Posts Tagged ‘Gun control’

The Thinker

Rampages and beatifying the beautiful

Another disgusting rampage. Another white male (well, actually half white, half Asian, but obsessed enough with looking white to the point of dyeing his hair) decides he has been persecuted enough and goes on a murder spree. Of course I am talking about 22-year-old Elliott Rodger, who killed six people and injured thirteen others in a rampage on May 23, 2014 and then did what these cowardly murderers usually do: take his own life with a handgun. For a young man who railed against pretty women who he believes unfairly gave him the cold shoulder, four of his murders were against men, three of who were apparent roommates. The women were likely complete strangers, but were coeds at the local University of Santa Barbara he attended and likely reflected the archetype he expounded upon in his rantings and final video, of course uploaded to YouTube.

A few details of this incident did not fit the rampage stereotype. Three of the murders, of his roommates, were apparently carried out with knives and may have included a machete and hammer. I’m not sure what his beef with them was. Perhaps they were white and/or jocks. The others, of course, were shot expeditiously with our ubiquitous symbol of power for the powerless: a gun, specifically a Glock 34 pistol, acquired quite legally in California by a man with well established mental illnesses. Isla Vista police had earlier checked up on him, after his parents reported his disturbing videos on YouTube. Police found a mouse of a man and gave him no further thought.

Rodger says he did all this simply because he wanted to get laid and kept getting spurned from even getting a date. Of course it was more than this. Getting laid is not hard, even for a virgin. Anyone who can afford $5000 in guns can afford a street prostitute, or even an expensive blonde-haired escort like he lusted after. What Rodger really wanted was to be validated in the warped way that he thought he should be validated. He had to lay the right kind of stereotype. In his mind she had to be white, she had to be blonde, she had to find him attractive and apparently she had to be submissive and show respect by swooning over the fact that he was a man.

It’s the latter issue that is the primary subject of today’s essay. Rodger apparently saw himself as flawed. First, he was half Asian and to fit the archetype he believed blondes were looking for, he had to be all white. He thought that by dyeing his hair white he could join the white guys’ club, but it just made him look unnatural. This contributed to his rage. There were doubtless other things. Perhaps penis envy was also part of his perceived imperfections. Whatever, his doubtlessly clumsy attempts to win female attention did not work. He likely projected an aura of a messed up person, which is not hard if you are mentally ill. This is likely why women were spurning him, but it sounds like he set his bar unacceptably high anyhow. Chances are if he had actually laid one of these beautiful blonde goddesses, he would have been brought down to earth. Any subsequent relationship, if he could see past the confusion of his own mental illness, would reveal just another human being with flaws and foibles, just like him.

In some ways, Rodger was waiting for Godot. As we all know if you wait for Godot, it’s going to be a very long wait. No wonder his expectations were unfulfilled and his virginity remained intact. He was seeing women as he wanted them to be, not as they are. Women had become objects, not real people. He could only imagine validation through a woman so flawed that she had to be a stereotype. Naturally, his unsuccessful attempts piled onto themselves and turned into the perceived feeling that all women were against him because he himself was not the perfect male archetype he was convinced that they demanded. This anger fed his rage. Guns made it easy to kill half of his victims, but those living with him were in his intimate space, and on them he could unleash a more personal rage by killing them with knives and possibly a hammer. It is likely that his female victims would have suffered a similar fate if he could have gotten close enough to them, but of course he perceived them as spurning him, so he had to kill them remotely, hence the gun.

Rodger had been diagnosed with schizophrenia, and had been seeing shrinks since he was eight years old. You would think this mental illness alone would make someone unqualified to own a gun, but of course you would be wrong. “Joe the Plumber” (a.k.a. Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher) got some attention recently by asserting that if his gun rights cause people to be unnecessarily murdered, that’s just too bad, the former being much more important than some goddam human lives. While I don’t agree with his thesis, I do reluctantly agree with his conclusion. If the Sandy Hook murders weren’t enough to restrict access to firearms, even if just to the mentally ill schizophrenic like Rodger, then he is clearly right. Mentally ill schizophrenics cause almost all these rampages, and they are generally also young men about Rodger’s age. Simply taking away gun rights from them would save the lives of many people every year. It’s obviously not something politicians are willing to do, since few are anxious to take on the crazily obsessed NRA.

Rodger’s larger issue though was a fundamental misunderstanding of who women actually are. It’s not hard to see how he picked this up, as our culture glorifies the beautiful and Hollywood prefers white actors. Hollywood is in the business of selling entertainment, and selling movies with actors who look like average Joes or Janes is generally not very marketable. We beatify the beautiful. With the beautiful and the talented grabbing most of our screen time, it’s not surprising that Rodger picked up this value and assumed he was unfairly and permanently discriminated against.

How to see past the cultural and Hollywood smokescreen? Part of the solution is to tune this stuff out, obviously not an easy thing to do in our increasingly interconnected world, as attested by the volume of Netflix downloads constantly streaming across the Internet. It might help if we could substitute books for visual mediums. In a book, unless its illustrated, the attractiveness or otherwise of its characters is not an issue. Schools and religious institutions can also do more to project the values that worth is not contingent upon your genetic makeup or your rating on hotornot.com.

It would be helpful for everyone, but particularly our youth, to be less cliquish. We should put people of different ethnicities, life experiences and perceived beauty together more often. By interacting with others outside our normal class, it becomes obvious that we are all basically the same and that beauty and genetics say nothing about worth or character. These values become real only when they are experienced. People of different types have to work through issues together over a long period of time to get this understanding.

