Rational, reasonable gun owners, where art thou?

A week ago I posted a short editorial piece explaining an aspect of the gun problem we’re facing in the United States now and the debate raging around it. I explained that, as a result of a perceived sense of heightened danger, a great number of Americans are beginning to feel, justifiably, that our unrestrained gun problems means potential death when spending time in a public place. The response was incredible, with the reception being overwhelmingly positive. However, like anything so polarizing, it drew plenty of negative response as well. Having been following gun control debates for years and especially in recent times, there is an undeniable trend among those speaking on behalf of gun “rights” that was highlighted especially well in this instance.

Granted, it could be argued that these feelings of fear that have risen noticeably since the Aurora, Colorado shootings last year are unjustified – fact is, gun violence, if anything, has been in decline since the 90s (some data, though, says it might be on the rise again). The problem with this line of reasoning is that it ignores the fact that “better” is not the same as acceptable – though there is disparate data regarding rates of gun violence (thanks mostly to NRA efforts to stifle the collection of such information; why do you think that might be?), the Center for Disease Control estimates that there are more than 86 firearm fatalities every single day in the United States (as of 2010), or 31,672 individuals every year.

You’d think that being the nation with the highest rates of gun ownership we’d also be the safest nation on the planet; turns out that’s not quite true. Even if you’d point out that despite that we do not have the highest murder rates by firearm in the world, I’d explain to you that the United States has an infrastructure in the form of police and such that is among the most extensive in the world as well as the fact that the firearm violence being committed in those other countries are most likely being done with American made weapons.

With those points aside, of which I am far from the first to make, I’ve noticed a distinct trend of gun “rights” activists who follow a pattern of argument that will typically include most if not all of the following features: Circuitous logic, hysterical hyperbole, extreme cynicism, severe paranoia, and quite frequently an insulting or even threatening tone apparently derived from a persecution complex. And their arguments almost always revolve around vague generalizations – almost never aimed at any law or proposal in general, just a zero sum game where any change at all to the status quo is equivalent to Kristalnacht. I could write a 100 plus page dissertation on how fundamentally wrong these arguments always are, but it’s been done and would not convince them – as they say, “you can lead a horse to water…”. But for those reading who may fall near this category (and I know you are), this is how you are seen by the rest of the nation and it does not serve your argument well at all.

I’m not one to jump to unfounded generalizations, but there is an undeniable trend here. It’s no secret that the internet draws the most extreme and encourages uninhibited expression of opinions, but this is also our Congressmen and women and NRA president LaPierre making almost exactly the same, irrational, illogical arguments. I feel like it would be easier to find any utilitarian use for a semi-automatic weapon that doesn’t involve killing a human being (a difficult thing to do, no doubt) than to find a logical, level-headed pro-gun advocate claiming things are just fine the way they are now.

Despite this, polls claim that a large majority of gun owners (and even NRA members) actually support some measure of increases firearm restrictions. If this is so, then where are you, Mr. or Ms. Rational Gun Owner? You’ve been noticeably absent from the discussion, allowing these alarmist paranoids to dominate your side of the conversation. If increased gun control were actually as bad and dangerous as these types claim it to be, you’d think a coherent, logical argument would have emerged by now. Subjective though some aspects of the debate may be, there are arguments in this debate which have more practical traction than others, and so far this does not describe those speaking for leaving gun legislation as it is.

Should we keep letting irrationality and paranoid, unfounded fear guide policy that could potentially stem the highly preventable extreme loss of life that occurs every day? We have to ask ourselves if we have the resolve to confront an interest group that is, by its very nature, militant and aggressive. We’ve heard their arguments, we’ve tried doing things their way – gun control is as lax as it has ever been and it’s not working. If guns made us safe we would be. With an estimated 86 deaths a day from gun violence their opinions are no longer relevant – your “freedom” to own tools created with only one use, human death do not supersede 86 individuals’ right to live every single day.

One final thought: It is often said that most gun owners follow the law and are not dangerous to themselves or others, but when you see such the type of irrational, even aggressive arguments I’ve described so frequently in the public, mainstream discourse, it becomes meritorious to wonder whether some of these people are merely looking to use their weapons to their “full potential” and spend their time fantasizing about an insurrection/civil war scenario where they’ll get to scalp liberals en mass. I’d like to think most would agree that these folks should be able to own firearms (but they do). Here’s a small sample of the type of thing I’m describing:

This was a real comment directed at me last week for my previous post on guns. It still amazes me:

I'm a bad man. A real bad man.

I’m a bad man. A real bad man.

And this one has been circulating for a few years. It’s so crass I had to verify that it was real (and it is):

And they expect us to take them seriously?

