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The Great Bobble-head Saga

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Feb 10, 2011

Post by John Bohstedt, Tennessee Valley UU Church in Knoxville.

Four days after the horrific shootings in Tucson, TV news reported that a local firing range, “Fabulous Firearms,” run by Brent Wilson, had advertised a unique fund-raiser for the next Saturday (Jan. 15). For $5, shooters could fire at one of two bobble-head dolls (8” high), the proceeds going to the Second Harvest Food Bank. The bobble-heads were anything but anonymous: they were dolls of Lane Kiffin and his father, Monte Kiffin, former University of Tennessee football coaches despised by fans for having abruptly left our program for the rosier climes of Southern Cal. So fans could get their anger out while contributing to a worthy cause, Wilson announced.

That shocked us – just as the nation plunged into a furious debate over the role of vitriolic rhetoric in contributing to our nation’s long history of public shootings, people were invited to enjoy shooting at effigies of living public figures! At Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church (Knoxville), we have wanted to reduce violent political rhetoric ever since our own Church shootings in 2008. “Our” shooter’s four-page manifesto explained in detail that “This was a hate crime, ” “This was a political protest,” “This was a symbolic killing.” Since he could not get at the liberal elites listed in Bernard Goldberg’s 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America, he would shoot their local supporters. His letter echoed familiar hate- radio themes, and incendiary books that the police found in his home: Michael Savage, Liberalism is a Mental Disorder; Sean Hannity, Let Freedom Ring: Winning the War of Liberty over Liberalism; Bill O’Reilly, The O’Reilly Factor: The Good, the Bad, and the Completely Ridiculous in American Life. He carried 70 high-powered shells, and evidently planned to keep shooting until he was killed by the police. Instead he was tackled by five parishioners.

Bobble-head dolls of ex-UTK coaches Lane & Monte Kiffin, as portrayed online. (Thanks to Ted Lollis)Bobble-head dolls of ex-UTK coaches Lane & Monte Kiffin, as portrayed online. (Thanks to Ted Lollis)

In the last five years of hate-radio’s and TV’s competitions in outrage, “trigger-words” have become common in political diatribes. By trigger-words I mean direct calls for physical violence such as: “They oughta be hanged!” “Just shoot him!” “Beat him up!” “Kick them out,” “Make them afraid to leave their home,” and so on. Because our shooter’s expressed motivations reproduced such rhetoric, many TVUUCers believed – not that such words alone “caused” shootings – but rather that they gave public currency to the idea of physically attacking a political opponent, formulated as a suggestion – not to every listener, but to someone already living in a delusional world who heard the TV or the dog talking directly to him.

We felt the Great Bobble-head Shoot would affirm the legitimacy of murderous rhetoric about celebrities. Indeed, some of Wilson’s fans joked on Facebook about shooting at Obama dolls! So we called for a ban on talk of physical violence against political opponents, not by state fiat but by leadership.

TVUUC members did several things. As a spirited discussion began on our own e-list, Ted Jones & Bill Fields drafted a resolution for the TVUUC Board that would “respectfully ask the Unitarian Universalist Association that the Standing of the Side of Love initiative make the issue of public speech that contributes to violence one of their campaigns.” The motion was circulated and unanimously endorsed by our Board. Meanwhile Ted Jones and John Bohstedt began conversations about actions with Dan Furmansky, director of SSL. Partly as a result of those conversations, SSL posted a web-page that enabled voters to ask their Congressmen to renounce “vitriolic rhetoric.” Dan accepted Ted Lollis’s invitation to give a forum on his work at SSL, the weekend of the UUA’s National Day of Standing on the Side of Love, featuring associated UU events across the country. Rev. Chris Buice of TVUUC organized an interfaith panel for that afternoon to discuss “Standing on the Side of Love: Spiritual Approaches to Polarized Politics.”

John Bohstedt and several others emailed the director of Second Harvest Food Bank (with which we had collaborated for years), and asked them to sever their relationship with the shooting fund-raiser. We committed to raising the money to replace the $2000 they anticipated from the shooting event. (Note: The event had been planned weeks before Tucson). After receiving a number of friendly suggestions from TVUUCers, and angry blasts from some others, Second Harvest announced they had severed their link to the shooting event. We promptly raised the money. More than $4000 came in within 24 hours (from TVUUC and our networks of allies). A Sunday Special Collection at TVUUC harvested $1700 more. A second charity also declined connection with the shooting event.

