Tuesday, January 01, 2013

A Sensible Middle On Gun Control and the Need To Go Deeper

I was horrified like everyone else by the massacre of 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut. But with everything that has been going on over the last few years, I was honestly not surprised. These events have unfortunately become routine in this society. Unfortunately, the debate on gun control has been dominated by the two, often emotional, extremes on either side. The sensible middle has been mostly absent from the discussion. This is my perspective as a pro-gun Progressive.

The anti-gun crowd points to the abundance of guns as the culprit. That is surely part of the problem, but it’s not the only issue causing the chaos. The lack of mental health services, parental support systems, combined with a cut-throat American style capitalist system where social safety nets are discouraged and those who need them are denigrated and shamed… shares most of the blame. The American system often leads to hopelessness with few, if any, options for getting out; whether its homelessness, joblessness, isolation, exploitation, addiction or mental illness. Federal and State funding for mental health services has seen a long and steady decline, along with other social services.

By all accounts, Nancy Lanza, the mother of the Connecticut shooter, was desperately seeking help and options for her son. By all accounts, she was unable to find that help in time. Why? Because we live in a system that has taken an increasingly “every man for himself” approach to governance and public policy. A nation built on collectivism.. and that has in fact experienced its greatest moments when taking collective action has suddenly suffered a bout of amnesia.

The effort to cut funding to social safety nets, including mental health services, has primarily been led by Republicans in Washington DC and in State legislatures across the country. This is why I found it extremely odd to hear Republicans suddenly supporting mental health services after the Connecticut massacre, when they spent much of the last 2 decades pushing for cuts in funding. It’s hard to take the Republicans seriously on that issue, not unlike the long list of other issues where they flip flop for political expediency.

The anti-gun pundits love to compare the U.S. to other Countries, particularly Canada and those in Europe, when examining gun laws. They fail to mention the differences in Constitutional law and gun culture and the fact that there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 million guns in the U.S. But the main point that they seem to miss is that there is a fundamental difference in the cultures, in terms of compassion, collectivism, safety nets, labor systems, etc. There is a fundamental difference in what people & governments from other nations consider important and thus a difference in national priorities. In France, for example, medical wellness visits (to your home) and parental support in child rearing are built into the system. There are certain public policy priorities. Something else that most Americans don’t realize is that several weeks of vacation are mandatory for workers in Europe. We have nothing like this in the United States because the system is different at the core. The fundamental priorities are different. In Europe, public health, wellness of citizens, education, children, and compassion are put at the top. Of course this is not and has not been the case in the United States. You wouldn’t have a mother in Europe unable to find services for her child, (adult child or otherwise). The American system failed Nancy Lanza…and has failed so many other families. So you can’t compare the U.S. with Canada or Europe just on the issue of gun control. I think you have to look at the broader differences in culture, governance, and public policy. This is part of the reason why you would not be able to solve the problems of gun violence in the U.S. simply by changing gun laws. A serious reduction in violence would require far more comprehensive and fundamental changes in American public policy priorities. The American system of ‘sink or swim’ or ’if you fall down…too bad’ just isn’t working. The economic competition, job insecurity, lack of legal employment options, and lack of safety nets leads to high levels of stress, fear and hopelessness in this Country. This often translates into violence, either as part of suicide, or drug gangs creating & maintaining their own economy and fighting for territory in the streets of Detroit, St. Louis, or Chicago. This fundamental difference in national public policy priorities has a way of trickling down. The results of America’s lack of people based, compassion based sensible public policy came trickling down on December 14th,   2012 for the world to see. When you have one system focused on people, compassion, and the collective greater good of society vs. one weighted heavily towards the interests of corporations and the wealthy… it is no wonder that there would be a difference in violence. Not surprising at all.

