Little Victories and Acceptable Losses

English: Illinois Governor Pat Quinn addresses...

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed legislation that will help protect the people of his state from gun violence.

Two separate pieces of legislation serve as a reminder of the current state of the gun violence prevention debate, as well as a guide as to just how that battle should be fought.

First, in Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a bill closing the so-called “gun show loophole” in that state.  It would also require gun owners to report missing or stolen firearms.

These are simple, common-sense measures that can go a long way in helping to keep guns out of the wrong hands.  Though permitted gun vendors have long been required to conduct background checks on potential buyers, there was no such requirement for private sales.  This enabled those unable to pass a background check to purchase weapons, so long as they bought them from private sellers.  It has been estimated that nearly 40 percent of guns are purchased this way, either at gun shows, via online listings, or on the black market.  Though this estimate is dubious, it is still indisputable that many guns are sold without the buyer submitting to a background check, allowing those with violent felony convictions, restraining orders, or mental illnesses to purchase guns they should not legally be allowed to have.

This is a victory for gun-control advocates, though a small one.  There is still much work to be done, but laws like these are definitely a step in the right direction.

On the other hand, gun-control folks were handed a defeat in New Jersey, as Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill that would have banned a .50 caliber semi-automatic sniper rifle.  This is especially upsetting since Christie himself called for a ban on these weapons earlier this year.

However, though this is a defeat, it is also a small one.  While it may be difficult to justify any reason that any non-military citizen would need such a weapon—which is designed to pierce armor from a mile away—it also must be recognized that these weapons are not responsible for any civilian deaths in America.  Due to the size and cost of the rifles (as well as the ammunition), these guns are rare, even among gun enthusiasts.  And they certainly are not the kind of gun that criminals can easily carry or conceal.  Even though there may be no need for these weapons among the general population, it is obvious that they are not contributing in any real way to the plague of gun violence in this country.

So, while this week’s victory was a small one, it is important.  And, one can only hope that it is the first of many like it.  If other states follow the example of Illinois, much progress can be made in keeping guns from those who should not have them.  And, though Christie’s decision is disappointing, these types of losses are acceptable, as they do little to hinder the forward progress of gun safety legislation.  It is essential that gun-control advocates focus on the positive steps being taken and accept that there will be bumps in the road.  By picking the fights that matter and accepting the losses that don’t, we can continue to gain ground in the battle against gun violence.

Stalemate in the Gun Debate, 140 Characters at a Time

mb-traced-firearms

It all started with a tweet:

The link is to an article detailing that 90 percent of all guns used in crimes in New York City come from outside the city.  This is largely due to strict gun laws in the city that make it difficult for criminals to legally purchase guns there.  So, guns are brought in from states with looser laws, largely through straw purchasers, buyers able to pass a background check who then transport the guns to New York (or other areas with strict gun regulations) and sell them to people who would not pass a background check.  The results of the study seem pretty clear: strict gun laws are effective in making it difficult for criminals to purchase guns.  If similar laws were passed nationwide, even the straw purchases that bring guns into cities would be limited.

Now, as far as tweeters go, I’m a tiny fish in a great big ocean.  I have fewer than 70 followers (and most of those are probably fake), so most of what I tweet goes largely unnoticed.  But, somehow, this one drew a bit of attention.

I soon received a response from a tweeter named War Kitten Cracka, who somehow saw my tweet and felt compelled to educate me:

I thought that perhaps Mr. Cracka (or is it Mr. Kitten Cracka?) did not read the linked article, or somehow missed the point it made.  So, I responded:

He quickly replied:

Now I was beginning to see what I was dealing with.  This shows that he wasn’t getting the point that the article was making.  Yes, criminals can go get guns on the street corner.  The point of the article was that the guns that ended up on the street corner (and then in the hands of our hypothetical criminal) came from somewhere other than New York City.  And it is precisely because of the strict gun laws in the city that those guns have to come from elsewhere.  Making these regulations universal throughout the country would make it just as difficult for criminals to purchase a gun in Virginia (or any of the other states mentioned in the article) as it is in New York, and would therefore help limit the availability of guns available in the city to anyone who could not pass a background check.  And, though this would not eliminate all illegal guns in the city, it could drastically reduce their number.

Of course, all of that wouldn’t fit into a single tweet.  So, I shortened my argument a bit:

Mr. Cracka replied with a string of tweets that came faster than I could answer them.  But, they deserve individual attention, because each raises an interesting point that should be addressed and debunked.  First, there were these:

This line of argument is similar to the NRA talking point that “The only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”  The implication here is that a criminal is intent on committing a crime with a gun, but because loose gun laws in Virginia mean that it is possible that people there could be armed, he instead goes back to New York, where tyrannical gun laws have left the people defenseless.

I replied:

I think Mr. Cracka (and the handful of other tweeters who had by now joined the debate) picture a guy in New York City so determined to commit a crime with a gun that he drives hundreds of miles to Virginia, finds a private seller (or illegal seller) to buy a gun from, and then drives six hours or more back to New York city to commit his crime.  That is not the problem the article is addressing.  What is happening is that someone is legally buying lots of guns in Virginia, then taking them to New York and selling them (likely at a profit) to people there that cannot pass a background check and would not otherwise be able to purchase a gun.

A response from another tweeter, this one named Azz Hoe Cracka (perhaps a relative of War Kitten Cracka?) shows that these gun advocates did not understand either the article or my defense of it:

To clarify, legal guns are not the issue.  No one, anywhere, said anything about legal gun purchases.  The article, and all of my tweets, were specifically about guns bought illegally or through straw purchases that should be illegal.  However, this has been a common cause for confusion.  I have often been told that because gun dealers require background checks or because guns cannot legally be sold across state lines that there is no more need for new legislation.  But, the entire point is that guns are too easily obtained illegally, and therefore legislation is needed to prevent this.  As it stands now, private sales in most states do not require background checks and nothing prevents straw purchases.  These are what must be addressed.  Legal gun sales are not the problem.

The response from the first Mr. Cracka showed both a lack of basic understanding of criminal causation and a healthy dose of condescension.

