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HOLMBERG: The story behind Batman and Robin’s fight for gun control in Va.

Twenty years ago, Batman and Robin were heroic advocates for gun control in an unusual graphic novel ordered up by a DC Comics executive after his son was shot to death at a New York City pay phone.

Back then, 140 copies of “Seduction of the Gun” were sent to the Virginia General Assembly as legislators debated the one-handgun-a month law, which passed that session. CBS 6, along with several other Virginia news organizations, covered the story at the time.

There are plenty of villains in “Seduction of the Gun.” Along with the usual over-the-top bad guys, firearms are the lead antagonists and Virginia stars as the heartless, gun-loving, money-grubbing supplier of crime guns.

That portrayal harmonized with the message from gun control advocates portraying Virginia as a key supplier of guns used in violent crimes in other states and cities, New York City in particular.

Legendary comic writer John Ostrander, a supporter of some types of gun control, was happy to get the assignment to write this unusually pointed episode. He still believes in the message.

“Because there were other people I knew, friends of a friend, who had also been killed, tragically, by someone with a handgun,” Ostrander told CBS 6 by phone from his home in Michigan.

An executive with Time-Warner and DC Comics felt the pain even more closely. Two years earlier, in 1990, his son–33-year-old advertising executive John Reisenbach – was shot to death in  New York City.

At the time, the Big Apple was infected by an epidemic of gun violence. The Reisenbach slaying, dubbed “The Nightmare on Elm Street” by the press there, was something of a final straw. It birthed the influential John A. Reisenbach Foundation.

The “Seduction of the Gun” is an usually gory story in which Batman poses as a gun runner and Robin infiltrates an extremely violent inner city school.

Then Virginia governor L. Douglas Wilder didn’t miss the opportunity to enlist Batman in his cause to limit handgun purchases. “When a comic strip depicts Virginia notoriously as a source for gunrunners, Virginians should be embarrassed,” his spokesman told reporters at the time.

Ostrander said his first goal was to write a good story, with the message about proliferation of guns being the subtext. In his research, he found Virginia’s reported problem with straw purchases – a legal buyer purchasing firearms, sometimes in bulk – for someone else. That made it into the comic. The city of Virginia Beach in particular was fingered in the issue, prompting the mayor at the time, Meyera Oberndorf, to issue a statement.

`As a mother, I sympathize with the concept the magazine is trying to achieve, which is to prevent the death of innocent citizens,” Oberndorf told the Virginian-Pilot newspaper. “I don’t want the message to go out that Virginia Beach is a lax community. We are not.” 

“Seduction of the Gun” is a dark, depressing tale. Ostrander said the message remains relevant today, particularly after last week’s tragedy in Aurora, Colorado.

He said this nation’s grip on its guns is just too much. He said perhaps a more appropriate title to the graphic novel would be “Wedded to the Gun.While against a prohibition on firearms, he believes there is some middle ground when it comes to restricting availability.

“I understand about those who are worried about their guns being taken away,” Ostrander said, “but what about the rest of us. What about those 12 people who were killed and 58 who were wounded? What about their rights? What about other people’s rights to go to a movie house free of being concerned about whether or not somebody like this is going to be able to buy all those weapons?”

Early in Batman’s comic history, he used firearms. But that changed, said Dave Dorman, the artist who painted the cover of that issue.  

“He prefers not to use any firearms,” Dorman said by phone from his home in Illinois. “He’d rather take down the perpetrators and put them in jail. Have them rehabilitated, if possible, rather than kill them. Same with Superman, actually, both DC comic heroes.”

 For both the author and artist, this usual, 20-year-old graphic novel snaps back into focus in the wake of the Colorado theater shooting. 

“Twenty years later, it comes back,” Dorman said. “People are crazy and you really can’t do anything about it.”

For Ostrander, the gun control message remains important. He points out that the Batman comic was the vehicle for the message in “Seduction of the Gun” because Batman’s parents were the victims of gun violence.

 Virginia’s one-handgun-a-month law was repealed this last General Assembly session. You can read “Seduction of the Gun” free online or buy a copy on the internet for a dollar or less.

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