The Gun Fight: Has it Only Just Begun?

After the Newtown massacre I posted my belief that a tipping point had been reached in terms of gun control.   Despite the failure of the Senate a few weeks ago to do anything about the issue, I still believed it, and apparently so does  Alec McGillis for reasons given in a New Republic piece titled:

English: Icon for recentism

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This Is How the NRA Ends A bigger, richer, meaner gun-control movement has arrived.   The article is fairly long, so I will summarize its main points and then you can decide if you want to read more.

McGillis begins with the defeat of the Senate bill on background checks April 17 which seemed to once again prove the power of the NRA.   However, as you probably noticed, several Senators who voted against the bill received harsh reactions back home and there have been signs since then that a few might consider changing their minds.    Joe Manchin (D.), co-sponsor of the bill, is still working on gathering support.

But more significantly, a challenge to the alleged power of the NRA is growing while there is also some question as to whether its bite is smaller than its bark.  As Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut has pointed out: “…of the 16 Senate races the NRA participated in last year, 13 of its candidates lost.”   McGillis gives other examples as well.

He then traces the history of the modern gun control movement while concluding it did not have the power in the past that it does now.   For example, among the various gun control groups “there were disagreements over whether to pursue incremental reforms or more ambitious proposals like handgun registration. And the movement has always been woefully outmatched financially. Gun-rights groups, funded by gun manufacturers, have given more than $30 million to federal candidates since 1989, compared with just under $2 million by their opponents.”

But Michael Bloomberg of New York city, along with 14 other mayors, began to alter the balance with the creation of:  Mayors Against Illegal Guns in 2006.  Funded largely by Bloomberg’s fortune, the organization has continued to grow and build and should be a major force to counteract the NRA influence in the 2014 elections.  Adding to the force of that group are other organizations formed by assassination survivor Gabby Giffort and those of  “mom-activists” who lost love ones at Newtown or one of the other slaughter sites, such as Aurora, Colorado.

McGillis gives examples of the passionate commitment of these activists while concluding with a story on Joe Manchin defending his background check bill with a group of his constituents in West Virginia, including five belligerent protesters.

“By meeting’s end, it occurred to me that what I had witnessed was a microcosm of the new gun politics. There were only five protesters, but because of their belligerence, they had nearly captured the entire discussion. Manchin, however, had realized that there were a lot of people there who weren’t shouting at him—and when he persisted, it turned out that many of them agreed with him”.

Here is a link to the McGillis article.

Manchin, Bloomberg, Giffort, the mom-activists and a growing number of other passionate gun safety folks seem capable of challenging the NRA’s imagined dominance in the elections of 2014.

It is enough to remind me of the legendary words of Captain John Paul Jones, whose ship was aflame and sinking in a sea battle during the Revolutionary War.   When the British captain asked if he was surrendering, Jones screamed back:  “I have not yet begun to fight.”

He won by the way.

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Lose Ends: Austerity vs. Stimulus, Fiscal Follies, Guns, Immigration

Mandatory Vs. Discretionary Spending

Mandatory Vs. Discretionary Spending (Photo credit: Public Agenda)

Austerity vs. Stimulus:  If you read my previous post, you might be sick of this topic, or still in the process of reading some of the linked articles.   Had I known that day the Stephen Colbert was going to cover the Rogoff-Weinhard controversy that night, I would have saved what I wrote until after you watched his show.   With his usual well informed wit, he did a great job of  summing up the issue in an enjoyable way.   Check it out at Colbert Report.

Also, if you want ongoing updates, keep checking the Paul Krugman link in my Blogroll, as he has his teeth into it like a dog with a bone.

Fiscal Follies:  While economists debate the big issues of macroeconomics, congress mucks along keeping the government going with one patch work deal after another.   To recap:  Congress got over one hurdle awhile back by passing a continuing resolution to fund the government until the end of the fiscal year in September.  That’s one step to keeping it financed and functioning.

