Saturday, June 27, 2015

Who Controls Our Guns


Who Controls Our Guns

Ready on the firing line
Three hundred million in the light
Sights glistening all the time
Recall that guns don’t kill; but people do
Soldiers, cops, and now, you too
Can start a flood of red
And kill them all except the dead
While knowing you have amendment rights
To keep your neighbor in your sights
And snuff his life in any season
For damn near any reason

            As I started my research on this issue of gun control, I quickly learned that “gun control” is an oxymoron in these United States.  I will provide some detail to support that assertion, but there is no realistic way to control the estimated 310 million guns within our borders.  Despite exaggerated claims that President Obama was determined to confiscate weapons, no guns have been confiscated and the proliferation of firearms has accelerated beyond human logic.  Despite highly publicized mass killings and voluntary “buy-back” programs, the number of gun deaths grows despite higher gun prices and negative publicity.  There seems to be a uniquely American love affair with firearms.  Deaths by firearms in our nation exceed 30,000 per year.  In 2014, the number of automobile deaths exceeded those from firearms by a few thousand with 35, 543 to 32, 351 for firearms.  In 2011, there were 14 states where gun deaths exceeded motor vehicle deaths.  The National Traffic Safety Board has actually reduced automobile deaths by several thousand annually by focusing on safety in design and construction of autos.  The auto is designed for transportation.  The firearm is designed to kill.  We cannot design safety into an item meant to kill.  People speak of a mechanical safety or storage security, but if your design to kill works, it kills or injures people and animals. 
Intuitively, we understand that proliferation of automobiles will result in more death and injury.  It simply makes sense that the more autos there are on the road, the greater the chance for serious collisions.  Wayne La Pierre of the NRA, on the other hand, spouts that it is bad guys that kill with guns and that all you need to prevent death by a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun (to kill him before he kills you?). In Wayne’s world, the number of guns is immaterial.  Now, that was easy.  Oh wait, Wayne did not tell us how to do that!  Are we to have designated shooters like we have designated drivers?  Maybe we need the old fashioned posse to hunt down potential shooters.  Maybe Zimmerman of Florida could be a posse leader and we could use NSA data and replace the 4th Constitutional Amendment with the 2nd.  There is yet a further irony in the La Pierre position.  It is flatly against 74% of NRA members who approve of some form of gun control (e.g., closing the gun show loophole).  In other words, Wayne is able to tell NRA members that they are wrong and that any control is bad control.  It is amazing that so many NRA members could be so wrong.  But then, does Wayne support members or gun manufacturers or does he simply support Wayne La Pierre?
            Thirty percent of firearm sales occur at gun shows.  There is no requirement to use background checks at gun shows.  Perhaps they would impede commerce?  Maybe this is where we could find some of the bad guys that Wayne says cause the death problem.  If we applied Wayne’s logic to prescription drug sales and we had prescription drug shows, would we feel the same about 30% of those sales being essentially unregulated regarding background checks?  To show how ubiquitous guns are, allow me to offer a bit of trivia.  The Iver Johnson Arms and cycle works was once headquartered in the bustling metropolis of Fitchburg, MA (now about 40,000 souls).  Both President McKinley and presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy were assassinated by Iver Johnson pistols.  It was a small company.  We frequently invited the president and owner of Iver Johnson, Luther M. Otto III and his wife Priscilla, to dinner and he simply loved my mother’s cooking, especially a typical Italian (four meat) pasta dinner and her unbelievable pastry.  Luther went hunting with my dad and seemed affable enough.  I would assume that most of the other gun manufacturers could be similarly described and while they may covet profit, they do not seem to be lusting for blood.  My guess is that if told that the rules had changed for safety, the manufacturers would adjust to the change and not seek sales of assault weapons for ordinary citizens.  Luther Otto used a Beretta over-and-under shotgun for bird hunting although Iver Johnson also manufactured “over and unders.”  He never used an assault weapon for hunting, even for deer.  Assault weapons are inherently designed for killing people in numbers.  In my Army career, I got physical with a soldier only when assault weapons were involved.  In two cases, the soldier ignored all safety rules and turned the weapon back toward fellow soldiers.  In one case, I simultaneously took the loaded assault rifle from the soldier and knocked him to the ground.  In the other, I grabbed a 40mm grenade launcher while striking the soldier to avoid accidental discharge.  That is not prudent in most cases where an assailant has a loaded military assault weapon, despite Wayne La Pierre.  It was my job to disarm these soldiers, but that is not the case in schools, theaters and churches as we witness in recent times.  We need something more universal and less risky to keep people safe in more ordinary and likely situations.
            We like to think that these United States are populated with advanced and rational people, but when we compare ourselves in firearm deaths to other developed nations, the results are disappointing.  According to Wikipedia, we are nowhere near Sweden, Germany, Israel or Ukraine or even Switzerland that has wide distribution of weapons.  We are a little worse than Paraguay and Nicaragua and only slightly better than Mexico that kills 11+ per 100,000 compared to our 10+ per 100,000.  Humanosphere noted that the US has a firearm homicide rate 6.6 times that of Portugal, which is the highest in Europe.
