Posts Tagged ‘Gun control’

The Thinker

A truer understanding of the meaning of the Second Amendment

This Washington Post OpEd by Dennis Barron (who is an English and linguistics professor out of the University of Illinois) really intrigued me. He takes the late Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia to task for his reading of the Second Amendment. It’s this amendment that grants us gun rights. To refresh your memory, here is the Second Amendment in full:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Specifically he takes Scalia to task for his interpretation of “bear Arms”. Scalia said that it undoubtedly meant that it protected the right to use guns for self-defense. According to Barron, at the time it was only used in a military context. It meant the use of arms for “war, soldiering or organized, armed action” according to Barron.

As I pointed out years back, the court’s 2008 decision District of Columbia v. Heller in which Scalia voted with the majority essentially turned the Second Amendment into:

The right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Perhaps some future true-constructionist court will rediscover the true meaning of the amendment. (Scalia thought of himself as a true-constructionist, i.e. someone who interprets the law as it was originally intended to be interpreted.) If Barron is right, then it’s quite clear the right to bear arms is derived only from the state’s need to have a well-regulated militia. Your right to bear arms is not because you like to shoot squirrels, target practice or even to protect your home. And it’s not like this is a mystery: it’s written in plain English.

If militias were actually necessary in 2018, given the number of firearms in circulation you would think there would be militias all over the place. If you were thinking our army is a militia, you would be quite wrong. Dictionary.com gives these definitions in order of most frequent use:

  1. A body of citizens enrolled for military service, and called out periodically for drill but serving full time only in emergencies.
  2. A body of citizen soldiers as distinguished from professional soldiers.
  3. All able-bodied males considered by law eligible for military service.
  4. A body of citizens organized in a paramilitary group and typically regarding themselves as defenders of individual rights against the presumed interference of the federal government.

Today, the Reserve and National Guard would qualify under the first definition, but not our standing army. They are very well regulated too. So clearly if you are a member of either of these, your right could not be infringed, at least as long as you remain a member. In practice though the state probably won’t tell you to keep your guns at home, particularly not those military grade guns. They’ll have you drive to your local armory to pick them up and truck you somewhere in uniform with a bunch of other soldiers.

The second definition is rather murky. A soldier presumably has had military training so perhaps this also covers the Reserve and the Guard. It’s unlikely that shooting at rabbits qualifies you as a soldier. If you haven’t been trained to maim and kill people with firearms under a chain of command using actual military-grade guns, you can’t credibly call yourself a soldier.

The third definition is pretty sexist in 2018 so presumably can be ignored. It should include women but presumably does not include the feeble. So grandma would probably not qualify to keep a gun in her nightstand.

The fourth definition perhaps cover unofficial militias. There are these militias out there today, but they have no legal sanction and are ephemeral organizations at best. Since they have no official sanction, they can’t be considered “well regulated” so presumably they don’t qualify at all. Around the time of our founding though, these militias were all we had. Given that, it’s probably not surprising the founding fathers said, “Hey, we need to ensure we keep our militias or the Indians might overrun us. So we need to make sure that citizens can bear arms.” There was nothing that can credibly be called a standing American army during the Revolutionary War. To the extent it was the “Continental Army” they were the ragtag militias that showed up to fight the war that George Washington did his best to train (with little in the way of funding from the Continental Congress, by the way). Our military of militias proved pretty ineffective. If France hadn’t helped us, particularly at Yorktown, it’s unlikely we would have won the war outright. Anyhow, it is murky at best whether a group of ad-hoc people calling themselves a militia are actually a militia, and would not be in a 1790s sense. To stretch the definition of militia though, perhaps these people have the right to bear arms because they meet the definition of militia.

Even if you say a citizen has the right to bear arms though, the wording of the amendment with a proper interpretation of its predicate “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State” suggests to me that if Congress declared that a well regulated militia was no longer necessary to the security of a free state, then your right to bear arms could be infringed and no constitutional amendment would be needed. If at some future time Congress decided, “Hey, we need a militia again” then that right could return.