And they expect us to take them seriously?

Comments always welcome! Prove me wrong you responsible, reasonable gun owners – speak up for yourselves and make a real, adult argument based in reason and not hysteria and ridiculous hypothetical scenarios. All your over-the-top red-faced self-righteousness does is undercut any arguments you have about the endless law abiding and rational nature of gun owners. I love nothing more than to be pleasantly surprised!

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Bradley Manning — Does no good deed go unpunished?

Yesterday began the court martial hearings for Private First Class Bradley Manning, the 25 year old US Army soldier charged with sharing sensitive military and diplomatic documents with activist whistle-blower website WikiLeaks. Manning has plead guilty to charges of misuse of classified information, though he has maintained a not guilty plea regarding charges of aiding the enemy.

The document leak included nearly a quarter million cables which revealed a number of previously secret military incidents and accounts of a variety of shady and potentially criminal back room political dealings with foreign governments. As Manning himself explained yesterday, his motivation to release these documents for public consumption stemmed from a desire to invite the public into a discussion about the US’s foreign policy, which, under the Obama administration, has been all but opaque (despite promises of increased transparency). For Manning, what he saw during his service left him with a moral duty to make a difference.

Free Bradley Manning

The fact is, while Manning may be a “criminal” in that he breached confidentiality and went against the expectations of his station, he is a hero first and foremost. Bradly Manning is a man who saw something less than honorable happening and felt a duty as a servant, not of his commanding officer nor President Obama, but of the United States and its citizens, to do something about it. Without a doubt he knew he would face public denigration and a court martial but saw it as a worthwhile price to pay. Though it is hard to say whether he knew he’d be in for nearly three years of solitary confinement and harassment techniques many (including the UN) would call torture, or at the least cruel and inhuman.

Surely Manning’s actions endangered American lives overseas and our War on Terror, justifying his treatment? As Manning explains, he thought carefully about which documents to release and which to withhold as it pertained to the security and safety of lives. At worst the documents, relating to events over three years ago, are an embarrassment to the Obama administration and our back-room diplomats, including revealing US dealings with terrorist-friendly nations, highly questionable military activity in Pakistan, and accounts of Chinese hacking campaigns, among the list of quite varied leaks (this is just a brief overview of some of them). Though I am not exactly privy to military intelligence, it remains to be seen that Manning’s leaks put any soldiers directly in harm’s way.

Looking at his statements about his motivations and how he arrived to his decision, it’s clear this is where Manning stands out and separates himself from the rest of the military and Obama’s foreign policy – he’s not concerned just about American lives, but all lives. What he saw during his time in the Army, as he explains, lead him to become “depressed about the situation” in Afghanistan and Iraq seeing the military campaigns there to be anything but righteous. He believed that the “ground reality” of the wars were not being conveyed accurately or honestly to the public and believed that releasing the damning documents could start a productive, public conversation on US foreign policy.

So what’s next for Manning? Though the court martial has not yet been concluded, it’s looking very likely that he will be facing a dishonorable discharge and at least twenty years of prison time. But is this justice? It is tragic that this is how we treat individuals whose duty as a member of the military extends beyond following the direct orders of his commander, but to our nation and its people.

While certainly few would say that there does not need to be at least some military information which should probably remain classified for safety reasons, the extreme lack of transparency present in our foreign policy is dishonest at best and dangerous at worst and has nothing to do with safety. These conflicts and their perpetuation are only made possible by those who foot the bill – American taxpayers like us – and our approval of these actions. The individuals in D.C. are only in the position they’re in because you put them there, and stay there because you approve of their work. When, as a voter, you are restricted from seeing the whole picture, it becomes common for less than favorable things to happen – things Americans may not want to see their tax dollars spent on.

Regardless of your stance on the US’s foreign policy, we should be asking ourselves what is wrong with this picture when huge amounts of information government and military are routinely hiding from the public (unsettling in its own right) is brought to the fore by a courageous individual and his reward is three years of near total solitary isolation and calls for his execution. Bradley did what very few people in his position would have, answering to his own sense of right and wrong instead of deferring responsibility and decision making to his superior officer. Bradley Manning believed that American taxpayers and voters had a right to know what was being done in their name with little to no accountability to the public.

And for that many Americans like myself will remember Bradley Manning as the hero he is.

Rigging the game, Supreme Court-style: The Voting Rights Act is under attack again

This week the Supreme Court began reviewing a case which may result in at least a partial discontinuation of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965. The creation of the 15th Amendment in 1964 outlined the Constitutional right for any and all US citizens, including previously disenfranchised minorities, to be able to participate in elections without barriers to entry like a poll tax or literacy test.