Actually helping the budget is the sequester, which made more-or-less across the board cuts in non-discretionary spending.  However, while helping the budget it hurts some and irritates others in the process.  With the reduction of air controllers, for example, there has been the expansion of airport lines and waits on tarmacs.  Ah, but today I heard about some bill making its way through congress to alleviate that situation by moving funds from somewhere else.   Ever hear of that old expression “borrowing from Peter to pay Paul?”  Ad hoc government is becoming our specialty.

The next big ad hock decision will be raising the debt ceiling again.  I have been saying that would come around late May, because the legislative deal in January indicated May 19.  But it turns out it also allowed Treasury  “extraordinary accounting measures to help delay hitting the ceiling”… so early August seems the time for the next shoot out at the OK Corral.   The Republicans have been developing a bill in the House this week aimed to shore up their position for the upcoming battle.

Gun Control:   I realize the issue is often talked about as “gun safety” these days,  so as not to rankle gun owners, but I’ll stick with “control” for now.   Everyone knows the Senate failed to pass a background checks bill despite numerous polls indicating nearly 90% of public approval.   President Obama has been blamed by some for not twisting enough arms to get the bill to the House, but as I argued in an April 12 post, that’s not who he is.

Perhaps he could stretch his norm, but why do it just to get the bill to the House where it will go nowhere?  I believe that as congress is now constructed (both in terms of people and procedures), very little of consequence will get passed before 2014.  But a “paper trail” will be developed for the 2014 mid-terms and Republican general recalcitrance might, just might alienate enough voters to tip the House back into Democrat hands and in turn the possibility of a functioning congress again.    With that in mind, this gun control setback might actually aid a later election win, if we can believe the overwhelming support for background checks in the polls.

Immigration:  Some sort of integration deal might come to pass because elements in both parties see it as advantageous to themselves.   The question is, assuming a bill gets out of the Senate, whether the Tea Party types in the House will be strong enough to stick a monkey wrench into any deal.  Will Speaker Boehner be willing and able to garner enough Republican support to combine with the Democrats to get something passed?  A column by Dana Milbank yesterday provides some insight as to how hard it is for House leadership to marshal the Republican troops.

So ends this thumbnail report on our creaky ship of state.

The Obama Way: The Politics of Being Reasonable

Barack Obama

Barack Obama (Photo credit: jamesomalley)

You wouldn’t want President Obama with you at a Mexican marketplace to talk down a merchant for a better price on a leather belt or a piece of pottery.  He wouldn’t want to start bargaining by beginning with a low ball offer in order to eventually settle with a good deal.  It wouldn’t be reasonable.  It’s not his way.  It’s not who he is.

His “way” often did not work well for him in his first administration, either, as he always worked for some kind of compromise on budget issues that would seem to a majority of us as more or less reasonable.  Some combination of spending cuts and tax hikes.

Politics usually revolves around leverage not reason, so political calculation often depends on making a convincingly do-or-die “immovable” line in the sand, so as to leave room for movement towards compromise later.  Each side does what’s reasonable only when they can’t think of something better.   In the traditional tug of war of deal making, Obama gave up lots of ground at the start, encouraging the Republicans to demand  even more making any kind of compromise impossible (*1).

However, this presidential term the Obama way is working better.    It is working better because he is playing both a small game and a big one at the same time.   An example of the small game is the gun control issue.   While a poor bargainer, Obama is a great campaigner.   The gun issue has been been turned into a well coordinated campaign, keeping the flame of Sandy Hook Elementary School alive in our collective consciousness.

Due to a Tuesday compromise agreement on background checks by a Sens. Manchin (D) and Toomey (R), there is a possibility that something akin to that will actually make its way through congress.    Still unlikely, but possible.  If  it does, it will be a success for Obama.  If it fails it will be one more indication of Republican inflexible resistance to being reasonable.  Prior to “the agreement”, 14 Republican Senators threatened to filibuster any gun legislation that would be brought up, despite not knowing what it might be, an example of how they contribute to this image.

Being the party that is inflexible and uncompromising is the image many Republicans want to change.   Meanwhile Obama’s big game is to engrave that obstructionist image ever deeper in our minds by the 2014 mid-term elections.   You can see it in everything he does.

