History Lesson

In the wake of the most recent spate of killings in a high school in Florida we hear once again the tired mantra “guns don’t kill people, people kill  people.” The whole thing is brushed aside as a case of poor mental health. And while there is some truth in this, since anyone who walks into a school and starts shooting innocent teachers and students has to be clinically insane, it remains a fact that guns DO kill people and automatic weapons kill a great number of people in a very short time. Let us now hush the mantra and the mindless dismissal of real causes to consider the fact that there is hard evidence that tougher gun laws do, in fact, reduce the number of gun deaths. This has been shown in the case of both Japan and Australia.

Those who insist that the possession of an automatic weapon is a question of a Constitutional right guaranteed by the Second Amendment need to read that amendment closely and consider the fact it was designed to protect the right of the militia to bear arms and that for two hundred years after the adoption of the Constitution federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by the Second Amendment was limited in these two ways:

“.  . .first, it applied only to the keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of the states or local governments to regulate the ownership of firearms.”

These are the words of retired Supreme Court judge John Paul Stevens who has written a book about the six amendments we need to incorporate into our Constitution. He goes on to point out that it wasn’t until very recently, 2008 in fact, that the tough gun laws that had been passed in this country to deter, for example, the sale of sawed-off shotguns and tommy guns to ordinary citizens were weakened somewhat when the Supreme Court, by a vote of five to four, decided in District of Columbia v.Heller that the second amendment protects a civilian’s right to keep a handgun in his home (not a tommy gun or an automatic weapon) for the purpose of self-protection. Then, as recently as 2010, by another vote of five to four, the Court decided in McDonald v. Chicago that the Due Process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment limited the power of the city of Chicago to outlaw the possession of handguns by private citizens. Stevens was involved in the discussion of both of these cases and he dissented in each case. He notes that

“. . .nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacles to the adoption of preventive measures. . . . the Court had made it clear that even though machine guns were useful in warfare in 1939, they were not among the types of weapons protected by the Second Amendment because that protected class was limited to weapons in common use for lawful purposes like self-defense.”

In a word, Stevens reminds us that the Second Amendment was never designed to protect the presumed rights every Tom, Dick, and Sally to own and use weapons designed for warfare.  Stevens is convinced that the insertion of a brief clause in the wording of the Second Amendment might help clear this up. It would then read:

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

That brief clause would make it crystal clear that the Amendment was designed to protect the right of those chosen to defend their country — in our case the National Guard — and not everyone else who now incorrectly makes the demand to own and use automatic weapons. The likelihood that this amendment would pass this Congress is very near to zero — given their obligation to the NRA and the gun manufacturers who got them elected and threaten them with the withdrawal of funding in their next political campaign, coupled with immense support for their opponent. Nonetheless, as Stevens points out, the states could pass tougher laws with no restrictions whatever from either the Constitution itself or possible legal precedents. Moreover, even at the federal level:

“. . . the Congress’ failure to enact laws that would expand the use of background checks and limit the availability of automatic weapons cannot be justified by reference to the Second Amendment or to anything the Supreme Court has said about that amendment.”

It is assuredly the case that the availability of guns does not, in itself, remain the main cause of the insane spate off shootings in this country. Guns alone are not the sufficient condition, as logicians say, of the gun deaths. But they remain the necessary condition in that if there were no guns there could be no gun deaths. And while the right to bear arms for self-defense and the shooting of game might be seen as protected by the Second Amendment of our Constitution, the possession of automatic weapons clearly is not.

It is time, indeed, past time, that we stop all the mindless drivel and pass laws that will take the guns out of the hands of those who are, admittedly, not fully aware of what it is they are doing, by making it impossible for them to purchase automatic weapons at the very least.

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All In The Timing

In an interesting story on CNN recently, we are told about President Obama’s preparations for issuing an executive order that would address the issue of gun control:

Washington (CNN)As his administration prepares an executive order tightening access to guns, President Barack Obama met Wednesday with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a proponent of new gun laws who has become the chief enemy of the National Rifle Association.

Obama has met with a series of gun control advocates in recent weeks as his aides complete work on a potential order expected to expand background checks on gun sales by closing the so-called “gun show loophole.”

A timeline on the order — which has been tangled in legal and administrative questions — is still unknown. The President met with former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who was gravely wounded during a 2011 shooting in Tucson, Arizona, on December 4 to discuss gun control.

