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Gun Locks, Beignets and the Dalai Lama

“The realization that another person wishes to harm and hurt you cannot undermine genuine compassion.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibet since the age of 15 and the world’s most recognized champion of non-violence, spent his first-ever visit to New Orleans in a security bubble.

Draped in red and gold robes, the elderly, bespectacled Buddhist monk smiled and waved – gently – to anyone and everyone inside the New Orleans Convention Center. Stoic security agents from the U.S. State Department ushered him into a windowless meeting room for a press conference. The members of the news media already inside were screened weeks in advance, then searched by security agents with hand-held metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs “to ensure His Holiness’ safety,” according to a local spokesman.

Invited by the Tulane School of Social Work to address graduating seniors on peace, resilience and compassion, the exiled spiritual leader of Tibet – a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize – can also be a sharp critic of Chinese communist rule over his native country north of the mountainous Himalayas. He assumed the leadership of Tibet as a teenager in 1950, after a brutal invasion by neighboring China the same year, then fled into exile as Tibet’s spiritual leader in ’59. He has advocated freedom for Tibet from a compound in northern India since then.

At today’s press conference, there are no questions for His Holiness about the scores of Tibetan monks who have burned themselves alive since last November to protest Chinese rule. No one asks about assassination plots, such as the Dalai Lama’s own admittedly unconfirmed report that Chinese agents were planning to poison him.

Five days after the Mother’s Day parade shooting left 20 people injured in New Orleans, the search for solace and answers is distinctively local. A reporter asks His Holiness for his own definition of leadership and how people can recognize true leadership “in times of great public fear?”

After a pause for translation help from an interpreter, the Dalai Lama turned suddenly playful and responds with a why-ask-me shrug: “I don’t know,” he chuckles.

The monk then turned serious, addressing a divisive American topic: gun control.

“The one thing I tell the people: the real ‘gun control’ starts from here,” the Dalai Lama says, pointing toward his heart. “We must educate. Human beings’ basic condition is moral compassion.”

As public figures often do during media interviews, the Dalai Lama later returned to the leadership question – adding that his job as a leader is to keep people “calm” so they can make reasonable decisions.

The press conference ended. The Dalai Lama stood and waved good-bye. Adhering to unspecified “security reasons,” the reporters remained in the meeting room, giving His Holiness a five-minute head start after the news conference ended. Three months later, his office in India bans all “outside electronic gadgets, including FM-radios,” from temple prayers, citing new security measures.

 “During a dangerous period, when there’s a dramatic change, then there’s no scope to pretend that everything is fine,” the Dalai Lama once wrote. “You must accept that bad is bad.”

Back in New Orleans, police say the number of homicides has dropped by 27 percent. The crime-weary public remains guardedly optimistic as attempts to reform the New Orleans Police Department and the jail plod forward. City coffers are dry and services are strained. Soon, the public will elect, or re-elect, a mayor and sheriff, among other city leaders. Not all leaders are elected, as evidenced by the citywide enthusiasm for the Dalai Lama. Colorful Tibetan prayer flags displayed during his historic visit still hang from fences, balconies and windows. Like Mardi Gras beads.

One Saturday morning in July, several hundred people lined up in sweltering heat on Decatur Street, across from Jackson Square.

For a moment, it appeared the combined public relations forces of the firearms industry, the NOPD and the mayor’s office had struck a chord with a promotional giveaway of 3,000 gun safety locks “to help prevent firearm accidents, theft and misuse.”

Closer inspection reveals the long line is for coffee and beignets at Café Du Monde and only starts near the gun safety education booth manned by the National Sports Shooting Foundation.

Blue-uniformed crime prevention officers from the NOPD show passerby how the cable locks to secure weapons. Amanda Furrer, an Olympic shooting competitor from Spokane, Wash., advocates the sport as a “family activity.”

The industry-backed group promotes firearm safety and storage as “common ground” for both sides of the contentious national debate over gun control – which the NSSF says it wants to avoid.

“Let’s just focus what we agree on,” says NSSF executive director Steve Sanetti. He says that ProjectChildSafe.org addresses two problems: criminals stealing guns from law-abiding gun owners and accidental shootings. “It’s something gun-owners can do now,” he says.

Sanetti says NSSF’s national campaign encounters two different gun cultures. In rural areas, he says, many people grow up using guns for hunting and target practice. NSSF must assure rural residents the gunlocks aren’t part of a gun-control effort. “In the city, the focus is lock up the guns; people are doing irresponsible things.” It costs $5 to make each gun lock, which retails for $10 to $12, Sanetti says.

The group says it distributed 150 of the 3,000 free safety kits in the French Quarter. The rest went to the NOPD Crime Prevention office for distribution (658-5595). No elected officials showed up at the gun safety booth, despite the impressive crowds lined up for a table at the nearby Café Du Monde. The gun safety exhibitors joined the crowd after their event. “As expected, the beignets were fantastic,” says NSSF spokesman LeRoy Coleman.

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