In response to criticism that he held himself aloof from congress in his first term, he has been hosting dinner parties, like the one a couple of days ago for 12 Republican Senators.  How reasonable.  Also, he has a new budget out that aims at the center, angering some in his own party because of some cuts to entitlement programs, but it seems reasonable to many others like myself.   He has made some concessions to the Republicans, but they continue to want much more, seeming unreasonable in the process.

While I think Obama overplayed his hand regarding the pain the sequester will cause, it will hit home to more and more Americans in upcoming months and Republicans will likely be blamed more for that than Democrats, who were generally willing to scrap the agreed upon across the board cuts.

In short, I believe Obama’s way is working these days, likely to prompt small victories like some changes in gun control, or provide further proof of Republican intransigence when his reasonable proposals are rejected.   As such, even if Obama  suffers numerous setbacks in his agenda he might profit enough from adding new layers of paint to the Republican obstructionist image, so that the elections of 2014 will give the Democrats the control of the House back.

Enough of us might be sick enough of political gridlock by 2014, yes even in red districts and states, to put congressional control back in Democrat hands (*2).  As long as they seem much more reasonable than their opponents.  The Obama approach reminds me of an old boxing saying:  “If the right hand don’t get you, the left hand will.”

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(*1)  To say Obama weakened his chances to reach a bargain by starting close to the middle does not exclude the possibility that the Republicans would have found reasons to resist any kind of compromise.   Recall the 2011 Republican presidential primary debate in which all eight candidates indicated they would not accept a deal of 10 dollars of spending cuts in exchange for one dollar in raised taxes.   With a mind set like that, where is there room for compromise?  If you have trouble recalling that event, click this link for a refresher course.

(*2)  Given gerrymandered congressional districts which favored Republicans in the last election, my argument may seem shear fantasy.   But the Republican party seems as fractured these days as Humpty Dumpty.   And I don’t see a way  for them to put the pieces back together.    They are not exactly big tent kind of folks.  They will muster support around their various little tents instead.  I think that lack of unity will help Democrats in 2014.

Gun Control Politics

My post last Friday was prompted by the scheduled appearance of both David Stockman and Paul Krugman on This Week with George Stephanop0lis two days ago.   Just as I thought, the aforementioned pair of fiscal authorities could agree upon little.  The points of difference deserve consideration, but there is no need to rush.  If you’d like to see that discussion again or for the first time, it can be found clicking here.

English: John McCain official photo portrait.

English: John McCain official photo portrait. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Displacing that discussion today is that of gun control legislation, which is the hot topic in the Senate this week.    You probably have heard that families of the Newtown victims have flown to Washington aboard Air Force One to lobby for gun legislation, something they did very successfully to toughen Connecticut gun laws.   They will be visiting Senators with photos of their slain children and….  well, I don’t know, but I figure we’ll see some dramatic confrontations on the news.

I imagine the Newtown folks will concentrate their efforts on 14 or 15 Republican Senators who have threatened to filibuster any gun legislation that Speaker Reed will bring up, though it is not clear at the moment exactly what that legislation will be.  For one thing,  Pat Toomey (R) and Joe Manchin (D) are still working on some compromise on background checks.   If they can agree, perhaps some deal  can be reached.  Perhaps, but then let’s not forget there is still the Republican dominated House to deal with, the place where bills go to die.

So, why are 14 or 15 Republican Senators threatening to filibuster legislation that even if passed in the Senate will require a miracle to get through the House?   That’s what some Republicans/conservatives , such as Senator John McCain and columnist Charles Krauthammer, have puzzled over.   “What are they afraid of?” McCain has asked of his fellow Republican Senators.

Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post provides part of the answer when noting “Of the 14 (senatorial) seats that Republicans are defending in 2014, just one — Maine — is in a state that President Obama won in 2012.”  Given their constituents, allowing any air for gun  control to breathe now might negatively impact their chances of winning their primaries in 2014.    Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell is one of those who are up for reelection and has threatened to filibuster.

