Tag Archives: gun control

The Real Lesson from Oregon

Recently, the Guardian ran an article about Oregon’s successful effort to tighten its gun laws. It was interesting to learn about the state’s strategies and players–but the real lesson wasn’t about controlling access to guns.

It was about enabling democracy and facilitating–rather than suppressing–the vote.

In 2014 during Oregon’s midterm elections, the NRA poured cash into the coffers of pro-gun candidates, and a coalition of opponents poured money into the campaigns of anti-gun candidates. According to Everytown, which is backed by billionaire Michael Bloomberg, it alone funneled $600,000 into the state. The NRA made phone calls, sent mail, urged its members to contact their legislators. In the meantime Everytown bought ads on television and online.

That’s when the effort in Oregon reached its third step. “If you ask people about ‘gun control’, they might say they don’t like it. But if you ask people about specifics, like assault rifles or background checks, they’re overwhelmingly for it. People want change,” Okamoto said. “So we put the vote in their hands.”

It’s simple to vote in Oregon, which holds all elections by mail. When residents apply for drivers’ licenses they are automatically registered to vote, and about three weeks before an election they receive a ballot in the mail. They fill it out at home and send it back. “It’s so easy,” Okamoto said.

For years, pundits and politicians alike have bemoaned the reality that the NRA can–and does–prevent legislators from responding to the huge majorities of Americans (including a majority of NRA members) who favor stricter controls over gun purchases. But they’ve never connected the dots.

If we want policies that reflect public sentiment, we have to allow the public to express that sentiment at the ballot box.

In a constitutional democracy, there are certainly things we don’t vote on. We are not a pure democracy, and “majoritarianism” is–and should be–tempered by the protections of the Bill of Rights and the Rule of Law.

But in those areas where legislation should reflect the public will, we should be facilitating the expression of that public will–not suppressing it.

Oregon’s vote by mail system and other measures making voting easier rather than more difficult deserves to be emulated elsewhere.


Us versus Them–Again

More and more, I find myself mulling over the question posed by Rodney King in the wake of his horrific beating at the hands of the L.A.P.D. and the ensuing riots: “Can’t we all get along?”

Evidently, we can’t.

On Saturday, a jury in Florida acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the killing of Trayvon Martin. As a recovering lawyer, I am not prepared to argue with the jury’s verdict; for one thing, I didn’t watch the trial, and for another, there are elements of a crime that must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in order to justify a conviction. From the bits and pieces I did see, it appeared that the prosecution was struggling to prove Zimmerman had the requisite criminal intent.

But while it may be possible to absolve Zimmerman of legal liability for Martin’s death, his moral culpability—and what it tells us about human behavior in the presence of difference—is quite clear.

From all accounts, Zimmerman was one of those pathetic wanna-be macho types that women and gay men, especially, encounter all too frequently. He’d wanted to be a police officer, and had been rejected on more than one occasion—something for which we should all feel grateful. He evidently compensated by “packing heat” (feelings of inadequacy are an all-too-common reason for brandishing a firearm) and by participating in his neighborhood watch, where he could exercise an authority he did not otherwise possess.

In the television interviews that followed the shooting, he displayed an embarrassing self-righteousness. This was not an individual who appeared self-reflective, or even remorseful about taking the life of an unarmed teenager whom he had voluntarily stalked, despite being told by the police dispatcher to “go home and let us handle it.”

Zimmerman saw Martin as someone who  “looked suspicious.” I think it is too facile to assume this was all about race, although it’s hard to believe that race did not play a role. Martin was dressed differently. He “didn’t belong” on the turf that Zimmerman evidently believed was his to protect. His difference and his very presence was a challenge. And so Zimmerman provoked an entirely unnecessary and ultimately deadly confrontation.

The parallels to attacks on gay men are striking.How many times has a homophobic attacker defended his resort to violence by insisting that he was “protecting himself” from an unwanted advance? How often have we seen one of these insecure bullies try to prove his manhood by provoking a confrontation?

Friends who work with victims of domestic violence tell much the same story. The abusive spouse (usually, but not always, a male) is typically emotionally-stunted and insecure, a George Zimmerman type trying desperately to prove to himself that he’s a big, macho man.

None of us will live long enough to see a society without these deeply flawed individuals. We could take steps to make them less dangerous, beginning with reasonable restrictions on gun ownership, and laws imposing significant financial liability on firearm misuse. (If the homeowner’s “watch” group that enabled Zimmerman’s vigilantism had to pay civil damages, such groups would get serious about vetting and training their members.) Given the current political climate, such measures are unlikely, to put it mildly.

We have a long way to go before we all “just get along.”




Suddenly I Don’t Feel So Safe…..

Heartbreaking. Yesterday in Chicago, a fifteen-year-old was shot dead–evidently caught in the crossfire of a gang shoot-out. Just the week before, she’d been thrilled to participate with her school’s band in the Presidential inauguration. Like the children at Sandy Hook in Newtown, she was an innocent child who had her whole life ahead of her.

As we ate dinner last night, the television news reported on two other shootings. It also covered a portion of the Congressional hearing on the administration’s proposals for background checks and restrictions on the sales of large “magazines” that allow a shooter to rapidly fire multiple shots without reloading–including, poignantly, halting testimony from Gabby Gifford, the Congresswoman shot in the head in Phoenix while meeting with her constituents. The cost of her miraculous survival was on full display–this formerly vibrant woman is now partially blind, able to form words only with great effort, partially paralyzed.

A colleague shared with me an article from Slate, featuring a graphic and an interactive map of all the firearms deaths since Newtown. You can access it here. As of a couple of days ago, the toll stood at 1440. Just since Newtown.

Can we craft laws that will eradicate all this violence? No. Will background checks eliminate the ability of criminals to get their hands on weapons? No. In a country with a toxic gun culture and an estimated 300,000,000 guns, we aren’t going to be able to wave a policy wand and make it all go away. But surely, we can make it incrementally more difficult to kill and maim, to destroy lives and terrorize law-abiding citizens.

The survivalists (one of whom, the news just reported, has killed a school bus driver and abducted a young boy) and the paranoid see every modest measure to protect the public as part of a plot to disarm them. Newtown has had one salutary effect: it has pulled back the covers and given the American public a good look at that worldview, as expressed by Wayne LaPierre and his fellow crackpots at the NRA, and most of us–including responsible gun owners–have been understandably appalled. (Until now, like many other Americans, I had considered the NRA simply another lobbying group, rather than a cult. I was wrong.)

It shouldn’t take another Newtown, or the death of another promising 15-year-old, to shake well-intentioned lawmakers out of their complacency. As for those elected officials whose inaction has been purchased with NRA support, I don’t know about the rest of you, but I will no longer vote for a candidate who accepts campaign contributions from that organization.

Just because we can’t wave a magic wand and make everyone safe doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take reasonable measures to reduce the violence and mayhem. And “reasonable measures” do not include arming kindergarten teachers. It’s past time to stop the crazy.