So, for gun advocates the only thing that causes crime is an unarmed populace.  If only everyone had a gun, no one would commit crimes.  Things like racial and economic oppression, underfunded schools, police profiling, a failed war on drugs, or any of dozens of other factors have nothing to do with it.  It’s all about guns.  Got it.

Moving on, my earlier tweet had provoked a second line of debate:

This was another revealing response, because it brings up two separate issues.  First, he suggests that regulations limiting criminal access to guns would somehow make them unavailable to law-abiding citizens.  He then implies that law-abiding citizens somehow need an incentive not to become criminals, as if the only thing between a person and a life of crime is his ability to get a gun easily.  Though this second issue is interesting (and by that, I mean “ridiculous”), I responded to his first point:

This thread was later abandoned by Mr. Cracka, who chose to follow a different argument (though not before perpetuating the meme that putting more people in jail is the solution), but it did eventually draw a response from a new debater named BFD, which his Twitter handle reveals stands for “Big Fat Dave.”  Mr. Fat Dave and I engaged in a debate that I will get to in just a moment, but his response here deserves mention:

Not to generalize, but this is a common line of attack from pro-gun folks.  First, call the opponent a child.  This implies that I am naive and uninformed, which are the only possibly explanations for why I might want to keep guns away from people who are using them to kill other people.  Second, call me “she.”  This furthers the stereotype of gun advocates as masculine tough guys and gun opponents as feminine and weak.  These are both flawed and highly offensive arguments, but unfortunately not uncommon.

Before we get to the rest of my interaction with Mr. Fat Dave, let’s look at one last back-and-forth with Mr. Cracka:

This again perpetuates the myth that the only thing that can stop criminals is an army of well-armed private citizens.  Passing gun regulations (which would do absolutely nothing to limit gun ownership by law-abiding people) would somehow leave criminals free to commit their crimes unimpeded.  This is consistently the most often repeated argument against gun control, but it is among the most flawed.  Background checks, laws against straw purchases and trafficking, and even registration (which we’ll get to in a moment) would in no way keep gun owners from legally purchasing their guns.

Along with the illusion of a citizenry stripped of its weapons is the dual fantasy that no one is safe from imminent attack and that these gunslingers can somehow successfully thwart any attack through the miracle of gun ownership.  This fantasy persists despite evidence that the crime rate has been falling consistently for two decades, guns are rarely used in self-defense (fewer than 50,000 times a year, rather than the NRA-endorsed number of more than two million times annually), and that guns are far more often used for intimidation than self-defense.

Gun advocates do generally accept that the crime rate has fallen, but they argue that it is because so many people have guns that fewer crimes are being committed:

BQwB7JtCQAEXaJ0

And, if I’ve learned anything in my time researching this issue, it’s that you can always trust a graph that doesn’t bother to spell “Germany” correctly.  But, it’s also important to note that “crime” is not defined in any way specifying a violent crime where a gun would be an effective means of self-defense.

However, this graph is actually a good demonstration of one of the biggest problems in the gun debate.  Anti-gun folks like me can point to various causes for a 20-year decrease in the American crime rate that mean guns are less and less necessary for self-defense.  But, gun advocates can point to the same crime rate drop and attribute it directly to the increased number of guns owned by our citizens.  Both sides can be completely convinced that their reasoning is correct, and both can be completely impervious to any argument.

Now, let’s get back to Mr. Fat Dave.  After my last dialogue with Mr. Cracka, Big Fat Dave jumped back into the debate with this:

In retrospect, I’m surprised that it took this long for someone to invoke the hallowed Second Amendment.  But, the question raised is valid, to a point.  Yes, the Supreme Court has determined that the “right to bear arms” does extend to private gun ownership.  However, they have also determined that regulations on ownership are constitutional and do not amount to “infringement.”  This second point is largely lost on gun advocates who like to interpret the Second Amendment to mean that no gun regulations of any kind should be allowed.

My argument was that these kind of laws already exist, but should be expanded to cover the entire country:

…which drew this response from another Tweeter, known simply as Doug:

This is another fallacy.  Many gun advocates argue that gun laws are universally strict, which is not the case.  Recent laws in Maryland, Connecticut, Colorado and New York, along with older laws in California, are far more strict than federal gun laws.  Additionally, individual cities often make their own regulations that far exceed those of the nation as a whole.

I brought this to Doug’s attention:

And, he replied:

Doug is committing the same error as Azz Hoe Cracka.  Again, the issue is not legally purchased guns, but those purchased illegally or without a background check.  But, changing the terms of the debate allows pro-gun folks to imagine that enough laws are already in place.  I responded:

But, Big Fat Dave was quick to jump back in the debate, bringing us closer to the heart of the issue:

The “not my problem, not my punishment” part is noteworthy, because it exemplifies another big argument.  Why should a gun owner who is not shooting people have to be responsible for those that are?  My answer is simply, “Because that’s the way it has to be.”  People are getting shot, and in order to help stop it, gun owners may have to jump through a few hoops.  These hoops won’t keep them from their guns, but they will keep people from getting killed.  But, Mr. Fat Dave was also questioning my earlier tweet:

NICS is the National Instant Background Check System, the method used by licensed gun dealers to determine whether a potential buyer is legally allowed to purchase a firearm.  This process, by law, can take no longer than three days, but because many of these background checks are now done online, it can take as little as a few minutes.  So, to be clear, having to wait a few minutes (or even a few days) is a huge infringement on Mr. Fat Dave’s constitutional right to be armed to the teeth.

I responded:

This is a question that I have long pondered.  Why do gun-owners, who would presumably pass a background check, object so strenuously to their use?  Luckily, Mr. Fat Dave had an answer:

Though I’m not entirely sure who “great white father” is, apparently Big Fat Dave believes he is keeping him from exercising a “fundamental human right.”  Here we have yet another logical stretch.  Yes, the “right to bear arms” found in the Bill of Rights has been interpreted by the courts to extend to private citizens owning guns.  But a legal right and a “fundamental human right” are far from the same thing.  Fundamental human rights generally refer to things like equality, freedom from slavery, torture or oppression, freedom of speech and religion, or even the right to due process.  Even if it were argued that guns were necessary to protect these rights (which is debatable), that does not mean that unregulated ownership of firearms is itself a “fundamental human right.”