On the other hand, stifling gun control debate will further the image of Republicans as the party that is inflexible and unwilling to compromise, an image that some in the party are trying to reconstruct.    Given the roughly 90% national approval rating for improved background checks, it is not clear to me that dodging the gun control issue today will be as helpful in 2014 as these candidates seem to believe.

But the drama is just beginning, so let’s take our seats and watch.

State of the Union Afterthoughts

My first thought is I am glad I did not watch the speech, nor the Republican

United States Capitol

United States Capitol (Photo credit: lofaesofa)

two-headed response to it.  From reading the opinions of several commentators, it seems the most momentous part came near the end when the President made an impassioned plea to bring up votes in Congress regarding various gun control measures, passion  fueled by the appearance of families of shooting victims in the audience.

Given the intractable nature of federal politics  these days, I cannot disagree with the President’s tugging on the heart strings that remain raw in thoughts of Newton, Connecticut.  But I am not entirely comfortable with it, either.   It is a form of manipulation aimed at our hearts, just as Republicans try to manipulate us with fear aimed at our guts.

Republicans, like Lindsay Graham, always want us to imagine the worst case scenario, the lone woman at home protecting her children who may need an AR15 semi-automatic rifle in case she faces a virtual army of invaders.  In contrast the Democrats want us to never forget those little children cut down in such an incredibly merciless way.  They want to keep that memory burning, so Congress does not remain stuck doing nothing about it.

While I have qualms about playing upon emotions in both cases, the Newton massacre was real (as what happened in the movie theater in Aurora, Colorado and to Gabby Giffords in Arizona, and…), while Graham’s example is imagined, referring to his general sense of what took place during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992.  In the Senate judiciary committee he referred to roving gangs pillaging and raping, which those who have studied the issue have called “political theater (*1).

We can all easily imagine the worst. That’s what makes playing upon fear so powerful.   And why a simple answer like more guns for the good guys is attractive, until you think more about it as I did in a previous post.

It is much harder to imagine children becoming safer at schools because of less direct steps, like more and better background checks and cracking down on inter-state gun trafficking.  Over time they seem likely to be safer, but not for your child today, and who is to say just when?

Fear tends to have a longer shelf life than love, and its fires more easily fanned and its solutions clear cut, albeit dubious.  For this reason I accept the constant drum beat of “remember Newton”, beat through our hearts to our souls as it will be needed over time to win over the right’s incessant fear mongering.   For something to happen in our largely dysfunctional Congress, the fire of compassion must be stoked hot to overcome the fire of fear constantly fanned by the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and acceded to by Republicans  like Lindsey Graham.

In these next four years it strikes me we will see no more bi-partisanship in Congress than we did in the last four EXCEPT when one side of any proposal can  accumulate sufficient leverage to force opponents to get something done, as little and infrequent as that may be.

In this case the leverage will hinge upon who has the passion to fight hardest and longest.

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(*1)  According to Wikopedia, those riots left 53 dead and over 2000 injured, but Graham takes that scenario and then implies gangs invading homes and pillaging and raping.  Two researchers of those events call his comments “unfounded hyperbole” or, as mentioned above, “political theater.”   In referring to those riots, Graham said:  “What if there’s an earthquake out here and there’s a lawless situation,” the kind of argument regularly made by Wayne LaPierre and other survivalists.

Reducing Gun Violence: What Will Work?

Don’t ask me.  I only know that Wayne Lapierre’s NRA vision of armed guards on every corner is a bad idea as I argued in my previous post.  Trying to digest all the elements involved in reducing gun violence makes me feel sick.  It is like trying to eat a huge meal when you are not even hungry.

ATF inspector at a federally licensed gun dealer

ATF inspector at a federally licensed gun dealer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Only one thing seems clear.   We have two fundamentally different approaches to reducing gun violence.  One represented by the President relies primarily on background checks, research on gun violence  and gun restrictions.  The other  represented by the NRA’s Lapierre relies on more guns and less restrictions on their availability.   I think of it as a return to the wild west.  I know, these more guns are supposed to be in the hands of “good guys,” but since Lapierre is against background checks, how would we have a clue who is who?

