Tag Archives: guns

On Gun Laws: It’s the DATA, stupid.

Paul Krugman wrote an interesting op-ed this week exploring the GOP’s makers-v-takers meme, and how it just might be complete bullshit. Yes, Bobby Jindal looked sassy while he spouted a sound bite about the GOP being the party of stupid, but wink-wink he is pushing to eliminate his state’s income tax and increase sales tax to make up the difference.  Who might that benefit? So Bobby has a point. He will be a lot better off if voters are stupid enough to think that his tax plan is a good thing.  Certainly his millionaire friends think it is.

As humorous as the hijinks of the Republican party are, I couldn’t help thinking that their playbook seems to have more traction than any playbook built on stupidity should rightly have.  Whether it is selling regressive tax plans that shift tax burdens from the haves to the have-nots, or talking about enforcing existing gun laws while handcuffing the government in their efforts to enforce those laws, there is a common thread: Good Data is the work of the debbil.

See, basing your decisions on facts, non-partisan data, or as some call it, reality… that is the way “they” trick ya! See, you know you need your AR-15 to defend yourself against some revenuer aimin’ to take your AR-15 away!  You need your gun to protect your right to guns, and so on, and the fact that the GOP has stonewalled the effort to name a head of the BATFE, or that they have backed and passed legislation preventing the BATFE and the FBI from collecting, analyzing, and publishing gun-crime data?  Well, that is just a distraction from the proven fact that President Blackula wants to suck your freedom out of your goddam neck. Lernin’ is for losers, son.

And of course it is easy to make fun of the current situation, and mock the people that rely on stupidity while claiming to decry stupidity.  But the real fact of the matter in my own life is that while I am not anti-gun, I am pro-reality. In the real world there is a proven reality that bad decisions spring from bad information. In government you can equally show that bad legislation springs forth from bad data, lack of data, or just outright misinformation.  So while I think it is great that our nation is having a long overdue conversation about access to guns, it is taking place on a tissue-thin membrane of bad information. No matter how well intentioned the action, it will be based on crappy data and what is essentially folklore. While there is force behind the current “gun-control” movement, driven by an urge to strike while the iron is hot, the result will not live up to the intention of its authors.

In short, the best first step would be to get the BATFE under solid leadership with a full-time Director, with sufficient staffing and funding, and repeal the barriers to its effective operation. What we have now is an abundance of emotion and a paucity of information.  Balance needs to be restored in that equation before any truly effective legislation, or even an effective change in public attitudes, can happen.

I will let Jon Stewart drop some knowledge on this topic, while again noting that a show on Comedy Central continues to be a better source of news and analysis than any of the many networks without the word “comedy” in their name.

There is a good summary here, and this excerpt goes right to the issue:

Since 1986, federal law has prohibited a database containing gun registration information or gun permit holders from being maintained. There’s a provision in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ (ATF) appropriations bill that keeps the agency from spending any money on such a thing.  The Washington Post reported that the National Rifle Association, one of the nation’s most powerful special interest and single issue groups, not only co-wrote the 1986 legislation that first made maintaining records about gun ownership illegal, but also considers a national database of gun registrations a violation of the constitution.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I bailed on the NRA not because they are pro-gun, but because they are desperately anti-science. I have read a ton of their legislative action literature and it is consistently emotionally charged fear-mongering, relying heavily on the concept that firearms are “exceptional” in the world of manufactured objects.

Of the many things I find offensive as a citizen, gun owner, and scientist:

Tiahrt Amendment

Tiahrt is the author of the Tiahrt Amendment, which prohibits the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) from releasing information from its firearms trace database to anyone other than a law enforcement agency or prosecutor in connection with a criminal investigation. Additionally, any data so released is inadmissible in a civil lawsuit.[5] Some groups, including the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, believe that having further access to the ATF database would help municipal police departments track down sellers of illegal guns and curb crime. These groups are trying to undo the Tiahrt Amendment.[6] Numerous police organizations oppose the Tiahrt Amendment, such as the Major Cities Chiefs Association (MCCA) and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).[7] Conversely, the Tiahrt Amendment is supported by the National Rifle Association [8], and the Fraternal Order of Police (although it allows municipal police departments only limited access to ATF trace data in any criminal investigation).