But, Big Fat Dave wasn’t done:

I would contend that adding “an errand” is certainly not “obviously/non-arguably infringement.”  And, I did:

This brought my single favorite response of the entire debate.  A new Tweeter, TL671, a self-described Super Genius, said this:

First, claims of Super Geniuses aside, there is no proof that Martin Luther King Jr. ever said these words.  They have been largely attributed to him, but there is no record of them in any of his writings or speeches.  He did say, “justice too long delayed is justice denied” in his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail (though he himself was quoting Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren), but that does not have the same meaning as the quote used by TL671.

But, let’s assume for a moment that he did say, “A right delayed is a right denied.”  Is it at all reasonable to believe that the most famous and vocal advocate of non-violence in American history would have been in favor of eliminating all restrictions on gun ownership?  Of course not.

Still, it’s a catchy quote.  It’s just too bad for the gun folks that it’s a fabrication.

Coming down the homestretch, Doug and Big Fat Dave teamed up to grill me on the effectiveness of background checks and we found ourselves back on the issue of gun registration (I told you we’d get to it eventually):

Since Mr. Fat Dave was apparently getting impatient, I replied:

This quickly brought the debate to a close:

After all the back and forth, the issue of gun registration is somehow a “non-starter.”  This is another part of the pro-gun argument that has long puzzled me.  We register our cars, our software, our gadgets and appliances, we give our personal information to our employers and to social networks, yet under no circumstances should anyone know who owns any of the estimated 300 million guns in this country.  Why would any legal gun owners have any objections to registration?  There is only one answer: the fear of confiscation.  Though no gun proposal has even hinted at such a thing, it is a common belief that the government is “coming for their guns.”  So, even though registration would help track guns used in crimes, limit illegal sales and purchases, and punish lawbreakers, an imagined fear has made even the thought of it enough to send gun folks running for the hills.

But, Doug wanted to let me know that he’s not paranoid, so he sent this final message:

The linked article describes an incident in Canada where flooding caused people to evacuate their homes.  Police then searched the evacuated area for victims or survivors of the flooding.  As they entered people’s homes, they confiscated any firearms that were left unsecured or out in the open to prevent them from “falling into the wrong hands.”  The police announced plans to return all seized guns to their owners.

Got that?  In a country with an entirely different legal system, unsecured weapons were taken by the police for safekeeping when homes were evacuated, with plans to return them to their owners as soon as possible.  Don’t you see how that means that the government wants to use registration to confiscate all the guns in America?  Don’t you see?  I called it “confiscation paranoia,” but I probably should have used a stronger word.

So, after all these tweets (and many, many more that I didn’t include) where are we?  Has any progress been made in the gun debate by either side?  Have I convinced them to lay down their guns (or at least to register them)?  Have they convinced me to take up arms to protect myself from a tyrannical government?  The answer to all these questions is no.  Not one mind has been changed.  No progress has been made.  We are no closer to solving the problem of American gun violence.  If anything, my opponents and I are each more firmly entrenched on our side of the debate.  Just as I spent thousands of words debunking their arguments, they could surely do the same to mine, handpicking data to back their arguments.

I’m no expert.  I’m just a guy who wants people to stop getting shot and killed.  And War Kitten Cracka, Big Fat Dave, Azz Hoe Cracka, Doug, and TL671 are just people who want to own as many guns as they can without any possible interference or inconvenience from the government.  It’s just a matter of priorities and ours are clearly in different places.  And the more we debate, the further apart we get.

So, it’s a stalemate.  We’re no closer to a solution, so thousands of Americans will continue to die each year.  Families will mourn, protesters will march, politicians will give speeches, and the debate will continue, going nowhere.  As long as guns and a dubious “right to bear arms” matter more than actual human lives, those lives will continue to end.  And, that is a tragedy.

Update:

Since writing this post, it appears that War Kitten Cracka’s Twitter account has been suspended, and Azz Hoe Cracka has changed his name to MustachioedPistachio.

Thoughts on Trayvon Martin and the Tragedy of Gun Culture

TrayvonThis boy did not have to die, and there is plenty of blame to go around.

Trayvon Martin is dead, and the man who shot him has been cleared of any wrongdoing in his death.  In the aftermath of this heartbreaking and infuriating decision, it is difficult to find the appropriate target on which to focus the outrage over the injustice in letting a killer go free.

Of course, the most obvious target is George Zimmerman, the confessed shooter who followed an innocent teenage boy, engaged him and then shot him after a physical altercation.  The questions raised by his actions are numerous.  Did he target Trayvon just because of his race? Why did he keep following Trayvon after the police told him not to?  Why did Zimmerman get out of his car to confront him?  Why did he need to have a gun?  There are so many questions, but in the end, they may not matter as much as the question raised by the Florida legal system:  Why is it okay to kill a black kid for no reason?

(As an aside, I find it interesting how the two principles are addressed by the media and other followers of this case.  Trayvon Martin is almost universally called by his first name, while George Zimmerman is almost always identified by his surname.  To me, this reflects a sense of familiarity to the former; Trayvon was a kid, just like kids we all know.  He walked to the store, bought candy and a drink, called a friend on the phone, and put up his hood against the chill of a rainy night.  He got scared by a man following him and when confronted, he defended himself.  None of this is unusual behavior.  Any of us would have reacted the same way.  And, as much as we all know someone like Trayvon, Zimmerman seems foreign to us.  He saw a black youth walking through a neighborhood that was supposed to be safe and instantly saw him as a threat.  His unfounded suspicions led him to follow the teenager, call the police and then continue to follow him against their orders.  He exited his car, carrying a gun, to confront a kid doing nothing more than walking home.  And then, when the confrontation turned physical, he used his gun to shoot and kill him.  This behavior doesn’t make any sense to most people, hence the non-familiar use of his last name.

Of course, looking at it from a different perspective, it could be an issue of respect.  A young black kid who smoked pot and took pictures where he looked like a “thug” may not demand the same level of respect as an upstanding police academy reject with a white-sounding name who took it upon himself to protect his community from the menace of black teenagers.  This view is obviously bullshit, but it would not be surprising from a gun culture that loves to differentiate between “good guys” and “bad guys.”)

