Tag Archives: guns

Really Telling It Like It Is

A recent op-ed in the New York Times considered the passions of the gun lobby.

The column was written by Will Wilkinson, Vice-President for Research at the Niskanen Center. I first encountered Wilkinson’s writing when I was doing research for my most recent book;  I’ve been consistently impressed with his thoughtfulness and the quality of his various analyses.

The column was headlined “Why an Assault Weapons Ban Hits Such a Nerve With Many Conservatives,” and the sub-head was “The premise of Trumpist populism is that the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens matter more than democracy.”

Wilkinson began by describing the blowback encountered by Beto O’Roark over O’Roark’s proposed assault weapon buy-back program. One Texas lawmaker issued a not-very-veiled threat to use his own weapon on O’Roark, and there was predictable hysteria from the usual suspects.

“So, this is — what you are calling for is civil war,” Tucker Carlson of Fox News said of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence.” On ABC’s “The View,” Meghan McCain maintained that “the AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far. I was just in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. If you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.” On Twitter, the conservative writer Erick Erickson said: “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them. I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the gov’t tried to confiscate them.”

Wilkinson notes the obvious: no such program is likely to go into effect, absent an overwhelming electoral outpouring of majoritarian sentiment.

In that light, all of these ominous “there will be violence” warnings clearly imply that it simply doesn’t matter whether or not mandatory buyback legislation is enacted by duly elected representatives of the American people with an extraordinary popular mandate, because the wildly outvoted minority would nevertheless be right to regard the law as an intolerable injustice that warrants retaliatory violence. Just ask them.

Wilkinson then considers what this reaction signifies. As he points out, democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. Trumpism, however, considers government legitimate only when it agrees with  white Christian conservatives.

Who, you may sensibly ask, granted Tucker Carlson’s target demographic veto power over the legislative will of the American people? Nobody. They got high on their own supply and anointed themselves the “real American” sovereigns of the realm. But their relative numbers are dwindling, and they live in fear of a future in which the law of the land reliably tracks the will of the people. Therein lies the appeal of a personal cache of AR-15s.

Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.

Nearly every Republican policy priority lacks majority support. New restrictions on abortion are unpopular. Slashing legal immigration levels is unpopular. The president’s single major legislative achievement, tax cuts for corporations and high earners, is unpopular.

Public support for enhanced background checks stands at an astonishing 90 percent, and 60 percent(and more) support a ban on assault weapon sales. Yet Republican legislatures block modest, popular gun control measures at every turn. The security of the minority’s self-ascribed right to make the rules has become their platform’s major plank, because unpopular rules don’t stand a chance without it.

As Wilkinson notes–and as rational people know–this isn’t about self-defense. Nobody needs a gun that can shoot 26 people in 32 seconds to ward off burglars.

The Second Amendment doesn’t grant the right to own one any more than it grants the right to own a surface-to-air missile.

I particularly loved these two paragraphs:

They’ll tell you their foreboding “predictions” of lethal resistance are really about preserving the means to protect the republic against an overweening, rights-stomping state. Don’t believe that, either. It’s really about the imagined peril of a multicultural majority running the show. Many countries that do more to protect their citizens against gun violence are more, not less, free than we are. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, 16 countries enjoy a higher level of overall freedom than the United States, and most of them ban or severely restrict ownership of assault weapons. The freedom to have your head blown off in an Applebee’s, to flee in terror from the bang of a backfiring engine, might not be freedom at all.

I’m not too proud to admit that in my misspent libertarian youth, I embraced the idea that a well-armed populace is a bulwark against tyranny. I imagined us a vast Switzerland, hived with rifles to defend our inviolable rights against … Michael Dukakis? What I slowly came to see is that freedom is inseparable from political disagreement and that holding to a trove of weapons as your last line of defense in a losing debate makes normal ideological opposition look like nascent tyranny and readies you to suppress it.

Clarity. Sanity. Why do I despair about the likelihood that Wilkinson, et al will prevail?

YES!

