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by danps

Will gangland-style executions of police officers be enough?

3:17 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Years ago – I don’t remember where or when, or I would give credit – I heard the line “don’t pay attention to what’s in the news; pay attention to what’s not in it.” Media cultures often develop story lines and decide what is newsworthy based on how well if fits the narrative.

Teresa Margolles, Muro Baleado / Shot-Up Wall, 2008

Revolutionary violence has a history in our country. So does domestic terrorism.

The protests in Wisconsin a few years ago were a really clear example. Large corporate outlets have been long settled into a neoliberal economic framing. Capital mobility is the new reality. International agreements that facilitate it are merely expressions of that reality; issues like collective bargaining and establishment of community standards are fondly regarded but antiquated notions in our brave new world.

So when Madison erupted over union representation, many outlets didn’t have any sensible language for describing what was going on. As a result, a huge story was mostly ignored. (Interestingly, many of the themes from it foreshadowed the Occupy movement later that year, which was similarly blacked out in its first weeks.)

Sometimes, though, a story gets ignored because it has simply become too routine to be considered news any more. Gun violence in urban areas like Chicago is not a national story now (if it ever was), and school shootings appear to be getting regarded as less and less newsworthy. After Tuesday’s shooting in Oregon, CNN initially tucked it under an “OJ 20 years later” story. CNN’s Wes Bruer initially tried to explain why it was right to do so, but ending up falling back on a defensive “the other guys aren’t covering it either” reply. Perhaps related: CNN followed up the next day with a “this is becoming the new normal” story.

Treating the proliferation of gun violence as routine means relegating certain stories to the sidelines. A four hour pursuit and standoff with an automatic weapon-wielding gun nut that winds through neighborhoods, evacuates schools and concludes with the suspect getting smoked out? No body count, so don’t bump it. Bulletproof blankets to shield kids during school shootings? Just another day in America.

We might be starting to see some changes, though. Some on the left have urged the media to make the connection between violent right wing rhetoric and metastasizing gun violence. While that isn’t a new observation, it’s starting to get picked up in established outlets. One of my regular reads, Esquire blogger Robert Bateman, has announced his intention to focus his post-military career on the issue. Moms Demand Action has a passionate and grassroots approach reminiscent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and I don’t think many people would dispute MADD’s success in changing both laws and culture on that issue.

If none of that is considered a sufficiently compelling news hook, how about this. I know the Republican establishment is currently voiding its bowels over the teabaggers claiming the immaculately coiffed scalp of Eric Cantor, but the gun violence coming from the ammosexuals has a character to it that demands a response from GOP leadership. We now have armed right wing extremists targeting law enforcement officers for summary execution. That’s not just a horrific crime, but a political statement as well.

John Boehner and others at the top of the party should be very specifically and persistently asked how they characterize political murder, and where they draw the line between a horrific crime and domestic terrorism. The execution of police officers doesn’t qualify for Boehner. OK, fine – then what does? Does Boehner consider the Oklahoma City bombing domestic terrorism? Since he doesn’t consider the Las Vegas murders to be, we know that at a minimum he draws the line somewhere between the two. Where is it?

Here’s another thought. The Las Vegas killers were trying to use murder to launch a revolution. That’s something that unfortunately has a history in our country, most infamously with Charles Manson. Does Boehner think there is any difference between Manson and the Las Vegas killers? If so, what are they? He shouldn’t be allowed to keep doing his cigar store Indian impression on this issue, no matter how unfavorable the political environment is at the moment.

Revolutionary violence has a history in our country. So does domestic terrorism. It’s entirely appropriate to link contemporary violence to comparable events in our past, and to get our leaders on the record. Where on the continuum do they place those events? They don’t happen in a vacuum or exist in isolation. Pressing leaders to clarify where today’s gun violence fits in our history might reveal some interesting positions. Might, you know, make some news.
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by danps

Shoddy Gun Paper Excites Right Wing

1:46 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

There is new interest in a 2007 study by Don B. Kates and Gary Mauser. “Would Banning Firearms Reduce Murder and Suicide?” was published in Harvard’s Journal of Public Law and Policy and has been cited recently on a number of political blogs, message boards, even on a popular right-leaning economics site. I encountered it at Writer Beat, one of the sites where I cross post. Announcing the publication by “Harvard, Obama’s Alma Mater” (apparently for the benefit of those who didn’t already know the place was a suspicious liberal bastion), the author summarizes its finding as “it’s not guns that kill people,” a commonly repeated phrase elsewhere.