But even as he works to tighten access to firearms, a new survey shows dwindling support for an outright ban on assault weapons, which both Obama and Bloomberg have advocated as a means to prevent gun deaths.

Obama is meeting with Bloomberg because New York has fairly tough gun control laws, though, apparently, they have not yet been overly successful. In any event, the comment at the end of the above quote is of most interest. To be sure, there is the question of whether an executive order at this time that is not supported by a Republican Congress could have any effect whatever. But in addition to that issue, there is the question of timing.

Since the recent mass killings in San Bernardino there has been minor hysteria in this country about possible terrorist attacks here at home, hysteria encouraged by some of the loudest and most unconscionable of the Republican candidates for presidential office. The mood has shifted from the 90% of the people who supported some sort of gun controls after Sandy Hook to considerably less at this time. It would appear that many of those who would have supported Obama then are now having second thoughts. Perhaps they think that by buying an automatic weapon themselves they will be safer from terrorism.

Apparently they have not heard about probabilities. The likelihood of another attack like the one in California is extremely low and the likelihood that a family of four, say, would be safer by providing themselves with automatic weapons is even lower: the likelihood that there would be an accident with that weapon and that someone in the family might be shot dead is greater than the probability that there would be any danger from terrorists in the first place. This is not to say that there won’t be any more mass killings. In this country with hysteria the order of the day — encouraged by political candidates like the Trumpet and his ilk — there is every reason to believe there will be more such attacks. My point is that the purchase of weapons will not reduce that likelihood or make us any safer.

But more to the point, Obama missed the boat. He should have gone before the TV cameras with his considerable rhetorical skills and obvious charisma and asked the citizens of this country to flood their Congressmen with requests for stronger gun laws immediately after Sandy Hook — when there was such strong support for such a move. To be sure, with the NRA and its millions of dollars hanging about in the background in Washington any sort of gun laws are extremely unlikely. But at that time, the chances would have been much better than they are now with the thought of terrorism clouding the judgment of so many of our citizens. It’s really a question of timing, isn’t it?

Road Rage

Since we live in a very small town with very little in the way of grocery stores, my wife and I almost always drive to the larger (small) town of Marshall nearby. It normally takes us about 20 minutes because we like to take a county road that runs in a small river valley through which the Redwood River flows (more nearly the “Redwood Brook,” but folks in the Midwest don’t know about brooks). On our trips we are always alert for wildlife. A pair of eagles nests in the region year-round and we often see them and their offspring. We have also seen a great many deer, pheasants, wild turkeys, raccoons, box turtles on the pond (when it’s not dry), and the occasional snapping turtle. In addition, there is always a host of bird life. The trip, as I say, is supposed to take about 20 minutes but it can often take twice that long, depending on what’s going on in the river valley. We always come armed with binoculars and drive slowly through that area.

Not long ago we had stopped on the road to watch a group of wild turkeys. I must admit I had been driving very slowly and had failed to check my rear-view mirror because the turkeys were putting on a show and the road hardly ever has anyone else on it so traffic is seldom a problem — which is one of the reasons we take the road. But this time I was alarmed by loud shouting, including profanity, coming from a red pickup behind me that drove into the oncoming lane where the driver put down his cell phone and stopped to open his window and read me the riot act. Now bear in mind that this road is so seldom traveled that this man could sit there in the oncoming lane for 30 seconds or so to chew me out. He could have stayed longer.  But chew me out he did, to my everlasting humiliation and chagrin. I smiled and pulled out my AK-47 and shot him apologized, feeling sheepish and angry at one and the same time.

The point of this brief anecdote is to suggest that if I had an automatic weapon in my vehicle I can imagine myself sorely tempted to pull it out and at least threaten the man with it, which in retrospect would have been very stupid indeed.  He was being boorish and bellicose and my instinct was to respond in kind — and I am not a violent person. I don’t like confrontation and I wouldn’t ordinarily think about shooting a pheasant or a wild turkey, much less another human being. But he was way out of line, given the situation, and at that moment I could imagine doing just that. In fact, I can see why people who carry weapons use them and it makes me more concerned than ever that our gun laws are so lax and that so many people are not only able but eager to carry a loaded weapon with them wherever they go.  It doesn’t take a genius to predict that the number of gun deaths in this country will continue to escalate, to the dismay of those survivors who have to attend the funerals of their loved ones killed by a hand gun — and to the delight of the gun manufacturers who are reaping such huge profits from our collective stupidity, anger, and fear.

