Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Finally, the Supreme Court makes a 2nd Amendment decision

Much has been written, some good, some bad, some even worse, about the "original intent" of the 2nd Amendment. "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.". Past Supreme Court decisions have somewhat skirted the issue of whether the 2nd Amendment is as basic a citizen's right as, say, the 1st Amendment's guarantees of free speech and freedom of (and from) religion rather than a right only granted in the context of the needs of states to staff militias (i.e. the National Guard). This Court's decision, combining both the 2nd and 14th Amendments, did not dance around the subject, albeit the decision was along the usual hidebound and increasingly pathetic ideological lines.

Seems to me that if the writers of the Constitution didn't want to grant citizens the right to bear arms, they wouldn't have explicitly granted it to the "People". They might have granted states the right to form militias, or granted members of those "well-regulated militias" the right to keep and bear arms. The writers instead granted the right to the People and seemingly treated the militia and the people as one and the same for good reason, i.e., a fundamental mistrust of standing armies under the control of strong men. Therefore, the writers granted universal right and responsibility to the People to be armed for the mutual defense and to presumably act responsibly.

Tony Heaton, with whom I sometimes have common ground, adds this on his own blog:

"...I don't think (the Founding Fathers) would and I've seen none of their writings that would suggest that ( letting localities or states circumvent the 2nd Amendment) was their intent. Their writings are quite the opposite. Thomas Jefferson said, “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms.” During Virginia's Convention to ratify the Constitution, George Mason, Co-author of the Second Amendment was asked “What is the militia?” His answer, “It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them.” Patric Henry said, “The great object is that every man be armed.”and “Everyone who is able may have a gun.” Thomas Paine said, “The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand arms, like laws, discourage and keep the invader and plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside... Horrid mischief would ensue were the law-abiding deprived of the use of them.” Alexander Hamilton, “The best we can hope for concerning the people at large is that they be properly armed...”

To those who think this Court made a bad decision or that the 2nd Amendment is now so outmoded as to be ridiculous in an age of standing armies and highly trained "warfighters" armed with high tech gadgetry, one still has to beg the question to assume the People no longer have the right to bear arms. For those who want to limit the public's access to guns I think the path forward is obvious: amend the Constitution. We passed and then rescinded a Constitutional amendment installing Prohibition so there is precedent for adding restrictions to our lives and later changing our minds; indeed, the Constitution is a living document. But its getting increasingly ridiculous to argue with extreme convolutions of logic that the 2nd Amendment's rights to individual gun ownership is not a fundamental part of the Bill of Rights, which was after all added to the Constitution to guarantee individual rights, not the rights of well-regulated militias. Disarming an increasingly unruly underclass points to more serious social and political problems than the presence of guns, whose rampant misuse in our cities seems a symptom of a far more serious disease.

I have grave doubts as to the validity of any argument that erodes our Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, as the justices said, no right is absolute, and this decision does not mean that state, local and Federal government is unable to put some restrictions on gun ownership or to restrict some classes of weapons entirely. I doubt that the Founding Fathers original intent was that citizens keep a short 12 pounder loaded with grapeshot handy to repel burglars. What the ruling means is that like prior restrictions on speech, the burden of proving that a restriction is reasonable is on the government to argue compellingly for its validity rather than on the citizen to fight off onerous stupidity. Thus, any bill on its face has to be compelling. Banning or restricting weapons that have no legitimate private use can still be argued successfully as some of the amicus briefs argued. Indeed, some of these amicus briefs cite past restrictions on handguns. But the bottom line is the 2nd Amendment is safe. For now.

Past Constitutional arguments on hate speech and other speech-limitation cases may provide useful guidance too. And, of course....

Monday, June 7, 2010

When the dead pelicans come home to roost

In a way, this Gulf of Mexico drilling disaster brought to us by BP is the best thing that could have happened to humanity, although as this link to the Washington Post makes obvious, it sure does suck to be an animal. It may wake us up.

Far too few pay attention to the slow degradation of the environment as we pave and crap up the landscape, or to the centuries-slow progress of our anthropogenic contributions to climate change. We pay attention to pies in the face, or to stories Rod Serling would write and this one is a doozey: we drill a hole in the earth, have the drill ship blow up, and a wounded Gaia bleeds out uncontrollably, poisoning the Gulf (and potentially, parts of the Atlantic Ocean) in one big science-fiction gulp as we watch in helpless awe. Rod could not have written a better story than this one regarding the politics of our oil addiction and we are still waiting for the last set of commercials (i.e., the yapping of politicians and other blame-mongers) to end so we can see how the episode itself ends.

Interior's Ken Salazar was recently reiterating that the government was going to "keep a boot on the neck" of BP until the Gulf well blowout was sealed shut.

But who is going to put the boot on the American public's neck? We usually don't see traffic congestion in Los Alamos, but its the rule in our nation's major population centers, as reported by the Texas Transportation Institute: In its annual report (see link) the TTI tells us that:

  • The overall cost of traffic congestion (based on wasted fuel and lost productivity) reached $87.2 billion in 2007 – more than $750 for every U.S. traveler.
  • The total amount of wasted fuel topped 2.8 billion gallons – three weeks' worth of gas for every traveler.
  • The amount of wasted time totaled 4.2 billion hours – nearly one full work week (or vacation week) for every traveler.
Without the voracious and often wasteful appetite we have for oil in our transportation sector there would be less reason to drill in deep water and certainly more reason to be prudent in how we do so.

The League of American Bicyclists held the 2010 Rally in Albuquerque this past weekend. Amidst the rides and beer, there was the more sombre moment of giving the eulogy for Gail Ryba, who was posthumously awarded the League’s Phyllis Harmon Award for Outstanding Volunteerism. I counted Gail as a good friend as well as fellow advocate, and giving that eulogy was especially hard. I nearly lost it a couple times, having to stop and steady myself in mid sentence. Amidst the tribute to Gail and to put her work in an immediate context, I spun some of the yarn about the faux Rod Serling episode you see above.

Gail’s work as the President of the Bicycle Coalition of New Mexico was but a small part of her full time paying job as a super-advocate and policy planner for sustainable living. A Ph.D. in Chemistry from Caltech and several years as a fuel cell researcher at Sandia National Lab turbocharged her thinking. She was also the Exec. Director for the NM Coalition for Clean and Affordable Energy and was a leader in the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club of New Mexico. Gail quit her paying job at Sandia about a decade ago so she could put all her considerable talents into making the world a better place.

Gail would probably tell us that there is nothing too surprising about this BP mess given our consumer-driven priorities; as long as mineral extraction is key to our energy-intensive economy, mistakes will be made. Of course, these "mistakes" will be discussed in the passive voice, too. Failure is an orphan. Especially so when profit is detached from cradle to grave costs, as it so often is in the energy sector as elsewhere.

In the final analysis, we might as well own up to our own role in the problem along with holding accountable the asshats at Buggered Petroleum. We want our gas and we want it cheap. Unless hit in the face with these disasters, we believe what is convenient to believe: that government should not regulate and that offshore drilling and other risks are worth taking. Well, the dead pelicans have come home to roost. Unlike theories about global warming, this disaster is hard to miss. Unless, of course, one is actively working to avoid seeing the problem. Here 'tis. And this was a month ago.