If you want to see more, a simple Google query on “atf appropriations nra” nets some excellent resources. It is not just dumb luck that the automobile, the airplane, TNT, nuclear weapons, the steam engine, etc… were not available for the founding fathers to cogitate on. The NRA demands that GUNS are exceptional and their availability must not be restrained. Firearms technology is so sacred that we can’t even collect data on its manufacture, usage, safety, storage, ownership, or sale. That would be wrong. As a result we have a self-reinforcing system where we have bad laws with minimal or no enforcement, laws prohibiting better information on which to base policy, yielding more bad laws, etc… I have been trying to find an equivalent and am currently at a loss. I am not at a loss to feel dishonored that in the land of “freedom” we have a prohibition on the collection and publication of firearms data. Who does that protect? And, from what?

What I am continuing to explore is how, and why, and by whom, we are being deprived of publicly available information on which to base public policy. I remain a strong advocate for constitutional rights. I remain sick to the pit of my soul over the number and variety of gun-related deaths in my country. And I look to many chapters in our Nation’s history where the public has felt compelled to action and came away better informed, better able to direct their desire for sound public policy, and better people for their effort.

Don’t blame the messenger

I want to say this up front: I often find filmmaker Michael Moore to be a pain in the ass and I also find his opinions cringeworthy at times.  But he is also taking on issues that border on taboo and that can mean having to cringe occasionally.  If there were more like him we might be more open and less cringey about things.

Here is a great example:  Celebrating the Prince of Peace in the Land of Guns

I have been nibbling at these issues for a while, but Moore does a great job at bringing them into a cohesive narrative.  Small excerpt:

I’m not saying it’s perfect anywhere else, but I have noticed, in my travels, that other civilized countries see a national benefit to taking care of each other. Free medical care, free or low-cost college, mental health help. And I wonder — why can’t we do that? I think it’s because in many other countries people see each other not as separate and alone but rather together, on the path of life, with each person existing as an integral part of the whole. And you help them when they’re in need, not punish them because they’ve had some misfortune or bad break. I have to believe one of the reasons gun murders in other countries are so rare is because there’s less of the lone wolf mentality amongst their citizens. Most are raised with a sense of connection, if not outright solidarity. And that makes it harder to kill one another.

Gun Control is a Process

As the NRA responds to the murders in Newtown, Connecticut with a call for armed “good guys” in schools, it is important to shine as bright a light as possible on the linkage of government, lobbying organizations like the NRA, and gun manufacturing. There is no way to do all of that in one post, or with one voice on one tiny blog, but it needs to happen on a large scale if there is to be any change in American obsession with guns and tolerance for gun-related murder. A side-effect of the Newtown murders is the exposure of communities across the country that are ravaged by gun violence. Chicago is front and center, but there are many more in similar situations.

As much as I applaud the calls for gun control, as they indicate a degree of concern and awareness, they represent a goal, not a policy. Gun control is the result of policy, and good policy requires good information. I see some glaringly obvious steps that need to be taken, and I hope to enumerate and expand on them in the upcoming weeks. Here is the first:

Job #1 is: remove all barriers to BATFE gun-crime data collection, analysis and distribution.

As it stands the BATFE is prohibited from using any money or resources to manage or distribute their data on gun crimes in the US. That includes location, gun mode and make, ammunition type, rounds fired, etc… All data that would allow the public, including policy makers, to assess the impact of these devices and how they might be regulated. It should be no surprise that groups like the NRA have put a lot of effort into restricting data that will make their arguments weak or plainly ridiculous. ANALOGY ALERT!!!!

Once upon a time there was a company called Johns Manville that was heavily invested in the asbestos business. Exposure to their product caused premature death. JM knew this full well, but considered it Confidential Business Information. They altered their hiring practices to compensate for the high death and disability rate among their workers. Their clients, most prominently shipyard workers, followed suit. It took the exposure of internal memoranda, oroof that they knew they were killing their workers, for any meaningful action to occur. Instead of being shut down they were ordered to remain in business… the fiberglass business, and deal with the liability issues related to their product.

