Sunday, February 25, 2018

Gun Owners Need a Credible NRA

 Sent to the Santa Fe New Mexican but not published.

Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens’ memorable novella A Christmas Carol, uttered the equally memorable phrase "I'll retire to Bedlam" when he thought everyone he was talking to had gone nuts. In the heated and often unfocussed rhetorical aftermath of the Parkland, Florida shooting I wonder if its time to do the same.

The National Rifle Association has gone off the rails. It promotes a toxic view of citizenship as well as gun ownership. With hunting on a downward spiral, perhaps its goal is to gin up a gun market designed around self-defense, even if we aren’t sure from whom we are defending. Furthermore, prominent NRA organizational spokespeople Wayne LaPierre and Dana Loesch compete with people like Alex Jones for who can be the most outrageous.  

Meanwhile, Democrats in Ohio wrote a bill equating innocuous, 22 rimfire hunting and target rifles from the ninteen-sixties to so-called "assault rifles” used to mow down people at the Parkland Fl school. “Kill the NRA” is a popular hashtag. On the local front, a thoughtful leader of a local gun violence prevention organization demands that school, law enforcement, and government organizations purge themselves of anyone with NRA affiliations, which amounts to McCarthyism. This in spite of people like NRA Life Member Mike Weisser being an outspoken critic of NRA leadership and an outspoken supporter of gun violence prevention on his blog and in the pages of the Huffington Post. My stepdad, also an NRA Life Member, dutifully follows the most recent NYS Safe act, putting ten round plugs in his magazines. Breaking with his single-issue tradition, he refused to vote for the Orange Loose Cannon.

As far as the NRA, gun owners need a voice in government. It’s a fact of life that any party subject to government rulemaking needs a competent, full time representative in the halls of the various legislatures to make sure its voice is heard and story understood; gun owners will be heavily impacted by any state or Federal gun control legislation. Indeed, the gun violence prevention community has multiple full time advocates, such as those funded by Michael Bloomberg’s Everytown for Gun Safety. Mr. Bloomberg’s people don’t always get it right on the details. Neither does the NRA. Most thoughtful gun owners work full time and cannot descend on their elected representatives. We depend on competent spokespeople lurking in the halls of government. I wish we had more.

An example of a glaring misunderstanding that could affect legislation was recently provided by Lois Beckett, a thoughtful analyst who extensively covers US gun issues for the UK based Guardian. She noted that in a recent CNN poll indicating 57% of Americans would ban “rifles capable of semi-automatic fire such as the AR-15” the pollsters never defined semi-automatic firearms nor the difference between traditional autoloading hunting rifles and assault-style semiautomatic rifles based on military models.

The problem with the NRA isn’t that its claims that someone needs to represent the interests of gun owners is invalid. The problem is that the NRA leadership no longer represents gun owners; it has become a voice of the far right in the culture wars rather than a voice representing the bulk of the estimated 30-40% of Americans who own firearms. Likewise, many on the left see “guns and bibles” through the eyes of left of center culture warriors.  Thus, we don’t discuss the actual problem of gun violence so much as the overprint of our cultural values. That’s what we need to fix.

If I were still an NRA member, I would demand that the entire NRA Board of Directors be recalled and that the organization find spokespeople who understand the role of guns in society rather than competing for the Atilla the Hun Award. How about we start there?

Thursday, February 22, 2018

I'll Retire to Bedlam

Ebenezer Scrooge, in Charles Dickens memorable novella, uttered the equally memorable phrase "I'll retire to Bedlam" when he thought everyone he was talking to had gone nuts. In the wake of the Parkland, Florida shooting, I wonder if its time to do the same.

While NRA Exec. Director Wayne LaPierre gave a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference that would have left Bedlam inmates feeling quite sane by comparison, Democrats in Ohio wrote a bill that would, if passed, define innocuous, 22 rimfire rifles from the ninteen-sixties such as the Marlin Model 60 or Remington Nylon as terrifying "assault rifles". Indeed, if that is the case, we all need to retire to Bedlam.

On a more sane front, Garry Wills once penned that he thought we worshipped guns too much, comparing them to the Old Testament god Moloch. Here is his piece, written shortly after the Newtown Massacre.