For students, it might mean lots of group projects where people in a group are picked specifically because they are different, instead of the same. Leveraging our diversity on all levels is actually a great strength. The more we all understand the multi-dimensional aspects of all of us, and feel it in our core, the more empathetic we become and the better we become at solving problems that affect everyone. This takes a lot of practice, and it often takes trained facilitators to help people see the strength in our diversity and our essential humanity. We have to see each other as real, not surreal.

And of course where there are signs of obvious danger, like Rodger’s mental illness, we must take logical steps to protect society. The NRA says that owning guns is a right. That is the current Supreme Court’s interpretation. The truth is that gun ownership, like driving a car, should be a privilege. It can and should be restricted to those sane and sober enough to use guns responsibly. By making it a right, it’s like giving a teenager a hotrod, a full tank of gas, a set of keys and a fifth of Tequila and telling them to enjoy their drive. That’s is the message we send to people like Rodger. Until we finally figure that out, Joe the Plumber will, unfortunately, continue to be right.

 
The Thinker

Gun control is inevitable

Americans are obsessed with guns, but appearances can be deceiving. Certainly there is a very vocal crowd of gun rights people in this country, so vocal in fact that it seems to be more important than any other issue. Many of these gun rights advocates horde guns and ammunition for the apocalypse, or at least the breakdown of civil society. They are ready to help insurrection at that amorphous time when they decide our government has gotten too uppity.

Polls show Americans pretty much split on whether guns should be controlled. A recent Pew poll put the numbers at 50% for gun control, 48% against. This should actually be encouraging to gun rights advocates, since it shows an uptick. In their polling since 1993, no more than 49% of Americans were against gun control. In short, over twenty years there never has been a majority of Americans, at least according to Pew that has supported gun rights. Back in 2000, Pew found 67%, two in three Americans, supported gun control.

Clearly there is a lot of variability in gun control support but also clearly over twenty years there has never been a majority supporting gun rights. It’s unlikely the dynamic will change and if it does it is likely to change marginally. The trends suggest that gun control may be inevitable. Why do I say this? Because America continues to urbanize and in urban areas gun control is a winner.

In 2010 according to the Census Bureau (via Wikipedia), 80.7% of Americans lived in urban areas. This is up almost two percent from 2000, and up ten percent over fifty years. In fact, America officially became an urban nation when the 1920 census was tallied. This trend has continued inexorably since our founding. The reasons for urbanization should be obvious: life offers more possibilities in urban areas. It’s likely that we would be more urbanized than we are today, had not the trend been held in some check by suburbanization. It was due in part to industries concentrated in our cities and their pollution, which made living in the city hazardous to health. Industry is now much cleaner, and so are our cities. They are attracting many people, including those who used to live in suburbs.

In urban areas, 58% of those polled were for gun control. If we assume that more people will continue move to urban areas than elsewhere, a good assumption since it’s been true since our country was founded then we’ll likely see a clear and sustaining majority for gun control in the future.

Then there are the age statistics. The trend has been that younger people are markedly more likely to support gun control than older people. Strangely, right now that trend is reversed. Right now those aged 18-29 are still for gun control, but just narrowly, 50% to 49%. Curiously at the moment support is highest for gun control among those 65+ and is at 54%. The general pattern though suggests that trends will continue although as young adults move into middle age they may be more receptive to gun rights.

Part of the appeal of guns is growing up with guns. If you went deer hunting with dad or grew up with a gun closet in the basement you will tend to think that gun possession is normal. And yet having a gun in the household is hardly the norm. The New York Times reported earlier this year that a 2012 government survey showed that guns were in 34% of households, versus 50% in the 1970s. There is probably a correlation between this and our increasing urbanization, up 8% since 1970. The number of households having a gun will continue to decline in the years ahead as well.

In rural areas a gun may have some practical use. It can provide food, at least during hunting season. A gun may make sense as a form of personal protection when any police are likely to be half an hour or more away. In urban settings you obviously don’t need a gun for hunting, unless you plan to drive quite a distance on weekends. If you live in a high crime neighborhood you may want one for personal safety. But if you call 911, you probably won’t have to wait half an hour for police to show up. Most of the people now moving into urban areas are upwardly mobile, younger and reasonably well moneyed. Most likely they are living in gentrified neighborhoods that used to be crime-ridden eyesores. They bring with them a culture where gun possession is frowned upon. I witnessed this transformation recently in Washington D.C. Last Wednesday I attended an event near U and 14th Streets N.W., the heart of race riots back in 1968, now nicely gentrified and upscale. Women walked around the streets at night without seemingly a care, and there was not a bum in sight. The neighborhoods were well lit and felt safe. The most aggravating aspect of this neighborhood was finding a parking spot.

These demographics and values trends are going to make gun control more okay. Certainly there will be pushback from the gun rights lobby and the Second Amendment is not easily repealed. It probably won’t be repealed outright but I do expect that gun control laws will come back in favor in these communities and those values will generally extend outward. The need for a gun will continue to diminish, and incidents like rampage mass shootings will eventually become too great to tolerate and force political change. People with guns will increasingly be seen as odd and out of the mainstream.

I probably won’t live to see the Second Amendment repealed but I do expect in about fifty years it will be repealed. It may also be changed to allow local and state governments to regulate who can possess guns, and sold as an issue of states’ rights.

 

 
The Thinker

The abortion of a child’s potential is the real crime

In case you haven’t been following the news, states are getting very creative in finding ways to skirt the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which in theory allows a pregnant woman to have an abortion during the first trimester of a pregnancy. Calling these laws “creative” is generous. “Illegal” is more appropriate for some of these state laws. It will just take some years before courts fully strike them down or as pro-lifers hope, the Supreme Court overturns its 1973 decision. It’s hard to see though how some of these new laws can possibly cut the mustard.

