Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Plural of "Anecdote" May Not Be "Data"...

...but sometimes it is "heartbreak." I'm not going to make a big essay out of this story — I just don't have the heart for that tonight — but nobody will convince me that Hadiya Pendleton's tragic and senseless death couldn't have been avoided if we just didn't have so many damned loaded guns floating around in public!

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

This Is How Weird the World Is These Days

When I read about a famous and beautiful actress...
 ...and her famous (and beautiful, I imagine, if I were inclined to think about men that way) race car driver husband...

...getting divorced, my first thought is about whether this will hurt her chances of getting elected to the U.S. Senate!

It's a funny ol' world, innit?

This Is What I've Been Talking About

How would this story have ended if Stanwood Elkus had not had a handgun? If he had not been so easily able to walk into his doctor's office with death hidden in his pocket... death he could deploy at a moment's thought (or lack of thought), with the most minimal of effort? If he had not had the means to so casually turn his otherwise ordinary anger into murderous violence?

If he hadn't had a gun, might Elkus have "lain in wait" for for his urologist, Dr. Ronald Franklin, with only his fists, or with a knife, or (as a retired barber) with a straight razor or a pair of shears? Perhaps. But there's no saying Elkus could've succeeded in doing much harm in hand-to-hand combat with a man nearly a quarter century younger even if he had.

More to the point, there's no saying he'd have had the stomach for hand-to-hand combat in the first place. My bet is that, without a gun in the room, this dispute would have been a shouting match or a lawsuit, instead of violence of any kind. It's impossible for me to know whether Elkus had a legitimate gripe with Franklin... but even the most legitimate imaginable gripe certainly wasn't a death-penalty crime.

This reminds me of the Jovan Belcher/Kasandra Perkins murder-suicide story: For all the talk that stricter gun laws won't affect determined criminals (as an aside, I disagree, but that's an argument for a different post), the most disheartening stories are those of people like Belcher and Elkus, who are probably not criminals, determined or otherwise, but likely just flawed people too weak to deal appropriately with their own anger and despair. This is absolutely not to exonerate them for their actions, but....

Guns empower the weak, and they make killing easy, quick, and remote. Those are the things guns were invented to do; they're the reasons people want guns to begin with. But by the same token, guns empower us in our weakest moments, and make it quick and easy to kill — others or ourselves or both — before we get over them.

The deranged spree killers, terrifying as they are, don't scare me nearly as much as the "regular person" next door, or in the next chair in the waiting room, or across the aisle on the metro, who's having a bad day... and also has a gun.

You Keep Using That Word; I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

The word I’m thinking of is “security.”

It can only have been a concern for — or should I say, a hypersensitivity to — security that last week made a fellow Quantas Airways passenger perceive an actual threat in Wynand Mullins’ t-shirt bearing the famous The Princess Bride quotation:
I suppose it’s not too hard to imagine someone not recognizing the quote, even though it’s from a much- beloved comedy and has been in circulation for over a quarter century; what is hard to imagine is that a passenger could think the line, printed on a shirt in the form of the ubiquitous “Hello, My Name Is…” sticker/badge, could possibly be a true threat, merely because it contains the word die. Even presuming the passenger wasn’t aware that it was a movie quote, didn’t the flight attendant who took the complaint know that? Did the complaining passenger think this “threat,” proudly emblazoned on Mullins’ chest, had been missed or ignored by the security personnel, gate agents, and flight crew that Mullins had passed on the way to his seat?

This ultimately turned into a no-harm/no-foul situation — Mullins wasn’t bothered further after he explained the line to the flight attendant and said he didn’t have another shirt to change into — and it would be easy to write it off as a cute little human interest story. But when I hear stories like this, I find myself thinking about the peculiar ways we understand risk and seek security.  One of my favorite audiobooks is Daniel Gardner’s The Science of Fear: How the Culture of Fear Manipulates Your Brain. Leaning heavily on the pioneering work of cognitive scientists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, Gardner exposes our tendency to misperceive and misunderstand risks, often leading us to"fix" things that are not problems (or at least, not statistically likely to be significant problems) while blissfully ignoring genuine threats.