The NRA has quietly been winning this battle of beliefs for a couple of decades  – prior to the Sandy Hook massacre polls showed an American inclination for less gun control not more – and without the uniquely powerful reaction most of us had to six and seven year olds riddled with bullets that day, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now.

The NRA has successfully worked for years  nationwide like termites in the wood work to push their “free the guns” agenda in state governments, city councils and of course Congress.   From this perspective one can see why they accuse Obama of  offering a “radical” response to this recent tragedy.  It is radical to them because it opposes all the gains they have made in the opposite direction.

Right wingers like Rand Paul are saying Obama has a “king complex” after he issued numerous executive orders related to gun violence the other day.  One of the king’s decrees was the radical step of authorizing the Center for Disease Prevention to do research in this area again, including the impact of video games and violent images, which I imagine Rand Paul would like if the research was restricted only to the last two topics.  And Obama hadn’t suggested it.

Back in 1996, the NRA managed to marshal enough congressional support to forbid the CDC from doing any more studies on gun violence.  Apparently they did not welcome studies with conclusions like this:   “Homes with guns had a nearly three times greater risk of homicide and a nearly five times greater risk of suicide than those without, according to a 1993 study in the New England Journal of Medicine.” (Slate).

Another example of the NRA termites at work is a 2005 Florida law that expanded the right of self-defense, beyond a person’s home as described in the Washington Post.  No longer was it only acceptable to kill an intruder in your home, but anyone who intruded in your space anywhere.  “A part of the law, the “stand your ground” provision, gained national attention after the 2012 fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed teenager.”   Soon after the law’s passage, the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council adopted the Florida bill as a model for other states.  ” Since then, about two dozen have passed a version.”

In short, while the NRA acts like President Obama has declared war on gun owners, in reality he is finally mounting a defense of common sense gun laws steadily eaten away by the NRA for years.

Sandy Hook changed all that as I asserted in a previous post.   There is a deeper passion in more people to find ways to reduce gun violence than before, and not along the lines of the right wing vision of a return to the wild west.  However, the NRA has their own passion as well as money and organization. As that Washington Post article states:    “With an e-mail alert system designed to target its 4.2 million members, the NRA can mobilize hundreds of gun owners in every community on short notice to turn out at a committee hearing or a city council meeting.”

The NRA has staunchly and steadfastly defended their positions.  This is not a battle easily won, but a war that will be fought over time.  It remains to be seen whether the spirit of Sandy Hook will prove equal to that of those who feel any kind of restrictions on what they deem their gun rights is a mortal sin.

In Guns We Trust: The NRA and the Illusion of Security

The Biden Commission gave several recommendations to reduce gun violence to the President yesterday and I doubt any of them will please  Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president.   As you probably have heard, his plan is more simple and direct:  The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.   His idea is to put a well trained good guy guard with a gun in every school in America.  This is a textbook example of the notion that for every complex problem there is a simple solution – and it’s wrong.

English: Columbine High School in Columbine, C...

English: Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you think about it, it’s also absurd.  I admit, the thought of being defenseless before a vicious shooter grabs my gut and makes me want to have a gun.  And the thought of having children in a school defenseless before such a killer makes me want to put a “good guy” with a gun in that school.  However, even if that sounds good, reality is more complicated and likely to get in the way.

For one thing, the good guy might panic and do more harm than good.   In violent conflict mistakes are made.  In the military it’s called death by friendly fire.  Even if well trained,  a security guard in most schools is not going to be ready to do battle like a tactical squad member or even a regular policeman.   He or she is not likely to be ready to handle the sudden onslaught of a killer out of nowhere.  After all, the vast majority of schools have never experienced this kind of violence and are not likely to, so how would the guard keep his or her edge?

There have been less than 400 shooting incidents in American schools at all levels over the past 20 years, a large majority with only one death or injury.  Just for a point of comparison, over that time we’ve had between about 85,000 and 100,000 public secondary and elementary schools leaving aside post secondary and private schools.  That means that even as things have been, well over 99% of our schools have never experienced this kind of tragedy over the past 20 years, and only a relative few of them had guards.