For example, some states require counseling prior to an abortion, a curious requirement as in most other things, like smoking, drinking and gambling, there is no similar requirement. The law assumes that adults are entitled to make judgments without coercion by the state because they are, well, adults! Even more intrusive are vaginal ultrasounds, required for women who want an abortion in states like Texas and Louisiana. Curiously there are no similar laws requiring anal ultrasounds of the prostate before men undergo vasectomies. North Dakota decided that if you can discern a heartbeat no abortion is allowed, which suggests no abortions are legal past six weeks of pregnancy. Thankfully, a federal judge overturned the law but as there is only one abortion clinic in the whole state, it’s kind of moot. Other states like Virginia (where I live) keep tightening the screws for abortion providers, most recently by requiring facilities to have hospital-wide corridors.

The intent is not hard to discern: to make abortion as difficult to get as possible until effectively it’s impossible to get because it has been regulated away. Curiously many of these states claim to be all about freedom, such as the freedom to bring a loaded gun into a teen recreation center (yes, it’s legal here in Virginia). Apparently freedom of choice is not for pregnant women. Apparently the moment a woman gets pregnant they become value impaired.

An abortion supposedly destroys a life, but what “life” means to the pro-life crowd is peculiar. In the case of a fertilized egg that is not yet implanted into the uterus, it is arguably not alive as it does not move or grow. As the blastocyst matures into a fetus though clearly something (or someone as pro-lifers would say) is alive. A tiny fertilized egg is hard to see even in a petri dish but this is a life? Then the mole on my neck must be a life too. However apparently my mole can be surgically removed with impunity – no state counseling is required, even though, like the zygote, it can’t think but it does have something resembling a circulation system. In reality, there is no magic moment when a fetus becomes a person. At eight months it’s ridiculous to claim it is not. At eight days it is laughable to claim it is. The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was imperfect, but reasonable. I have yet to hear of a fetus expelled during the first trimester surviving through prenatal care.

I am hardly the first to remark (as many others have) that carrying a child to term does not mean that the child will be loved, clothed, fed and nurtured. With a few minor exceptions, the pro-life people are wholly indifferent to the fate of the child after birth. Mostly they are indifferent to the mother during pregnancy as well. I have not heard of any state law requiring pregnant mothers to take prenatal vitamins, for example, to increase the odds of a healthy child, but they are myopic about vaginal ultrasounds and hospital-wide corridors. Go figure. After birth, most pro-lifers could not give a crap what happens to the child. They willfully don the eyeshades of ignorance, start humming happy tunes and plug their ears.

This is usually not true for those women who are forced to carry a child to term. Typically the reason they seek an abortion in the first place is because they realize they cannot fit a child into their complicated lives. While the life of the poor may seem deceptively simple, in reality it is quite complicated, a far more complex chess match than any of us moneyed people are ever likely to experience. If you have ever lived in poverty, or near poverty, you know this is true. (I know this from experience.) Try surviving on Walmart wages, particularly with a child you are supposed to raise and doing it without government money. (So many Walmart employees are on food stamps that it’s practically required in order to work there.) Try doing this with no or little support system in place as well. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of these mothers either fails or does a substandard job.

It would be nice if government picked up the slack. Sometimes it does, with food stamps and credits for childcare and the like. Yet these are usually not nearly enough for a child to thrive, and sometimes not enough to even fend off malnutrition. Nor do these measures begin to measure the psychic cost to children from living in poverty: lack of parental attention, lack of a father in the house in most cases, lack of nurturing because the mother is usually working, the shuttling from one substandard home to another, neighborhoods full of crime and poverty, and schools where education is generally substandard. It’s completely reasonable to draw these inferences just by looking at scores of children at these schools on standardized tests.

Thus it’s wholly reasonable to ask pro-lifers: If this will be the fate of these children who might not otherwise be born, why did you force these mothers to carry them to term in the first place? Maybe, just maybe, the mother had a pretty good idea of what her life would look like, and this wasn’t what she wanted for her children. Maybe it was because it is how she spent her childhood and youth. The next reasonable question is: How can you make any person carry an unwanted child to term if you won’t take care of it once they are born if the parents cannot?

Sadly, our world is overrun with children whose mothers, if they had the option, probably would not have carried them to term. Many of them would have been happy to take a morning after pill to preclude the possibility, but in much of the world a $50 Plan B pill is unaffordable, if it is even available. Every child has potential, but that doesn’t mean that they can actually realize their potential when born into poverty or dysfunctional circumstances. It is only possible with a huge societal investment in time, money and nurturing. This seems to be the freight pro-lifers won’t pay for, unless it is for your own son or daughter. What could be much crueler than bringing a child into the world who will know little but insurmountable obstacles? Why do we want children in this world whose circumstances will doom them to be just ten percent of who they could be? These children are much more likely to be flipping burgers as adults instead of doing scientific research, writing a great novel and building our bridges.

This is the real abortion: the abortion of a child’s potential by requiring them to be born into substandard circumstances. A largely indifferent and uncaring society snuffs it out after birth. These children are cut off at the kneecaps at an early age. They face a life full of endless obstacles. Scaling over just a couple of them is beyond most of us, and we expect them to scale hundreds of them. Add to this sad story the cost to the planet to bring a child into the world and we have set up a cycle where each generation leads more difficult, shorter and less endurable lives. Through being “pro-life”, we are creating hell on earth and worse, being willfully ignorant of the consequences.