Knee Jerks

It was interesting to read the comments made by several conservative politicians after the shootings in Newtown insisting that we should avoid “knee jerk” reactions to the terrible events of that day — (trans: don’t pass anti-gun legislation). These comments were in line with the NRA hardliners who fear that there might actually be tougher restrictions about buying automatic weapons and hand guns after the latest terrible shooting event. The NRA, of course, has a vested interest in fighting off the restrictions since it is funded in large measure by the people who make the guns. (That seldom gets mentioned, strange to say — even though we are told repeatedly that the media lean precariously to the left.)

It’s not as though the shootings in Newtown are an isolated incident in this country, though. In fact, America has nearly twenty times the number of mass shootings as any other “developed” country in the world. There have been 31 school shootings in this country since Columbine in 1999 — mostly in high schools. But the Newtown shooting targeted very young children and this seems to have finally soaked into the brains of many who like to waive the second amendment in the faces of those who would cry “enough”! Many, but not all.

Reportedly gun sales were off the charts right after the shootings in Newtown when people rushed to stores like Walmart to buy weapons and gobs of ammunition — as we are told in this story in The Los Angles Times:

Calls for stricter weapons laws after the massacre at a Connecticut elementary school have gun enthusiasts scrambling to buy firearms before they’re restricted or banned outright.

Brownells Inc., which claims to be the world’s largest supplier of firearms accessories and gunsmithing tools, said it has sold 3 1/2 years worth of ammunition magazines in three days.

It’s quite possible that those sales resulted not from opportunism but from the fear running through the population as part of the aftershock from  the latest in a series of mass killings that seems finally to have gotten the attention even of the Congress — several members have come out against the continued sales of weapons that are not legal for hunting. A couple of those who spoke out are card-carrying members of the NRA! I dare say their membership will be revoked: members really aren’t allowed to make public comments suggesting that the purchase of automatic weapons may be an incredibly stupid idea.

I tend to lean toward the second explanation of the spike in the sale of guns and ammunition: I think it is fear. This is not the first time that fear has proven to be a powerful motivator. Conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich have used it as an effective motivator for years. And the liberal political fund-raisers are starting to use it as well. It works! In this case it may have resulted in another “knee-jerk” reaction, namely, the rush to buy automatic weapons — presumably to defend oneself against all the other maniacs out there who have rushed out to buy automatic weapons. It really is madness multiplied.

Speaking of knee jerks, it is heartening to read that Smith and Wesson’s stocks recently plummeted in the aftermath of the shootings in Newtown. Apparently investors see the handwriting on the wall: there may be tougher restrictions after all. We can only hope. But if there are tougher restrictions against the purchase of automatic weapons, hand guns, and/or ammunition clips that hold more than ten bullets that will be a very good thing — as long as the restrictions are accompanied by a buy-back of some (if not all) of the weapons already out there, not to mention the 3 1/2 year supply of ammunition that was sold three days. (It does boggle the mind.)

But after the dust settles, we really need to address the larger question: why is this culture so in love with violence? and why do we think that violence is the best way to address our problems — as individuals and as a nation?

Guns Kill People, Too

The mindless mantra of the pro-gun activists that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” ignores the data from other countries that suggest that tighter gun control would make guns less readily available and therefore reduce somewhat the ability of many to pull a gun when anger and frustration raise their heads. But then, as the activists are quick to point out, if a person is determined to kill someone he can always find a weapon. This is true, but trite. A baseball bat in the hands of a madman like the one who walked into Sandy Hook School could readily be turned into a murder weapon. Probably so, but it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to kill 26 people with a baseball bat whereas it took only a few minutes for Adam Lanza to fire off enough bullets to kill those kids, their teachers, and himself.

