Monday, October 19, 2015

NY Times Sez Justin Trudeau Headed For Victory Over Stephen Harper in PM Race

Lets see how this plays out, but sometimes you just have to restrain from snickering....unsuccessfully, of course...

For a more recent version of the sing-along, just before the election, see below. Original is on the Harperman web site.

I've really not got that much of a dog in this fight over who wins the Canadian PM race (other than my usual center-left tendencies and the fact that I grew up in and around Buffalo, NY, in spitting distance from the Peace Bridge). For me, the big issue is that as a more or less government scientist myself, I found it outrageous that Tony was summarily suspended from his job for what we in the States would consider a 1st Amendment right: singing a protest song about a Federal election. No sooner did word get out about Turner being booted from his job as a Government scientist than the song went viral on every social media and as you can see below, ended up being sung live across Canada. Beware of social media, eh?  I wonder how much of that unexpected landslide to the Liberal Party resulted not from "Harperman" but because of the Harper Administration's ham-handed dealing with Turner, which turned a song into a movement.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

What would "reasonable gun safety laws" do for us?

Note. This is (still, three months later and into 2016) a working draft, as it seems an exercise in continued reading and rewriting, and is the basis for several screeds sent to the local fish-wrappers.

In spite of concerns,
 the trend is in the right direction
click graph to enlarge
FBI stats

"The U.S. rate of gun homicides and other crimes fell after 1993, according to two studies released Tuesday. But a (Pew) survey showed that only 12 percent of Americans said they felt gun homicides had fallen. "--NPR Report.

The New Mexican ran a constant staple of editorials (Miranda Viscoli, Dr. Bruce Merchant and imported from elsewhere), since the Umpqua Community College shooting. Most boil down to this--there is too much gun violence, and we need to do something to tightly control guns and their owners. These writers critical of gun ownership don't use "gun control" because the term is politically sensitive. Rather, we see "gun safety", a euphemism, in most cases, for gun control. Gun safety is typically taught in Hunter Safety, concealed carry, or other gun handling classes. Cutting gun violence is distinct from making guns safer, as most gun violence is deliberate use of the weapon for its intended purpose--to shoot something. In this case, wrongfully shoot a fellow human being. A lot of the so called "gun safety" proposals may marginally reduce gun crime, but none attack, head on, the underlying reasons people shoot each other.

The usual "reasonable" suggestions to cure gun violence are: universal and more careful background checks, eliminating the three day default for approving instant background (i.e., NICS) checks, having more effective mental health intervention, and banning or restricting high capacity semiautomatic weapons, including "assault rifles". How effective these would be individually or in tandem is a good question. Or, as alluded to by Viscoli, do we need to "...simply got rid of the guns...", which is certainly not the track the U.S. is on right now.

Note added in December. Using the Terror Watch Lists (specifically, the No Fly List) was recently added to the "fixes" needed for the NICS system to stop some gun purchases. I refer that discussion to this ACLU statement.

We need background checks. That said, the background check system stops some potentially bad sales but is not foolproof.  Some of our more infamous shooters passed theirs, including the recent Oregon example. Sometimes the system fails. Dylan Roof got his gun because local and Federal authorities missed their handoff, as he should have been a prohibited person. The Virginia Tech killer got his because of a loophole in psychiatric reporting, later fixed by legislation. Plus, for the system to work, it needs data. Even though his college was terrified of him, reported him to campus police, and suspended him subject to a mental health evaluation, Tucson shooter Jared Loughner was never arrested by campus police or otherwise put on a no-buy list. James Holmes' psychiatrist was apparently doubtful whether she had grounds for an involuntary commitment. Indeed, the opposite can happen. When a Los Alamos police officer allegedly made alarming statements about harming the public, and was involuntarily hospitalized for evaluation by his Department, the acting police chief was fired and the county sued by the officer.

The three day NICS limit, roundly criticized after the Roof debacle, was put into the background check system in the Brady Bill. After three days, a hold on an applicant is lifted unless supported by evidence and the sale can go through by default. This has sometimes been a concern, as in the example of Dylan Roof, where bad communication between the FBI and local authorities was not resolved. An arbitrary deadline should not empower a prohibited person, but neither should an indefinite wait be an option for the rest of the public.  If an extension is required beyond the mandated 3 day period, it should require a well defended reason in writing and a firm date of resolution. We need to fix these systems rather than accept confusion, ineptitude, and delays.