In any event that clause was not added as an afterthought. Rather, it’s a predicate. Its wording though is quite odd. In more modern English, it should be read as: “Only because a militia is needed for our country to survive, citizens have the right to own guns.”

It’s laughable to assert this right is unlimited because the Supreme Court has stated many times it is not an unlimited right. Inmates can’t own firearms. In many states, being mentally ill can disqualify you. You can’t own bazookas. States are free to regulate firearms providing they don’t take away the right altogether.

So it’s fine if one state decides that “arms” mean nothing bigger than a handgun and another an AR-15. It’s fine if one state says that minors cannot own guns and another state allows it. The Second Amendment is no more absolute than any other right in the Bill of Rights. And if properly framed in the context of the 1790s, it would be hard to argue that anyone has a right to bear arms for any reason other that to maintain a free state’s right to exist using a militia.

Maybe someday we’ll get there, but it’s now obvious that our interpretation of the Second Amendment is just dishonest.

 
The Thinker

The sound … and power … of silence

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

From “The Sound of Silence”
Lyrics by Paul Simon
Simon & Garfunkel
1964

Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida that killed 17 of her classmates, may have delivered the most moving speech ever made simply by saying nothing. Make no mistake; her “speech” was devastatingly effective. People are moved by emotion. The sight of a woman silently weeping might make this “speech” the most effective ever delivered.

Which calls for a repeat of my 2013 post on why gun control is inevitable. Emma Gonzalez yesterday did much to advance the date. Read the rest of this entry »

 
The Thinker

Arming teachers is still crazy but the NRA is even crazier

Another tragic but predictable mass shooting happened last week in Florida, killing seventeen high school students. A 19-year-old former expelled student of the school had no problem purchasing an AR-15 — a semi-automatic rifle — entering the school and causing mayhem. The armed officer who was supposed to go after the assailant fled instead, probably because he was scared but also because a standard issue police revolver is no match for an AR-15. Two of the dead were teachers who died protecting their students.

What made this shooting especially memorable was that it got the surviving students up in arms, so to speak. Within days they were at the state capital in Tallahassee petitioning its legislators to enact common sense gun restrictions. There were also TV interviews with the students, town halls with politicians and a meeting with Trump at the White House. Short-attention-span Don was given a set of five talking points to make it sound like he was being empathetic, a skill he simply lacks. Once the students were gone though his “solution” seemed predictable. While calling for raising the age to 21 for acquiring rifles (under which the AR-15 qualifies) — a proposition more rhetorical than anything else — he next pivoted to his “real” solution: put more firepower in the schools, principally by arming teachers. The “solution” to these Republican politicians is always the same: you solve the problem by doubling down on a failed strategy.

I last wrote about the folly of arming teachers after the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. Some of the NRA talking points do make some sense. There are very few NRA members that would likely instigate something like this. Most NRA members are law abiding. It’s not the law abiding ones that I worry about though. The NRA’s real sin is not in causing these acts but in aiding and abetting them.

It’s all well and good for you not to take any lawless actions with a gun. But when you promote the equivalent of a huge open warehouse of guns and NRA members are encouraging anyone to come in and arm themselves, you are aiding and abetting. The NRA though goes far beyond this. They surround the warehouse with neon lights. There is a huge searchlight on the roof. They broadcast the warehouse’s hours on all the local radio stations. They make it easy to get a gun and encourage you to get as many not as you need, but as you want.

For an organization whose initial focus was gun safety this is a shocking turn away from their mission. It’s like encouraging kids to play with matches and open cans of gasoline. Okay, technically maybe this isn’t against the law. Matches and gasoline of course don’t kill kids by themselves. But they will kill some and injure a whole lot more if you make it super easy to play with matches and gasoline.

