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Balance of Power Walks a Taut Tightrope on the Issue of Gun Control

Nancy Sundstrom - December 18th, 2003
Richard North Patterson is one of the most popular and resourceful writers around when it comes to marrying the realities of special interest, insider politics in Washington with nail-biting plots loaded with suspense and intrigue. Of his 11 novels, there have been seven consecutive international bestsellers, and his most recent, “Protect and Defend,“ was compared to landmarks in the genre, such as Allen Drury‘s “Advise and Consent“ and Gore Vidal‘s “Lincoln.“
A former trial lawyer, Patterson has turned to the never-hotter issue of gun control for his latest outing, “Balance of Power,“ and the result is a knockout. The praise on the back cover announces as much, with former President Clinton calling it a “must read for anyone interested in the gun debate,“ Senator Edward Kennedy praising Patterson‘s “extraordinary insight into how Washington works, and a complex and heartfelt understanding of the effects of gun violence on our society,“ and fellow writer Scott Turow declaring it a “compelling story, fully worthy of Richard North Patterson, which is made even more intriguing by its detailed insight into the world of special-interests politics in Washington, D.C.“
So what has Patterson done to top himself with this one?
For starters, he‘s brought back his longtime hero Kerry Kilcannon, who has been President for about one year and is now planning his marriage to former television journalist Lara Costello. Lara‘s sister, Joan, is regularly abused by her husband, John Bowden, giving Kilcannon and Lara a very personal and frightening perspective on the issues of domestic violence and ownership and use of hand guns. In true Patterson style, he kicks off the story‘s opening with a dramatic event guaranteed to have the reader keep turning pages:

“Feeling the gun against the nape of her neck, Joan Bowden froze. Her consciousness narrowed to the weapon she could not see: her vision barely registered the cramped living room, the images on her television -- the President and his fiancee, opening the Fourth of July gala beneath the towering obelisk of the Washington Monument. She could feel John‘s rage through the cold metal on her skin, smell the liquor on his breath.
“Why?“ she whispered.
“You wanted him.“ He spoke in a dull, emphatic monotone.
Who? she wanted to ask. But she was too afraid; with a panic akin to madness, she mentally scanned the faces from the company cookout they had attended hours before. Perhaps Gary -- they had talked for a time.
Desperate, she answered, “I don‘t want anyone.“
She felt his hand twitch. “You don‘t want me. You have contempt for me.“
Abruptly, his tone had changed to a higher pitch, paranoid and accusatory, the prelude to the near hysteria which issued from some unfathomable recess of his brain. Two nights before, she had awakened, drenched with sweat, from the nightmare of her own death. Who would care for Marie?
Moments before, their daughter had sat at the kitchen table, a portrait of dark-haired intensity as she whispered to the doll for whom she daily set a place. Afraid to move, Joan strained to see the kitchen from the corner of her eye. John‘s remaining discipline was to wait until Marie had vanished; lately their daughter seemed to have developed a preternatural sense of impending violence which warned her to take flight. A silent minuet of abuse, binding daughter to father.
Marie and her doll were gone.
“Please,“ Joan begged. The cords of her neck throbbed with tension. The next moment could be fateful: she had learned that protest enraged him, passivity insulted him. Slowly, the barrel traced a line to the base of her neck, then pulled away. Joan‘s head bowed. Her body shivered with a spasm of escaping breath. She heard him move from behind the chair, felt him staring down at her. Fearful not to look at him, she forced herself to meet his gaze.
With an open palm, he slapped her. Her head snapped back, skull ringing. She felt blood trickling from her lower lip. John placed the gun to her mouth. Her husband. The joyful face from her wedding album, now dark-eyed and implacable, the 49ers T-shirt betraying the paunch on his too-thin frame.
Smiling grimly, John Bowden pulled the trigger. Recoiling, Joan cried out at the hollow metallic click. The sounds seemed to work a chemical change in him -- a psychic wound which widened his eyes. His mouth opened, as if to speak; then he turned, staggering, and reeled toward their bedroom.
Slumping forward, Joan covered her face. Soon he would pass out. She would be safe then; in the morning, before he left, she would endure his silence, the aftershock of his brutality and shame. At least Marie knew only the silence.“

Kilcannon and Lara help Joan escape from the unending abuse she faces, something that has terrible repercussions. Just after their wedding, Bosden shoots and kills Joan, daughter Marie, and Joan and Lara‘s mother, Inez. Everyone is horrified and devastated, but Kilcannon lets his emotions interfere when he decides to tackle the gun industry and the Second Amendment in the form of a powerful lobby group known as the Sons of the Second Amendment (SSA).
Things get even more complicated when another of Lara‘s sisters, Mary, sues both a gun company and the SSA, even as Kilcannon tries to defeat a bill the SSA is trying to push through the Senate and the House protecting gun companies from lawsuits such as this. When Kilcannon‚s relentless rival, Senate Majority Leader Frank Fasano, gets involved, the SSA has the momentum it needs to declare all-out war on the President, using any means in its well-stocked arsenal. Defeat is not an option for anyone, and the stakes raise as everyone lays claim to the words written in the Second Amendment regarding the right to bear arms.
The terrible toll of gun violence continues to loom over this country and while it‘s obvious that Patterson is a gun control advocate, it‘s less clear whether even an intelligent, well-researched and factually based thriller on the issue like this one will have any impact on opening eyes and changing the grim scenario that now currently exists for others like him.
This book is highly entertaining, certainly, but there is much more going on here than that, and if you‘re looking for a “popcorn read,“ you‘re going to be a bit disappointed, because this is somber, and anything but lightweight. The legalities of both sides of the gun control issue are presented here to give the reader a sophisticated look at one of the most hotly-contested issues around, and its clear that the author hopes his passion and presentation can contribute to America‚s ongoing education about our obsession with guns and seeming inability to control the worst from happening when it comes to them.

  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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