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Saturday, December 15, 2012

A Devastating Day

Newtown, Connecticut was not a town known to me before yesterday.  My wife and I have visited several other quaint and bucolic towns in CT, but not Newtown.  This past Memorial Day, we stayed in a Bed and Breakfast in Old Saybrook, CT and got to take part in their Memorial Day festivities.  It was colonial New England, bucolic New England, quaint New England and patriotic New England all wrapped up in one package.  It was a good feeling to be part of all that.

But yesterday was a devastating day, for all the good feeling was definitely missing, destroyed by a disturbed mind and two semi-automatic pistols -- a Glock 9 mm with a 17- shot magazine, and a Sig Sauer P226 also 9 mm with a 15-shot magazine, plus a .223-caliber Bushmaster rifle.   As a father and grandfather, I spent much of the day with tears marking my face, with a fit of actual sobs and crying during our President’s very emotional appearance before the cameras.  The nation was sharing the heartbreak of the death of 20 children and 6 adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. 

While all of the lives lost are of equal and great worth, it’s mostly about the children.  We cannot easily bear the loss of nascent lives, knowing all that has been lost to us, never to be fully known.  But then, that is the burden placed mostly upon the parents, but also on the grandparents and siblings and uncles, aunts and cousins.  They all have to bear this loss; this gruesome loss.  And there is no way for them, nor us, to take that in without heart-break.  It is incomprehensible and reprehensible, and on either count we are left with few words and more tears.  Our thoughts, and prayers, and sympathy are with them now, and will be in the future, as our President indicated.  The President was right:  they are our children now.

Thank you Barack.  I mean no disrespect in addressing you that way.  In fact, I consider that form of address a major measure of respect:  respect for you as a parent; respect for you as a valuable and unique human being; respect for you as a feeling person who clearly showed those feelings; respect for you as a Leader who is capable of giving comfort.  “Comfort,”, by the way, is a revealing word in this context.  The dictionary concentrates on the usual meanings of relief and consolation.  But, Mr. President, you have also captured a somewhat older and deeper meaning: comfort having to do with “inspiring with hope”, or possibly, giving to another a sense of inner strength, giving a sense of being guarded, cared for and protected.  Thank you.

But what I want to ask you right now is:  what can we do to address this situation which you said has gone on too long?  How can we protect second amendment rights for target shooters and competitors, along with hunters, and trainers while at the same time, controlling access to guns by felons, persons with mental deficits related to violent behavior, emotionally disturbed persons, etc.  What can we do?

Probably not as much as we would hope.  We can’t stop all the violence; we can’t stop all insane acts; we cannot prevent all people from getting guns who shouldn’t have guns.  We are limited in what we can do. 

Accepting that limitation, it is imperative that we begin to reduce, not only violence as a coping mechanism, but violence as a cultural norm.  It is time to examine our laws on violence -- domestic violence,  bullying,  fights with others in athletic competitions, as well as gun control -- and see where enforcement is lacking or non-existent.  It is time to change our cultural norm, much as we did with smoking.  Not so long ago smoking was an accepted cultural norm.  It was shown on movie and TV screens; people we admired - like doctors and movie stars - smoked.  Smoking was acceptable, but even more, it was heralded in strange ways -- it was seen as glamorous.  Health concerns of smoking and of second-hand smoke were basically ‘pooh-poohed‘, just as bullying is in many areas of this country where it is still seen as youth hi-jinks.  Today, smokers are isolated from others, seen as less than glamorous, seen as threats to the high cost of health care and are disrespected for their addiction.

So, Mr. President, how and where should we begin to change our cultural acceptance of violence?  I’m no expert, but permit me to offer the following suggestions and opinions:

Immediate:
-- enforce existing laws that limit violence; especially gun control laws already on the books;
-- by Executive order, ban the import of assault rifles like the AK gun;
-- provide immediate support for Carolyn McCarthy’s legislation that calls for: reinstating the assault weapons ban that expired in 2004; banning high-capacity magazines; requiring criminal background checks on gun buyers at gun shows; and improving instant background checks to more thoroughly catch people with histories of mental illness; push no waivers, no loopholes, no excuses. 
-- push investment in educational programs -- use of non-violent coping mechanisms for young people, for example.  There are many such programs dealing with alternatives to violence.  Let’s get behind them, first by pointing a spotlight on them, then, by bringing them together to share successes, and by providing federal grants and supporting private aid to encourage more of them;
-- bring together organizations and individuals who have a stake in reducing the culture of violence and let them speak to you about legislation and goals and activities, and particularly about best practices that work. Include in this national conference, organizations like the Mayors Against Illegal Guns and first responders against gun violence; we must build a larger coalition on this subject.  Involve Rep. Carolyn McCarthy from New York’s 4th District, and Mayor Bloomberg of NYC, among others, as sponsors and participants.
-- and finally, promote federal legislation that would ban gun owners from bringing concealed weapons to schools, churches and other areas that are currently gun-free
 
Intermediate:
-- we need a federal law (overriding all existing state laws) that requires every gun to be registered, no matter its purpose;
-- we must also move toward identifying, and getting immediate help for, persons exhibiting potentially adverse or harmful behaviors, but “profiling” will be a factor to be restricted; and, we will need to search out additional funding for organizations that can assist in this;
-- the NIH must do more research on what we can do to control violence -- gene therapy, stem cell therapy, psychiatric treatment; can we find the part of the brain or a gene that leads one to violence, and act upon that knowledge?
-- we must have an integrated computerized system for sharing information between law enforcement agencies at all levels; what are we waiting for?