But, as much anger as I have toward George Zimmerman, he is not the only perpetrator of this terrible crime.  Equally responsible are the culture that led him to carry a gun in the first place, the laws that emboldened him to pull the trigger, and the court that absolved him from any wrongdoing.

Gun advocates, with their hyperbolic rhetoric, have created an environment where their supporters see a threat around every corner and in every home.  Despite decreasing crime rates, fear is escalating.  Homeowners are told that guns are the only way to protect their homes from killers and thieves.  Women are told that only a gun will prevent them from being sexually assaulted.  According to this skewed worldview, the police cannot be counted on for protection.  Only if everyone carries a gun can anyone be truly safe.  And escalating profits for gun manufacturers and proposals encouraging increased gun ownership show that this rhetoric is working.

On its face, a law that allows someone to protect himself from an attacker may make sense.  But, what Zimmerman did was not self-defense.  His act was one of aggression.  He pursued his target, first in his car and then on foot.  He caused the situation that resulted in a dead young man.  And, while it may be possible that he did not intend to kill Trayvon, but rather hoped to chase him away, the fact remains that Zimmerman’s actions directly led to his death.  He must bear responsibility for that.

According to the jury’s interpretation of Florida’s laws, George Zimmerman was not guilty in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  That does not mean he is not actually responsible.  It just means that the law is severely flawed.  Any law that protects the aggressor rather than the victim, a gun owner instead of an unarmed teenager, and a white (or, at least, not black) man over a black man is a law that has no place in a just society.  But, the fact that the acquittal of a confessed killer can be seen as a victory in some circles shows that our society is far from just.  And, that this victory can even be celebrated by some shows just how far off track we have gotten.  There should be no joy in the death of an innocent boy, regardless of his race, age, or the circumstances surrounding his shooting.  Any death is a tragedy, but especially one that could have been so easily avoided.  Placing the value of gun ownership above that of a human life is unfathomable, yet that is exactly what has happened in the minds of those who favor the laws that allowed this travesty of justice to happen.

There are many fingers to be pointed in this tragedy.  There is a killer and a gun culture that provoked his behavior and a legal system that enabled it.  They are all to blame.  Zimmerman may have escaped punishment, but that doesn’t mean the fight is over.  Unjust laws must be repealed and new, just ones must be enacted.  Rationalism must trump fear so that people don’t feel compelled to own and use guns against imagined threats.  Trayvon Martin’s life has ended, but the movement to prevent things like this from happening again is just beginning.

One Day in Texas: The Worst and the Best and the Worst in American Politics

In a week that has seen President Obama’s speech on climate change, debunking of the so-called IRS “scandal,” and Supreme Court decisions on Affirmative Action, the Voting Rights Act and marriage equality, fans of politics have had a lot to talk about (and it’s only Wednesday, as of this writing).  But for all the action in Washington, the real show appeared to be in the state of Texas.

The Lone Star State was the setting for a chain of events that perfectly epitomizes the current state of American politics.  It was a roller coaster fueled by partisan debate, knee-jerk reactions, passionate citizens and a filibuster that birthed a new political celebrity.

Let’s begin with the Voting Rights Act (VRA).  Texas is among the many states and counties defined by the act as having a history of discriminatory voting laws.  It seems that prior to the Act’s passage in 1965, the state took actions that made it very difficult for minorities to register or cast their ballots.  Because of this, the VRA’s Article 5 declared that the state would have to seek approval from the federal government before enacted any new voting laws.  However, this did not keep the state, and specifically its Republican legislators, from attempting to enact strict voter ID laws that would have disenfranchised thousands of minority voters.  They also sought to alter their electoral districts in an attempt to limit the influence of those that somehow would maintain the right to vote.  However, this attempt was thwarted after State Senator Wendy Davis, whose district would have been redrawn, challenged the redistricting, saying it violated Article 5 of the VRA.

So, after Tuesday’s Supreme Court ruling gutted the VRA and ended the requirement for Texas to seek approval from the Department of Justice, the state wasted no time enacting the legislation that had previously been shot down.  Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a statement a mere two hours after the ruling:

“With today’s decision, the state’s voter ID law will take effect immediately.  Redistricting maps passed by the Legislature may also take effect without approval from the federal government.”

This means that Davis will likely find herself without a district when the next election rolls around, and Republicans will have effectively silenced a powerful contrarian voice.  And though this is a sneaky way to limit dissent, it is not illegal.  It is just cowardly, as is the voter ID law that will keep thousands of people—mostly Democrat voters, not coincidentally—from voting.  Rather than win a rational debate on the issues, Republicans prefer to subvert the democratic process by preventing the opposition from participating.  It appears the new GOP motto should be, “If you can’t beat them, cheat them.”

Davis, however, was nowhere near done fighting.  While she may not have any control over the Voting Rights Act and its impact on her seat in the Senate, she could certainly impact their ability to push through strict abortion legislation that would have been devastating to women in Texas.  It would have closed nearly all the state’s abortion providers, leaving only five in a state with 26 million people, as well as preventing any abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

This bill was defeated in its first pass through the Texas legislature, but Republicans are a determined bunch.  Governor Rick Perry called a special session of Congress to give the abortion bill (and a few other pet issues) a second shot.  These special sessions required a lower vote threshold for approving a bill, giving them a much better chance at passage.  However, this 30-day session was nearly at an end and the time to put the abortion bill up for a vote was running out.  If no vote was held by midnight Tuesday, the bill would be defeated.

So, Davis took it upon herself to stand up for the women of Texas.  And stand she did.  She filibustered the bill in the Senate for 11 hours, speaking continuously, not allowed to eat, drink, or even lean on the podium.  If she could speak until midnight, there would be no time for a vote.

But, Republicans were not willing to concede defeat.  Because of the lower threshold, they had the votes to pass the bill, if only they could end Davis’s filibuster.  So, they repeatedly challenged her, using Texas’s very strict filibuster rules to try to trip her up.  Finally, after three dubious violations, they succeeded.  Davis was stopped, just minutes short of midnight.  She was like a marathon runner who trips and falls with the finish line in sight.  Of course, in this case, she was like a runner clubbed in the leg with a lead pipe wielded by Republicans determined not to let a woman stop them from telling the rest of the women in Texas what to do.