The lack of employment and social services were cited, at least in part, as motivating factors for the 2008 shooting rampage in the Unitarian Universalist Church in Knoxville Tennessee (no I will not mention the shooters name). Karthik Rajaram killed his family and then himself after falling into hopelessness when he couldn’t find employment and was faced with the prospect of not having a place to live. Income insecurity and the lack of a safety net to help him stand on his feet again and fight another day sent him over the edge. The case of Ervin Antonio Lupoe, who killed his entire family in 2009, also comes to mind. No safety net available for them (go read the chilling suicide note). A Texas mother killed her two children and then shot herself to death in a Laredo welfare office in 2011. Although she reportedly had mental and emotional problems, it was a lack of support and rejection of social services that set off her rampage. Despite coming to authorities for help several times and despite family members reaching out to authorities for help, no one could help this distressed mother. Her children fell through the cracks…like so many others have. This is happening all over the country with greater frequency. I am not justifying the actions of these perpetrators. I am pointing out that other factors are often at play in these incidents beyond the availability of weapons and that public policy priorities matter. No one wants to talk about it, but we don’t take care of one another in this country the way that we should. The role of government is also fundamentally different in the U.S. when compared to other western countries. There is a reason why these events are not as common in other industrialized countries… the lack of guns is not the only factor. Other western countries have civilized labor laws…and systems that don’t allow as many people to fall through the cracks and to fall into these black holes of despair and hopelessness. As long as the American capitalist system remains cut throat and as long as society and government puts the well being of big business over people, we will have these incidents, no matter what kind of gun laws are technically on the books.

The Connecticut massacre has unfortunately given rise to the extreme voices on both sides of the gun debate. Anti-gun liberals have been salivating over this…. Seeing the tragedy as an opportunity to push their agenda. On the December 23rd broadcast of the Chris Hayes program on MSNBC, I watched as urban mayors and anti-gun advocates foamed at the mouth about why we needed gun restrictions. See Video.  However, they seemed to miss the fact that there is a huge difference between urban gun violence and what took place in Connecticut. More gun laws for legitimate purchasers will have little impact on the underground gun trade in inner cities. More laws for me won’t make it more difficult for urban terrorists to wreak havoc in big cities. Their theory that banning guns will stop gun violence was put to the test in Washington DC and Chicago… their theory failed miserably in both cases. Gun violence went through the roof as urban terrorists had their way. Camden, New Jersey is another example. In a State (NJ) with some of the most restrictive gun laws in the country… you have a city where gun crime is completely out of control. Meanwhile, law abiding citizens have been left vulnerable. Citizens in Chicago had to sue for the right to protect themselves in their own homes. Absolutely ridiculous. Criminals (people who should not have guns anyway) commit most of the gun crimes… not law abiding citizens. Anti-gun advocates love to suggest that law abiding citizens are just as bad as the felons with guns. It’s simply not true.  These mayors should probably spend more time working on fixing the corruption in their cities.

The anti-gun agenda is typically pushed by those who don’t actually know much about guns and have no interest in protecting rights. Hearing terminology misused drives me crazy. The anti-gunners demonstrate their fundamental lack of understanding of guns and public policy at every level. Many anti-gun Democrats may not say it, but there is a certain segment of them who would really like to see an across the board ban on guns. They don’t believe that guns should be in the hands of anyone but members of the military and law enforcement. They don’t truly believe in the Second Amendment at all. This is why it is hard to engage them on any serious discussion related to sensible gun measures. They often put gun regulations on the table that have nothing to do with what happened in Connecticut. The reason is, there are many anti-gun advocates who really want to see an outright ban. They have another agenda. They are not interested in making guns harder to get for criminals while preserving the right of law abiding citizens to keep arms.

Another problem with the anti-gunners is that they suffer from this delusion that new gun laws will magically stop these massacres. This simply isn’t the case. What they (and the media) fail to mention is that any new assault weapons ban will allow existing owners of AR-15 style rifles to keep their weapons. They will be grandfathered in just as they were before. Talk of a ban will also lead to a huge spike in sales. In fact, there has already been a huge spike in gun sales in the days and weeks after the Newtown massacre. So the country will still have a tremendous number of “assault rifles” in the hands of citizens. They also miss the point that an AR-15 is not required for an assailant to cause considerable death and injury. The Virginia Tech shooter killed 32 and injured 17 with two handguns and skill at changing magazines, in what ended up being the deadliest school shooting in American history.