The Parkland students who mobilized in the wake of that school shooting have been a much-needed bright spot in our gridlocked and polarized political discussions about gun violence and the reach of the Second Amendment. But the most wonderful thing about this group of poised and effective youngsters is they aren’t the only ones. A young, determinedly activist generation is emerging, and demanding that we adults get our acts together.

Much of the activism concerns climate change. A 15-year old recently confronted world leaders at a U.N. meeting about climate change, demanding action.

This 15-year-old has got something to say, and on June 29th, the United Nations General Assembly heard him loud and clear.

Xiuhtezcatl Roske-Martinez stood before the representativesand spoke earnestly and boldly (without notes, for the record) about the urgency of climate change, urging them to take action immediately. “What’s at stake right now is the existence of my generation,” he said in his speech. “In the last 20 years of negotiations, almost no agreements have been made on a bonding climate recovery plan,” he said.

Another 15-year old, Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, is also demanding action.

Fifteen-year-old Greta Thunberg has been protesting for more than a month. Before the country’s parliamentary election on September 9th, she went on strike and sat on the steps of the parliament building, in Stockholm, every day during school hours for three weeks. Since the election, she has returned to school for four days a week; she now spends her Fridays on the steps of parliament. She is demanding that the government undertake a radical response to climate change. She told me that a number of members of parliament have come out to the steps to express support for her position, although every one of them has said that she should really be at school.

And in October, a federal court ruled that a lawsuit brought by American children, asserting that they have a constitutional right to a habitable planet, could proceed.

A lawyer for a group of young Americans suing the federal government over climate change said a judge’s decision Monday to allow the suit to move forward should clear the way for a trial to begin on Oct. 29.

The suit, which was brought by 21 children and young adults, accuses federal officials and oil industry executives of violating their due process rights by knowing for decades that carbon pollution poisons the environment, but doing nothing about it.

 “When the climate science is brought into the courtroom it will result in the judge finding that the government is committing constitutional violations,” said the lawyer for the kids, Phil Gregory.

It isn’t just climate change, however. In a suit that warms the cockles of my old, cold heart, Rhode Island, students are suing to force schools to teach civics.

Aleita Cook, 17, has never taken a class in government, civics or economics. In the two social studies classes she took in her four years at a technical high school in Providence, R.I. — one in American history, the other in world history — she learned mostly about wars, she said.

Left unanswered were many practical questions she had about modern citizenship, from how to vote to “what the point of taxes are.” As for politics, she said, “What is a Democrat, a Republican, an independent? Those things I had to figure out myself.”

Now she and other Rhode Island public school students and parents are filing a federal lawsuit against the state on Thursday, arguing that failing to prepare children for citizenship violates their rights under the United States Constitution.

The student plaintiffs allege that the state has failed to equip its students with the skills to “function productively as civic participants” and has failed to provide them with the information they need if they are to be capable of voting, serving on a jury and simply understanding the nation’s political and economic life.

The state allows local school districts to decide for themselves whether and how to teach civics, and the lawsuit says that leads to big discrepancies. Students in affluent towns often have access to a rich curriculum and a range of extracurricular activities, like debate teams and field trips to the State Legislature, that are beyond the reach of poorer schools.

The lawyers for the plaintiffs hope the case will have implications far beyond Rhode Island, and potentially prompt the Supreme Court to reconsider its 45-year-old ruling that equal access to a quality education is not a constitutionally guaranteed right.

I seem to recall a movie titled “The kids are all right.” These kids certainly are; in fact, they’re better than all right. They’re great.

I hope they kick our butts.

Fear Itself

Scientific American recently published a fascinating article, titled “Why Are White Men Stockpiling Guns?” It began by reciting statistics most of us now know:

Since the 2008 election of President Obama, the number of firearms manufactured in the U.S. has tripled, while imports have doubled. This doesn’t mean more households have guns than ever before—that percentage has stayed fairly steady for decades. Rather, more guns are being stockpiled by a small number of individuals. Three percent of the population now owns half of the country’s firearms, says a recent, definitive studyfrom the Injury Control Research Center at Harvard University.