Yet, as remarkable as Davis’s effort had been, something even more remarkable happened next.  The assembled spectators, inspired by the filibuster, raised their own voices, creating enough noise and chaos to drown out the Republican attempts to call for a vote before the deadline.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qsfmNF3u2yo

But, Republicans are a determined lot, and there is no shortage of dirty tricks in their playbook.  They called for a vote anyway, even though it was after midnight.  But, the continued uproar from the crowd finally forced them to admit defeat.

However, the celebration by Democrats and pro-choice supporters was short-lived.  On Wednesday, Gov. Perry called for a second special session of Congress to try for a third time to pass the abortion bill.  And, because Republicans will have 30 days to call for a vote, it will almost certainly pass.  The Texas GOP will impose their will on the women of Texas, no matter what it takes.

Of course, Perry claims that he is acting on behalf of the people of Texas, saying they “want to protect women and the unborn,” though the proposed abortion bill would do exactly the opposite, depriving many women of needed health care.  It is also not what Texans want, with recent polling showing that 74 percent of registered voters saying abortion decisions should be made by women and their doctors, not by politicians.

In his statement, Perry also said that, “Texans value life.”  This is especially infuriating given something else that happened today.  For the 500th time since the state resumed using the death penalty in 1982, a Texan was executed.  The fact that the person put to death was black female, Kimberly McCarthy, only adds to the perception that the GOP is fighting a war against women and minorities.  Nearly 40 percent of all executions in the US have taken place in Texas, and Perry has presided over more executions than any governor in US history.

If this hypocrisy did not involve human lives, it would be almost humorous.  Instead, it is tragic.  While claiming to value life, he is taking lives and destroying the health care for the women of his state.

But, there is some light at the end of this tunnel of death, deception and dirty tricks.  Rick Perry will run for another term as governor next year.  And, he might see a familiar face as his opponent.  There is already talk that Wendy Davis should throw her hat in the ring.  And, after her surge in popularity after yesterday’s filibuster, she would have a surprisingly good chance in a state that is not especially friendly to Democrats.  That would be the ultimate victory for a woman who literally stands up for the people of her state.  But, it might be too late to stop the damage done by the GOP.

If Stolen Guns are the Problem, Address Stolen Guns

The latest troubling issue that gun advocates are hoping to sweep under the rug comes in the form of a report from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, more commonly known as the ATF.

Though gun lobbyists and their GOP friends have successfully kept the Bureau from naming a permanent head for the last seven years, this has not kept the ATF from doing the work of monitoring gun sales and ownership.

And this monitoring has uncovered the fact that gun owners and sellers are doing very little monitoring of their own when it comes to the whereabouts of their guns.

This chart from the report details the guns reported lost or stolen in 2012 by Federal Firearms Licensees (that is, gun sellers licensed by the federal government):

More than 16,000 weapons were either stolen from or lost by licensed gun sellers last year.  That is a lot.  But, for every one of these lost or stolen guns more than 10 guns were lost by or stolen from private citizens.  Here is a state-by-state breakdown:

http://www.atf.gov/files/statistics/Interactive_Map/ATF%20Interactive%20Map%20Main%202013/atf_interactive_map_1.htm

According to the ATF report, 190,342 guns were reported as lost or stolen in 2012.  While this number represents far less than one percent of the estimated 300,000,000+ guns owned nationwide, it is believed that stolen guns are used in up to 15 percent of crimes involving firearms (if this number seems low, it is because most guns used in crimes are purchased illegally rather than stolen).

This statistic may be surprising, but it is not correct.  In truth, the actual number of guns that were either lost or stolen last year is likely far higher than that in the ATF report.  But, due to limited funds for ATF audits and lack of reporting from private citizens, many lost or stolen firearms are not accounted for in the report.  As the ATF says:

“While law enforcement is keenly aware that lost and stolen firearms represent a substantial public safety problem, the scope of the problem is difficult to quantify. Several factors impair ATF’s ability to determine accurately the number of firearms lost and stolen from private citizens each year. Reporting by law enforcement is voluntary, not mandatory, and thus the statistics in this report likely reveal only a fraction of the problem. Additionally, even where state and local law enforcement are consistently reporting statistics, many states do not require private citizens to report the loss or theft of a firearm to local law enforcement in the first place. As such, many lost and stolen firearms go entirely unreported. Moreover, even if a firearm is reported as lost or stolen, individuals often are unable to report the serial number to law enforcement because they are not required to record the serial number or maintain other records of the firearms they own for identification purposes. As a result, many lost and stolen firearms enter secondary and illicit markets with their status undocumented and undetectable.”

It is clear that any gun violence prevention agenda must include measures for proper security and storage of firearms, both by gun sellers and private citizens.  This could be largely addressed through two methods.

First, sellers must regularly inventory their guns.  The fact that they are not already required to is baffling and should be immediately remedied.  Sellers of all products regularly track their inventory, and sellers of potentially deadly weapons should be even more careful in monitoring their products.  Yet, the ATF cannot currently require gun sellers to conduct an annual inventory.  And, due to budget limitations, they were only able to inspect about 13,000 of the almost 70,000 gun dealers nationwide, and only about half of all gun dealers over the last five years.  This must change.  Additionally, gun sellers should be required to properly secure all firearms in their shops to prevent theft.

Second, gun owners must properly store their weapons.  This can be easily accomplished through use of gun safes (which store guns securely) or gun locks (which prevent them from being fired accidentally).  Because there is no current safe storage legislation, even many gun owners with children do not take proper safety precautions.  A survey from 2000 found that only 39 percent of these gun owners kept their weapons both locked and unloaded, while 43 percent had at least one unlocked firearm and 13 percent had an unlocked firearm that was either loaded or stored with ammunition, a figure that represents 1.4 million homes and 2.6 million children with access to a potentially loaded weapon.  The obvious secondary benefit of keeping a gun in a safe is that it is much less likely to be lost or stolen.

So, why are these common sense rules not already in place?  Many gun advocates claim that measures like universal background checks are ineffective because criminals will just avoid them by stealing the guns they desire.  So, it would logically follow that they would support legislation that would prevent gun loss or theft.  Yet, this is not the case.

Their continued refusal to back such measures only reinforces the image that gun owners are reckless and more concerned with “freedom” (which is really just code for absence of gun regulations) than human lives.