Credit davidlat

Given the heavily entrenched racism and voter intimidation common in many areas of the South, Congress saw it necessary to mandate the enforcement of these aspects of the 15th Amendment in the form of the Voting Rights Act. The Act stipulates that such areas where equal voting access may be curtailed must gain federal approval of any changes made in a state’s election procedures before they can be implemented. At present, the VRA applies to nine states and a number of other counties and municipalities which are classified as “covered jurisdictions.”

Though it is not looking likely that the entirety of the Voting Rights Act will be struck down, Section 5 of the VRA may be changed or removed. Section 5 of the VRA is the clause which dictates the ability of the federal government to give “preclearance” to “covered jurisdictions” when attempting to change their voting procedures; they cannot do it on their own. Essentially, Section 5 is what gives the federal government the teeth to be able to enforce the VRA and the 15th Amendment in practice.

So why, even after being being signed into renewal by Bush in 2006 for another 25 years, is this case even being brought before the Supreme Court? Those leveling the case against the federal government claim that the Voting Rights Act is no longer needed – it is outmoded and serves only as a mark of shame. The challengers assert that this is because the VRA still operates based on a coverage formula created in 1975; if anything, they say, discrimination in general has declined or disappeared – we have a (half) African-American president, after all, right? No, they say, the only function of the VRA, at this point, almost 50 years later, is to shame the states with a Scarlet Letter-esque legislative mandate (no doubt bringing them to tears on at least a bi-weekly basis).

I’ve got to say, the reasoning behind the challenge to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is pretty weak and baseless at best and at worst another transparent attempt by the GOP to suppress voters, particularly minority voters. In the lead up to the 2008 presidential elections we saw a number of states attempt to enact various suppression measures, such as requiring voter identification at the poll (supposedly implemented to quell acts of voter fraud – a matter found to be a non-issue, at worst); fortunately, these didn’t succeed in many areas precisely because of the VRA.

So let us just suppose for a moment that the issues meant to be addressed by the Voting Rights Act, have been, successfully, as the legal challengers claim. Then what burden is it actually placing on the state at this point? If your state is conducting elections fairly then the VRA should be a non-issue. I think many will agree with the claim that implementation of the VRA and the areas determined to need federal oversight based on a plan created in 1975 is outdated and unwise. So let us update the plan; the data is plentiful and readily available to make a accurate, modern assessments and if that is unsatisfactory, then lets get some grant money to sociologists. But let’s not throw out the Voting Rights Act, which even the challengers in court have more or less admitted has influenced racial discrimination at the polls in a positive way.

Without any serious, legitimate reasoning for this neutering of the VRA, it becomes rather obvious the level of pettiness and power play being attempted here. In a country where its white majority has remained unchallenged since the nation’s birth, it seems that many within this group are beginning to see the writing on the wall: whites will no longer be the majority and instead in many areas minorities, often times ones who do not speak English, will become demographically and politically very powerful, even dominant, and this terrifies them. With the GOP’s refusal to consider any platform other than “let’s go back to the 1950s – the good ol’ days before women’s suffrage and the Civil Rights Act” which for some bizarre reason is not gaining traction with non-whites and women they’re beginning to understand that the sun is setting on their hegemony – play time is over.

Hidden in a smoke screen of dangerous “colorblindness” (an issue to be tackled in coming weeks, do not fret) and false victimization, these challenges and the possibility that the Supreme Court may strike down the most significant clause of the Voting Rights Act may mean that these groups get what they want; they may even be able to generate a very pleasing outcome in the next few elections. But such victories can only be fleeting – the fact is, whites will never again be a power majority and will continually shrink as a group while others, Asians especially, gain more population numbers. So while neutering the VRA may work in the short term, in the long term it won’t matter and if anything will work against the GOP or whatever will remain – people are not as blind and forgetful as they may wish they were.

If racism is no longer present and the South has moved on past its unpleasant history, how about beginning by not raising that Confederate flag so righteously every day?

Colorado’s new marijuana DUI laws and the absurd

In Colorado this past Tuesday a new bill which aims to curtail and punish driving while affected by marijuana passed through a legislative committee unanimously. This comes off the heels of the successful passing of Amendment 64 in November which allows for the sale and use of marijuana for recreational use to adults.

weed1

While there was no arguments made regarding whether stoned individuals should be driving – they shouldn’t – there was concern expressed by legalization advocates over the methods involved with busting a driver for a weed DUI and the legal THC level limit of five nanograms.