In the case of guns, there is a major twist: It is the US Government, specifically Congress, that is keeping the public safety data out of public view. In a way, that is horrible. But it presents a golden opportunity for Congress to act unilaterally to reverse these policies. That is what the President and Congress can do in the next 90 days to move this process forward. The NRA can squawk all they want, but the reality is that if their position is as strong as they believe, then they have nothing to fear from the truth. It also puts elected officials in the position of having to defend a policy of keeping the public uninformed on a massive public health and safety crisis.

Jobs 1a, 1b…. are to unify record keeping and reporting of firearms sale and transfer data at the state and/or county level and consolidate that data on a national level. This would also go for detailed manufacturing and import data on guns.

One reason we have shitty public policy on guns is that we have shitty public data on guns. GIGO is the technical term.

More soon. Here is a wish for a happy and peaceful holiday season.

[I will backfill links later, or collect related links in a separate post]

The Third Way

Front and center in the debate-storm over American Gun Policy is a standoff between variations on two polar opposite opinions:

  • Arm Everyone, as a deterrent to those with intent to do harm/crime
  • Disarm Everyone and remove the tools of these violent acts

We can see this in action between Piers Morgan and Larry Pratt.

On the first point you have a technological solution to the fear of victimization.  In the second you have a technological solution to the fear of perpetrators.  It is vastly more complex than that, but that is the bold heading that I see above each.

There is one obvious problem with the “mo’ guns, less crime” argument, not counting the statistical reality that it does not work at all: It does nothing to address the psychological impact of surrounding very young children with armed “teachers”.  Much of the experience in formal education revolves around developing a working concept of authority and independence.  An armed teacher is symbolizing a very different kind of authority figure.  Full stop.  The argument also falls flat when looking at the reality of armed intervention by regular citizens (vigilantism).  For every successful deterrent there are many accidental shootings of friends and family, like the one in Oklahoma that happened on December 18.  I encourage anyone to stop using Google for “Asian Ass Porn” for just a minute and search for “accidental shooting“, and feel free to add your city or state.  The results are shocking.

On the “less guns, less crime” side you have a very different set of issues.  First, there are a staggering number of assault weapons in the hands of Americans at this point in our history.  Sales of AR15-pattern rifles surged after the presidential election of 2008, and at each and every twitch of anti-gun sentiment since.  Freedom Group (parent company of Bushmaster) turned out more than 1-MILLION rifles (multiple makes) and sold 2-BILLION rounds of .223 ammo in the past 12 months.  That is one company of many.  I have personally witnessed the lines of gun buyers “getting theirs” before some threat of a “gun grab”.  The sales spike in AR15 weapons in the immediate aftermath of the Newtown shooting should stand as a monument to our priorities as a society.

The second problem with technological solutions is that the human animal is an “apex” tool builder and tool user.  Time after time we are shocked by both highly technical solutions, and the highly crude but effective solutions, that mankind turns to when faced with a “problem”.  A “gun ban” is not as simple as some promoters of the approach would make it seem.  As well as some gun-ban approaches have worked in other countries like Australia and Japan, they didn’t have a 0.88 gun/capita ownership rate (which I believe is a low estimate in the US), and they didn’t have the NRA pushing a mantra with the words “cold dead hands” front and center.  As well, if you think the armed massacres we have endured are bad, wait until you have an endless stream of armed resistance faced by Federal agents.  If you think I am joking you would do well to get out of the house more often.  I’m not saying that restrictions won’t be effective, but I am saying that they won’t be easy and they have the potential of sizable blowback.

Not to lay the whole debate on numbers, but this is widely accepted as accurate data.  I wish there was a better overlap of countries in the two graphs.  I will work on finding a better dataset and report back.

firearm-OECD-UN-data3

gun_ownership_rate

So what about the “third way”?  The third way is to rearrange our priorities as a nation, with a greater focus on physical health, mental health, fiscal security, jobs, and overall wellness.  If you know anyone who has sought mental health treatment the odds are that they found very limited resources, long waits for treatment, and inadequate treatment once they made it in the door.  They also may have feared the social and professional stigma of having been treated for a mental illness.  If they ran the treatment gauntlet, they may have encountered a system heavily biased towards pharmacological intervention.  That may or may not have provided any kind of real relief.