An organization at least originally chartered to promote gun safety should not be promoting people’s right to own AR-15s and enhance their semiautomatic weapons with bump stocks. This is because these actions are not responsible. First you need to demonstrate that you have the maturity to own a gun. Next you need to demonstrate that you can use a gun responsibly, perhaps by passing a required course in gun safety and marksmanship. Lastly you need to make sure that you can be held liable for your actions with a gun. Then maybe you should be able to get a gun. Maybe you should demonstrate for five years that you can use a handgun responsibly, and then are eligible to get an AR-15.

Obviously you can easily kill people with a gun. It’s pretty easy for me to kill people with my car too. To mitigate the likelihood that I will kill someone with my car, not only are there criminal penalties for doing so, but I also need insurance up the wazoo. Last I checked my wife and I were paying about $1700 a year for the privilege of driving. Most of that will compensate people who we injure driving or their property. If I had a history of driving aggressively I’d probably pay a lot more for insurance, if I could get it at all. Most states require drivers to carry insurance, which effectively means that if your driving is judged to make you a menace on the road, you can’t legally drive at all. Can you even get insurance that protects your liability for using a gun in this country? I doubt it. You should be required to get a gun insurance policy and show it to a dealer before you are allowed to even buy a weapon.

The NRA though aggressively promoted laws that allowed the alleged 19-year-old mentally unstable Florida shooter Nikolas Cruz to buy that AR-15. It actively worked against laws that would have kept mentally unstable people like him from acquiring these weapons in the first place. In fact last year it successfully got Congress to pass and Trump to sign a law that actually made it easier for the mentally ill to get weapons. The change said that no background checks were necessary unless the mentally ill person was likely to cross state lines.

And Trump’s new solution is to arm teachers, essentially putting out more open gasoline cans and matches as if by doing this will somehow make everyone safer. Of course it ignores the elephant in the room: guns are very lethal weapons and assault weapons are exponentially more lethal than handguns because they inflict greater injury, and much faster too. It’s like dumping gasoline on the sidewalk, giving kids burning matches and encouraging them to get close to the gasoline but not actually ignite it.

In short: it’s nuts. It’s absolutely true that barring some sort of bizarre accident, guns don’t kill people. People though kill people all the time, and in this country they principally do it with guns. Increasingly it is being done with ever more lethal weapons amidst denser populations. And they pack them in pretty tightly in our schools.

The Supreme Court has recognized that the right to own a gun is not absolute. You still can’t own a machine gun (unless it was manufactured before 1986 and you acquire it privately), although a bump-stocked semiautomatic weapon is virtually the same as a machine gun. No right is unlimited and that includes the right to bear arms. Society has every right to set boundaries on rights because no right is absolute, something the NRA likes to deny with guns. I have no right to yell “Fire” in a crowded theater. I have no right to publish libelous information. I have no right to assemble a crowd for non-peaceful purposes. And I have no right to possess weapons if I am mentally unstable, cannot use them safely or if their power is such that they effectively cannot be countered. Since at best cops hit their targets 20% of the time, an armed teacher is going to be even less effective. Most likely he will be mowed down before he can raise his weapon. If it is used it is just as likely to be used to maim or injure some innocent person than a perpetrator.

These reasonable restrictions on guns in the past were why school shootings rarely happened. Part of reducing these deaths though is also changing the culture that says unrestricted use of firearms is somehow virtuous. It is not and it kills thousands of us a year as a result. Students can clearly see that our laws are not working and that adding more guns will not ease the problem. With their energy and passion, perhaps common sense gun laws will return again.

 
The Thinker

The never-ending story

What more is there to say about this latest mass shooting in Orlando that I haven’t said many times in many other posts? 49 people dead, 50 including the gunman, and more than that injured. This incident has the dubious distinction of being our worst mass shooting in modern history.

There have been worse shootings, if you include Wounded Knee (146 Native Americans dead, and by our own government), possibly the Tulsa Race Riot or pretty much any Civil War battle. At the time those who knew about Wounded Knee were all for it. Indians were not seen as our friends in the 19th century; they got in the way of Manifest Destiny. You’d be hard-pressed to find any Civil War battle that didn’t have at least fifty deaths, which is why this incident is being so carefully qualified.