Here in Bombtown, at least Stephanie Nakleh tried to be reasonable in suggesting that New Mexico should not relax its standards on concealed carry. Unfortunately, she was unaware that its not a problem. So here goes.


Stephanie Nakleh has long been concerned with lowering the level of gun violence in New Mexico and for that we should thank her. However, when she acknowledges our Senators for rejecting national concealed carry reciprocity, she has missed some important information. Ms. Nakleh states reciprocity would force "...New Mexico to accept the concealed-carry standards of every other state—making it easy for residents in neighboring states like Arizona, with very weak laws, to carry hidden, loaded weapons in New Mexico...".  As it happens, we already accept Arizona's concealed carry license.

According to the New Mexico Dept. of Public Safety, New Mexico accepts concealed carry licenses from the following states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota,  Oklahoma, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. Basically, from half the states in the union. So concealed carry reciprocity would not affect us much. Further, existing reciprocity agreements have never been documented to be a problem. So-called "concealed carry killers" are rare, other than on anti-gun web sites, while most of our gun violence perpetrators in New Mexico are home grown bad guys, sometimes felons in possession, revolving door criminals, domestic abusers, or disaffected youth.

Part of the reason the gun debate never gets anywhere is that both "gun violence prevention" and "gun (owner's) rights" advocates are often not fully engaged in learning the devils in the details, but rather, repeat uncritically each side's political talking points. That was one reason last year's background check bill never made it to the Governor's desk as the bill's friends and lobbyists failed to convince key Democrats, in a timely manner, that they should support a compromise bill. So a useful bill died in committee. I still think progress can be made if we could ever agree on two things. One, to stop moving the goalposts (a key concern of gun owners) and two, to compromise with the other side. Both sides have to recall the Rolling Stones song: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you find, you get what you need".

I'll throw one thing out. Gun rights come with gun responsibilities. It has always worried me that military derived assault-style rifles designed to control a battlefield, and which can easily be modified to hold more rounds than I typically shoot in a month, are so easy to buy, even for an 18 year old with emotional issues.

We know that in general, a person's brain development goes on into the mid-twenties; most school shooters are not yet in their mid-twenties and no two individuals are alike. Perhaps we need to look at some statistics on who is misusing these guns and re-evaluate who can purchase or possess these rifles and certain other arms, TBD, in an unsupervised situation. I have a hard time thinking anyone will get their wish and have these rifles nationally banned, even if New Mexico tries to ban them (state bans have so far been upheld in Federal appellate courts). More than ten million of these rifles are in private hands; virtually all are held safely. So instead of a ban, should we consider some permitting system that could screen out higher risk or immature individuals while not penalizing the vast majority of owners who are not dangerous? Those who own such weapons can be required to ensure children and teens cannot easily access them unsupervised.

The interest balance of risk vs rights is the point of discussion and as far as I am concerned, each side's moral absolutism is not helping us get anywhere. "Guns and Bibles" indeed seem to be a cultural divide as much as tangible objects. As David Brooks recently opined in the New York Times, its long overdue for both gun rights and gun violence prevention folks to sit down and respect each other. Only then can we listen rather than just talk.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Gun War Is Being Joined

 I've said before that the firearms community should be involved in firearms violence prevention. Two reasons come to mind. One, we know more about firearms than the typical non-shooter. Two, we need to engage and try to reduce the harm out there while moderating the discussion. Unfortunately, the loudest voices are not always the most careful ones. While some of the gun violence prevention folks tend to suggest ideas that many gun owners loathe, the 2nd Amendment purists are typically the Party of No, regardless of the question.

As a result of the latest high school shooting in Florida, all Hell is breaking loose on the "gun prevention", so to speak, side. An example is the Sunday editorial in the Santa Fe New Mexican, which pretty much threw everything the Editorial Board could think of at gun owners and then tossed the kitchen sink along for good measure. Given the blood-soaked circumstances, who can blame them? Among the suggestions are"...bans on assault weapons, limits on high-capacity magazines, better background checks and numerous other amendment to the state constitution removing the prohibition on local governments passing any gun restrictions, or even rewriting a provision upholding gun rights..." A law abiding citizen who has never raised a gun in anger might find himself or herself suddenly on the wrong side of the law simply by virtue of having bought a gun with a 12 rd magazine. Its not even about "common sense gun laws" but about retaliation for the NRA and GOP's intransigence and, as many Progressives would like to do, make many if not most of today's modern, high capacity semiauto guns (see below) scarce and inconvenient to own.