In Arizona the questionable practice of prosecuting motorists for a marijuana-related DUI without evidence by law enforcement officials was upheld by a court this month. This has been a controversial issue because, unlike alcohol, marijuana has no breathalyzer equivalency; though a screening may be administered, it does not work in the same way in determining current intoxication. Whereas alcohol is present in the body for a relatively short time (during which it affects cognition and reaction, as we all know) and is easily detected while it is, marijuana leaves detectable metabolites in the user’s system for up to two weeks after use (long, long after its effects wear off) – a urine screening cannot differentiate between someone who took a couple puffs last weekend but is now completely sober and someone who smoked minutes before the test and is actually “influenced.” Despite the obvious ambiguity here, Arizona decided to uphold their practices which can be used to convict a citizen of a DUI despite driving completely sober.

Though I doubt many would say they would prefer a driver who’s stoned off his rocker over a stone cold sober one, it seems likely there will be no especially consistent and fair way to enforce such legislation in practice without resorting to Arizona’s draconian approach, which is quite problematic. And then there is the question of medical users and whether they will get special exemption.

So let’s step back and rethink the primary purpose and use of a laws that prohibit driving while intoxicated on alcohol (and presumably, marijuana): to promote public safety. I don’t need to have a clinical study done to tell you that it does not impair drivers to nearly the same extent as alcohol. And surprisingly, there actually have been few scientific studies on the question, though there is this entertaining trial a television station in Washington conducted recently. The video doesn’t present a clear answer to the dilemma, other than that the five nanogram limit is probably far too low of a threshold and that in general the degree of driving impairment resulting from specific amounts of THC levels is difficult to quantify consistently from driver to driver. As the driving instructor and policemen noted, most of them could drive safely well past the arbitrary five nanogram limit.

So what’s to be done? Traffic cops should treat the situation as any other. If a vehicle is seen driving unsafely then it should be pulled over; if a violation has already occurred then write the ticket or bring out the cuffs. If the driver is visibly affected in some way, then follow standard procedures and administer the dozen or so sobriety tests – if passed then THC levels should be irrelevant.

No, this arbitrary legal limit of five nanograms is not intended to preserve public safety but rather to serve as a push back from legalization detractors as a way to punish individuals who are abiding a law with which they disagree. Instead, if legislators were serious about preventing vehicular deaths they would be in favor of public service announcements and other education campaigns (not laden in absurd DARE-like propaganda) encouraging individuals to use marijuana responsibly. They would also be more concerned about matters like why our labor laws are such that many Americans are so sleep deprived that thousands of major accidents occur on the road every year as a result of nodding off at the wheel or lowered reaction speeds, because they are unable to get the rest and relaxation needed to drive safely.

When it comes to public safety it is important to examine the issue from all sides. But when the efforts of our legislators are arbitrary and serve only to punish law abiding citizens, public safety is clearly not at the forefront of their intentions and the will of the people is not being served.

The hypocrisy of the new Copyright Alert System

The beginning of this week saw the implementation of the new Copyright Alert System (CAS), the latest attempt by the music and movie industries to curtail internet piracy.

1206711_41147487The system will aim to identify those internet users who are participating in illegal fine distribution. The system will feature “six strikes” that will escalate from warnings to bandwidth throttling to even temporary internet shut off. The largest internet service providers in the US, including Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, are expected to begin implementing this new system this week.

Naturally, this new Copyright Alert System has reignited the rarely cold coals of the seemingly endless and fruitless struggle against media piracy and copyright violation being waged by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). As several officials have admitted, this new Copyright Alert System is not aimed at the worst offenders – who can easily mask their internet identity, sidestepping the new system entirely – but rather small time downloads. Believe you’ve been acted against wrongly? You can file a $35 review fee which may be refunded to you only if your appeal is approved. Fair or not, the system clearly aims to make examples out of internet customers and to intimidate them into curtailing their illicit habits. (Here is a great little overview of the various options one could take to avoid CAS and its consequences.)

My question is: Will CAS apply to the FBI and RIAA in the same way it will to the rest of the country? In 2011 TorrentFreak revealed that individuals at Sony, Universal, Fox, the RIAA and the Department of Homeland Security had participated in the downloading of music, movies, and software illegally via bittorrent at their offices, equivalent to dozens of millions of dollars in pirated media. Earlier this month the FBI, the world’s foremost anti-piracy government agency, was also revealed to have in-house pirates. So will these agencies be the subject of bandwidth throttling and other punitive measures by their ISPs? Somehow I wonder whether or not those who promote a policy of “doing what we say, not as we do” will get treated differently.

