Such is the life of a former mayor in his hometown - Helmke served 1988-2000 - and a gun-control advocate in a nation with 280 million privately owned guns.
Yet that hasn't stopped Helmke from talking. Since leaving politics, he's become a national voice for gun control: July will mark his third year as president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
The job comes with a price. Helmke is often vilified by gun-rights advocates. When he suggests renewing the assault weapons ban to reduce killings with semiautomatic rifles or stricter monitoring of gun sales to keep them out of the hands of criminals, he is often accused of trying to ban or confiscate all guns.
“You and Helmke don't know what you're talking about!!” wrote one angry reader responding to a Feb. 24 article in The News-Sentinel in which Helmke noted that Indiana's gun laws require no gun safety training or limits on the number of guns purchased. “You anti-gunners won't be happy until all guns are confiscated and Marxist views are shoved down the throats of freedom-loving people.”
Opponents also link him to conspiracy theories.
“America is waking up to 9/11 as an inside job,” wrote one reader responding to the article. “You reporters haven't been doing (your) job.”
The U.S. leads the world in gun deaths per year, with about 31,000 Americans killed in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control. About 55 percent of those deaths were suicides. Roughly 40 percent were homicides, and Indiana ranked 21st in the nation in gun deaths, according to the Violence Policy Center, which analyzed CDC statistics.
Yet Helmke said discussion of gun control frequently leads to hysterical responses from opponents invoking slippery-slope analogies and Adolf Hitler's rise to power. Helmke said a lack of gun-control laws in post-World War I Germany helped fuel Hitler's takeover, but try explaining that to gun-rights advocates.
“Gun control is a topic that people don't like to talk about in any sort of rational way,” he said, noting some favor outlawing all private gun ownership, while others say there should be no gun laws. Helmke favors a middle ground. He would limit how many guns people can buy at one time, ban sales of semiautomatic rifles and increase law oversight of gun sales.
Helmke said he was hired in part because of his centrist reputation as a Midwestern Republican. While elected three times, he ruffled feathers in his party by pushing for a revenue-raising local income tax and an annexation that expanded the city's tax base.
It was also during his tenure as mayor that Helmke saw the devastation caused by gun violence in Fort Wayne in the 1990s, including 1997 when the city saw a record 42 homicides. His support for gun control led him to meet Brady Center co-founder James Brady, the press secretary to President Ronald Reagan who was shot in the head and paralyzed during the 1981 assassination attempt on Reagan.
Brady helped get a law passed requiring federal background checks for sales by gun dealers and an assault-weapons ban from 1994 to 2003. Nonetheless, Helmke admits it's been frustrating trying to get laws passed to keep criminals from obtaining guns through thefts, private sales, straw purchases or from corrupt gun dealers. Some 40 percent of all gun purchases have no background checks because they're done by private sellers or at gun shows, and Helmke said states, including Indiana, rarely report mentally ill gun owners to the federal government.
“All of our gun laws are basically set with the presumption that we don't want to do anything to make it hard for anybody to get a gun,” Helmke said. “People always say there are all these laws on the books. There aren't any laws on the books.”
While it's been an uphill battle, Helmke said he'll continue to push for reasonable laws that don't infringe on the Second Amendment.
“I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think we could make progress,” he said. “Politicians need to show a little courage on this stuff, and they're not willing to.”
Who's Paul Helmke?♦President and CEO of Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington, D.C.
♦Served three terms as Fort Wayne mayor, from 1988 to 2000, as a Republican