The so-called gun show loophole is actually a failure of Federal code to define clearly who is "engaged in the business" of selling firearms. Small volume private sellers need not acquire a Federal Firearms license and do not need to do background checks. Federal law still prohibits these private individuals (as well as you and I, when we sell grandpa's old deer rifle) from selling a firearm to a resident of another state, or to someone they know or have reason to believe, is prohibited from owning a firearm. But without a formal NICS enquiry, how does one know the history of a stranger? There is concern that such small volume sellers are a conduit for illicit sales, but several studies (here is one) have not indicated small volume private sellers are the single major market for illicit guns. Other avenues include theft or straw purchases made through FFLs, such as Dawn Nguyen buying guns for convicted felon William Spengler, Jr, who used one of those guns to ambush and murder two volunteer firemen. Nonetheless, some clear definition of what constitutes a firearms business and thus broadening the scope of who needs an FFL might stop illicit purchases that are eventually linked to crime. Likewise, a greater Federal crackdown on straw buyers and sloppy sellers is critical. I'm not sure how one would enforce universal background checks for private sales. But we could make them so easy that it is considered by gun owners as just as important for public safety as checking the chamber is for personal gun safety. How to do that? How about if every county sheriff is issued an FFL or equivalent so we can do a check for two people by having a deputy drive out to a home?

 The problem is not that there is an endless supply of deeply disturbed young men who are willing to contemplate horrific acts. It’s worse. It’s that young men no longer need to be deeply disturbed to contemplate horrific acts.

 People with mental illnesses are no more likely to be violent than those without a mental health disorder. In fact, those with mental illness are 10 times more likely to be the victims of violent crime.

Mental illness can be blamed for some gun crime, but we need to be careful not to engage in some-all fallacies or pretend we can paint with a broad brush. Most mentally ill people are not violent. Further, some of the mass murderers were never adjudicated as mentally ill. Better national mental health care treatment is critical to reducing incidents such as the James Boyd shooting (where Boyd was the victim) as well as intervening with folks like Loughner, Lanza, and Holmes. In retrospect, it seems that huge signals were missed in some of these cases, but how to make sure we don't overlook the Adam Lanzas of the world (even if their parents are oblivious) while not stigmatizing all others needing or looking for help, or treating all the mentally ill as potential killers, is the question. If Malcom Gladwell's essay about school shooters, who he posits see mass school shootings as in some bizarre way validated to the shooter by earlier acts, says anything, it is that we don't fully understand school shooters. Gladwell also tells us that parents are often oblivious to their actions.  The seventeen year old John LaDue who amassed firepower and explosives, with his parents oblivious to his plans to create mass carnage, suggests some of these events would be stopped if parents were simply paying attention. Plus, the psychology of school shooters, and how to counteract it, seems one excellent field for research into gun crime, a topic that has been a political football.

Browning semi-automatic autoloading hunting rifle

Bushmaster M4 semi-automatic, autoloading "Assault Rifle"

"The carbine is a great weapon system for its time," he said. "...It will increase the war fighter's lethality and mobility." --1st Marine Division gunner and marksman, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Vince Kyzer, Marine Corps Times.

In 1999, five years into the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, the Columbine High School massacre occurred. One of the perpetrators, Eric Harris, was armed with a Hi-Point 995, an "assault weapons ban-legal" version of an "assault weapon".

"As I've dug into it, I'm not sure that's the answer because the definition of an assault weapon has not much to do with what it actually does but more with what it looks like," says Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

"...gun control advocates who push for bans on one kind of rifle primarily because it looks scary also contribute to the problem. Such bans don't reduce gun crime, but they do stimulate passionate opposition from law-abiding gun owners: Gun control advocates ridicule the NRA's claim that the government is coming to take away people's guns, then try to outlaw perhaps the most popular rifle in the country..." --Law Prof. (UCLA) Adam Winkler, in the LA Times

First of all, let's be clear on "automatic weapons". Without a Federal license, a civilian cannot buy a fully automatic weapon (and has not been able to buy one since 1986; those out there are "grandfathered"). A fully automatic weapon keeps firing multiple rounds as long as the trigger is pulled and there are rounds left in the magazine. We can buy semi-automatic "autoloading" weapons that fire one bullet per trigger pull.  Two semi-automatic autoloaders are pictured above. Both are autoloading, i.e., they automatically re-load a bullet into the chamber of the rifle each time the trigger is pulled without the shooter having to manually cycle a loading device such as a bolt or pump action. The Browning was designed to be a hunting rifle. The Bushmaster in military version was designed to be a warfighting tool. Some "hunting rifles" come with internal magazines that limit the number of bullets that can be loaded in the gun. Some come with box magazines that are detachable. Military style "Assault rifles", such as the civilian versions of the M-16, AK-47, or even the older M-14, have large capacity, detachable magazines that makes loading under duress fast and reliable and allowing sustained and rapid fire. Either example, though can be misused for something other than its intended lawful purpose. For what its worth, I think the Browning is a very nice rifle. Like my dad, a life NRA member, I like traditional wooden stocks....