Since I’m a good, open minded lefty, I decided to dig in to the paper and see if it challenged any of my beliefs. Before getting into the content I checked out a couple things, though. First, “Harvard study” conjures up images of nerdy, bespectacled professors with lab coats and slide rules indifferently inquiring as to the nature of the universe.(1) In this case, however, the authors’ backgrounds are decidedly partisan. Kates has written many books and articles in favor of gun proliferation, and Mauser is a lobbyist and enthusiast (via) on the issue. This doesn’t mean their opinions are invalid. Subject matter experts develop opinions, and as long as those opinions are at least arguably defensible there’s no problem. It’s good, though, for people to know up front what authors’ dispositions are. In this case it’s reasonable to expect a ringing endorsement of liberalized gun laws.

One other note: This does not appear to be a peer reviewed study. I didn’t see any indication of it, anyway. Again that doesn’t make it invalid, but it does mean the paper hasn’t been properly interrogated and should be considered less rigorous as a result.

That out of the way, I started reading – and couldn’t get past the first paragraph without having to stop for a reality check:

There is a compound assertion that (a) guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations, which is why (b) the United States has by far the highest murder rate. Though these assertions have been endlessly repeated, statement (b) is, in fact, false and statement (a) is substantially so.

The “other modern developed nations” are not specified, so I went with a list of those generally considered to be part of the West and that had a good amount of data available. That left a list of 20 nations. Kates and Mauser reference the Small Arms Survey; fortunately this Guardian article has the data linked in a spreadsheet. I’ve put a trimmed version of it in comma separated value (CSV) file on my site, so please feel free to look at the numbers yourself. Note any inaccuracies and I’ll correct them.

So is it, as the authors say, substantially false that guns are uniquely available in the United States compared with other modern developed nations? Here are the numbers (average firearms per 100 people) in descending order:

United States 89
Switzerland 46
Finland 45
Sweden 32
Canada 31
France 31
Norway 31
Austria 30
Germany 30
Iceland 30
New Zealand 23
Northern Ireland 22
Belgium 17
Luxembourg 15
Australia 15
Denmark 12
Ireland 09
UK (England and Wales) 06
Netherlands 04
Liechtenstein (N/A)

The US has nearly twice the gun ownership of the next closest country. It’s number one by a huge margin, no contest. The only substantially false thing is the very first factual assertion the authors make in their paper.

Next the authors claim as 100% false the notion that the US “has by far the highest murder rate.” They also spend a good deal of time on Soviet/Russian murder rates, as though that is one of the industrialized nations we should be comparing ourselves to and not, say, the UK. There’s also this bizarre statement that seems to have wandered in from a Red Scare pamphlet:

Since at least 1965, the false assertion that the United States has the industrialized world’s highest murder rate has been an artifact of politically motivated Soviet minimization designed to hide the true homicide rates.

Right, so anyway on to homicide rates. Finding data for all the countries in question over a period of years was difficult (which may not be an accident), and I was not able to find complete data sets anywhere. The closest I found was the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which has spreadsheets for both overall homicide statistics and homicides by firearms. Combining those two with a great deal of tedious copying and pasting produced this (CSV) from which I created these graphs (click to enlarge):

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by danps

Dianne Feinstein, Ted Cruz and the value of principles

2:09 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The sharp exchange between Ted Cruz and Dianne Feinstein at last week’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing produced somewhat typical partisan reactions: conservatives thought Cruz had the better of the exchange; liberals, Feinstein. There was a definite gender angle as well though. A number of women noted Cruz’ condescending attitude towards Feinstein and wondered if a man would have had his qualifications and experience so breezily dismissed. Some on the right obliged in supporting this point by breezily dismissing Feinstein’s qualifications and experience.

Steve M, a liberal at No More Mister Nice Blog, wrote a minor dissent from the left. Before continuing, though, I would like to make the FOLLOWING QUALIFICATION IN BOLD AND ALL CAPS: These observations are general and not meant to be taken as categorical. Writing that men gravitate towards one kind of argument or women another is not meant to be taken as meaning that all men or all women think a certain way.

