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by danps

Bundy Ranch: Not A Legitimacy Crisis But A Government Learning From Its Mistakes

4:34 am in Uncategorized by danps

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

Fire breaks out at the Branch Davidian's Mt. Carmel compound during the Waco siege.

Did the government avoid another deadly confrontation by showing restraint at Bundy Ranch?

Several weeks ago Rick Perlstein wrote a piece about the standoff between Cliven Bundy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). He called it “a watershed in American history” because those at the ranch were able to use firearms and the threat of violence to get the BLM to back down. Perlstein notes “anti-constitutional insurgency as Constitution-worship on the right” has a long history, and cites the Minutemen as an example. Yet he neglects to mention more recent history that provides important context.

The federal government had similar confrontations with armed insurgents at Ruby Ridge in 1992 and Waco in 1993, and both cases ended with people dead — spectacularly so in the latter. Those events have taken on iconic significance for the far right. A quick trip to your favorite search engine will turn up an abundance of pages devoted to memorializing the events, and citing them as examples of a tyrannical government waging war against its citizens.

How would Perlstein have the BLM approach this case? There is every reason to believe another armed showdown would once again lead to loss of life, and another item being added to the far right’s list of grievances against the government. I understand his consternation at the BLM backing down last month, but history has shown that escalating tensions at such a volatile moment can have disastrous short term consequences and pernicious long term ones.

For as much as I think Bundy is a freeloader, a liar and a mooch, I was glad to see the BLM pull back. Situations like this one, Ruby Ridge and Waco are typically years in the making — and the worst thing the government can do is to force a dramatic conclusion. The BLM acted prudently by not creating one. I thought it showed the government had learned from recent history and was being careful not to repeat it.

That doesn’t mean the government should just go away, of course. It should just use the better means at its disposal to bring Bundy to justice. It can play the situation out longer than Bundy, and it should. The gun toting yahoos who showed up at Bundy’s ranch aren’t going to stick around if it looks like they won’t have a chance to play Freedom Fighter. They’ll drift away when it becomes clear the resolution is going to be considerably less exciting.

Officials seem to be thinking that way. On Sunday federal and state employees were quoted saying that Bundy crossed a line and the matter should continue to be pursued through the legal system. They haven’t given up or gone away, and they haven’t conceded anything to Bundy. They just decided — sensibly, I think — to dissipate the tension that led to the crisis and take a less provocative approach.

For as unsatisfying as it is to see the gun nuts claim victory in that one encounter, it’s better in the long run to see the thing slowly wind down with a whimper and not a bang. It isn’t hard to isolate Bundy. One way is just to put a microphone in front of him and let him talk. The support that sprang up around him began to wither once he began to expand on his thoughts. Another is to start cutting him off from the civilized world. Surely a rugged individualist like him can do without postal delivery, right? That’s just another form of dependence on the feds.

Maybe the same could be done with phone and Internet service. Other, non-firearm intensive federal agencies could start giving him some extra attention. He can be gradually squeezed without being attacked. Doing so will take more time, but it’s a necessary precaution when dealing with violent extremists. It would be nice to bring such people under the law more quickly; not doing so is no watershed moment, though. Hotheaded fanatics have to be handled differently. The last thing we need is to create a new generation of martyrs.

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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

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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