It is this versus giving the mother the simple dignity of deciding whether to have a child and if she does not then making it safe and legal for her to terminate the pregnancy. It is so much cheaper and actually much kinder not to have the child until she is ready. Birth control pills are quite cheap and can prevent fertilization altogether. Even if they are not available a morning after pill is much cheaper than 18 years of trying to care for a child with inadequate resources.

Every child should be a wanted and a nurtured child. No child should be born to live a life of misery, but only into conditions that will nurture him or her as a valued member of society where they have a reasonable expectation of achieving their potential. A sustainable earth and our common humanity require nothing less.

 
The Thinker

A week of preventable tragedies

Last week was a good week to stick your head in the ground. Unfortunately, we are not ostriches so we were left to endure two major tragedies instead: the Boston bombings and an explosion of a fertilizer factory in West, Texas. The former got disproportionate attention, but the latter actually caused more deaths.

Last Monday’s twin bombings near the finish line of the Boston Marathon murdered three people including a boy, left at least thirteen people with severed limbs, and more than 178 people were treated at local hospitals. It was arguably the first major case of terrorism within the United States since September 11, 2001. For some of us who were in or around the events of 9/11, these bombings evoked visceral reminders of that day. I was one of the people caught in Washington, D.C. that day. My way of coping last week was not to watch videos of this event, but otherwise the news was inescapable. The total deaths were really four if you include the MIT police officer Sean Collier, who was killed by gunfire from the bombing suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev early Friday morning. Police killed Tamerlan, the elder brother on Friday morning. His brother Dzhokhar is now in hospitalized and in custody after a wild manhunt that shut down Boston and surrounding areas for much of Friday.

The visceral reaction to this incident was understandable, given that the Boston Marathon is a huge public event and perhaps the premier running event in the United States. In a sense it was an attack on all of us because it was so indiscriminate. The chaotic reporting of the event did not do credit to the media, social media or crowdsourcing. What was impressive was the effectiveness of law enforcement at city, state and the federal levels. Within three days of the event officials had identified two suspects from thousands of images in and around the event, and within four days one suspect was dead and the other was captured wounded in nearby Watertown after an extensive and scary manhunt that shut down the Boston area. Less noted by the press was what had not occurred in the twelve years in between these events. We know of some of the planned terrorist events that were thwarted by law enforcement over these years, and there are doubtless many more that we do not know about. This incident also demonstrated that when these events occur we can marshal the right resources to effectively manage and contain the event. We have also put in place an infrastructure that is generally effective at preventing most of these incidents. Our law enforcement community deserves applause from all Americans for their forceful and effective response to these tragic bombings. The citizens of Boston proved their resilience as well, by offering assistance to victims of the bombing and by keeping their cool while neighborhoods swarmed with SWAT teams.

Adding to the surreal nature of these events was the rejection by the U.S. senate of expanded background checks for gun purchasers last week. The legislation would not have stopped the bombings themselves, which were wrought by low-tech pressure cookers placed in backpacks. However, had the law been in effect it might have kept the Tsarnaev brothers from acquiring weapons in the first place. During the shootout with police Thursday night, the brothers outgunned the police, at least as far as the number of bullets exchanged. As the nearby Newtown incident demonstrated, it’s not hard to buy lots of bullets in this country. Both brothers were able to acquire guns that were used to kill Officer Collier. Authorities had previously interviewed the elder brother Tamerian because the Russian government believed him to have Chechen sympathies. If they appeared on any watch list, it did not appear to have kept them from getting guns.

While the news from Boston riveted our attention, arguably the explosion at the West Fertilizer Company in West, Texas near Waco on Wednesday was more newsworthy. While it’s unclear if the Boston bombings could have been prevented, the incident in West was eminently preventable and exacerbated by the Texan stubbornness not to allow zoning laws. Currently there are fourteen confirmed deaths and more than 160 people injured, mostly residents of this small Texan town. The town’s volunteer firefighters made up a plurality of those killed. They first successfully evacuated residents from a nearby nursing home before the plant exploded. OSHA had not inspected the plant itself since 1985. The Department of Homeland Security, which is supposed to regulate fertilizer factories like this one but depends on these factories to self identify themselves never was notified. The destruction amounted to sixty to 80 homes completely destroyed, including a fifty-unit apartment building. Fifty to 75 additional homes were damaged. The only good thing about the explosion is that a fire started at the plant before it exploded, allowing responders to get the elderly out of a nearby nursing home and residents from neighboring homes before the explosion. It’s hard to imagine what the death toll had been had there been no warning.

This incident is a prime example of a wholly preventable accident. Even if the accident could not have been prevented, zoning laws could have kept industrial areas far away from residential areas, as is common in the vast majority of states except for states with something prickly up their rears, like Texas, who think “freedom” trumps basic public safety. The state of Texas is hostile to zoning regulations of any sort, so it’s perfectly okay to put major industrial plants like this fertilizer storage facility close to residential areas. An incident like this would normally have state legislatures scrambling to enact zoning laws to give jurisdictions authority to put public safety first. This is unlikely to happen, so something like this is bound to happen again.

In fact, it has. Texas, known for its refineries as well as many other hazardous industries, has a sorry history of large and preventable industrial accidents. In 1947, the Texas City Disaster killed at least 581 people and left only one person alive in the city’s fire department. The culprit was a ship loaded with ammonia nitrate, the same stuff that blew up in West Texas, except it was on a ship and 2,300 tons of the stuff went up at once, creating an explosion so powerful it had the force of a nuclear bomb. Also in Texas City in 2005 the Texas City Refinery exploded, killed 15 people and injured 170 others, making it roughly equivalent to this latest incident. If you feel somewhat ghoulish, check out this slide show of large Texan industrial accidents. They will have a familiar ring to them.