We also have issues with the role of simulated and glorified gun violence in our culture.  The lack of realistic depictions and a “reset button” mentality toward killing aside, the greater message is “eliminate, not negotiate”.   The widespread dispersion of this culture through television, cinema and video games makes it difficult to assess causation since it forms a kind of background noise.  Still, you would not be faulted for thinking that a generation with heavy exposure to first person shooter gameplay, and access to real assault weapons, might be on a playing field biased towards gun violence.

Once again, we are in a nation with massive social and fiscal issues, and great damage inflicted as a result, and our socio-political system is proving to be too broken to move toward a solution.  I hope that the bigger issue of “emotional infrastructure” gets a fair hearing in the coming months.  I dare to dream, knowing that it is not much more than shadows of what could have been.

Gimme that old time religion…

I’ll give you the link up front:

Garry Wills at NY Review of Books drops some knowledge on us

Very Required Reading, that.

And speaking of required reading…

big-books

My own checkered religious past, not to mention my present, allows me to nod in agreement and soak Garry Wills’ analogy in with ease.  I was raised catholic, and made the mistake of actually reading the bible as a kid, and then attending four years of catholic high school.  I would have been better off and better received as a student if I had chose a path of shooting dope, or in the case of the current pope, being a nazi.  That kind of stuff is easily forgiven.  Reading the bible without close supervision on the other hand, is unforgivable.  Catholics hate nothing more than the complete text of their holy bible.  What they like are the 52 biblical sound-bites that make up their annual liturgy.  Everything else is marked with a huge “Here Be Dragons” sign.  The bulk of the bible is either contradicting their soundbites, or simply not to be trusted.  And if it is in the old testament, well, there is always the “other guys” wink, wink.  I know this firsthand because I faced a seemingly endless course of discipline for asking honest questions about the bible in a catholic high school.  It wasn’t completely in vain… I did, however, become adept at a catholic variation of the “jedi mind trick”.  Nuff Said.

The past 60 hours or so have been a roller-coaster of tears, choked=back-tears, disbelief, gratitude, and reflection.  I have been through the gamut from crystalline rationalization to emotional white-out.  I don’t want to get any deeper into this subject for a while.  I am sure that there will be plenty of fodder for my snark-assault weapon of a blog in the weeks and months to come.  But the article above is the closest thing I have seen to scalar context.  The American Gun Control argument is a religious argument.  And in a country based on religious freedom, no matter how badly applied, the gun mob has leveraged that spirit as cover for their gun worship.

As the world at large watches: please have mercy and pity on us because it is very likely that we as a nation will fuck this up very badly.  Kirk Out.

Silence of the Wolves

Less than two weeks ago you didn’t have to look far to hear the NRA squawk box holding forth on the relationship between a national tragedy and a national call for better gun regulation:

Eleven days ago—since when two mass shootings have taken place, this one in Newtown and another earlier this week at a shopping mall in Oregon—the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) president, referring to yet another shooting, bemoaned the media “[seizing] on the back of this national tragedy to try to piggyback their anti-Second Amendment national agenda right on top of the back of the national tragedy and try to force it on Americans all over the country.” Mr LaPierre, like the NRA’s Twitter page, has been silent today.