Shifting Demographics, Shifting Laws?

A recent survey found some encouraging news for anti-gun folks:

A survey released earlier this week by the Pew Research Center finds that over 6 in 10 American gun owners are white men. Overall, 74 percent of gun owners are male and 82 percent are white. Just 7 percent of gun owners are African-American and 6 percent are Hispanic.

This may not mean much right now, as the huge number of guns owned by Americans continues to be a huge problem, regardless of who owns them.  But, it could mean good things for the future.  ThinkProgress paired this news with a chart showing a projected decline in the percentage of the population composed of whites, with Hispanics, Blacks, and Asians all increasing:

race-chart

So, assuming that current ownership trends continue, it appears likely that gun control may follow in the steps of drugs, gay marriage, women’s health care, and other one-time minority opinions that are rapidly gaining support.  As American demographics change, so might the laws.  We can only hope that as the percentage of the population that owns guns continues to shrink, their influence over legislation will follow suit.

Of course, this is taking the very long view of a problem that has daily, immediate consequences.  But, on the heels of the recent discouraging defeat of gun legislation in the Senate, any good news is reason for optimism.

Santa Monica College and the Leaky Pipe Theory of Gun Violence

In a country plagued by scandals, both real and imagined, our collective focus can easily be drawn to each shiny new outrage du jour, with our dwindling attention spans unable to linger too long on the horrors of yesterday.  Then, a fresh new tragedy brings our focus back just before it can fade away.

Such was the case with the mass shooting in Santa Monica, California on Friday.  Though the specifics may have differed, this seemed to be on the surface much like any of the other in the parade of recent slaughters—multiple victims, a cache of weapons and ammunition, questions of mental health and a trail of blood and bodies.  But, it is this very similarity that is so noteworthy.  If it all seemed familiar, it is because it is.  We have seen this before.  And we apparently have resigned ourselves to the reality that we will see it again.  And we will if we do nothing to stop it.

First, a brief recap.  On Friday morning, a 23-year old man shot and killed his father and brother in their home before setting the house on fire.  He then hijacked a car and forced a woman to drive him to nearby Santa Monica College, but not before shooting at another woman driver near the house as well as numerous pedestrians and a city bus, leaving four people injured.  Once at the college, he shot and killed a groundskeeper and his daughter (the man died on the scene and his daughter died Sunday morning in a local hospital).  He shot another woman on the campus before entering the school’s library, where he fired 70 rounds at the students there before being shot and killed himself by police.

In all, five innocent people and the shooter lost their lives and many others were injured.  And, beyond that, a college campus and an entire city were terrified.  But nationally, this was little more than a five-minute segment on the news, quickly forgotten for sexier scandals.

For the sake of disclosure, let me say that I was in Santa Monica at the time of the shooting.  I work mere blocks from the college where the shooting spree ended.  Though I did not hear the gunshots, I definitely heard the sirens of responders and the deafening whir of the helicopters that rushed to the scene.  I was close enough to see the roadblocks and the police tape that crossed all the streets surrounding the school.  And I was certainly close enough to wonder what I would do if I was staring down the barrel of a gun held by a man determined to kill me.

But none of that scared me as much as the photos released by the Santa Monica Police, because while it may be easy to dismiss the actions of a shooter with alleged mental health issues as an aberration (though these sorts of aberrations seem to be happening more and more often), it is far harder to ignore the equipment with which he carried out his plan.

Look at this picture:

SMCShooter

This is a man with bad intentions.  He is a civilian, but he wears protective gear associated with police SWAT teams or the military.  Yet, no flags were raised when he acquired it.

Now, look at this picture:

SMCGuns

This is just some of the cache of weapons and ammunition assembled by the shooter.  The AP reports that he carried an AR-15 style semi-automatic rifle, a .44 revolver and more than 1,300 rounds of ammunition in several cartridges.  The revolver, though potentially deadly, is the least worrying of the bunch, as it is slow and difficult to reload (at least in comparison to the rifle).

Much more troubling are the rifle and the ammunition.  The shooter (for the record, he has been identified, but I have no interest in using his name, as it is his actions and not his identity that concern me) possessed a weapon capable of firing a very large amount of bullets in a very short amount of time, as well as enough bullets to kill more than a thousand people.  Of course, that assumes that every bullet found its target, which is highly unlikely.  But, the weapon he used has proven popular in recent mass shootings including those at the Aurora, Colorado movie theater and the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school specifically because it is so easy to fire quickly and accurately.  And again, he was apparently able to acquire all of it without raising any suspicions.

Recent federal gun proposals would have banned the type of gun he used, as well as the extended magazines he carried.  And, background checks would have prevented someone with his history of mental illness from legally purchasing a weapon or ammunition.  But, that doesn’t matter because gun advocates fought to defeat the proposals.

But, in California, we do have stricter gun laws that should make it impossible for a shooter like this to do what he did.  Yet, he did it.

So, what does this mean?  Are gun laws ineffective?  Or, can they prevent shootings like this from happening?

The truth is that the gun laws currently in place fail because they are inconsistent, both in their content and their enforcement.  Someone who is unable to buy guns from a licensed dealer here in California can easily go to Nevada or a private seller at a gun show or on the internet.  Or, he can steal them or buy them from someone who has stolen them.  This is possible because the same rules don’t apply to everyone, and the rules in place don’t do enough to track guns and who owns them.  And, until they do, the gun violence problem will continue.

But the future of gun legislation is cloudy.  While states like California, Maryland, Connecticut, and Colorado have made progress in strengthening their gun laws, federal attempts to do the same have stalled.  Even Joe Manchin, the congressman who co-sponsored the recent gun legislation proposal puts the chances of getting that legislation passed at 50/50.  That is far from encouraging.

And this doesn’t even mention the fact that proper mental health care is severely lacking (and getting worse) and that gun advocates have blocked attempts to research the causes of gun violence, hoping that ignoring the problem will make it go away or pretending that no problem even exists.

Further, for every group that tries to get guns off the street, there is another seeking to arm as many people as possible.

If we can’t agree that guns are a problem, how can we agree on a solution?  How can we convince people to see that events like this are not aberrations but a pattern of violence that is escalating?  How do we make them care?  How do we make them see?