Meanwhile, several of us also began to email the owner of Fabulous Firearms, Brent Wilson, explaining our feelings to him. In several exchanges he responded cordially, though noting that “we are worlds apart in our beliefs.” Indeed we were: in religion; in the possible role of rhetoric in violence; and in his view that we hypocritically accepted the “genocide of babies.” He thought the notion that shooting at dolls “caused” murders was idolatrous, satanic and sick. Nevertheless, he moved from using bobble-head targets to clay pigeons to paper targets, joking “as long as the tree-huggers don’t come after me.” He described this as “a compromise, but not a capitulation.” As he explained to his fans who accused him of “caving in:” We critics were not anti-gun, but “when it comes to people who for whatever reason were really distressed that we might shoot a likeness of a human – well one can’t argue with that.”

I call that a brave and generous response.

We did not change Brent and his supporters. We did not try to. We expressed our views frankly, however much they might conflict, with enough respect to keep the conversation going, recognizing that we remained “worlds apart.” It seemed in the end that, while compromise on principles was unlikely or even undesirable, it was possible to find common ground on a specific action, perhaps on unexpected bases.

Epilogue: The day of the event, Ted Jones led a Bobble-head Rescue. He collected $5s and “saved” several dolls, together with a paper target. (Of course they were silhouettes!) But it felt like a win-win-win that achieved satisfactory outcomes for all three parties, while humiliating or antagonizing none.

Below are links to news broadcasts about the Bobble-Head events, collected by Ted Lollis, Coordinator of Forums at TVUUC, and posted on his web-site, along with many other resources related to our fora, TVUUC, and peace movements.


"Kingston gun shop hosts bobblehead shooting day for Kiffin’s anniversary," WATE-TV, Jan. 12, 2011. (2:21)

"Shoot at a Lane Kiffin bobblehead gets mixed reviews from locals," WBIR-TV, Jan. 13, 2011. (1:49)

"Food bank pulls out of Kingston gun shop’s Kiffin bobblehead shooting day," WATE-TV, Jan. 13?, 2011. (1:32)

"Statement issued by Frontier Firearms about Kiffin bobblehead event," WATE-TV, Jan. 13, 2011.

"Firing range cancels ‘Shoot at a Lane Kiffin Bobblehead’ event," WBIR-TV, Jan. 14, 2011. (1:49)

"Kingston gun shop cancels Kiffin bobblehead shooting day." WATE-TV, Jan. 14, 2011.

3 Responses to “The Great Bobble-head Saga”

  1. Angelina Carpenter says:

    John & others,

    This is a beautiful story of what can happen when respect is involved. I like that you didn’t try to change Brent and that you didn’t focus on your disagreements. Your are right, it was a brave generous response from Mr. Wilson.

    Thank you for starting this & informing me. I look forward to the SSL event Sunday afternoon.


  2. Jerry Bone says:

    As one who was present in the TVUUC sanctuary when the shooting started, I have always had great pride in the way our congregation responded to the tragedy. I have, to be sure, great contempt for those who would spew hate disguised as political commentary and demonize those with whom they disagree. While there may be no way to trace those words and acts to the Tucson tragedy or to church shootings, and while I support the principle of freedom of speech, I hold that there is a moral, if not a legal, equivalent to “shouting ‘Fire!’ in a crowded theater.”

  3. jack tottle says:

    Congratulations to John Bohstedt and Tennessee Valley Unversalist Church of Knoxville. As a resident of Tennessee for nearly 30 years I am so glad to see the example you and your friends are setting. Thank you.

    Also, I applaud the Standing On the Side of Love website for encouraging us to “Ask your public officials to denounce vitriolic rhetoric and to recommit to respect and inclusion.” Perhaps in today’s environment this might sink in if enough of us hold strong to this principle.

    The comments by Jerry Bone and Angela Carpenter are also right on the mark. We may not convert someone to our beliefs, but if we engage them AND treat them with respect we are having a positive effect.

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