There are legitimate questions as to why a private citizen should own high capacity (i.e., 30-50 round magazine autoloading) weapons primarily developed for the battlefield with no strings attached ( I find the difference between semiautomatic and full auto capability a distinction without a difference in the present context). Indeed, the Swiss and Israelis, who have allowed citizens to keep arms for their universal "militias", have increasingly put  restrictions on them. That said, efforts at eliminating or regulating "assault rifles" have been introduced long after the horses left the barn. Civilian,, semi-automatic versions of the M-16 and AK-47, which with their various sister and successor rifles have become iconic in some circles, were introduced half a century or more ago and the vast majority never make the news. No serious thought was given to restricting civilian versions of modern military rifles before they became popular; once a very porous ban (of dubious utility) was finally proposed in the nineties, it became an "out of my cold, dead hands" controversy. Further, the ban made no real sense as it left millions in circulation and finally, the ban was often based more on appearance than function.  Even millions more are now out there and although they are used in a few high profile slaughters (Aurora, Newtown, etc,), they are largely not the weapon of choice for street crime shootings. Furthermore, they are ideal home defense weapons (blowing a hole in the side of your neighbor's house notwithstanding) for the same reason the Marines want them for close quarter combat. That all said, if lunatics continue to use them to deliver high velocity carnage to schools, theatres, and fire departments, some sort of regulation is inevitable on public safety grounds (and is likely permissible under Heller). Constitutional issues aside, we let just about everyone drive (and some do a bad job of it, leading to more than 30,000 traffic deaths a year). We don't let everybody drive a Freightliner. It seems to me that lacking the will and legal authority for an "Australian Solution" perhaps an amendment of the 1934 National Firearms Act, act to make these restricted in a manner similar to full auto weapons (or somewhere halfway) is a good idea.

As far as crime, according to FBI data, most gun homicides are performed with handguns while rifles are less commonly used than blunt objects. Yet the spectre of an Adam Lanza mowing down a classroom with a high capacity semiautomatic rifle is definitely a public safety concern and frankly, these mass shootings happen in nice places where one does not expect them, not the inner city.  Probably nothing short of an "assault weapons ban" and buyback would satisfy the most vocal critics of these weapons, but I find this an impractical idea politically and operationally. The threat of occasional misuse of high capacity rifles and handguns on a gruesome scale (Aurora, Newtown, VA Tech) remains, though as long as these are out there. Note: According to NPR, a Federal appellate court upheld most of New York's SAFE Act, but the Supreme Court may review it.

So what? Indeed, if various "common sense" measures were implemented, individually or in tandem, these would likely reduce shootings and gun homicides incrementally, but probably not by a sea change. But perhaps one or two fewer mass shootings per year would be worth incremental improvements. Charles Krauthammer, in a recent editorial, is more hard-headed. To precipitously reduce firearms violence, we would need to precipitously reduce firearms, as President Obama alluded in a comment about Australia--and its not entirely agreed that there was cause and effect there. We have 300,000,000 guns and 300,000,000 cars for 300,000,000 people; the death toll from cars is about what it is for guns. Both can be dangerous when misused and in spite of universal competency-based licensing of vehicle operators (something we cannot require of a citizen in order that he/she exercise an enumerated Constitutional right) and universal registration of cars, the per capita carnage from gun and car ownership is similar.  Mistakes, carelessness, and criminal behavior ensure some cars and some guns are misused. But as far as the Australia solution, we have cultural differences and the Second Amendment. Drastically curtailing gun ownership would take a sea change in American politics resulting in a reversal of recent Court rulings or an overhaul of the Second Amendment. Sadly, law abiding gun owners are caught between the rock of mass murderers and the hard place of gun abolitionists. Hence the stridency of the discussion.

I think we will have to think outside the box. Regulation alone is a bad idea, and its results are largely over-promised. You don't eliminate a market through prohibition, as drugs and alcohol showed. A combination of mutually agreed on refinements to controls such as background checks, better mental health care, and broader vendor licensing will help. As will a better ability to find and intervene with people who are contemplating violence, before they snap. As will vigorous prosecution of gun crimes including straw purchasing. As will a de-emphasis on violence in our culture (video games, Hollywood, rhetoric--see embedded video in my previous post). As will parents having some control over their offspring and investing in a gun safe to prevent theft or unauthorized use. As will questioning whether anyone needs a battlefield rifle with a massive magazine, without a special Federal license. Etc.