Think of gun violence as a leaky pipe—a crude analogy, of course.  But, just like an unchecked leak can cause a foundation to rot, so can gun violence rot the very foundation of American civilization.  Each drop of blood that is spilled brings us one step closer to collapse.  We are destroying ourselves and we are doing nothing to stop it.

That must change.

Teaching Teachers (But Guns in School is Still a Bad Idea)

Photo by Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini

Photo by Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini

Guns in schools are a bad idea, as studies have shown that an increase in guns inevitably leads to an increase in people getting shot.  But, at least some people are making sure that teachers choosing to carry weapons are receiving proper training.

School personnel in the South Point school district in southern Ohio are flocking to a gun training program that would potentially allow them to carry firearms in their classrooms.  Instructor Alan Wheeler claims to have trained 250 teachers so far.

The course teaches gun knowledge and marksmanship.  Wheeler also offers advanced training for those who pass the initial course.  However, even after completing the training, teachers must apply for a permit before they can take their guns to school.

This focus on how to use a gun is reassuring, even if the prospect of 250 guns in Ohio schools is terrifying.  In fact, similar courses should be required of all gun owners, whether they want to take their guns to work or not.

Even so, I find myself agreeing more with Italian photographer Sebastiano Tomada Piccolomini, who took the photo that heads this post, and who was on hand to document the teachers in the training course.

As CNN reports:

[Piccolomini] said he’s fascinated by guns, but “no way” he’d carry a gun while working.

“It’s not what I’m there for,” he said, and it would be even more dangerous for him to have a gun because he could be viewed as a threat. He’s not trained and he said it wouldn’t make a difference if he were cornered by a fighter.

Still, the photos are nice, even if the teachers seem to be enjoying holding those guns a little too much for my liking.  The full slideshow and accompanying story can be seen here.

Kids with Guns: Not an Accident

Kid With Gun

Fun and games, or an avoidable tragedy about to happen?

A sad and surprisingly popular subset of the plague of American gun violence is accidental shooting deaths of or by children.  This almost always occurs because proper gun safety measures are either unknown or ignored, resulting in the tragic deaths of children by careless adults, careless adults by unsupervised children, and even unsupervised children by other unsupervised children.

It is unfair to try to pin blame for these deaths on the children, but it is just as unfair to absolve the adults involved.  Gun ownership comes with the responsibility of handling a potentially deadly weapon safely.  To write these incidents off merely as “accidents” implies that nothing could have been done to prevent them, when this is most certainly not true.

For example, take this recent AP report on the death of an Army veteran shot and killed by his four-year-old son when they went to visit a friend.  The child found an unattended gun, picked it up, and pulled the trigger, killing his father.  However, instead of assigning responsibility to the gun owner for allowing the weapon to fall into the hands of a young child, police are calling the death “accidental.”

Legally, the gun owner was not required to take any safety measures regarding the storage of his weapon.  And, since no children lived in the home, it may be easy to question why any would be necessary.  Tragically, the shooting that occurred provides an answer.  Because one can never predict who will enter their home, it makes sense that precautions should be taken to make sure the gun is not used by someone it shouldn’t be.

Something as simple as a storage safe would have prevented this senseless death, as would a gun lock that would have prevented anyone but the gun owner from firing the weapon.  But, gun advocates have fought against requiring any of these type of safety measures.

So, although the owner of this gun undoubtedly did not intend for young hands to find his firearm, the fact that he did nothing to prevent it means that he should bear some responsibility for the resulting death.  This was negligence, not an accident.

Even more upsetting are stories involving parents who blatantly put guns into the hands of their children.  While the argument that training children to use guns teaches them to handle them responsibly makes some sense, it only works if the parents themselves practice what they preach.

For example, consider the case of a five-year-old who shot and killed his two-year-old sister after being given a rifle as a gift, after the rifle was stored “in what [the family] considered to be a safe spot.”  This awful event led to a series of troubling statements from family and police.

From the uncle: “It’s just tragic.  It’s something that you can’t prepare for.”

But you can prepare for it by storing the gun safely and not leaving the children unattended.  Or, even better, don’t give a gun to your five-year-old in the first place.

From a police trooper: “It’s just one of those nightmares, a quick thing that happens when you turn your back.”

Yes, this is a nightmare, but it can be avoided by not turning your back.  Any responsible gun owner should know better.

And from the grandmother: “It was God’s will.  It was her time to go, I guess.”

Taking the responsibility for this death out of the hands of the parents and assigning it to God excuses them for their negligence and does nothing to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.

Notice that not one person said, “Maybe we shouldn’t have given him a gun.”

Again, the shooting was ruled an accident.  And again, it was anything but.

Shooting Down the Talking Points

The gun debate has received a lot of attention but has accomplished little other than to polarize pro- and anti-gun advocates, leaving them further from any sort of compromise that might actually help curb gun violence.

Part of this polarization comes from the way guns are viewed.  Some people are simply “gun people” who will defend their right to own and shoot guns against any attempts at regulation.  Others are on the opposite end of the spectrum, viewing guns as killing machines that have no place in a civilized society.  Most people, however, stand somewhere in the middle, believing that people should be able to own guns if they choose, but that certain measures should be taken to ensure that they are handled safely.  Sadly, the current debate is forcing people to side with one or the other of the more extreme positions with less and less room in between.

This is largely due to how guns are discussed.  Depending on which camp you sit in, guns are either “good” or “evil.”  But, like most things, it is not quite that simple.  This is not a black and white issue.  In reality, the entire gun debate is a study in shades of gray.

This was demonstrated on the most recent episode of “Real Time with Bill Maher,” with pro-gun advocate S.E. Cupp squaring off against noted gun control supporter Michael Moore.  A clip can be seen here:

This is a fairly typical example of how the gun debate is carried out in the media, and there are a few problems with it.

The first problem is the format.  Less than seven minutes are dedicated to the subject, leaving little room for actual debate.  Both Cupp and Moore have little time to do anything other than regurgitate talking points that do little to change opinions or further the discussion.  Making things even more difficult is the fact that Maher (and to a lesser extent, the other guests on the panel) interjects his opinion, meaning that there are now multiple voices talking over each other, with little listening being done by anyone.  This is the nature of television, of course, but it is unproductive and forces people to dig their heels in to support whatever position they hold rather than take steps to meet each other somewhere in the middle.