It’s a great example of corporate interests waging a losing war against social and cultural trends and a shifting morality. Despite the many impassioned arguments against the immorality of piracy, major studies suggest that nearly half of all Americans (and over two thirds of adults under 30) have participated in media piracy in some form, and that as many or more do not disapprove of family and friends doing so. And clearly those working against internet piracy are not entirely convinced of the supposed destructiveness of piracy.

Maybe the question should not be “what can we do to stop piracy” or whether or not it is morally tolerable – but ask what prompts such widespread majority participation and support of internet piracy. In the United States the percentage of earnings going toward utility bill and rent each month for many middle to lower income households continue to climb steadily, while the costs of music, movies, and video games have only increased for the consumer despite decreased manufacture costs – this while wages have not increased to keep pace and hours are cut.

Studies show that people aren’t just pirating but that they also buy legally. Though the traditional wisdom has been that piracy always equates to lost sales, there are those suggesting that this is likely not true; if anything piracy may actually boost retail sales. Speaking from personal experience, I believe it might also be reasonable to say that, given a livable wage which doesn’t go almost entirely to the necessities of bills, rent, debt and food, piracy might decline drastically. Lowering, instead of continually increasing, the costs of entertainment media would also go a long way.

Regardless of your moral stance on creative rights and internet piracy, the general consensus is that not only is it acceptable but that short of draconian internet restrictions a la China, it won’t be going away. And perhaps this is what is most alarming – rather than realizing this and seeking pragmatic solutions, the powers that be choose to escalate censorship and privacy-violating measures. As much as Americans disdain the authoritarian Chinese economic and government model, there sure seems to many who are eager to press the nation into emulating them.

Gun control actually expands our freedoms

The blog has a new host, and if you’re here to read this article and join in the current conversation, please check it out here!

 

When it comes to debate and discussion around what should or shouldn’t be done with regard to gun control, the matter of whether restrictions reduce our freedoms as US citizens is frequently brought up, typically by the pro-gun faction. Through extremely reductionist thinking many of this group have come to believe that more restrictions imposed by the government, especially on their ability to own firearms (to protect us from a tyrannical government that can apparently only affect our lives negatively at gun point) is a dangerous concession of freedoms. It is understandable why, given the many unnecessarily ambiguous interpretations of the all mighty Second Amendment, many citizens come quickly to such conclusions. But I’m going to tell you today that, in fact, sensible gun restrictions can actually be freedom expanding.

 M16 ShadowLast month a man walked into a Charlottesville, Virginia grocery store with loaded semi-automatic AR-15 (the same controversial weapon used in the Aurora shootings). He was not charged by police because he owned the weapon legally and was not concealing it – the man broke no laws. While it’s clear the man was trying to make some point about his Second Amendment rights, it’s also a reminder that his “right” to carry his weapon around impedes on everyone else’s right to do go out into the public for simple things – like going to the grocery store – without fearing hot lead death from a stranger. How are we to differentiate a grumpy man bearing an assault weapon from a psycho bearing an assault weapon? I know that if I were to find myself in a situation like that in Charlottesville, I would be immediately assuming the worst, fearing for my and others’ lives.

Even before this incident, gun “rights” have been curbing Americans’ behavior out of fear. In the wake of last year’s horrific theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado during the midnight opening of “The Dark Knight Rises,” ticket sales were notably impacted. I personally knew several people who, had the event not occurred, would have gone to the theaters opening night but feared for their lives. Though, rationally speaking, very few shootings actually occur in theaters and if anything, theaters would be safer than they’d ever been on the following night as a result of police presence, this was a common reaction and who’s to say that isn’t valid?

Without going into the many other aspects of the gun control debate, I believe it’s reasonable to say that gun “freedoms” are getting to the point where they are treading on much more important freedoms: my right to live and at the least, assemble publicly without fear. It’s coming to the point that poor GPS directions can even get you killed by a legal gun owner. And now in Arizona public school children are being put under the watchful eye of Steven Segal and armed convicted sex offenders.

When asked what the solution to gun violence and mass shootings are, LaPierre and his NRA supporters respond with a lackluster shrug and the highly illogical suggestion that the only way to be safe is to be packing heat at all times. Well, some Americans, including myself, either don’t want to own a tool of death or at the least do not want to carry one with them at all times. How is this suggestion freedom expanding? Ironically that’s how such notions are presented – as a way of maintaining our “freedom,” as manifested in firearms.

But let’s just stop for a moment and think about whether or not we want to live in a society where we have to fear every stranger we see, constantly feeling a need to maintain vigilance as an exercise in life-or-death, or worse yet, cowering in the home, to hide from others?

That is not a free society.