Here is the generalization. Men generally gravitate towards (and find more persuasive) arguments that proceed from abstract principles, whereas women generally gravitate towards (and find more persuasive) arguments that proceed from lived experience. That’s not to say men don’t value lived experience or women don’t value abstract principles, just that they seem to be more persuaded by one than the other.

OK, so Steve writes that “Feinstein [came] off as dodging [Cruz'] opening question,” that “faced with the opportunity to trump what Cruz regards as his ace, Feinstein fails,” and concludes: “Democrats have to be able to refute this cloacal tsunami of bad ideas on their own terms. If a guy like Ted Cruz is going to go all ‘constitutional’ on Dianne Feinstein, then she and her fellow Democrats need to know precisely how to throw the way the Constitution has actually been applied in the real America (as opposed to Tea Party Fantasy America) back in Cruz’s face.”

Also note how he frames Feinstein’s response:

“I’m not a sixth grader,” she told the freshman Tea Party favorite. “I’m not a lawyer, but after 20 years I’ve been up close and personal to the Constitution. I have great respect for it … it’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve passed on a number of bills. I’ve studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well educated, and I thank you for the lecture.”

He omits some key comments between “I’m not a sixth grader” and “I’m not a lawyer” though (emph. added):

I’m not a sixth grader. Senator, I’ve been on this committee for 20 years. I was a mayor for nine years. I walked in, I saw people shot. I’ve looked at bodies that have been shot with these weapons. I’ve seen the bullets that implode. In Sandy Hook, youngsters were dismembered. Look, there are other weapons. I’ve been up — I’m not a lawyer, but after 20 years I’ve been up close and personal to the Constitution. I have great respect for it. This doesn’t mean that weapons of war and the Heller decision clearly points out three exceptions, two of which are pertinent here. And so I — you know, it’s fine you want to lecture me on the Constitution. I appreciate it. Just know I’ve been here for a long time. I’ve passed on a number of bills. I’ve studied the Constitution myself. I am reasonably well educated, and I thank you for the lecture.

When Cruz makes his argument from a purely Constitutional perspective, he is arguing from abstract principle – and choosing his preferred rhetorical ground. If Feinstein answers in the same language she is ceding the rhetorical advantage to him. Instead she answers in the way the issue is rhetorically pertinent to her, which denies Cruz the advantage he tries to seize.

Feinstein’s highlighting the impact of those principles in the real world is not (as Steve M. suggests) dodging the question or responding with a non sequitur. She is answering in the language that is most persuasive to her. Perhaps as a man Steve would have liked an answer from abstract principle, but Feinstein’s answer seemed to resonate pretty widely.

In any debate where both of those weigh heavily I suspect the public will ultimately side with whichever seems more compelling. Feinstein’s answer struck me as very compelling since the human cost of our gun violence is so horrific, and Cruz’ appeal to the Constitution dry, and even somewhat callous, by comparison We’ll have to see how it plays out though.

The debate might be altered by the one interesting bit of news from the exchange: Cruz’ apparent blanket extension of First Amendment protection to all books. He clearly believes it would not be Constitutional to say “the First Amendment shall apply only to the following books and shall not apply to the books that Congress has deemed outside the protection of the Bill of Rights.”

That is an eloquently stated principle. But it is also one that would extend First Amendment protection to a book full of child pornography. Ted Cruz did not voice any kind of qualification, so evidently he believes Congress ought never, under any circumstances, say that a book or category of books lies outside the protection of the First Amendment.

Principles by themselves do not have values; invoking something on principle is ethically neutral. A principle is simply “a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption.” For instance, here is a principle: African Americans are more ignorant and criminally inclined than other Americans. It is a bigoted principle, one unsupported by any reputable research, one contradicted by the research that does exist, and one that has been used to justify a staggering amount of evil throughout our history. But it’s a principle!

Similarly, “state’s rights” is a principle. Is it a good one or a bad one? Well it doesn’t have to be either, but it has been invoked to defend some of the most morally abhorrent practices in our nation’s history. So no matter how fine it may sound in the abstract, in our lived experience it drags a considerable amount of freight behind it.

That’s what is happening now in the gun debate and the broader debate about the Constitution. Some people, apparently unlike Ted Cruz, believe that the First Amendment is not absolute and doesn’t, for instance, protect child pornography. Similarly, some people believe that assault weapons are the Second Amendment equivalent of child pornography and therefore are not eligible for that Amendment’s protection.