Read more: Here

So, where is LaPierre and his rhetoric after two more “major” tragedies?   Uh, they shut down their Twitter and Facebook accounts is where they have been.  In addition to Clackamas and Newtown, buried in the newsfeed noise, have been a host of other gun-violence episodes in the past 72 hours, and a foiled plot to attack an Oklahoma school involving guns… and because we ‘murrikens loves us some ‘spolzhuns… bombs.
I find LaPierre’s statement to be particularly disingenuous.  Note that the NRA will exploit virtually any piece of “evidence” that they can frame as supporting their positions.  I can’t remember the NRA failing to exploit tragedies in nations where there is strong gun control (Norway, anyone?) or at least the assumption of strong gun control, as evidence that gun control doesn’t stop tragedies.  Yet the NRA has the balls to tell others to remain silent on the same issues.  The NRA is simply on the wrong side of this argument.  Instead of using their supposed expertise and their very real and extensive membership base to craft sensible and effective gun legislation, they have chosen to be the Vatican of Firepower.  They got what they need, and plenty of tithers feeding their organization, and they aren’t going to listen to any outside information.  The occasionally venture out onto their balcony to issue directives at the masses, and then skulk back into the shadows.  Dialogue is for the losers.
Much like the ramblings of halfwits like Mike Huckabee, LaPierre is answering a question that nobody asked, ever.  The NRA is a firearms industry protectionist lobbying group masquerading as a civil rights organization.  Real civil rights recognizes that justice is often a process of give and take, and that there are two sides to the process.  If your side is all “take” and no “give” then you get stasis, not progress.  Sadly the NRA is content to play for stasis because the chessboard is heavily weighted in their favor now.  Note that this is much like the GOP playing for stasis now that the wealthy and corporations are paying historically low taxes, if you were looking for a current events analogy.  They both use that current advantage to generate more and bigger donations from their respective bases.
To wrap on a personal point of reflection: I used to think that the NRA was a 2nd Amendment organization, and my response on why I would be a member was “because I wish every part of the constitution has an organization of that size and power”.   And I really do have that ideal as an example of “things that would be good”.  As well I listened hard to the replies in those conversations and did a lot of research to see if the NRA was really about the Constitution.  I won’t say there was none, but what there was lacked any real substance beyond propagandizing.  I had to come around, though it isn’t that far, to the realization that the NRA’s attachment to the 2nd Amendment is purely window dressing.
Extra Credit: the folks in Vegas might say that the odds are very high that when we do hear from the NRA it will be a brief nod to the victims, and then right back to the equivalent of a Papal Mass.  Any takers?

Each Tragedy is an Argument for Gun Control

In what is becoming a kind of trend, Reason and Politics has written an entry in response to today’s tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut.  Josh wrote a piece that I could have written almost verbatim and it would be entirely accurate.  Please give it a read.

I grew up around guns, was educated on their destructive power well before being educated about their use, and as a result did not grow up as a “gun nut” or even a “gun romantic”.  My father was involved in competitive target shooting with the US Army, and that was the tradition I was handed.  We weren’t hunters, plinkers, or military enthusiasts.  We were paper-punchers, specifically practicing the discipline of “bullseye” shooting.  Around here it is represented in the main by 50-foot indoor gallery competition with .22 caliber pistols.  It is the firearms equivalent of the chess club.  But even from that small bore tradition, I have had to do a lot of soul searching about my relationship with a sport, a technology, a government, and a group of psychotics called the NRA.

An NRA membership was a requirement for membership in my local range, and I didn’t think much of it 15 years ago.  Then I started getting their political mailings, and I honestly looked for anything other than fear mongering in their propaganda.  I found nothing of any use.  I have engaged some NRA type folks on the topic and it was frighteningly like reading those mailings… a lot of hot air and fear-baiting and basically zero facts.  Also, zero tolerance for discussion. A hard line, no debate ideology.

Like almost every other aspect of my life, I believe in voting with my voice, my wallet, my feet, etc… And with the NRA I voted with my wallet when two years ago I made the conscious decision to let my NRA membership lapse, and now my voice.  The spectre of an assault weapons ban is, and I don’t think this is breaking news, the prime motivator of many NRA members and the NRA leadership.  The main reason, I believe, is because they couldn’t win an honest debate on the issue.  Same for magazine capacity limitations and barrel length and automatic fire capability, and so on.  What the NRA is saying is that despite being powerful enough to snuff out all attempts at regulating guns in the United States, they fear that once they yield on any point it will cause a domino effect of regulation.  Their supposed show of strength is actually a show of weakness.

Each individual needs to make their own path through this tragedy.  I make the choice to start walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  I hate to say that I am not even sure where to start on engaging a progressive and effective route toward gun control.  I know that it doesn’t mean a wholesale firearms ban.  I also know that in the US of A we are kinda stupid and everything ends up being some kind of “all or nothing” debate.  As long as both sides remain extreme on this issue there will be no effective legislation.  Sounds a lot like our fiscal cliff showdown, unfortunately.