Thus the absurdity of forcing old folks and small children to half disrobe before boarding an airplane, or of school zero tolerance policies that punish children for "weapons" that are actually simple tools and "drugs" that in fact are innocent (and parentally approved) over-the-counter remedies.¹

As we embark on the shared cultural problem of responding meaningfully to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT, I fear we'll make the same kind of mistakes, turning our schools into locked-down prisons, at a steep cost to their intended primary role, while doing nothing to alter the sea of guns they head out into when they leave for home. Events like Newtown always prompt calls for more school security, in the form of locked doors, closed campuses, armed guards, and the like, and it's hard to argue against "tighter security in our schools"... but I can't help wondering if students aren't more at risk from the conversion of an open learning environment into a tense and guarded fortification than they are from actual murderers. As the Centers for Disease Control put it:
While shocking and senseless shootings give the impression of dramatic increases in school-related violence, national surveys consistently find that school-associated homicides have stayed essentially stable or even decreased slightly over time.

According to the CDC’s School Associated Violent Death Study, less than 1 percent of all homicides among school-age children happen on school grounds or on the way to and from school. So the vast majority of students will never experience lethal violence at school. [emphasis added]
Horrific as they are, school shootings and spree killings are rare. What's not rare, in the U.S. at least, is a loaded gun in a nightstand, a cabinet, a car glovebox, or a coat pocket. Are we going to, once again, focus on emotionally satisfying "fixes" to illusory problems while blithely ignoring the more pedestrian, but much more present and deadly, real threat?


¹ Mind you, I always skeptically assume the horror stories about this are largely apocryphal, or at least that there's more subtlety in the details than in the popular retelling... but even allowing for such "windage," it seems likely that zero tolerance policies in general reflect confused thinking about risk.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Lindsey Graham's Big Day of Crazy

So many of his fellow Republicans have moved so far to the right in recent years that it would be easy to think of Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) as quaintly moderate by comparison. Indeed, Graham is a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators who yesterday released a set of proposals for comprehensive immigration reform.

Well, today Graham seemed almost frantic to remind to reestablish his wingnut credentials. Perhaps panicked by early reports that the president's proposals, announced today, would largely mirror the Senate plan, Graham was at pains to preemptively find something to criticize, lest he find himself where no Republican ever wants to be: in agreement with Barack Obama... even when the agreement is in support of the Republican's own proposal.

Reacting to leaks, confirmed by White House spokesperson Jay Carney, that the president would support inclusion of same-sex couples in his immigration reform plan, Graham was quick to declare it a mistake, intimating that it would doom the bill among Republicans. Incredulously, Graham declared "Why don't we just put legalized abortion in there and round it all out?"

Well, here's the thing, Senator: Marriage equality is supported by more Americans than oppose it, and is the law in an increasing number of states (including four that affirmed marriage equality at the ballot box in our most recent election). Furthermore, the federal Defense of Marriage Act — the only legal basis for discrimination against same-sex couples —has been ruled unconstitutional multiple times in federal court, and the administration is on record as agreeing with that determination. By the time any immigration reform could take effect, inclusion of a provision on same-sex couples may well be moot, because by then it might be settled law that discrimination against them is unconstitutional.

Oh, and as for that outburst about abortion? Sen. Graham may have missed the memo, but abortion is already legal in this country (despite his party's best efforts), and doesn't need to be "legalized" for anyone, including immigrants. Got it?

Seems like a good day's work on Graham's part reestablishing his street cred as a mean-spirited right winger, eh? But nobody could accuse him of half-measures, as it turned out he was just getting started: Commenting on outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's senate testimony regarding the fatal attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, Graham told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren that "Hillary Clinton got away with murder, in my view. [emphasis mine]"

Personally, I'm outraged by the way Republicans have appropriated the Benghazi tragedy for political advantage, beginning while the rubble was almost literally still smoking, but what went wrong there is clearly a fair subject for investigation. What is not fair — is, in fact, far beyond the pale — is the right's intimations of ulterior political motives and personal malfeasance, for which no evidence has been (or will ever be, in my judgment) produced.

Surely there were endemic organizational and operational failures, for which Clinton bears (and has without question accepted) "captain of the ship" responsibility, as the executive leader of the State Department. But the independent panel on the attack "...did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty." In particular, one finding was that among the operational problems was the failure of proactive communication of the threat to Washington... which is to say, to Clinton. In other words, she was responsible, but not to blame.