Long-term:
-- we must move to support the NRA in its educational endeavors to train in marksmanship, firearm safety, marksmanship events, hunting, and law enforcement training; we must openly support their reasonable and responsible efforts to defend legitimate 2nd Amendment rights;
-- we must at the same time seek to restrict the political lobbying that this organization is allowed to do, even if it means restricting other organizations that lobby in the form of “education” or “instruction.”
-- with particular emphasis on the NRA, because they have been described as having the most effective lobbying of any organization, there must be on-going scrutiny of their lobbying efforts in terms of compliance with existing and future laws;
-- we must also seek to cap the amount that can be spent on lobbying, supporting candidates, or supporting particular legislation (this is broader in scope than gun control per se);
-- we must re-examine the definitions of 501(c)(3) organizations to make sure that lobbying in any form is prohibited; and, we must severely restrict lobbying allowed to 501(c)(4)s
--  the actions of the NRA that promote or imply support of violence in any form must be brought to the attention of the public by federal, state and municipal authorities.

The following description of the NRA is from Wikipedia, quoted at answers.com:

“The National Rifle Association of America (NRA) is an American non-profit 501(c)(4) lobbying group that advocates for the protection of the Second Amendment of the United States Bill of Rights, and the promotion of firearm ownership rights as well as marksmanship, firearm safety, and the protection of hunting and self-defense in the United States. The NRA sponsors firearm safety training courses, as well as marksmanship events featuring shooting skill and sports.
According to a 1999 Fortune survey, lawmakers and congressional staffers considered NRA the most influential lobbying group.  Its political activity is based on the principle that gun ownership is a civil liberty protected by the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights, and is the oldest continuously operating civil rights organization in the United States. According to its website, the NRA has 4.3 million members.”

“In 1975, recognizing the critical need for political defense of the Second Amendment, the NRA formed the Institute for Legislative Action, or ILA.  In 1990, the NRA made a dramatic move to ensure that the financial support for firearms-related activities would be available now and for future generations.  It established the NRA Foundation, Inc., a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization that raises tax-deductible contributions in support of a wide range of firearms-related public interest activities of the National Rifle Association of America and other organizations that defend and foster the Second Amendment rights of all law-abiding Americans.  Contributions to the Foundation are tax-deductible.” (NRSfoundation.org)

Why do I suggest supporting and “targeting” the NRA at the same time?  Because their legitimacy must be recognized in order to criticize fairly their illegitimate undertakings, such as “concealed carry”  laws which do not advance 2nd Amendment rights, but do advance a “wild west” approach to self-defense; and, their intransigence on banning assault weapons. Targeting the NRA’s illegitimate activities is not anti-2nd Amendment rights, but is equivalent to opposition to rule by a plutocracy.

In my opinion, the main issue is not the NRA per se; it is the acquired power of this organization that is at issue.  Their ability to intimidate legislators, to spend enormous amounts of money on lobbying, and their immunity from scrutiny are all topics for discussion and debate.  I, for one, believe that their mission or purpose to protect a constitutional right to arms puts a special responsibility on them to act not only on behalf of gun owners, but to act on behalf of all citizens who also have rights protected by the constitution, such as the right to privacy, the right to free speech, and the right to governance by elected representatives and not by a small elite or cadre of self-appointed advocates.  Beware of people or organizations who believe that they have a corner on certain rights!

“The NRA and its supporters say the problem is not easy access to guns. To the contrary, they often argue that the problem is a shortage of guns. If only we had more guns in circulation, fewer would die. However, there is no evidence to support the NRA’s contention. Those countries with much lower death rates do not achieve those rates by allowing free and easy access to guns by almost everybody, regardless of training. Quite the contrary. Those few countries in which guns are even more ubiquitous than the United States — countries such as Iraq — have much higher death rates.” (Atlanta Constitution-Jay Bookman Blog)

What is the NRA doing to protect the other millions of our citizens who are not their members but who are in the line of fire from guns used as instruments of death and devastation by people who have no inner controls?  Is the NRA the new 2% who are dictating national policy on guns for the other 98% (4.3 million out of 314 million)?  And why are contributions to their Foundation tax-deductible if even a portion is spent by the Foundation on activities that should be defined as “lobbying”?  And what proportion of the NRA’s own members are now in favor of reasonable gun controls?  Apparently, in light of this shooting of children, the numbers are growing.  Has the NRA reached it’s “tipping point”?

Perhaps, the final question to be asked should be:  What has the NRA done since yesterday to console the parents of the 20 children killed by semi-automatic guns in Newtown, CT?  To this moment, as far as I can determine, SILENCE - no thoughts, no prayers, no consolation or sympathy.  It is that silence that speaks volumes as to their unspoken support for a culture of violence.  The time to overturn that culture has come.  The twenty children of Newtown, after all, are our children too.