An excellent letter from a gun owner who hunts and defends the right to bear arms puts the issue in perspective. As a father of young children he now advocates some sort of gun regulation. His letter was written in response to the terrible events in Newtown and he asks that we try somehow to approach the matter calmly and reasonably. Heaven knows calm and reason have not been present at the table in this discussion so far. But it is refreshing to read comments made by a man who argues for the right to bear arms while at the same time he realizes the time has come for tighter gun control. He says in part:

I have never felt that my sporting arms were threatened by those who were calling for tighter regulations on gun sales and ownership – particularly when directed at cheap handguns and guns whose value as sporting arms was marginal or specious.  The fear of a slippery slope leading from common sense gun regulation to the loss of hunting firearms is a fear that the NRA uses to sell its political agenda.  It is false.  A gun is a tool like a hammer but unlike other tools, guns are designed and optimized to deliver projectiles for the purpose of killing efficiently.  In the context of hunting, this efficiency is needed to ensure that an animal dies as quickly and humanely as possible.  However, this is also the reason why the “guns don’t kill people, people do…” line of reasoning rings hollow.  One can kill another person with a hammer or with a car but that is not what hammers and cars are designed to do.  Guns are a special case and we should start by acknowledging that.

I must say I am not optimistic about the possibility that this Congress will pass any meaningful gun control legislation — given the immense power the NRA wields in Washington and their tendency to jerk their collective knee every time some maniac shoots someone and reasonable people start talking about trying to take measures to stop the madness. In fact, as we attempt to figure out why these terrible shootings happen we might also try to figure out why this country is so in love with guns and why even the suggestion that we stop the sale of hand guns and automatic weapons (which are hardly the weapons of choice for hunters) is so upsetting to so many people.  But perhaps the world-wide reaction to the atrocity in Newtown will finally result in sane heads taking command. One can always hope because this madness has to stop.

However, tighter gun control is clearly not the entire answer. We need to probe more deeply into causes, as I suggested in a recent blog. But it is a step in the right direction, and it is one we should have taken long before Adam Lanza stepped into that school-house in Newtown and started shooting young children.

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

There are a couple of excellent sources for checking the facts after political speeches and such “major” TV events as the current presidential debates. One of my fellow bloggers even gives a synopsis after the debates so we can see who told the biggest “whoppers.” This raises some interesting issues.

To begin with, both debaters tell falsehoods and half-truths and do so repeatedly. As one reads the fact checks one notes that while the facts have been checked before a number of the falsehoods are repeated even though the deception has been pointed out, perhaps several times. Strange. But more to the point is the obvious consideration that the average listener has no way to tell in the course of a debate or a political speech that a lie has been told or a half-truth has suddenly appeared from the politician’s hat. This is why the debates are so untrustworthy and leave us little else to go by except impressions. It really is all about theater — as I noted in yesterday’s blog. Consider the following fact check item:

Romney: It’s “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons”
The verdict: False
The federal ban on manufacturing some semi-automatic assault weapons that President Clinton signed in 1994 expired in 2004, and wasn’t renewed. There are other regulations and restrictions still in place — the National Firearms Act of 1934, the Gun Control Act of 1968, and the Hughes Amendment in 1986, says Brian Bennett at the Los Angeles Times. But ”fully automatic weapons — guns that fire continuously when the trigger is held down — are legal to possess in the United States.”

How many people listening to a rapid-fire (sorry!) debate will know enough to realize that one of the speakers just told a whopper? And he did so on a vital and controversial issue that many people care deeply about, one way or the other. The matter of gun control is a hot topic and as a general rule very few people who argue with one another in bars about this issue have bothered to gather the evidence and check on their “facts” beforehand. That’s to be expected. But one does not expect this from seasoned debaters like these two politicians. Romney told the lie noted above, but Obama didn’t call him out.

How many people know that the second Constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms is couched in language that makes it clear that the “right” is tied to a militia that was supposed to make it unnecessary to have a standing army? More to the point, how many people listening to this debate know that the federal ban on semi-automatic weapons was even signed in the first place, or by whom — much less that it expired in 2004? The central question here is whether or not this matters in the least. Will either of these men be asked to make important decisions on their feet? Does the quickness of their minds and a grasp of all relevantl facts really matter when important decisions will be made behind closed doors with well-informed advisers and time to reflect? Of course not. It’s about who presents himself better to the TV audience.

In any case what occurs in these events is that the politicians (all of them) have learned that if you say something with conviction and then repeat it often enough your listeners will accept it as true. The important thing is to have the “ring of conviction” in your voice and look the camera straight in the eye (as it were). It matters not whether what you say is true or false. No one “out there” knows what the hell you are talking about — and very few will bother to check the facts later on. So just let it go and let the (buffalo) chips fall where they may. Truth be damned: it’s all about getting elected!