But that conclusion is arguable. What is not arguable is the nastiness of Graham's choice of words. Disputing the kind and degree of responsibility Clinton bears is fair enough; what is decidedly not fair is saying that the Secretary of State of the United States "got away with murder" in reference to an actual murder. It's a scandalous way to talk, unless you have grounds to make it an actual accusation... which, of course, nobody does in this case.

Further, Graham is too cunning (I hesitate to grace him with the term smart) not to realize that he was dogwhistling to certain devotees of aluminum haberdashery who have long thought Hillary Clinton was a literal murderer, rather than the smart, dedicated public servant most of us in the rational community understand her to be.

That Senator Graham would attack a star of the current Democratic administration, who is also quite possibly the future leader of the next Democratic administration, is hardly surprising; that he should attack her in such base, slanderous terms, and should "shout out" to the lunatic wing of his own party is... well, that's actually not too surprising, either, is it? I almost forgot.

Thanks for reminding me, Senator.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

You Say That Like It's a BAD Thing

This week the leadership of the National Rifle Association reacted to President Obama’s announcement of planned legislative initiatives and executive actions regarding gun law reform by accusing him of “attacking firearms and ignoring children.”

And, the problem with that is… what, exactly?

I’m not advocating “ignoring children” in the abstract, of course, but let’s think about this for a minute: We’re having this conversation at this moment in history, to be sure, because of the tragic mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, which feels specially urgent and painful in large part because so many of the victims were very young children. But the conversation we’re having – or that we should be having, at least in my opinion – isn’t really about gun violence against children, nor about school shootings, nor about mass shootings, because all of those are really just overlapping subsets of the broader, more fundamental problem we need to solve, which is gun violence.


I feel frustrated and conflicted when I hear people address the aftermath of Newtown by calling for reforms in school campus safety or addressing deficiencies in mental health care: Both are serious, important subjects in their own right, and the latter (at least) is a vital and urgent need on simple human grounds, even before you begin considering the potential for the mentally ill to commit violence… but solving either or both of these problems still won’t solve gun violence. The safest schools in the world won’t stop shootings in theaters or at public meetings or at fire-rescue scenes, nor, for that matter, in people’s cars, yards, living rooms, or bedrooms; the best mental health care in the world won’t stop sane people from shooting because they’re angry or drunk or scared or confused.

Guns are such a given in our culture that it takes a(n allegedly) mentally ill person killing children to create (however briefly) a political climate in which we can even talk about guns, but now that we’re in that climate, we should talk about guns. The real crisis at hand is only obliquely about children or the mentally ill; it is entirely, squarely, about guns!

I don’t actually agree with the NRA that the president is “attacking firearms,” by the way, but to the extent that he’s “attacking [public policy around] firearms,” that’s exactly what he should be doing. More specifically, we all need to be “attacking” the ease and suddenness with which so many of us can fire bullets – too often vast numbers of them – at others of us.

It’s not even really about the numbers of guns in U.S. society: As my more conservative friends are quick to remind me, there are countries – Switzerland is a favorite example – with relatively high rates of gun possession that nevertheless have low rates of gun violence. This is true, as far as it goes, but what those countries also have are rigorous systems of registration and licensing, well trained gun owners, and strict regulation of the conditions under which those owners can store, transport, carry, use, or acquire ammunition for their guns. If American gun advocates would agree to Swiss levels of regulation, I’d be willing to consider Swiss levels of gun ownership.

Instead, in U.S. society, we have not just high levels of gun ownership, but high levels of casual gun ownership by people with no particular training in gun law, gun safety, or shooting; we have easy over-the-counter retail access to ammunition in massive bulk quantities (stroll through the ammunition section of a Cabela’s store if you don’t think so); and we have almost no impediments to easy, quick access to loaded, ready-to-fire firearms in the heat of the moment.

That last is probably considered a Feature, Not a Bug™ by gun advocates – “Of course I need to carry a loaded gun, or keep one in my nightstand drawer; how else can I depend on it for self defense?” – but instances of legitimate self-defense uses of firearms are about as rare as mass shootings.

What isn’t rare, sadly, is the use of guns in against family members or intimate partners, nor is the use of guns in other sorts of interpersonal disputes or unpremeditated crimes or suicides or, perhaps most tragically, accidental or unintended shootings. And none of this even takes into account all the times a gun is used to threaten, intimidate, or coerce without ever being fired.