Anti-gun advocates are too fixated on “assault rifles” (which is broadly defined according to them). Ballistically there is no difference between an AR system and a hunting rifle. In fact, most hunting rifles are more powerful in terms of the bullet velocity that they can create as a result of the longer barrels. Both rifles fire in “semi-auto”. It’s often misstated that “assault rifles” are automatic rapid fire weapons. Automatic weapons are not available to the general public… and have not been for years. The difference lies in bullet capacity and magazine design (for those hunting rifles with magazines).

Something else that is annoying is the way that the anti-gun folks make no distinction between legitimate law abiding gun ownership and criminals with guns. Since many of them don’t believe in any form of legitimate gun ownership… they view any civilian with a gun as criminal. It’s no surprise that most of their policy proposals end up targeting legitimate gun owners more than the criminals who wreak most of the havoc. They have also made a serious effort to shame, denigrate and stigmatize legal gun owners.

On the other side of the argument you have another extreme. The far right pro-gun advocates want to arm teachers. Arming teachers is probably not the best idea. Fighting sensible gun regulation is not in the best interest of Conservative card carrying NRA members. Yet the NRA and its supporters still resist common sense measures.

I am an independent Progressive (not a Liberal) who supports the Second Amendment. However, I also support gun regulations that would make sense and that would actually make a dent in the problem. With that said… I enjoy going to the gun range to shoot. I have done so on a number of occasions and will continue to.

I think most of the proposals so far have been knee jerk reactions to the problem. Folks are using the tragedy in Connecticut to push agendas that they have wanted to push for a long time… They are agendas and ideas that don’t have much to do with what happened in Connecticut.

Why should we have the right to keep arms? People should not forget that Connecticut was ironically the State where one of the worst home invasions in American history took place in 2007.  Two men invaded the home of the Petit family and tortured them for 7 hours. The crimes included forcing Mrs. Petit to withdraw money from the bank, tying her and her two daughters to their beds and brutally raping them, beating the father nearly to death, and strangling Mrs. Petit as she begged for her life, finally choking her to death. The suspects then poured gasoline on the daughters (still tied to their beds after being raped) and set them on fire… burning them alive. The father was able to escape. This crime changed gun and death penalty politics in Connecticut (a fact missing from the current debate… no one has raised the issue of local Connecticut events).  People ask why Nancy Lanza had guns in the house… (as if it’s a crime to have guns in your home and that it is unusual). One in three American households have them. In the case of Lanza, in addition to being a gun enthusiast, she wanted to protect her home.

Another reason to have guns is because this is a legitimate sporting hobby that many Americans partake in. Whether it’s hunting or target shooting, this is a positive sporting activity. Anti-gun Democrats attempt to politicize, shame and stigmatize these activities so that fewer people take part in them. But these are largely positive activities.

Thirdly, I want the right to keep arms because I have no faith that the government will or even can protect me or take care of my best interests. Look at the clowns in Washington DC. You have a Congress that cannot even govern. Congress goes from one crisis to the next, and in many cases, it creates the crisis - like with the so called “fiscal cliff”. The inability of Congress to even function leads to things that harm ordinary people, like the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, a drop in the national credit rating (due to gridlock on the debt ceiling), and possibly another recession. Their inability to govern & to take care of their basic responsibilities contributes to economic distress and breakdowns in social order that lead to the need to protect yourself. Why in the hell would anyone want to give up their guns under these circumstances? The founding fathers would tell us that these are exactly the times that they had in mind when they thought about keeping arms (when government ceases to function properly and social order is under threat). The message that Americans have been getting over the last few years is that you can’t count on the government to protect you. You are on your own. It can’t even conduct normal business, let alone look out for your safety, interests & well being. In fact, I would say that they have been doing us harm. They can’t get anything done. Funny thing is, if we were to call something a “war bill” these jackasses in Congress would come together and vote for it. It would get overwhelming bipartisan support. These corporate shills love their wars (that includes the warmongering Democrats in the Obama Administration). So let’s just label everything “war bill”. That can’t be any worse than what we have going on now (nothing).

