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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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.

Joe Scarborough, Newtown and the NRA

I am waiting for the public statement from the NRA in response to the

National_Rifle_Association

National_Rifle_Association (Photo credit: ChrisWaldeck)

Newtown murders.  According to Joe Scarborough on Morning Joe, so is the Republican Party.   Joe is the lone conservative show piece at MSNBC, usually surrounded by liberals each morning, including his C0-host Mika Brzezinski  in case you don’t know.   I have mixed feelings about his opinions, especially that time when he repeatedly said that “they hate us” apparently referring to Muslims worldwide.  I thought that was a bit simplistic.  I tape the show and often fast forward when Joe is talking.

But I give him credit for often criticizing the current Republican Party for fashioning “a brand” that is attracting fewer buyers every day.   Over the course of the election, his reaction to the Republican campaign was often a head scratching response to disarray:  “What are they doing?”

That is also his reaction to the Republican silence regarding the Newtown massacre.  He had invited a “Republican leader” to appear on his show, but that person declined.  He wanted to wait for the NRA announcement today, which says a lot about the weight the NRA carries within the party.

Joe described  well the fundamental resistance by NRA zealots to control semi-automatics and large ammunition clips, the usually unstated fear that eventually the federal government will become so oppressive that armed rebellion will become necessary and they want to be armed and ready.

As Scarborough put it:  The Republicans “are afraid of a small fragment of NRA members who believe the federal government is coming to kick down their doors, kill them and seize their property.”   It is important to keep that in mind when considering this issue.  That attitude cannot be reasoned with, especially because it often remains unstated.

That is the hard core nub of resistance to gun control, but there are  lighter layers of resistance not so politically extreme but still strong.  Many NRA members see the matter as a slippery slope that will lead to an ever increasing limitation on gun rights.  For those wanting to change gun laws, I think it useful to understand the somewhat varied expressions of resistance by gun advocates.

Below are two stories by Washington Post reporters that help illuminate the issue from the perspective of various “gun lovers”.  Not surprisingly, gun sales are booming right now, given gun owner fears of future restrictions.   This report stems from interviews at a gun dealership in North Carolina.  And this report resulted from  a visit to the NRA Museum in Virginia.

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Since writing the above I have watched the statement made by Wayne Lapierre of the NRA.  If you have any sense of the NRA, it would be easy to imagine what he proposed.  Referring to Newtown, he said that no one has raised the most important question of all:   How do we protect our children today And his impassioned answer was to put an armed security guard in every school in America as soon as possible while also taking to task the violent nature of our movie and video game culture.   That was basically it, except for a few protesters who made themselves heard and seen here and there.

He did not take questions by reporters, but will be on Meet the Press with David Gregory this Sunday and he said next week NRA representatives will be available to comment on his proposal and answer questions.

I will wait to comment as well as I want to think about the issue more and read reactions from others.   By the way,  I will not post this Tuesday, as it is Christmas, but will return next Friday.  

More Gun Control or More Gun Fights at the OK Corral?

The Aurora Colorado killings have focused media attention on gun control and gun violence which is always the case following a killing spree by a deranged soul.  This has prompted a lot of “soul searching” in the words of Fareed Zakaria on his  Global Public Square show this past Sunday morning.  He wants to move past the soul searching and come to terms with “the fact” that we have so much more gun violence in this country than in most others because we have so many more guns.

English: This is the semi-automatic civilian v...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

En route to making his point, he dismisses David Brooks’ argument in a NY Times column last week, that when it comes to these mass killers “it is about psychology, not sociology”.   Brooks, a  supporter of gun control laws though conservative,  argues these killers are uniquely deranged and “if they cannot find an easy way to get a new gun, they’ll surely find a way to get one of the 200 million guns that already exist in this country.  Or they’ll use a bomb or find another way.”

Zakaria sees it differently:  We have no more “nut cases” than other countries, but many more guns, so we should have better gun laws.   Though I respect them both I mostly agree with Brooks and not with Zakaria.

Zakaria conflates two issues that should be kept separate.   One is overall gun violence and the other is killing-spree violence.  We certainly do have a huge amount of guns in private hands,  an eye-popping estimate of  250 million to 270 million.  That’s nearly one for every American (estimated to be about one-fourth of privately owned guns world wide)(*1).   Of course, some of us have many and many of us (including me) have none, but around 50%  of households report owning a gun.

Since our gun related death rate is  around 20 times that of England/Wales, which has relatively few privately owned guns, one imagines a connection to overall death rates.  But there seems no clear cut connection to mass killings.    An article in the conservative National Review describes numerous incidents in several European  countries that have much stricter gun laws than ours, including England.   While making it tougher for the demented to  stockpile guns and ammunition makes sense  –  like keeping sharp objects away from children – Brooks may be right that these safeguards will seldom be enough to deter the diabolically demented.

As for the effectiveness of gun control, the facts are not as clear as Sakaria seems to think.  Justice Steven Breyer is a liberal justice on the Supreme Court who was on the losing end of a 5-4 decision that struck down a Washington D. C. gun control law.   Even so, after Breyer surveyed the vast body of empirical research on the effectiveness of gun control he concluded, “The upshot is a set of studies and counter-studies that, at most, could leave a judge uncertain about the proper policy conclusion.”

If, after a careful study of the issue,  Justice Breyer is uncertain about “proper policy conclusions” when it comes to gun control, shouldn’t all of us who know much less, be careful about jumping to our own conclusions?

Also, rather than more gun control,  studies show an increasing public support for less.   Many have bought into the NRA’s idea that the only real prevention is for each of us to pack iron ourselves.    In Colorado more than in most states.  Last March the  Colorado Supreme Court struck down the University of Colorado’s campus gun ban, saying the CU Board of Regents overstepped its authority in blocking students from carrying licensed concealed weapons.

Tied to that, it has been argued by those on the right that one armed innocent at the theater in Aurora may have saved many others (of course, another imaginable scenario is that the  armed innocent could have  panicked and started firing wildly adding to the carnage.  Also, how do we know whether someone in the the theater did carry a gun but just froze?).

Of course, the distinctions I have tried hard to make may all prove irrelevant in terms of the foreseeable future.   Recognizing the public’s leaning towards less, the Democrats have little enthusiasm for more gun control.  And, though Obama made a statement in support of another assault weapons ban in a recent speech, I don’t take it seriously (*2).   It is simply more political rhetoric to appeal to his base.   Nothing will come of it if he is re-elected.  There are too many bigger fish to fry.

The NRA has won the gun control debate for the time being.  Of course, given the increase of gun toters, one day we will  have a real shoot out like that of the OK Corral, and who knows if the innocents who are packing will act like heroes or panic and make things worse.   I just hope that the NRA’s  gun-use training programs are really good, as I do not have confidence in the ability of the average gun toter to handle things well if suddenly confronted by a well armed demented sort who doesn’t give a flying  “F” what will happen to him or anyone else.

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(*1)  One stat that troubled me in Zakaria’s report was his indicating that Americans own  50% of the world’s  privately held guns.    The information I have found indicates around 25% in 2007, and I can’t imagine it doubling in the past five years.  I think Zakari’s staff just got it wrong.

(*2)   The nature of “assault weapons” seems misconstrued by gun control advocates.  They are not automatic weapons, which are outlawed already, and fire only one shot with a squeeze of a trigger, not many, though they do fire faster than other non-automatics.   They can be fitted with magazines that hold numerous bullets, but that’s true of some other guns as well.  One source of confusion is that what are dubbed assault weapons usually look like they are automatic.   The photo above is an example of that.  And some are knock offs of actual automatic weapons, but without automatic firing capacity.