Since 9/11 we have done a lot as a country to reduce terrorist incidents like the Boston bombing. We obviously could do more, but we could clearly do a lot more to prevent large-scale industrial accidents such as occurred in West, Texas last week. Like terrorism, it requires putting the public good ahead of private profit and convenience. Let’s hope we learn some new lessons here at least, but like the NRA’s successful effort to get the Senate to turn down legislation for expanded background checks of gun purchasers supported by ninety percent of Americans, it seems that Texans will put stubbornness ahead of public safety once again.

 
The Thinker

Arming teachers is crazy

I have long suspected there were more than a few screws loose in the leadership of the National Rifle Association. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun”, spake Wayne LaPierre, an Executive Vice President for the NRA a few days after the deaths of 26 people, including 20 students at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut last month by Adam Lanza. The NRA’s reflexive solution to the massacre is, of course, to put more guns in schools, this time to “protect” students from mass killers like Adam Lanza.

To start, they would like an armed guard at every school. There are around 132,000 public schools across the United States. Assuming one armed guard were placed at every school at the modest cost of $30,000 a year, that’s a cost of about $4 billion a year. Of course, most schools consist of more than a couple of classrooms. Here in Fairfax County, Virginia high schools like Westfield, where my daughter graduated, have 3,000 plus students. Assuming 25 in a classroom, that’s 120 classrooms. I’ve been to Westfield High School a number of times of course, and it’s immense. It’s got schools within the school. It’s a huge educational institution. It’s practically a college. It could take five minutes for an armed guard to get to a classroom on the other side of the campus. What do you think the odds are that the campus cop is going to be able to stop a shooter before he has inflicted a lot of mayhem? Okay, so maybe we need more than one guard at one of these larger schools. Let’s say on average we figure we need three armed guards at every school. Suddenly costs have ballooned to $12 billion. And we still have no assurance that a mass murderer can be stopped in a timely matter.

Ah but the NRA and others have another solution. Arm the teachers! Yes, put an easily accessible gun in every classroom in the nation! Put it in the hands of a teacher, a person trained to mentor students, not kill them. If I had a homicidal student, I suspect having a handy firearm would not be of much reassurance. Likely I would be his first target. I would be shot before I could get my gun out of its holster. Guns are like that, you know.

If you think about this for more than a nanosecond, you realize it’s a crazy, crazy thing to do, so crazy that anyone suggesting it is either delusional or simply can’t be bothered to think about it. It’s so crazy that I could scribble on for many pages and still not give you all the reasons why this is incredibly stupid. Here are some of them:

  • Teachers are people too, and they can have homicidal tendencies like anyone else. Do we really want to give a teacher a ready means of killing his own students?
  • If you dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit, it will probably bite into it. If you put students in a classroom with a gun in it that is accessible, even if it requires a code or keylock to gain entry, what do you think they will be thinking about when their mind wanders? How can I get access to that gun? I don’t have one of them at home. It’s like putting out Playboy magazines for your teenage son and expecting him not to look at the centerfold. Put a gun in every classroom and the likelihood that some student (or faculty member) will somehow use one of these guns increases exponentially.
  • It sends the signal that guns are not just okay (they are legal to own, for most adults anyhow) but something that is sanctioned by the school and public authorities in general. Gosh, I want a gun! My cool teacher gets to have one!
  • Even a trained police officer has only a 17% chance of hitting the criminal if he fires his pistol. A teacher is likely to have even a lower chance than that, and considering how panicked and nervous they are likely to be, it is likely they will miss the shooter and kill innocent people instead.

If you really want to minimize deaths by firearms in schools, perhaps the way to do so it not to put guns in our children’s faces multiple times a day, but keep them out of schools, inculcate the value that they should not normally be seen in polite societies, discourage parents from owning guns and if they do have laws requiring weapons to be kept under lock and key. An armed policeman at every school probably has at best a one in ten chance of stopping a shooter with a gun if they get entry to the school.

We could require students to have their person and things scanned prior to entering the school, as we do before boarding a plane. That is likely to be much more effective, but it will also be incredibly time consuming. At Westfield High School all 3,000 students generally arrive within fifteen minutes of each other. It would take a large number of scanners and agents to process this number of students in anything close to a timely manner.

So LaPierre’s suggestion is purely fanciful and speaks of an idealized world, not a practical world. In a practical world we would implement most of the proposals by the Obama Administration instead. It would not be foolproof, because no solution, particularly Lapierre’s suggestion, is foolproof. But it would be a practical and realistic set of steps to minimize these incidents. Law abiding citizens would still be able to keep their guns, just not the clips and ammunition that allow them to pump cop killer bullets into dozens of people within seconds.

If we have to spend $4 billion a year to put armed guards in our schools, I have a great way to finance it. Place a special tax on guns, both when purchased and annually. Place special taxes also on bullets. Use the revenue to hire the guards we need in our schools.

It sounds lawful to me. Considering how lethal guns can be why not also make gun owners liable for illegal use of their guns? I am liable for damages if someone else uses my car and causes an accident. Why should gun owners be exempt if someone uses their gun and commits a crime? Require gun owners to carry a special liability insurance for their firearms. It’s not much, but it is something that helps address the true cost of the mayhem inflicted by so many guns in our country.

One thing is clear to me: we won’t be making schools safer by arming teachers.