Those who believe otherwise and wish to invoke the principle of the thing are welcome to do so. But they will need to counter those like Feinstein who remind everyone of just how much blood has been shed in support of that principle. They will also need to accept that there are certain downside risks to the pure invocation of principle, and that even a well formed one is not a shield against all arguments. Some principles are bad; others can lead to inconvenient places. That would be the case if, for example, Ted Cruz’ positions on assault weapons and child pornography are different from the ones logically implied by his stated principles.

by danps

Gun violence, public health and the missing piece

4:48 pm in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

The massacre in Newtown has once again opened up the discussion of firearms in America. We are getting the usual dumbassery about how this is a punishment from God or the fault of video games (which apparently are unavailable outside of the US) and the usual preemptive whining about how this is not the time to talk about firearm legislation because it would politicize the issue. This is the same spirit in which we refrained from discussing terrorism after 9/11 for fear of politicizing that issue.

It appears that the gun nuts are feeling a little defensive though. Unlike with previous gun massacres, this one has been accompanied by a real push on the role of our abysmal mental health care system. It’s actually a great point: we’ve basically outsourced mental health care to our prisons, with predictably disastrous results. We need to do a much better job of investing in mental health care, removing the shame that surrounds it, and making sure it is available to anyone who needs it.

That doesn’t mean it’s an either/or situation though. We can both improve mental health care and implement sensible policies to reduce gun violence. One obstacle to the latter is a certain air of resignation and fatalism (“I’m fresh out of ideas. Anybody?”) which – surprise! – is a stone’s throw from demands for a comprehensive legislative strategy for implementation. Because that is the only way to discuss any issue, and it also explains the absence of war, abortion, finance, inequality and gender policies from our national dialogue.

One of the emerging ideas is to treat gun violence as a public health issue much like we have with tobacco. Highlight the grisly costs of our gun worship, educate the public on the most hazardous aspects of the issue, and do everything we can to get people to think about it.

These suggestions are missing an absolutely crucial component, though: stigma. The public health campaign against smoking pushed information on the hazards of smoking into the public arena, but it also pushed back against the activity itself. Advertising for it was increasingly restricted, the glamorization of it by Hollywood was denounced, the areas where it was permitted narrowed, and in general the unmistakable message was: this is bad; don’t do it.

That’s what we need to do with firearms, because our gun culture has glamorized them for far too long. Any discussion of guns as a cultural marker usually begins as though we were still a late 18th century agrarian land recently liberated from a royal tyrant. That is not the world we live in, to put it mildly. The vast arsenals and enormous firepower of assault weapons bears no resemblance to the “to arms, men! Redcoats at the town square!” imagery of a musket-carrying citizen soldier often invoked when gun legislation is contemplated.

To say that these mass killings are unrepresentative of the gun owning public is as persuasive as the “few bad apples” argument after Abu Ghraib. In both cases they are produced by a systemic failure that goes all the way up the line. They are not freak aberrations, but the inevitable results of a terribly broken system.

It’s time to stop defending the violent gun culture or hedging arguments. It’s possible that there is some magical country where all the guns are kept safe, are never purchased illegally, and are always used for recreational purposes or self defense. We do not live in that country. We live in a country where 31,347 people were killed by guns in 2009 (the last year official numbers are available), where our thinking about firearms is based on mythology and not reality, and where the gun lobby and spineless officials block even the mildest reforms.

If we really are going to try to change all that with a public health campaign, stigmatizing gun ownership needs to be a part of it. And guess what? No political roadmap is needed. It can be done for handguns in urban areas and for semiautomatic weapons outside them. It’s something anyone can do, anywhere. Those who defend the status quo have blood on their hands, and we should say so plainly when the issue comes up. (For those concerned about telling people mean things see here.)

In some alternate reality maybe there’s an America where gun policy does not come at such an unconscionably murderous price. That’s not America circa 2012, though. When faced with the enormous damage of tobacco use, anti-smoking advocates didn’t mince words. They didn’t say, hey – a little smoking is probably fine; you probably won’t get lung cancer if you just have a couple a day. Faced with a public health catastrophe, they took an unambiguous stance. It’s time we did the same.

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