            Back in 2012, Igor Volsky, based on a Republican poll by Frank Luntz, wrote that, although there was a difference between NRA members and non-members, that the following was true of NRA members:  1).  74% supported background checks on gun owners and gun shop employees; 2).  71% supported prohibiting terrorist watch list members from acquiring guns;  3). 64% wanted gun owners to tell police when a gun is stolen;  4).  74% wanted concealed carry permits restricted to owners having completed a gun safety course;  5).  Concealed carry permits should not be given to perpetrators of violent misdemeanors  81% and/or domestic violence 78%.  Non-member numbers were higher except in cases of previous violence or domestic abuse restrictions.
            Given the near unanimous support for some forms of gun control, we need to ask why our nation has been spectacularly unable to implement any significant change.  The answer is both simple and complex.  The simple and unrefined answer is “money.”  When we follow the money, things get more complicated.  The cycle of dues and other payments to the NRA and affiliates continues on in payments to Congress.  For 2014, there was $984,000 spent by organizations for the NRA.  As for lobbying Congress; 18 of 35 assigned that NRA lobbying duty formerly held government jobs.  Outside spending amounted to over $28 million with only $36,001 spent for Democrats and only $92,034 against Republicans.  Much of their election candidate investment ($11,053,416) went for Republican candidates, but the largest single outlay was about $16 million against Democrats (negative ads seem preferred by the NRA).  Most NRA contributions to legislators slid under the FBI $10,000 reporting requirement with the favored legislators getting $9,900 each from NRA organizations and larger donations made to strictly Republican committees.  All these data were duly reported to and later released by the FEC, IRS and Senate Office of Public Records.  Here, we see that the members of the NRA may, at times, act against their own interests in order to support the goal of protecting the 2nd Amendment.  The NRA leaders, despite their irritating methods, are skilled at turning a phrase by blaming the victims or stirring emotions to defend the 2nd Amendment whether it is actually at risk or not.  They are able to make it appear that it is under attack, mostly by liberals and not conservatives.  I have no feeling that being emotional in return will change anything except the volume of the discussion.  Surely, after Columbine and Sandy Hook, we have learned that emotions created no changes and little could be more dramatic and emotional than attacking school children.  Firearms manufacturers want to sell weapons.  Politicians want to be elected and money is “free” speech.  We could ratchet up the spending for liberals or against conservatives, but that would certainly cause a similar reaction by NRA leaders.  We could increase our invective against those leaders, but surely would face a defensive reaction of NRA members that might make things worse.  Logic might help, but, by itself, is unlikely to move many people.
            Although there is no guarantee that any one approach will achieve success, there is intuitive support for sequencing a combination of actions that will move us to increase that probability.  If we begin with a campaign that poses no immediate threat to the special interests of the gun industry or to the members of the NRA, perhaps there could be a grass roots call for serious country-wide discussions of ONE item, for example, a demand for background checks at gun shows or, perhaps, restricting (not banning) assault weapons so that all collectors would permitted to own and use those weapons under rational controls.  We need to keep assault weapons from the mentally ill and from men of ill will.  We need a national tracking system.  We can underwrite larger turn-in programs, perhaps using public monies as incentives.  Perhaps if we made it easy to track weapons, some people might get upset, but a pilot program could easily demonstrate that tracking is not equivalent to confiscation.  People need to report lost or stolen weapons.  If we created an iron-clad policy of no-questions-asked reporting (as in turn-ins), we might make a small dent in the large problem of gun proliferation.  I would leave it to more experienced negotiators to select an option that is measurable and that will encourage gun owners and the nation at large.  We meanwhile need to openly and frequently report on the national health issue of gun violence so that we understand that it is a daily problem and not only a mass murder issue. We need to remind NRA members that we are in wide agreement on many control issues and we need to put money on the constant drum-beat of our specific agreements.  The Supremes in black robes have made it clear that money is speech.  We all need to make gun control a priority in fund drives and local programs so that we attain the awareness and the mechanisms to reduce gun violence, if not to the level of the UK, then perhaps to the level of Portugal.  Thirty-two thousand Americans die from gun violence each year.  Let us select a goal to reduce that by implementing the best ideas of our citizens including NRA members who have already shown an interest.  We could try to incentivize gun manufacturers as we once did farmers to slow production.  Each of us could think of ways to work on the numbers and while we do, it seems reckless to have no end to adding guns to the market.   This will not be easy and many factors work against our success including the very recommendation to keep the public health issue publicized.  Fear is a powerful motivator and it sells guns even better than the NRA.  Success will be slow, but if we have chosen valid measures, we can stay on track.