 
The Thinker

When you live by the gun, don’t be surprised if you die by the gun

I am trying to think what else I can add to the billions of words posted on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media about Friday’s tragic and senseless mass murder of twenty children and seven adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School and in Newtown, Connecticut. It was, of course, horrific and the sort of event that gives even those of us with strong stomachs a persistently queasy feeling. I could write another blog post about my revulsion of guns, or why we need to do more help to help the mentally ill, but of course I have written many of these in response to other sad events like this one. This one is especially egregious not just for the number of fatalities but that our most young children were the primary victims.

So yes, this is more tragic evidence that we need to do more to control guns in our society, and need to make special efforts to keep them away from mentally disturbed people. There are currently no laws that would have kept Adam Lanza from getting the guns he used to kill so many people including him. In particular, there are no laws prohibiting people without criminal records from possessing semi-automatic weapons. But it appears that it didn’t matter in his case. The guns came courtesy of dear old mom, 52-year-old Nancy Lanza, who also turned out to be Adam Lanza’s first victim.

According to various press articles, Nancy Lanza was one of these citizens who liked to pack a lot of heat at home. If paranoid schizophrenia runs in the Lanza family, perhaps Nancy had it first, because her house was not only her castle but also apparently her armory as well. She is one of probably millions of Americans who truly believe that the government (in this case Obama in general, but also the United Nations) was out to take away her freedoms. Just in case, she was prepared. Josh Marshall on Talking Points Memo writes:

There’s been some level of mystery about just why Adam Lanza’s first victim, Nancy Lanza, had such a stock of weapons, particularly military style weapons like the .223 Bushmaster, the weapon we now know was actually used in the killings. She wasn’t just into guns. She was apparently stocked up for when the economy collapses and when everyone’s on their own with their guns.

It’s not hard to infer that Adam had some issues with his mother; otherwise presumably she would not be dead. Perhaps he was beyond typical mentally illnesses and was psychotic or on drugs or something. Perhaps after an extensive forensics investigation we will eventually understand the puzzle of Adam Lanza.

In some ways though it does not matter. If you want to commit mass murder, it’s obviously not too hard in America. But even if there were laws that were enforced to keep psychos like Adam Lanza away from lethal weapons, there are always trusty, law-abiding citizens like mom, paranoid about their own government and probably convinced via various right wing media that they needed to arm up now, with their lethal stash easily accessible that can be put to the wrong use.

I remarked before that the most likely person to kill you is someone you know personally, most likely someone you are related to through blood, marriage or a close relationship. Maybe keeping a handgun under your mattress will save your life, but chances are whoever is planning to kill you knows you have a gun, has a good idea where it is and plans to take you unaware. That’s most likely what happened to Nancy Lanza. All that lethal armature meant nothing because she was caught off guard. And that’s generally how these homicides happen. In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, that’s where it would end. Nancy would be dead, Adam would hopefully be convicted, and the incident would have been buried near the back of Newtown’s newspaper. But Adam found some reason to keep murdering after killing mother. And thanks to mom, her .223 Bushmaster semiautomatic rifle and of course her large supply of ammunition he had the ready means to unleash mayhem.

The price of paranoia is ever more paranoia and it seems that little can be done to temper paranoid tendencies. When your mindset is survival, even when your life is not really in danger from vapid external forces, instead of living a normal life you live a life that is fear based. And it likely carries an emotional impact. It’s speculation of course, but if I grew up with parents that believed the government was close to imposing totalitarianism and kept closets of weapons and bullets handy, I’d likely pick that up as a value too, and carry it into adult life. Perhaps despite the fact that Adam clearly had issues with Mom, he picked up that value from her, much like so many of us chooses our parents’ religion in adult life.

I believe the murders of Nancy Lanza and twenty-six other people in Newtown, Connecticut is to some extent due to a culture of mistrust and paranoia that pervades so many Americans. This paranoia causes people to give money to the NRA, which petitions for ever-looser gun control laws and gives rare but sizable opportunities to the psychos of the world like Adam Lanza to conduct egregious and murderous rampages.

Those of us who are for gun control are not for it just because we think that guns are dangerous, which they are. We are for it because we realize we need to set values for our society that we can and should all live together peacefully, and that we can trust each other and our government. When you pack a lot of heat at home and keep your closet flush with ammunition, your values are saying that you don’t trust your government or your neighbors, at least not enough to give up your weapons and let the police department deter and prosecute crimes. You are spreading a toxic culture of paranoia that murders.

The tragic irony in this case is that the paranoia Nancy Lanza felt in her heart came back to kill her. Those who live by the gun should be prepared to die by the gun. I feel safer knowing that I am contributing to a safer society because there are no guns in my house, and never will be.

 
The Thinker

Advice to Democrats

I love to give advice, even though if I am inconsistent in following my own advice. Recently after their losses in the latest election I gave some advice to Republicans. Today, I figure turnabout is fair play. Here is some advice for Democrats.

Democrats, it’s easy to assume that due to changing demographics that Republicans are in permanent decline and that in a few election cycles Congress will resemble itself during the 1960s and 1970s, when it was overwhelmingly Democratic. That may happen but if you think this will happen solely because of demographic changes, you are wrong. It may not happen at all.

Republicans still control the House, and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. In short, the party remains a huge and powerful political force. Even at the national level, Democratic control is fragile. Democratic control of the House remains elusive and made less likely by redistricting and the resulting highly gerrymandered districts. In the Senate, Democrats survived a very tough election and actually added a couple of seats to their majority. Our 55 seats include two independent senators caucusing with the Democrats. In 2014, Democrats will again be fighting headwinds as more Democrats run for reelection than Republicans.