"...Something dawned on me a couple of years ago because I go out on patrol regularly with our officers here. The criminals in Chicago do not drop their firearms, and I was struck by this. I said, why don't they drop the guns? Well, it turns out that the sanction from the gang for losing the gun is greater than the sanction from the criminal justice system if we actually catch them with it..."
--Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy, in an NPR interview

Since handguns seem to be the real weapon of choice for bad guys, we might try to reach across the abyss between the two sides and discuss some meaningful ways to keep them out of the wrong hands. First of all, make the crime tougher. As discussed by Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy on NPR, the high rates of gun crime in Chicago compared to New York City can be explained in large part by the difference in illegal possession penalties. In Chicago, the penalties are so insubstantial that gang members worry more about retribution from fellow gangsters if they toss a gun than they worry about being arrested with the illegal gun. In NYC, quite the opposite. Small wonder, as McCarthy tells us, that Chicago is rife with illegal guns. But we also need to make the damn things much harder to steal.

We need to end the War on Drugs and take a different tack on that issue, which drives so much urban crime.  Abdicating control of drugs to the underworld means we have no control over drugs and further, that they will inexorably lead to criminal activity, hence, guns. We need to tighten up sentencing standards where violent crime and gun related crime is concerned and take a harsher stance towards early release. If the latest shooting of an Albuquerque cop by a man who the Federal prosecutor called 'the worst of the worst" tells us anything, its that some people really need to be in jail, hence a tougher three strikes law. The Bill of Rights was not written to turn our streets into free fire zones.  We need to return some stability and optimism to the 98%. Guns, like drugs and alcohol, will be misused by people who are disposable parts of an economy that has some of the worst wealth distribution and fewest guarantees on the value of tomorrow in a century. Whether it be despair, anger, poverty, or demoralizaton, the economic maladjustment in the U.S. will lead to trouble. Fix the trouble first. Finally, we need to teach some responsibility and self restraint to go with all those 1A and 2A freedoms. Being a hothead with a gun, as the shooter of a four year old in a road rage incident points out, is a bad combination. We need something analogous to the fire triangle for guns.

Finally, as far as knowing who has handguns and keeping these real weapons of choice away from criminals, perhaps some controls can augment the above actions which go more to the root of why these weapons are misused. If the gun controllers would forever renounce any form of confiscation or retroactive changes in ownership laws, would the firearms community agree to a national standard for handgun permits? This would be a "shall issue" system, not replace a separate concealed carry system, and would not only allow hunters, competitors, or those worried about self defense to move between states (e.g., to attend competitions at Camp Perry, OH or here at Whittington, NM) but might make it easier to track and prosecute straw purchasers and illegal possessors.

Guns alone don't automatically mean violence, as states like Vermont and Wyoming, with astonishingly low rates (for the U.S.) of gun crime, can attest. Guns are used improperly when the social context is present to do so, which is why Vermont and Wyoming have many guns, few restrictions, and little gun crime, while Chicago and Washington, D.C. have a lot of illicit guns, lots of violence, and lots of ineffective laws. We need to do better than bicker about the same old things if we are to make progress on this issue, something we badly need to do. The current gun control debate seems to be a shootout of "the answer is more gun control/more guns, now what was the question?"

As Brian Calvert says in his excellent High Country News piece, if we cannot live up to the freedoms our Founding Fathers left for us, we may well lose them.  Firearms enthusiasts need to help solve the problems that universal gun availability, an enumerated right, sometimes causes. After all, in some respects, we are subject matter experts in all things guns.

Required reading: "Lessons Learned, And Unlearned, From A Life Around Guns" Brian Calvert, Managing Editor, High Country News. (Like Brian, my first gun was a single shot, break-open 20 Ga)

"Both sides of the gun violence debate usually miss the point. We don't have to choose between owning, using, and enjoying guns, on one hand, and preventing gun violence, on the other. Both sides need to come together to support commonsense solutions to gun violence, like keeping guns out of the hands of dangerous people like the young man who shot me. That's why I'm fighting this fight. That's why I'm working to bring people together to support gun rights and reduce gun violence. I hope you join me." Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, 3/14/2013
By the way, there is no correlation between gun ownership rate and gun homicide rate. Stay outa places like Dee Cee and Louisiana and you are probably OK.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Hollywood and Gun Violence

Someone posted this to an NPR story. I think it was taken down shortly afterwards. Indeed, I hated waiting for Bill Maher to come on because the advertisements just before the show reeked with gratuitous violence. So answer me this: how can you worship violence in the media, violence in computer games, make money off of it (its not just the gun industry that takes home their bacon with guns), and demand that gun violence stops? Seems to me there is less and less distinction between art and reality.

Warning: Full of gratuitous violence, which is of course OK, but there are some bad words at the end...the Mutts don't like bad words. Or, for that matter, gratuitous violence.

But if you are going to be critical, at least be funny.