George Giacoppe

25 June 2015

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Deep Violence

My thoughts on violence have been prompted by recent news items and books I’ve been reading, plus some longstanding thoughts on the nature of human violence and/or non-violence. To begin with, the ‘great’ Dominique Straus-Kahn was just last week revealed to have been an active participant, while he was head of the IMF, in orgies that would have pleased Caligula. Not only were prostitutes routinely involved, not only were no condoms used, but Straus-Kahn himself, as his encounter with a chambermaid in New York made plain, was distinguished mainly by his sadism. It apparently isn’t only wild or frequent sex that tickles Straus-Kahn, but “rough trade” as it is called. He gets off forcing women, violating women, humiliating women.
            Then of course, there are the recurrent stories of ISIS and their apparent addiction to violence above and beyond the call of duty, especially their by-now notorious public beheadings. It is not enough that the leaders of ISIS indulge in public killings of prisoners and all those caught in the net of their successful invasions; they have apparently decided that videotaped beheadings with a sword both add to the fear with which they are perceived, and to the reputation that attracts supporters and fighters. And what this, in turn, indicates is that while most of us assume that such viciousness would turn people off, the opposite may be the case. Indicating how violent you are seems to stimulate the affiliative gland.
            And perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised at this. The United States, after all, has the reputation throughout the world of being the most violent nation of all. Our citizens are armed to the teeth, possessing some 300 million firearms according to most counts. Our foreign policy has been one of almost continuous violence, not just in the big wars like WWI and WWII and Vietnam and Iraq, but also in smaller wars like those in Iran, and Guatemala, and Nicaragua, and Panama, and Chile and Cuba and Korea and just about every area of the planet. And our weapons have also been state of the art, featuring the biggest bombs (we’re the only nation ever to use atomic weapons), the fastest planes and ships and vehicles, the most lethal and destructive weapons. The result of all this “policing” has been almost universal admiration. Everyone wants to come to America (or so we are told), everyone wants to be American, everyone wants to be on the business end of the killing (not to mention being in the corporate business of killing), especially now that we have weapons like drones that virtually insulate our young killers from any danger on the battlefield.
            So while some of us may imagine that we humans have turned the corner on violence (cf. Steven Pinker’s latest book, The Better Angels of our Nature), it appears that the aggressive impulses of humans are quite alive and quite well, thank you. Nature seems to thrive on violence, and humans, like all other animals, have evolved to depend on violent impulses that flare quickly and lethally whenever there is a perceived threat. And this is something that most of us can understand: threats to one’s well-being, to one’s life come often in daily affairs, and the rapid, violent response often seems the only way to fend them off. To survive. These responses may be tamped down in civilized settings where violence becomes the sole prerogative of the state, but they are never fully lost. Evolution takes much longer to change than the few years that violence and killing have ceased to be everyday occurrences (and Jared Diamond assures us, in The World Until Yesterday, that in New Guinea and other primary societies, this truly has been only a very few years).
            What is really at issue here, though, is the kind of gratuitous violence mentioned above, and highlighted in Richard Flanagan’s brilliant novel about WWII POWs, The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The novel’s hero is a Tasmanian doctor, Dorrigo Evans, who is part of a crew of Australian POWs forced by their Japanese captors to help build the notorious 285-mile Bangkok-to-Rangoon railroad. The Aussies’ section of the rail line—which would come to be praised as one of the greatest engineering projects of all time, one the Japanese finished well ahead of schedule due to their ruthless use of more than 180,000 Asian laborers (i.e. slaves, half of whom died) and 60,000 Allied POWs (one-fifth died)—was tasked with cutting through sheer rock with the most primitive tools. Flanagan spares no details in describing the cruelty of the Japanese soldiers in forcing the POWs to work, no matter how ill (from malaria, beri beri, cholera, horrible sores and injuries), no matter how enervated from starvation. The suffering he describes, the horrible conditions in which his men have to live amid jungles steaming from typhoon rains, seems beyond human endurance. And for many it is. Death is constant, a daily ritual that Flanagan describes with an almost macabre eye. In one episode he dramatizes one of the cremations that the POWs are forced to carry out daily to ‘bury’ their dead: they ignite a huge pile of bamboo into a roaring pyre that is then fed with the emaciated bodies of ten or twenty of the most recent dead. On this particular day, the usual pastor is missing, so Colonel Evans is pressed into service to say a few words about God, even though his true sentiments rebel:
Fuck God, he had actually wanted to say. Fuck God for having made this world, fucked be his name, now and for fucking ever, fuck God for our lives, fuck God for not saving us, fuck God for not fucking being here and for not fucking saving the men burning on the fucking bamboo. (187)
            Flanagan’s achievement lies not only in portraying the suffering of the POWs, though. It also lies in making plain how the Japanese soldiers and officers are themselves pressed to perform their duty for the Emperor who has decreed that the railroad be built—this to prevent the Allied navies from decimating Japanese convoys delivering supplies to Rangoon by sea. And so he gives us their interior monologues, mainly their parroted pride in the Japanese spirit, “that Japanese spirit that was soon to daily travel along their railway all the way to Burma, the Japanese spirit that from Burma would find its way to India, the Japanese spirit that would from there conquer the world” (95). He gives us the gruesome reflections of Colonel Kota, about his pride and joy in having learned, again with this Zen-type spirit, how to behead prisoners with one expertly-placed swing of his sword. And he gives us the Japanese military’s tried-and-true method of implementing this inexorable spirit to get the POWs to work no matter how ill, or weak, or half dead: violence. They beat and batter and bludgeon at the slightest slacking from work, deviation from protocol, or respect for their masters (all POWs, according to the Japanese military code, are contemptible for having surrendered rather than fighting to the death). In one episode, they beat, in front of the whole company of POWs, the sergeant Darky Gardiner, who had actually been excused to the hospital, so debilitated and half-dead was he. No matter. He is publicly beaten for hours, and then is so nearly dead that he falls into the open latrine where he can no longer keep his balance, and drowns. It is at this point that Flanagan gives us his hero’s grim vision of reality as he is now forced to see it:
For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boot and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence. (221)
And though this vision is only fleeting and does not last, it nonetheless prompts the reader to dwell upon it, and wonder about its truth. For there can be little question that many, if not most, of the great projects undertaken and implemented by men, by their leaders, by their governments, have been borne on the awful shoulders of violence. From the pyramids to the celebrated victories of generals like Caesar or Napoleon or Eisenhower, the use and misuse of, the contempt for common men’s bodies have been ubiquitous. For what else could get soldiers to race into battle facing certain death; or slaves to drive their bodies to exhaustion; or farm laborers to work amid poison pesticides; other than the threat of violence? And the question Flanagan’s meditations inspire in us is the old one: how many deaths is a pyramid worth? Was the building of the Siam to Burma railroad worth the deaths of more than a hundred thousand human beings? Not to mention the unimaginable suffering endured even by those who survived? And at the end, was the American exultation in victory, in ‘justice’ that followed the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki worth the deaths and horrible suffering of those who were vaporized by it?
            What is, after all, worth such a price? The truth is, we are faced even now with this very question. The leaders we vote into office keep making these same justifications that essentially come down to mass violence: we cannot stop global warming, we cannot put a cap on the use of fossil fuels because our economy depends on their use. The jobs of coal miners in Kentucky depends on their use. Free trade depends on their use. The very engine of civilization depends on their use. But is it worth risking the lives of thousands, millions, the entire human race if it means that the planet heats up to the point where not just civilization but humans as a species (not to mention god knows how many other species) can no longer survive? What could possibly we worth that sacrifice? How many humans must die to get our leaders, to get all of us to wake up and see that there really is a crisis at hand?
            But of course, nature never asked that question as life evolved. Violence was simply an integral part of the design. And as part of the design, it has remained integral to the evolution of humans even as their ingenuity has steadily made it more and more lethal, more and more cruel and destructive, until we are at the point where whole species are vanishing due to its application, where whole worlds may vanish as a consequence of its insane logic and its peripheral effects.
            So where do we go from here? It’s anybody’s guess. One thing should be clear, though. Devising ever more destructive, ever more violent ways to bludgeon our way through a tottering world doesn’t seem like such a good option anymore, at least not for humans. At least not if we want to continue.

Lawrence DiStasi