Hurricane Katrina should have been a wake up call to everyone. The government either won’t or can’t always protect you. When life or death is a matter of seconds, the police are only minutes away. I have been in public safety work for 20 years and work with sworn officers everyday in the same facility. I have mentioned before that in an emergency… there is about a 5-7 minute gap where you are on your own (that would be on a good day). About 2 minutes are lost just dealing with 911 dispatchers. That’s how long it takes them to process your call and get officers rolling to you. While you are desperately needing help, they may not understand the urgency and will ask you a litany of (often irrelevant) questions. It then takes officers 3-5 minutes to get to you. Plenty of time for an intruder to break in, do you harm or kidnap you and get away. If there is a natural disaster such as an earthquake and you need help, all bets are off. Emergency services may not be able to reach you for quite some time. If you want to rely on the government to protect you, feel free. But don’t slam those who want to take responsibility for their own safety or who want peace of mind.

I have recently learned what is contained in the legislation being offered by Senator Dianne Feinstein. There are a few good ideas in her proposal, but unfortunately she overreaches. The Feinstein Bill goes much further than the previous assault weapons ban. Feinstein’s plan would ban hundreds of rifle designs, including rifles used for hunting and competition. The Feinstein Bill would also grandfather current owners of “assault rifles”, however, the legislation would essentially stigmatize and criminalize these gun owners. Meanwhile, there would be little impact on gun crime in places like Chicago, St. Louis, Detroit and Camden. The Bill goes too far in some areas, and not far enough in others.

With that being said… there are some reasonable steps that could be taken to help reduce the number of incidents (won’t stop all mass shootings):

The following should be Federal Laws and could fix some of the holes left by the patchwork of different State laws.

1. Instead of going after “assault rifles” the focus should be on the capacity of magazines (for the reasons mentioned above). Another “assault rifle” ban would grandfather existing guns of that type, just as the last “assault weapons” bill did. It would not be very effective. A magazine ban could be enforced more efficiently, and would target the actual problem (capacity) without taking rifles from legitimate, law abiding gun owners. This would also allow sport shooters to continue their legitimate activities. There are also long guns that have a dual use, such as the M1A rifle. Some shooters use the M1A both for hunting and for defense/sports shooting. It’s an excellent rifle (military variant is the M14 which is popular with troops for saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan). Some shooters don’t want to buy several rifles… having a hybrid for two purposes makes more sense. Dealing with the magazines is the better choice. This would also take the argument away from the NRA. They would have a harder time arguing against magazines.

A. Limit magazine capacity to 10 rounds for rifles, and keep current manufacturer’s standard for semi-automatic handguns (12 for 45 ACP, 15 for 9mm, etc. Extended handgun magazines would be outlawed).
B. Have a mandatory buy back of older higher capacity rifle magazines.
C. Limit the number of magazines per weapon for both handguns and rifles. (4 seems reasonable). Without this provision, bad guys could simply carry more magazines and multiple weapons, defeating the purpose.

2. As a condition of ownership, guns must be properly secured in the home- The most important provision, which the media talking heads have not mentioned.

A. Guns and ammunition should be locked away, preferably in industry approved safes, with combination locks. GPS and alarm devices could also become part of the standard storage package.

B. Those found to be in violation of this provision -- if there is an accident or children access the weapon or if the violation is discovered during a law enforcement or Fire department inspection of an unrelated matter, the first offense should be a fine ($500-$1000). Second offense should be criminal charges/jail time and loss of gun privileges, perhaps permanently. If there is an incident where anyone other than the gun owner is injured (especially a child) due to the gun not being sufficiently secured, it would be automatic prison time and permanent loss of privileges (even if it’s the first offense).

3. All new gun owners must pass a standard safety course before taking ownership of a weapon. Existing gun owners could be encouraged to do so… but they would be grandfathered in, since most already have some training and experience in safety/proficiency.

4. Develop State-State reciprocity standard for Concealed Carry Permit holders, using the best, most comprehensive training as the benchmark. This would end CCW confusion and would either get rid of “stand your ground” or would make clear what self defense means for CCW holders. This would create a national standard.

5. Require background checks for all gun sales and transfers.
A. Federally Licensed Dealers (FFL’s) should act as middle men for private gun exchanges and should apply the proper gun checks.