Most of us normal Americans might like to see a little action for a change rather than our usual inchoate rage that once again will mean nothing will get done to prevent future incidents. That’s currently underway in the United States Senate where Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy started a filibuster to get the Senate to take some action. Democrats seem willing to sustain the filibuster, at least for a while. Even if they get their way, any “gun control” will be so modest as to be laughable. What’s being floated is putting a 72-hour wait on assault weapons purchases by anyone on the terrorist watch list. Any bill that comes out is likely to include a provision that failed last December: to take away federal funding from any city that declare themselves “sanctuary cities”, i.e. don’t allow their police to enforce federal immigration law.

There are a few new things about this latest incident to note. One, this demonstrates that having a good guy with a gun won’t necessarily fix the problem of a bad guy with a gun, so the NRA has been proven wrong on this. There was an Orlando cop on the premises of the Pulse nightclub where these mass deaths and injuries occurred. The Pulse caters to the LGBT and Hispanic community in Orlando. The incident spanned about three hours. The tightly packed nightclub made whatever the officer could do very limited. A semiautomatic rifle trumps anything a police officer is going to keep in their holster. Most of these semiautomatic rifles are capable of magazines with thirty bullets, and it’s not hard to unleash a bullet a second. They are in effect automatic weapons, thus extremely good at inflicting mass casualties very quickly.

There is at least one story of heroism so far: a Marine veteran that opened a back door so others could escape. More such stories are likely in the days ahead. There are also some peculiarities. The assailant, Omar Mateen, had been seen at the club many times and had apparently at least tried to pick up men at the club. So he may well have been gay. It’s possible that cognitive dissonance between his gay identity and his Muslim teachings was central in the carnage that he unleashed.

Mateen may have had been a practicing Muslim, but he was no more a foreign jihadist than my mother (born in Bay City, Michigan) was a Polish immigrant: he was born in New York City, just down the road from where Donald Trump entered the world. It was obviously made tremendously easier because of the easy access in this country to weapons of mass destruction. Mateen used a Sig Sauer MCX, proudly manufactured here in the USA in New Hampshire. It is also likely that Mateen had zero contact with ISIS, who he pledged allegiance to shortly before the attack. This was a Made in America attack.

Some things look sadly familiar. Mateen was relatively young and male and as we see over and over again this is the demographic typical of these mass shooters. However, he wasn’t white and he was a Muslim American (parents from Afghanistan), which is why many assumed he was a terrorist trained by ISIS or Al Qaeda, which Donald Trump seemed to imply. And unsurprisingly there were caution flags all over the man, but not enough checks to keep him from working for a security firm or to easily acquire the semiautomatic weapons he used which he did shortly before the attack. The only thing really new here is the scale of the shooting. That Mateen was unbalanced and prone to violence is pretty obvious from reported episodes of wife beating.

In one of my first posts on gun control, I noted that simply possessing a weapon is dangerous. Possessing a semiautomatic weapon is much more dangerous than possessing a typical firearm because it can wreak much more damage much more quickly. I don’t own a gun not just because I am opposed to it in principle. I know myself well enough that it’s possible I could become mentally sick enough that I could use it, most likely to kill myself. No, I don’t have suicidal thoughts, but depression happens to most people. I’ve had a few mild bouts of it over the years. Prevention is so simple and the easiest one is simply not to own a gun.

Sane people like me though can do a lot to avoid being a victim. I’m unlikely to be attending a gay bar in the wee hours because I hate bars and I’m not gay. One reason I am living in Western Massachusetts is for its relative safety, in spite of Northampton where I live and its large and renown LGBT population. There is a lot of gun control here in Massachusetts. Semiautomatic weapons cannot be bought anywhere in the state, at least legally. Yes, we’ve had terrorist incidents like the Boston Marathon bombing. Curiously no semiautomatic weapons were used, perhaps because they are harder to acquire here.

