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Republican congressman opens up about grandfather’s murder while defending gun rights

Posted on January 6th, 2016

Source – Washington Post

By Amber Phillips

When it comes to making a political point, few things are more effective than a personal story.

And Rep. Bradley Byrne (R-Ala.) has a whopper of one. Byrne appeared on C-SPAN Wednesday to explain his opposition to President Obama’s executive actions to try to curb gun violence. Soon after he started talking, Byrne shared a striking story about his family’s experience with gun violence:

“This is not an abstract issue for me,” he said. “My grandfather was shot and killed by a mentally ill person. And it devastated my family. It devastated my mother and grandmother and my two uncles. So when we talk about people who have been shot by mentally ill people, I understand it. I understand what it does do the victims.”

The former state senator and one-time Alabama gubernatorial candidate, who won a special election to Congress in 2013, went on to say that, even though his family was brought to its knees by gun violence, he doesn’t think Obama’s curbing access to guns is the answer.

“We’re not going to solve this problem if we’re not going to talk about changing the mental health policy of the United States,” he said. “Let’s talk about that.”

Byrne also mentioned the episode Tuesday in an appearance on Fox Business Network. In a separate interview Wednesday with The Fix, Byrne said he hadn’t talked much about this chapter of his family’s past until he came to Congress and a number of shootings by mentally ill people dominated the news. He said he felt compelled to share his story.

Byrne said the incident happened when his mother was a small child in the family’s neighborhood of Mobile, Ala.

“As I recall, a younger man in her neighborhood who was mentally ill, and there wasn’t any provocation. … He shot and killed my grandfather.”

Byrne said the shooting forever changed the family. Back then, there wasn’t any Social Security, so his grandmother went to work to support her three young children. Then the Great Depression hit.

“So it was a pretty tough time for my family,” said Byrne, who later added that when he spoke with his grandmother about the life-changing moment 40 years later, she still got emotional.

Byrne said he doesn’t know how the man who killed his grandfather got his gun: “It was just one of those incidents where he got a gun when he wasn’t supposed to.”

More than the gun, what stuck with Byrne was how he never heard his family speak ill of the killer nor about the need for gun control. “I never heard anything like that come across their lips,” he said.

Instead, Byrne said his family focused on the fact that there are people in Alabama and the United States who are mentally ill and precautions need to be taken to keep them and their families and their communities safe.

He has used his story to advocate for more effective mental health laws. He’s a co-sponsor of a bill by Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) to revamp the nation’s mental health system, including focusing on suicide prevention and increasing grants to find alternatives to institutionalization, among other issues. He said he’s not opposed to President Obama’s proposal to invest $500 million in mental health care access — “so long as it’s real reform.”

Byrne said he hasn’t spoken with other recent victims of shootings like the one that killed his grandfather, but he can empathize with them. “I know at least a generation removed how it feels to have somebody in your family taken like that. And my heart goes out to them.”

We’d add there’s a political advantage for sharing such a sensitive story. In opening up about this on live television and in media interviews, Byrne said much more than he arguably could have by repeating his party’s talking points.

Byrne, of course, isn’t the first lawmaker to experience gun violence personally or through a close family member; both former congresswomen Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y) have gone on to push for new gun restrictions after their respective tragedies. But Byrne is the rare lawmaker to relate a personal story about gun violence and use it to articulate a case for something other than new laws.