Of course to really get things done in the Senate a party needs a supermajority, which is 60 seats. However, even when we have 60 seats, it is very easy for Democrats to split into factions. Democrats rarely show the sort of unanimity that Republicans do. The Affordable Care Act was a prime example, passing late and watered down, with certain senators in conservative leaning states (like Max Baucus) leveraging oversized influence and some senators (Joe Lieberman comes to mind) acting obnoxious and petulant. In retrospect, it’s amazing it was passed into law in even its watered down state.

The news is better on the presidential front. It used to be that by default Republicans were more likely to win presidential contests, due to various demographic and electoral vote advantages. Those days appear over. It is unlikely that any true conservative Republican (at least “conservative” in its modern and antediluvian form) can win for the foreseeable future. Of course, it all depends on who gets nominated, and arguably Democrats have nominated some stinkers with little national appeal including John Kerry, Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis. In short, when choosing nominees Democrats can tend to be as highly-partisan as Republicans, choosing from their hearts instead of their heads. Choose someone without broad appeal and the party is likely to lose despite favorable demographics.

Looking at the 2012 election, two factors worked in the Democrats favor. First were the obvious demographic changes that are turning traditionally red states blue. I live in such a state (Virginia), but it is blue principally only in national elections. We have a Republican house and senate, and a Republican governor, and an attorney general on the right side of the Tea Party. Other states like Ohio, traditionally a swing state, have a similarly Republican disposition but are turning reliably blue in national elections. The most important reason that Democrats won this time is that they turned out the base. Democrats outnumber Republicans nationally, so they win when they turn out the base. They tend to lose, and lose badly, when they stay home. Independents tend to swing more toward voting Republican, so turning out the base is critical for maintaining and extending Democratic control. This means that selecting candidates on all levels that both excite the base but have mainstream appeal is critical for increasing Democratic power.

We may have a few cycles where Republicans will give Democrats a break. This is because Republicans have not really come to terms with their loss, which means finding a strategy appeals to moderates. At least at the moment, the critical mass of Republicans figure doing more of what lost them the last election, just with more sincerity, is how to get back into power. Perhaps after a couple more election drubbings they will figure it out.

Democrats have a tendency to settle into comfortable factions within the party. This is less of a concern than it used to be, as conservative Democrats are in decline and liberal Democrats are ascending. When this happens, Democrats can become as ideologically stubborn as Republicans. However, it tends to hurt them more than it does Republicans. One of these fault lines has traditionally been in the area of gun control. Thoughtful Democrats need to discern between issues that they can win on and those they cannot. The gun control debate cannot be won at the ballot box, at least not for a couple of generations. Consequently there is no point wasting energy advocating for such issues. It will only boomerang against Democrats, despite the fact that sensible gun control regulation probably makes complete logical sense.

Instead, Democrats need to concentrate on issues that appeal to both Democrats and Independents generally. Gay marriage is one of these issues where the national consensus has changed. Americans fundamentally agree with the notion of equality and fairness, at least under the law. Being the party of the workingman is never bad either. Democrats need to continue to advocate for people at the low and middle income levels, and target policies that help these groups. There is no downside to this. Democrats also need to avoid bad habits, like sucking up to Wall Street, which is almost always going to vote Republican, or at least for the party which panders to their selfish interests the most. That Wall Street almost invariably does better under Democratic administrations seems lost on them.

Democrats also need to advocate for policies that are in the best interest of people generally, not necessarily those that are in the best interest of their most vocal groups. A good example of this is public schools and support of teachers’ unions. Democrats should insist that every child deserves a high quality education, even if they cannot afford it. They should not assume that a dysfunctional public school system that puts the needs of teachers ahead of students is acceptable. The public school model is clearly under stress, particularly in poorer neighborhoods. Democrats should be open to charter schools particularly in districts where public schools are clearly below par. They should also advocate for policies that nurture healthy students so they have the capacity to learn. This may mean, for example, that three healthy meals a day are served at schools. The school may need to morph to be more than a center of education, but be thought of as a second home for students, whose parents likely aren’t working 9 to 5. They should advocate for safe public housing for poorer students, with residency contingent upon good behavior and for the upkeep of rental property. It should be obvious to Democrats that the real problem with education in poor areas is not substandard teachers (although certainly there are many of them) but are mostly due to environmental factors. These include the lack of affordable healthy food, and stressful families and neighborhoods. Republicans, of course, will choose to remain clueless of this reality, since their brains cannot seem to absorb that a multiplicity of factors affect ability to learn, not evil union-loving teachers.

In short Democrats, having power is not about living drunk on the privilege of power when you get it. It’s about refusing to be headstrong when you are granted power and keeping a relentless focus on improving the common good. Democrats have to earn their keep. When they get sloppy for too long, they will lose power. More importantly, much of the good they have done can be lost too, and that would be the true tragedy.

 
The Thinker

Most mass murders are preventable. For God’s sake, let’s prevent them.

Yesterday, another pointless mass slaughtering of innocents occurred. Six people were murdered this time, plus the gunman who was shot by police, at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. The assassin (no point calling him alleged, as he is dead) is Michael Page, a forty-year-old Army veteran, a member of an Army psychological unit that was never deployed. Some news sources are suggesting that Page was a white supremacist. Most likely he wasn’t a very bright white supremacist for choosing Sikhs as victims. Most white supremacists are far more concerned about allegedly radical Muslims than Sikhs, who are a largely peaceful religion primarily from India that believes in one immortal being and the ten gurus. But they wear towels on their head, so that probably looked Muslim enough for Page. We’ll probably never know for sure why he targeted Sikhs, but their main crime seems to be they were not Caucasians like him.