The extensive and perversely quasi-military preparation demonstrated by some recent mass shooters drives home the point that mass shootings are premeditated events, so new restrictions on military-style weapons and high capacity magazines, which could hinder shooters' ability to plan and provision a military-style attack, might well do some good in preventing them or lessening their impact.

But far more often, gun violence is not premeditated, and springs instead from the ease with which people can lay hands on a firearm in their worst moments of fear and rage and despair and weakness. Too much of gun violence is about the gun itself elevating bad moments to violent moments, or elevating violent moments to lethal ones… and banning big magazines and guns with flash suppressors won’t fix that. We need more.

I support essentially all of the president’s proposals, but presidents are constrained by political realism in ways that mere bloggers are not, so let me take a stab at what I think we really need:
  1. A ban on private ownership of any weapon or combination of weapon and magazine capable of firing more than 8 shots without reloading (which allows for existing 8-shot revolvers), with limited exceptions for weapons permanently stored at a licensed shooting range and never removed from those premises.
  2. Mandatory personal licensing for gun purchasers, with, at a minimum, the requirement to pass a written test on the basics of gun law and safety (i.e., similar in scope and detail to tests commonly required for a driver’s license).
  3. Universal background checks for all gun license applicants, to screen out felons, individuals identified as terrorists, and those with a history of mental illness associated with violence (note that I do not think all mental illness should be automatically disqualifying; we need to be careful not to unnecessarily stigmatize the mentally ill, nor to infringe on their rights beyond what is strictly required by compelling public safety concerns).
  4. Registration of every firearm purchase, whether at retail or in a private sale, at the seller’s responsibility, including the name and residence (or place of business) of both buyer and seller and certification that the buyer is licensed to purchase a firearm.
  5. Similar registration of every purchase of more than 50 total rounds of ammunition at a time, whether at retail or in a private sale.
  6. A requirement that guns be stored, unloaded, in a locked enclosure when not in use, and that ammunition be stored in a separate locked enclosure.
  7. Strict responsibility on the part of gun owners to know where their guns are at all times, and to keep them out of the hands of others, except under the direct supervision of the personal owner.
  8. The obligation to report the loss or theft of a registered firearm in a timely fashion (i.e., within a legally specified time measured in hours or days, rather than weeks or months), with failure to do so resulting in loss of license and potential criminal liability for any crimes committed with unreported lost or stolen guns (penalties proportional to the severity of the crime).
  9. No right to carry a weapon in public, whether open or concealed, except when legally hunting; exceptions limited to law enforcement, military personnel, and specially licensed security professionals as directly required by the performance of their duties (e.g., just being a cop doesn’t mean you can automatically carry when off duty).
  10. A requirement that weapons being transported (e.g., between home and shooting range or hunting location) are unloaded and locked, with ammunition stored separately in a locked container.
I anticipate the hair-on-fire responses: How can we stockpile firepower as a bulwark against tyranny? And how can we have our guns at the ready to defend our homes and families?

Well, you can't. But the first — the notion that it's feasible to take on the might of a modern nation-state with personal arms — is nothing but a gun fanboyperson's wet dream, anyway, no matter how many times they remake Red Dawn. And there's every reason to think personal gun use for self-defense is both rarer than advocates would have you believe and usually illegal or undesirable when it does happen.

What my proposals do, collectively, is ensure that nobody can simply grab a gun and start shooting without training, purpose, or forethought; that society has a fighting chance to keep guns out of the hands of those whose history demonstrates they can't be trusted with them; and that when guns are diverted from their known, legal owners, we at least know they're missing. I'm suggesting that gun sellers ought to be held responsible for knowing who they're selling do, and that gun owners ought to be held responsible for knowing where their guns are and what they can, may, and should do with them. Anybody got a problem with that?

What my proposals do not do is ban any guns by type (as long as you can't fire more than 8 shots, and can only do that at a range or similar, I don't much care how many times you have to pull the trigger or what the gun looks like), or confiscate any guns, or prevent any law-abiding "sportsman" from owning guns for hunting, shooting sports, or collecting (though collectors of functional guns might need to invest in locking display cases).

Our streets ought not be free-fire zones, anymore than our schools or our movie theaters or our military bases or our houses of worship should be. Not for the "bad guys," but not for the (nonprofessional) "good guys," either: Flying bullets don't become any less lethal as a result of the virtue or good intentions of the people who fire them.

If you think saying all this means you think I'm "attacking firearms," I guess I'm doing so proudly.