6. Toughen laws for straw purchasers and put more funding into fighting this problem. This is actually a bigger problem than the “gun show loophole”.

7. Build on the current NICS system by tying in a mental health database.
A. Allow mental health professionals - psychologists, psychiatrists, licensed social workers and counselors to report (in secret) concerns about an individual to the federal firearms system. The professional should be protected from lawsuits or any other liability for reporting (or for not reporting - this is very important). Without a provision protecting mental health and social service professionals from lawsuits for not reporting, it would create a situation where they would feel obliged to report everything for fear of punishment if a client goes on a rampage. It would create a lot of grief and a lot of false positive alerts.
B. Mental health reporting should be based on a scale of 4 or 5.… with 1 or 2 not requiring action other than closer monitoring. A 1 or 2 could simply be someone who is temporarily taking anti-depressants but who otherwise has not demonstrated that they are a threat. For example, some recently pregnant mothers have to take anti-depressants temporarily. This may not require a loss of gun rights in of itself. Higher levels (based on threat level/ likelihood of violence/competence) would result in reporting to the federal firearms system. Existing gun owners (in extreme cases of mental disturbance) could be required to relinquish guns in their possession. Once a patient is well enough and a doctors review has been conducted, (in some cases) weapons can be returned. Law enforcement and mental health professionals should be responsible for developing such a rating and reporting system, based on the best science.

8. Increase funding for mental health services nationwide.

9. Reintroduce ‘The Terrorist Apprehension and Record Retention Act of 2005’. Tie terrorist watch list information to the gun background check. See what the Act would do (includes street gang affiliation too).  Republicans have fought against similar measures.  However, instead of an automatic denial, I would suggest putting a hold on the sale until further investigation. We know that the terrorist watch list often has innocent people, the wrong person, people mistaken for someone else, etc. Even Ted Kennedy was flagged at one point. Records of gun sales and transfers should also be kept for at least 10 years. A flaw in the Brady Bill allowed the destruction of records (supposedly to protect names going through the system. But names could be protected by making it private, secret, privileged information for law enforcement use only, not public record).

10. Establish a Federal gun registry. Currently there is inconsistency on registration requirements from State to State. In my home state of Missouri, for example, no registration is required. But in Illinois, a 30 minute drive away, they want your DNA (not quite in the literal sense… but the system in Illinois is quite extensive and highly regulated).
A. A Federal gun registry would erase confusion. All States would be able to enter information and have access to the registry. This would make it easier for authorities to track guns stolen from legitimate gun owners.

B. The Gun registry would be open to authorities for official business only. The information would be private, to protect the privacy of gun owners, and to protect their security. A newspaper in New York recently released this information to the public (although already considered public information, which it shouldn’t be).

C. Guns not registered could be confiscated and the owner criminally charged or fined.

11. Increase security at the nations schools.
A. Harden schools. Classrooms must have strong door locks, bullet resistant materials where feasible, and clear lockdown procedures.

B. Place more police, and armed security staff in schools and increase preparedness. This is not meant to be a magic fix…but should be part of a layered system. It should be part of a comprehensive approach to the problem.

12. Require background checks for the purchase of body armor by non-law enforcement, non-security personnel.

13. Limit the number of guns (any combination of handgun/long gun) per individual or household. 4-6 guns seems reasonable. Licensed hunters would be exempt from this provision. Other exemptions could be allowed on a case by case basis (legitimate competition shooters for example could be allowed an exemption).

A. Those with more guns would have to apply for a designation as a “collector”. Those wanting a collectors license would be subject to more scrutiny - an enhanced background check… renewable every 5 years or so.

14. Psychological exam for new gun buyers. There are a number of tests that could be used for this purpose. Tests could be issued by the FFL in the store. Testing could be short - 15-20 minutes. Or a buyer could simply bring a note from a psychologist to the FFL. Test results (even the doctors visit) would be kept secret. This would only apply to those buying guns for the first time.

Even if all of these provisions were implemented, there would still be mass shootings. There would be very little if any impact on big city gun violence.

9 Myths in the Gun Control Debate

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