So, who is buying all these guns—and why?

The conventional wisdom was that gun sales to white guys spiked when a black man was elected President. The article provided a more finely-grained description of the specific “white guys” who went on that buying spree, citing several scientific studies that have concluded that “the kind of man who stockpiles weapons or applies for a concealed-carry license meets a very specific profile.”

These are men who are anxious about their ability to protect their families, insecure about their place in the job market, and beset by racial fears. They tend to be less educated. For the most part, they don’t appear to be religious—and, suggests one study, faith seems to reduce their attachment to guns. In fact, stockpiling guns seems to be a symptom of a much deeper crisisin meaning and purpose in their lives. Taken together, these studies describe a population that is struggling to find a new story—one in which they are once again the heroes.

Researchers also found pervasive anti-government sentiments among these men.

“This is interesting because these men tend to see themselves as devoted patriots, but make a distinction between the federal government and the ‘nation,’ says Froese. “On that point, I expect that many in this group see the ‘nation’ as being white.”

The entire article is fascinating. It also dovetails with the results of research into political attitudes conducted at Yale.That research built on a decade of political psychology studies that found people who feel physically threatened or fearful are more likely to be conservatives.

Conservatives, it turns out, react more strongly to physical threat than liberals do. In fact, their greater concern with physical safety seems to be determined early in life: In one University of California study, the more fear a 4-year-old showed in a laboratory situation, the more conservative his or her political attitudes were found to be 20 years later. Brain imaging studies have even shown that the fear center of the brain, the amygdala, is actually larger in conservatives than in liberals. And many other laboratory studies have found that when adult liberals experienced physical threat, their political and social attitudes became more conservative (temporarily, of course).

In the research experiment, when subjects were told to Imagine being completely safe from physical harm, their attitudes changed, and their policy preferences became indistinguishable  from those of the liberals in the experiment.

This result may seem far-fetched, but it correlates with social science research that shows lower incidence of social dysfunction and crime in countries with more robust social safety nets.

FDR was onto something when he said we should fear “fear itself.”

 

 

My Friend The NRA Member

My friend Pierre Atlas is a political science professor who teaches at Marian University, where he directs the Richard Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies. He is also a lifetime member of the NRA–and if survey research is to be believed, his attitudes are far more representative of rank-and-file NRA members than the lunatic positions taken by that organization’s leadership–not to mention, their “bought and paid for” Senators and Congresspersons.

Pierre writes a periodic column for the Indianapolis Star, and in his most recent one, listed a number of realistic, reasonable steps we could take to curb gun violence.

He began the column by recognizing the practical difficulty of simply eliminating AR-15s.

Some people want to ban AR-15 platform rifles. But even if this could pass constitutional muster, given that the AR-15 is possibly the most popular rifle in America and there are millions of them in circulation, doing so would be politically and logistically difficult, if not impossible. On the other side, we hear the standard refrain, “Now is not the time to talk about guns,” or “this is not about guns, it’s about mental health.”

Clearly, this shooter — who I will not name — had serious problems and telegraphed his violent intent on social media. But he didn’t commit his crime with a butter knife.

Pierre writes that America has a gun problem, and that it is always the right time to talk about it. He then offers a beginning prescription:

In addition to enforcing all the laws already on the books, here are 10 practical, pragmatic things Congress or state legislatures can and should do now, which I believe most Americans, including most gun owners, would support:

•Universal background checks

•Mandatory reporting of stolen guns

•Prohibit gun purchases for people on the no fly list

•Allow the Centers for Disease Control to collect and analyze gun violence data

•Ban the manufacture, sale and possession of bump stocks, which allow semi-automatic weapons to mimic full-automatics

•Require safety training for all carry permits

•Mandate that a purchaser of any firearm, rifle as well as handgun, must be 21

•With court orders and due process, remove guns from homes in cases of domestic violence or openly stated threats to others

In addition to these eight items, Congress should hold hearings with expert testimony to explore legislation addressing the following controversial issues: Reporting of potentially violent mental health cases and the building of a data base; and regulating social media content for threats of violence.