About three weeks earlier, the white Caucasian pulling the trigger was allegedly James Eagan Holmes, 26, a recent dropout from the University of Colorado’s PhD neuroscience program. He killed twelve people and injured 58 others at a cinema in Aurora, Colorado with semiautomatic weapons and bullets purchased in part over the Internet. Shortly before he dropped out he was apparently receiving counseling from a psychiatrist at the university, who was so alarmed she brought his case to the attention of campus authorities. However, the campus lost interest as he had dropped out. Holmes acquired a huge lethal arsenal and over three thousand rounds of ammunition, all without a background investigation. He would have killed many more had not police discovered that he had booby-trapped his apartment.

And so it goes. On January 8, 2011 it was Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-AZ) who took a bullet to the brain at the hands of alleged assassin Jared Lee Loughner, 23, also a Caucasian white guy. Giffords was fortunate to survive, but her injury eventually meant resigning her seat in Congress and years of rehabilitation therapy that is still underway. Loughner shot 18 people, six of whom died at a Tucson Safeway. While he did not kill Giffords, he did manage to kill a federal judge. Like Holmes, Loughner had a traumatic incident in his personal life. He underwent a personality change after he was fired from a job at a local Quiznos. He was known to abuse alcohol and took hallucinogens. His firearm was purchased legally at a local Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson. Loughner is expected to plead guilty tomorrow to these shootings. He is considered mentally ill and is required to take an anti-psychotic medication.

Of course who could possibly forget the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007, a shooting that killed 32 and injured 17 others? It stands as the worst mass murder by an individual in the United States. While the incident occurred in Blacksburg, Seung-Hui Cho grew up close to where I live in Northern Virginia. He attended Poplar Tree Elementary School down the street in Chantilly, and Westfield High School, also in Chantilly, where my daughter graduated the year of the incident. Cho had seen many mental health experts, had been on antidepressants and creeped out more than a few of his professors.

The United States is lucky to go a year without a mass murder episode. Some of them get little press. Four days before the Aurora shooting, twelve to 18 people were injured by gunman Nathan Van Wilkins, 44, in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. If the incident made the paper, it was buried deep in the back somewhere. Maybe that no one actually died made it un-newsworthy. To pick a few recent mass shootings: 4 dead and 7 injured by Eduardo Sencion in Carson City, Nevada on September 6, 2011 and 13 killed and 4 injured in Binghamton, New York, my home town, by Jiverly Antares Wong on April 3, 2009. Wikipedia keeps a current list if you are curious. By my count the grisly total is: thirty murdered since 2010 and 82 from 2000-2009, and these are just the rampage killers. School massacres like Virginia Tech, workplace killings and hate crimes are not included.

Certain themes show up in these murderers. For the ones that tend to be most newsworthy, the perpetrators tends to be white, male, in their prime testosterone years and mentally ill. Mass murder though seems to be almost exclusively a guy thing, principally a white guy thing. Maybe women lack the crazy gene. Most of these mass murders probably were preventable. I will grant you that our loose, albeit almost nonexistent gun laws, make it difficult to impossible to keep these crazies from acquiring weapons. In the Aurora, Colorado shooting, had semi-automatic weapons been controlled, the death rate would have been markedly lower. Even I belatedly agreed that strict gun control is impossible in this country, but I would like to think that even the NRA would agree that people with severe mental illnesses should not be allowed to acquire weapons. Yes, perhaps they could get them from illicit sources, but we should not make it easy for them to get. These people should be in known databases. To alleviate the concern that regular citizens would be put in the database, perhaps getting added to the database would require the signatures of three psychiatrists.

But guns don’t kill people (unless they smash their heads in with a rifle’s butt), but bullets sure do. James Holmes acquired 300 rounds of ammunition and no one blinked an eye. More importantly, no one was tracking the fact that one dude in a short period of time acquired this much ammunition, or that there was something unusual about the semi-automatic weapons he acquired so quickly too. If all gun sales were in a database, it would be easy enough to search it for unusual cases, and if it were cross-indexed with a list of people with mental psychoses then the Holmes case should have stood out like a red flag. Exactly how are gun rights diminished if we were to enact laws like this? Are we really agreeing that every psychotic should have unlimited access to firearms and rounds of ammunition?

While guns and bullets allow these murders to occur easily, in most cases the catalyst is mental illness. Mental illness is at least required to be treated by health insurance plans but we still have fifty million people uninsured. There are fewer stigmas to treating mental illness these days, but we should press for even less of them. Even if you can be treated, as was true in Seung-Hui Cho’s case, mentally ill adults can refuse treatment. Cho’s case was truly extreme: red flags were everywhere. Particularly with cases this severe, it is reasonable for society to require these individuals stay in treatment, both for their own safety and for society’s safety as well, unless a board of psychiatrists clears the person.

Our world is growing more crowded and complex. Our highly industrialized, information-centric world does affect us in ways that are hard for us to understand. Denser communities raise the number of human interactions, making trouble more likely. The Internet, while it has lots of advantages, also allows mentally ill people license to feed their psychoses. Sociologists need to study the effects of Future Shock, well underway, and it needs to be come part of a public policy discussion. Ignoring these realities simply means that more of us will die needlessly from future and preventable acts of mass violence. It also means those with these mental illnesses are less likely to keep their conditions under control.

George Santayana said that those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It’s one thing to forget lessons from events that happened generations ago. It is another thing to forget events that happened last week or last month and not learn from them. It is the height of public policy stupidity.

 

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