But protecting the 2A, and the state constitution's analog, from emasculation should not have as a pricetag more and more bullet-spattered schools, theatres, and churches. Something is going seriously wrong in the country and its not just one issue but as our Los Alamos Catholic priest said yesterday, a host of variables are responsible of which the firearm is the enabler, even if the culture is the ultimate culprit. As anyone who reads knows, we have always had guns. Lots of them. Actual household ownership rates are probably down even as sheer numbers have gone up (based on recent research). What's changed?

When I was a teen, I legally carried a box of 22 Long Rifle ammo to school in my book bag as I was a member of the Rifle Club. One could mail order a rifle or walk into the local K Mart and see racks and racks of military surplus, "NRA-Fair-Good-Excellent" rifles that could be had for a few greenbacks. Indeed, these could be had without telling your life story to the FBI's NICS system as these were pre-background check days.  Most of those surplus guns were purchased to be modified to be sporting and hunting rifles. We didn't have endless mass shootings by me-too youths, or self-styled militias of the right and left parading under banners of intolerance. Its the culture that has changed, and in part, the kinds of guns flying off the shelves reflects the change in culture. Guns used to be primarily for sport and secondarily for guarding the hearth. Nowdays, Gun Culture 2.0, as Wake Forest Sociology Professor David Yamane calls it, is about self defense and even the shooting sports reflect that, i.e., NRA Precision Pistol has given way to International Defensive Pistol Association matches. The look and function of the guns follows the paradigm shift. Black rifles, high capacity or pocket pistols, and short barrelled shotguns with only a pistol grip to make them street legal replace Grandpa or Dad's Model 70 Winchester or Smith and Wesson revolver.When you are planning for a personal defense moment, more bullets are better. My concern, articulated here before, is that Maslow's Hammer has become, in part due to this paradigm-shift in gun culture, Maslow's Handgun.

I think those of us who enjoy firearms need to hustle over to the Middle of the Road and help find some solutions. For the life of me, I don't know why an immature nineteen year old with emotional problems should be able to walk out of a gun store with a weapon designed to control a battlefield, no questions, other than the innocuous NICS ones, asked. As I have said before, anyone old enough to get a driver's license can drive. Not everyone is allowed to drive a Freightliner. If I want to drive a Freightliner, I owe it to society to show I can handle it safely.

As far as armed teachers and the like? Aside from the fact that teachers are underpaid as it is while not being asked to get into firefights with heavily armed terrorists, surprise matters. Pearl Harbor showed that its not enough to be armed. A school shooting is a surprise attack, and will succeed just as the Japanese naval air forces succeeded. Sure, someone can eventually shoot back to limit the damage but meanwhile, people are getting shot. More guns is not the answer. More sanity, perhaps, is.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Is "Right to Work" The Key To Economic Success in New Mexico? Not.

On February 11th, the Albuquerque Journal printed two editorials supporting Right to Work laws, which prohibit unions from imposing member dues on all employees in a unionized shop. The Rio Grande Foundation's Paul Gessing and Sandoval County's Jay Block opined that passing right to work laws will stimulate New Mexico's economy. I think both opinion pieces are oversold.

Do right to work laws guarantee economic success? Business Insider recently identified the 15 states "where young people are moving in, jobs are plentiful, and business is booming". 8 of those 15 and 3 of the top five (Colorado, California, and Massachusetts) are not, per se, right to work states. These three states have union representation rates of 10.8%, 17.5%, and 12.9%, respectively. New Mexico's union representation rate is a paltry 8.2%.  Are we somehow to believe that less than one in ten unionized employees are pulling down New Mexico's economic fortunes when states with twice the union representation rates are doing fine?