With 300 million guns in American homes, we aren’t going to enforce wholesale bans on categories of weapons, even if such approaches were constitutionally and politically feasible. But the only impediment to proceeding on the basis of Pierre’s list is political will; these steps are clearly both constitutional and practical.

The items on this list all address the stupidity of excessive solicitude for the tender sensibilities of the gun lobby, but two in particular are aimed at policies that have long infuriated me: the ban on CDC funding for research on gun violence, and allowing people on the no-fly list  to buy guns.

Evidently, people too dangerous to allow on a plane aren’t too dangerous to arm.

But it is the refusal to fund research that is particularly telling. Talk about legislation that “sends a message”! The message is, “We don’t want data. We suspect we know what that research might find, so we aren’t going to allow it. No evidence-based policy for us!”

These are sensible, “do-able” measures. Let’s make them happen. And then let’s work on changing the culture than has convinced fearful folks to amass personal arsenals.

 

American Exceptionalism

“American Exceptionalism” has meant different things at different times. Usually, however, the meanings ascribed to that phrase have been positive. Over at The World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Parlor, however, “El Jefe” has described a far less rosy aspect of our exceptionalism.

As a country, the US is 4.4% of the world’s population, yet we own 42% of the world’s guns.  Let that sink in.  Our homicide rate in the US is over 300% that of the average of the rest of the OECD.

As he also points out, there are many ways in which the population of the U.S. is not exceptional.

  1. Do we have mental health problems?  Of course, but so does every other country.
  2. Do we sell violent video games?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  3. Do we have violent television shows and movies?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  4. Do we have a breakdown in the family unit?  Yes, but so does every other country.
  5. How about churches?  Are our churches shrinking?  Yes, but they are doing the same in other countries.

What we have that other countries don’t have–or at least, don’t have as much of–is guns. Lots and lots of guns.

After the Las Vegas mass shooting, Americans engaged in what has now become a ritual of hand-wringing and mutual recriminations. Critics of our lax gun regulations pointed out that large majorities of Americans (including a majority of NRA members) want to tighten those restrictions; defenders of the armament status-quo insisted that widespread gun ownership equals “freedom.”

Although most of the commentary rehashed arguments we hear after every mass shooting–and we have a lot of mass shootings–I did learn something new, and it was both terrifying and encouraging. Half of the 265 million guns in the U.S. are owned by 3% of the population–and only 22% of us own any firearms.

It’s encouraging to know that my non-armed household is in the majority; the news–and the high number of gun deaths– sometimes make it seem as if every American old enough to lift a gun owns one.

What’s terrifying is the likelihood that  (with the possible exception of people who may be collecting historic muskets and powder-horns) the 3% who possess vast arsenals are scary dudes.

We don’t know nearly enough about gun owners or gun violence, because Congress refuses to allow the CDC or other agencies to fund research on the subject. But USA Today recently reported on a privately-financed survey of gun ownership.

Researchers found that the top reason people owned guns was for protection from other people, even though the rate of violent crime has dropped significantly the past two decades, said Deborah Azrael, director of research at the Harvard Injury Control Research Center and one of the study’s authors.

Azrael said the study tried to update numbers and trends that hadn’t been reviewed in two decades. Separate reports on background checks and gun storage, based on the same survey, are scheduled to be released later this year.

“In a country where 35,000 people a year die by firearms, we haven’t been able to come out with a survey on gun violence for 20 years,” she said. “That’s a real failure of public health and public policy.”

The study also found that gun owners tend to be white, male, conservative, and residents of rural areas. Presumably–hopefully–that means that most of them are hunters, not crazed militia-men. On the other hand, a lot of America’s guns are handguns: the study found 111 million handguns nationwide, a 71% increase from the 65 million handguns in 1994.

So long as we have Trump in the White House and a Congress wholly-owned by the NRA and the gun manufacturers, we are unlikely to impose the sorts of reasonable restrictions that other countries have found effective, and we’re equally unlikely to get the kind of research we need.

I’d really like to know more about that 3%……