Under Lapierre’s plan we would need to hire at least 100,000 guards at – what? – maybe they’ll work cheap out of public spirit – so we’ll pay each 30k.  Isn’t that three billion dollars a year?  If we are going to spend three billion on measures to reduce gun violence, is this what we want to bet our money on?   Even if we already had all these guards in schools, do we really have much sense of what good they would do, since only a small fraction would have faced an attacker?

Take Columbine High School as a case in point.   It illuminates how messy reality can get and how hard it is to assess the value of having an armed guard.   Columbine had an armed security guard assigned by the Jefferson County police department when Eric and Dylan, the two classmate killers rampaged through the school.  If that security guard had been at the “A”-period school lunch per usual, he might have had an impact on stopping them…  Maybe.

On this day, however, he didn’t like the teriyaki on the menu, so he went out to get a sub instead and was eating in his car outside when all hell broke lose.   He acquitted himself well exchanging fire outside with the two boys who had hoped to blow up the school and watch the show from their cars.  The problem was  their many homemade bombs largely fizzled.  So they went in with their guns while exchanging fire with the guard.

It has been argued that the boys might have done even more damage without that armed guard thereThat seems reasonable, but not in keeping with the facts.   From my reading of Columbine, which thoroughly covers the event and people involved, the guard remained outside the building as did the police when they arrived employing a policy of containment.   What stopped the boys from killing more is their suicides, not the guard and not even the police, who were criticized for not entering the school sooner.  By the time the tactical squad members actually found the boys they had been dead for about three hours from self-inflicted wounds.

Of course, if the lunch special was different that day and the armed guard was in the cafeteria per usual, he may have saved lives, but the key word here is MAY.  He may also have been gunned down, or in the confusion might have shot innocent kids.  The place was pure chaos, with smoke and fire from partially exploded bombs and most of the kids and staff in total shock.  This would not have been clear cut like the gun fight at the OK Corral.  Once you replace Lapierre’s probability – a good guy with a gun will likely help – with the notion of various contingencies that reality might fling at us, you begin to see anything might happen.  Whether there is an armed guard on duty or not. 

The killers’ plan wasn’t to mow people down in the school with their guns. The dud bombs were to be the main event.  They placed close to one hundred of them around the school.   Fortunately they didn’t wire them right.  The guns were to finish off those who survived the bombs and themselves.

The power of Wayne Lapierre’s vision is that we feel better when we imagine a  good guy with a  gun at least having a chance at stopping the bad guy (most mass  shootings are done alone).  It makes us feel we are doing something to protect our children, but having background checks and restricting the sale of semi-automatics and large magazines would be doing something, too.  In the Columbine case, background checks and restricted sales may have made a bigger contribution to reducing violence than the guard, as three of their four weap0ns were bought at a gun show with no questions asked.  Or the boys might have obtained more guns elsewhere.   But, again, the armed guard turned out to be no sure thing, either (*1 ).

In conclusion, let’s  imagine Lapierre’s best case scenario over time.    Let’s say we hire a guard for all the schools that don’t already have them (though of course schools who do already have them would get money, too).  And these guards acquit themselves amazingly well, like commandos repulsing the relatively small number of vicious invaders.   Will we celebrate then?

Don’t you think future killers will see that and pick off the kids on buses or in parks or shopping malls?  They don’t have to go into schools to find plenty of kids to kill.  Kids are everywhere.  Lapierre’s full vision leads to placing armed guards on almost every corner.   Is this the future we want for America?

One based on an illusion, perhaps even a delusion, of security.

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(*1)  It seems the best chance of stopping these killings was for the police of Jefferson County to follow up on complaints that Dylan was threatening to kill a former friend and that he was making bombs.   Thirteen months prior to the slaughter, an affidavit was filled out but a search warrant for Dylan’s house was never issued.   That seems to remain a mystery according to the author of Columbine, Dave Cullen.   What isn’t a mystery is that local officials covered this up for nearly five years in classic “CYA” fashion.