environmental advocacy groups.
“There is life after the U.S. Senate and I’ve been blessed with opportunities to serve,” he said. “I can serve without holding public office.”
Not surprisingly, Tydings has paid close attention to the debate surrounding Maryland Gov. Martin O’ Malley’s strict gun control bill. When the bill — which requires handgun purchasers to be fingerprinted and bans many types of semiautomatic weapons — passed the General Assembly last week, Tydings called the governor with congratulations.
Passing gun control legislation takes strong leadership and a well-orchestrated supporting cast, Tydings said. The ingredients were in place in Maryland, though the same cannot be said of Congress.
“I was really pleased,” Tydings said. “I didn’t think they could do it.”
Now, long out of the spotlight — and the NRA’s crosshairs — Tydings takes comfort in knowing that he took his father’s path in more ways than just his choice of occupation.
Millard Tydings, a lawyer, led a Senate committee investigating Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy’s allegations of communist infiltration in 1950. For it, Tydings, a four-term senator, lost his re-election campaign after falling victim to a deceitful ad campaign linking him to a former president of the American Communist Party.
“My father risked his career when he took on Joe McCarthy. And he lost,” Tydings said. “He took a stand. You do what you can do.”