The notion that right to work laws are a silver bullet to cure New Mexico's lagging economy is a straw man. What else is going on here? First, employers in today's highly technical economy must hire people who can read directions and do math; that is more critical than whether or not an employee has a union card. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that close to half of New Mexico's high school grads place into remedial studies. When looking at math proficiency, this number is even worse. One cannot expect employers to rush to a state that does not promise a competent work force. Plus, a recent Albuquerque Journal article reported that a company threatened to leave town if Albuquerque's league-leading crime rate continued unabated.

Does union membership violates an employee's rights? One must consider that a union is formed after a certification vote of the employees. I moved to Los Alamos in 2001. Regardless of whether I agreed with the sitting county council, I had to pay my property taxes. Likewise, if someone doesn't like the way their union is functioning when joining a union shop, one can run for the union board or start a decertification drive. One should not have the right to ignore what the existing employees have arranged in a vote of the work force.

Unions exist for a reason: to ensure that employees are not powerless in the workplace; perhaps the Journal needs to write a history of labor organization in the U.S. to provide fairness to this discussion. Effective representation should not go out of style. That said, the bottom line is that we all (labor, management, educational systems, and individuals) have to put our backs to the job and pull in the same direction if we expect to coax New Mexico out of its economic malaise. Rather than seeing union and management arguing over the arrangement of deck chairs as the iceberg of foreign or out of state competition looms, I would prefer to see us all cooperate to ensure that both management and employees are working towards the same goals: a fair and just workplace that is also competitive and making a profit we can all be proud of and from which we all can benefit. We also must encourage K-12 students and the PED to focus on long term success beyond the school years in order to build a competitive work force.

As a union board member, I worked with both management and my colleagues to ensure we promoted fair work rules, a voice for everyone at the table, and that we were all putting in the effort to build a successful enterprise, in my case an excellent university. Is that asking too much?

Khal Spencer was a member of the board of directors of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, the state university's faculty union. He represented faculty in the School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Gun violence is more than gun deep

...This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both...
 I just finished reading Mike Weisser's latest post on why we are not reacting more strongly to the constant string of mass shootings. Mike, as usual, makes a lot of excellent points on this subject and discusses how the GVP community needs to develop a voice that will pull  Americans into common cause to reflect on our addiction to Sam Colt's Hammer. That said, my concern is that this is not an issue as shallow as those guns themselves.

Here in New Mexico, we are going through the latest shock and horror over the latest incident of domestic violence in our midst. Thirteen year old Jeremiah Valencia was apparently systematically abused and kept locked in a dog cage for prolonged periods. He was tortured and beaten so savagely, according to reports in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Albuquerque Journal, that he sometimes needed a cane or wheelchair to get around. He was finally beaten severely, put in the dog cage to die, and buried in a shallow grave. Maybe that was the only form of relief from torture that this little boy could hope to find. Sadly, these stories, like mass shootings, keep happening. Like mass shootings, they are here and then gone from public consciousness as we go about our everyday lives. Not to mention, these incidents often occur, as JC said in Matthew, to "the least of thee". Easy to overlook until you read the details.

The bottom line is that in New Mexico we have a fair amount of gun violence. But at its heart we have a lot of domestic violence, drug abuse, poverty, and illiteracy (roughly one third of our kids don't graduate high school).  The gun violence is far from random but correlated with these underlying problems. The GVP community is correct that we need to disarm domestic violence perpetrators and others who are documented risks to the public. Unfortunately, our governor vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have done just that during the 2017 legislative session. But Jeremiah's tormentor didn't need a gun. I should also note that his tormentor was a member in good standing of our world-class Violent Repeat Offender Catch and Release Program.

It would be the height of hypocrisy to only worry about mass shootings because unlike everyday low level violence that happens in those other places, these incidents of mass carnage can happen in nice communities such as ours: Santa Fe, Los Alamos, or the town where GVP crusader Shannon Watts lives. We need to focus more efforts on why our society has this cancer within it because if we don't do so, we will breed more monsters. As the Ghost of Christmas Present said to Scrooge about the two ragged children within his robes,

'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon
them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased. Deny it.' cried the Spirit, stretching out
its hand towards the city. 'Slander those who tell it ye.
Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse.
And abide the end.'

The gun violence certainly makes the social violence more toxic, but is only the surface manifestation of the metastases within this country. We can try to regulate guns, but we can't build enough prisons and workhouses to escape the cancer within.