As a matter of full disclosure, I certainly stand closer on the political spectrum to Moore than I do to Cupp.  But, that does not mean that I think that his arguments can be blindly supported or hers easily dismissed.  Instead, they should be examined, one at a time.

Most glaring of these arguments is Cupp’s claim that submitting to background checks implies an assumption that gun purchasers have a criminal intent to use a firearm, saying gun owners are “treated as guilty until proven innocent.”  This is simply false.  Rather, it is a verification of eligibility.  If gun owners can acknowledge that guns are instruments capable of causing injury or death—not a given, as many cling to the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” semantic argument that Cupp, to her credit, manages to avoid—and that there are certain people who should not be able to own them (again, not a given), a background check system should be embraced.

Since gun supporters like to use the Constitution to justify their opposition, another right guaranteed by that document offers a useful comparison.  All citizens of a certain age are guaranteed the right to vote.  But, they must first register to do so, to prove their eligibility.  This in no way presumes that all voters are ineligible, but it does prevent those that are—whether because of a criminal record, lack of citizenship, or any other reason—from casting a ballot.  The right to own a gun is no different.

Presumably, Cupp would have no problem passing a background check.  So, her Second Amendment right to own a gun would not be infringed in any way, nor would that of any of the millions of other law-abiding gun owners nationwide.  But, people with a history of violence, criminal behavior, or certain mental health issues might be prevented from owning a gun, and lives could be saved as a result.

Cupp is not the only one to misinterpret the Second Amendment, however.  Michael Moore makes the claim that only guns in existence at the time it was written should be protected, even though the Supreme Court has ruled that this protection extends to all sorts of modern firearms.  Further, to make such a claim assumes that the rest of the Constitution and its Amendments have the same limitations.  This would mean that the freedom of the press would apply only to words printed on paper and not to television, radio, or the internet, none of which existed at the time of the Founders.  Likewise, the First Amendment’s freedom of religion would not protect relatively new religions including Mormonism or Scientology.  Those laws have been interpreted to cover societal and technological advancements and the laws protecting gun ownership do the same.  To argue otherwise is an unnecessary distraction.

The scale of the issue was also subject to dispute.  While much of the gun debate has focused on recent mass shootings, Cupp insisted that these incidents were decreasing.  She even restated this point in a tweet later that evening:

However, others were quick to counter her claim, including Mother Jones senior editor Mark Follman:

But, forgotten among these opposing tweets was that the frequency of these shootings is not what really matters.  What actually matters is that they are happening at all and that they should be stopped.  I threw my own two cents in on Twitter:

But, focusing only on mass shootings is not productive.  They may attract the most attention, but they account for less than one percent of gun-related deaths.

The fact is, shootings of all kinds are happening, and will continue unless something is done.  And, that something definitely does not include increasing gun ownership.  But, that did not stop Cupp (and Maher) from claiming that guns are essential for protection against all threats, real and imaginary.

In fact, Cupp made two claims that were especially troubling.  When asked why she might want a concealed weapon, she responded, “Why should I be able to hide a gun?  Clearly, you’ve never confronted the idea of domestic violence.”  The implication, of course, is that having a gun would protect her from an attacker.  While this thought makes some sense on the surface, research has shown that women who are victims of domestic violence risk having their weapon used against them and are up to eight times more likely to be killed if there is a gun in the house.

Cupp followed this with the unintended irony of declaring, “I just happen to be informed on gun issues, unlike most people who talk about them.”  While she undoubtably knows quite a bit about guns, the fact that she is so misinformed on one of her most basic defenses for gun ownership is disturbing, as there are likely many women who see her as a strong role model and will follow her example, unaware of the possible tragic results of keeping a weapon in a home plagued by domestic violence.

However, her statement does raise another point.  Gun advocates often claim that a certain level of knowledge on guns is required before one can weigh in on the issue.  Again, this makes some sense of the surface, but even a moment of thought shows this to be a flawed argument.  One does not need to be an expert on specifications and classifications of weapons to know that gun violence is a problem or that keeping guns out of the wrong hands is the best solution.  Just like one need not have taken drugs to recognize a drug problem or be an accountant to see that the economy is struggling, personal knowledge of firearms is not the issue.  It is just a way to dismiss arguments that run counter to those of gun advocates.  But, since Cupp likes to claim her position is based on facts, here is the only fact that really matters:

So, instead of gun owners fretting over the prospect of background checks or gun registries—even though the proposed bill would have explicitly prohibited them—they should be worried about the people who are dying.  Surely those lives are worth a little inconvenience or extra paperwork.

But, realistically, true gun reform is not something that will likely happen any time soon, if at all.  America is a “gun country,” and gun owners will fight to keep it that way.  But, the least we can hope for is that guns are only owned by those well-trained in both using them and storing them safely.  Moore was right to claim that practicing shooting a few times a year is not enough.  This is where expertise actually matters.  I don’t need to know how to shoot a gun because I don’t have one and likely never will.  However, anyone choosing to own a weapon should be an expert in its use and should do everything in their power to keep it from falling into the wrong hands.  And, there should be legislation mandating this.  Yet, there is resistance even to such common sense measures.

Cupp claimed that the hallowed Second Amendment protected gun owners like her from any legislation regarding guns (even though the Supreme Court has already ruled in favor of certain gun restrictions), which led to the quote of the night.  Though Maher waffled between pro- and anti-gun stances, he rightly stated that “the second Amendment is bullshit.”  And it is.

The Constitution is not a perfect document.  Indeed, the very right being debated was not included in the original draft, but rather added among a set of ten amendments four years later.  Much of the original text has been found in need of an update, leading to the abolition of slavery, expansion of voting rights, and changes in how legislators are chosen, among other things.  One of the amendments was even found to be flawed, leading to a repeal of the prohibition of alcohol.  Yet gun advocates hold on to the Second Amendment as though it is a right granted by God, rather than by men who were far from infallible.  So, yes, the Second Amendment is bullshit, and it is time that it is repealed and replaced with responsible gun legislation that properly protects the American people.