A community with common sense gun laws is less likely to have these sorts of incidents. A community that shares these values is less likely to foster people attracted to these sorts of crimes. That sort of common sense is missing in Florida where just today reporters for the Huffington Post were able to acquire an AK-15 (similar to the gun used by Mateen) in just 38 minutes. It doesn’t surprise me that most of these incidents happen in states with loose gun laws.

Someday, probably when we have a Democratic House and Senate again, common sense gun laws may go national again. We’d best not hold our breath. History suggests that Mateen’s grisly record is likely to be broken long before we enact real gun control laws again.

 
The Thinker

Guns at the Republican National Convention? Of course!

So naturally when I learned of this petition to allow the open carry of guns at the upcoming Republican National Convention in Cleveland, I hurried over to change.org to sign it. Over 48,000 of us God-fearing, law-abiding, Second Amendment enthusiasts have signed the petition so far.

And there are good reasons to sign the petition. Without open carry, the delegates and conventioneers in the hall will have no way to defend themselves from burglars, pickpockets and lobbyists, unless you count fisticuffs and kickboxing which I think would be pretty hard to take away. The Supreme Court has already decided that owning guns is a right. No preexisting militia is required. Moreover, lots of states have laws allowing open carry and many allow even concealed carry. I checked Wikipedia and open carry is definitely legal in Ohio, probably thanks to Governor John Kasich.

Moreover, you needn’t worry about these convention goers. Guns don’t kill people; only people kill people. But since you never know when someone is going to attack you with a banana, and there are probably no sixteen ton weights at the convention center, a loaded semiautomatic weapon may be your only defense when a brigade of banana-toting liberals in Birkenstocks come charging at your delegation. You have to be prepared, you know.

I mean, what could possibly go wrong? It’s not like Cruz and Trump supporters would not limit themselves to shoving, fistfights and general screaming at each other as they lobby to get their candidate the nomination during a brokered convention. They are all family men and women, civilized I am sure and will be full of the milk of human kindness (and Jesus) during the convention. They are so civilized they won’t even shoot a celebratory round into the convention roof when their candidate clinches the nomination.

No, this is a matter of principle, and principle is vitally important to Republicans. They like their world completely black and white. The Supreme Court says that we can own guns; Ohio says you can openly carry them, so there is no way that anyone should be able to restrict that right. You don’t mess with Texas so you don’t mess with Republicans and their guns either. Putting all those armaments into such a confined space should cause no issues at all. After all the Quicken Loans Arena is not a troubled inner city neighborhood like Glenville in Cleveland. They are proud Americans, every one of them, but just in case residents of Glenville decide to storm the Quicken Loans Arena en masse, well, you got to be prepared. A handgun isn’t going to cut it. You will want plenty of rounds, something semiautomatic, and probably something with a scope on it.

So I’m shocked to learn today that the Secret Service nixed the petition. Imagine the nerve of these feds to tell us law-abiding Americans we can’t bring our guns with us into the convention! The Secret Service says it’s something about a federal law that overrides the Supreme Court’s decision. Clearly there is nothing to fear, and surely Trump, Cruz, Kasich and the senior leaders of the Republican Party will be completely at ease in a convention hall full of faithful lock-and-load brethren. After all according to the NRA the way to stop a bad man with a gun (not that it would ever happen at this convention) is a good man with a gun, and there would be thousands of them. He’d never have a chance!

I can’t believe that the candidates will roll with the Secret Service on this one. Trump says he wants to study the petition. As of this writing, neither Cruz nor Kasich has expressed an opinion on the Secret Service’s decision. How odd!

So I guess we will have to turn to prayer: pray to change the minds at the Secret Service and failing that pray that hoodlums outside the hall won’t storm the convention hall, or pick off conventioneers on their way to and from their hotel rooms and local brothels. Perhaps an emergency petition to the U.S. Supreme Court is now in order. We can only pray they see the light.

 
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.

 

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