Lennon's legacy lost among gun passions

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I found out from a silhouette chalked on the sidewalk outside my dorm 30 years ago that John Lennon was dead.

In that pre-Internet, pre-24-hour cable news cycle era, major news traveled at a speed that still left time for creative souls to internalize and interpret an event before spin obliterated all meaning.

I'd spent that cold December evening fighting sleepiness in the campus library, ensconced behind a tower of books and magazines. For those born even a decade after that night, it is difficult to imagine a time when people existed without the array of personal media that makes us all omnipresent now in the laziest way possible.

When I passed the student librarians on the way out shortly before closing time, they didn't know John Lennon was dead. Like me, they hadn't heard Howard Cosell's announcement about the murder on "Monday Night Football" as they sorted books gathered from rapidly emptying cubicles in silence.

However, a classmate processed his (or her) pain quickly enough to chalk what was both a tribute and a protest outside the dorm and on random foot paths all over campus.

It wasn't an elaborately drawn portrait of the ex-Beatle as we were used to thinking of him. It wasn't Lennon as the working-class hero, hippie aristocrat or cultural icon whose two-decade-long output of songs had changed everything. It was a simple chalk outline of the kind now seen on murder procedurals every night.

Under the outline, the message "John Lennon, Oct. 9, 1940 -- Dec. 8, 1980" was the first clue that the world was spinning off its axis. The bullet holes that punctuated the silhouette were rendered in red chalk, if memory serves.

It was tempting to imagine it as nothing more than a case of drunken college hijinks. It wasn't, as I would soon learn from the television in the dorm lounge.

For weeks, the outrage against America's runaway gun culture dominated the headlines. Many holiday dinners were ruined by arguments over the meaning of the Second Amendment.

John Lennon's solo and Beatles music was all over the radio, especially "Imagine" with its ghostly piano reverb and utopian politics. "Imagine" was far more haunting than the irony-drenched and often-quoted "Happiness is a Warm Gun," which, mercifully, didn't get a lot of airplay on the radio because of our sensitivities at the time.

It is hard to exaggerate the amount of visceral disgust at guns that John Lennon's murder generated in those days before the NRA had an unbreakable chokehold on the U.S. Congress. It was a sentiment that would resurface the following spring after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan.

Looking back on Lennon's murder 30 years later, it is interesting to note how the gun angle has nearly completely receded in mainstream remembrances and news coverage.

The killer, Mark David Chapman, continues serving a life sentence in Attica. Though still demonized in the media, you rarely hear that he bought the five-shot, short barrel .38 he used to kill John Lennon from a Honolulu gun shop. For all of his craziness, his paperwork was in order and his purchase was legal. His ticket to infamy cost a mere $169, which he paid in cash.

On the mainland, the borderline psychotic was supplied the hollow-point expanding bullets he would fire into John Lennon's back by a friend who later became a sheriff's deputy.

Holiday dinners are no longer ruined by arguments about what constitutes sane gun control. These days, we argue about whether citizens have the constitutional right to pack heat at Sunday church services, in national parks and in bars. President Barack Obama doesn't even mention gun control in passing.

The revulsion that followed the Lennon and Reagan shootings 30 years ago has disappeared down a memory hole dug with assiduous brilliance by the NRA. The supine and craven political establishment in Washington is without morals when it comes to this issue.

Our representatives have been bought and sold by the gun lobby, especially here in Pennsylvania where an expansion of castle doctrine -- legislation that was just vetoed by Gov. Ed Rendell -- could be signed into law early in Gov.-elect Tom Corbett's first term.

If John Lennon were alive today, he'd write a caustic song about it. The world would sing along only to forget what the song meant by the time it got to the chorus.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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