Thursday, January 17, 2013

More NRA: Debating With a Friend and Marine

Understandably my Open Letter to the NRA provoked some strong, dissenting responses from friends on Facebook, including one friend who has served with the USMC since 2004.  If the NRA refuses to participate in a real discussion about this complex issue, perhaps we can have a little one here.

From Billy:

"Your post is way off base. Every aspect of it can be easily picked apart by anyone with some basic knowledge of firearms. First off, what entitles these politicians the right to protect their children by heavily armed guards? The rest of Americans have to hope and pray some horrible event doesn't occur at their public school. Secondly, guess what, if there is a ban on 30 round mags, I can conduct a reload just as quick with a 10-rounded mag without missing a beat. This whole push is just a god damn political joke that this pathetic administration is pulling. As far as training goes, I can take a normal everyday person and easily have them shooting just as well as some of these government agents, if not better. You would truly be surprised at the amount of shooting they really do. While I respect you have your own opinions on the matter, just be aware that most of the bullshit the media slings and force feeds us is just that.

While I don't believe in all of the NRA stances, plus I do realize they have their own political objectives, none the less this is a slippery slope. As a law abiding citizen who has dedicated almost a decade to defending this country and your rights, the bullshit I sling is in fact my views. If I had a child -- matter of fact my nephew, deserves as much protection as those other kids. I really don't give a fuck if they feel they are at risk or not. If anything the horrible tragedy that occurred just drives the fact that armed guards should be in schools. Like it or not every child in this country should have the same protection as these jokes who are elected to higher office."


Billy:  I was kind of hoping I might hear from you, knowing that you support gun rights, are highly critical of this administration (politicians in general, I think?) and most importantly, that you served in the military and have experiential understanding of the power of guns and the responsibility that comes with them.  I hope you don't mind if I post your responses on my blog, along with my follow-up.  I appreciate your keeping me honest about this, and making me think about it further

First, I want to reiterate that my post is criticizing the NRA, and not the second amendment right to bear arms.  Regarding your first point, I don't know what kind of security detail other elected officials have, but the NRA's recent ad is focused on the President and Secret Service protection.



Protecting the President, regardless of party affiliation, and his family is a matter of national security. Without that level of protection he'd be dead in a day, or his wife or kids would be kidnapped and used as leverage by our enemies. An assassinated or frantic leader is bad for all of us. And on the matter of protecting one's family with guns, the President is not a hypocrite -- he hasn't proposed anything that would prevent a responsible citizen from acquiring and keeping a gun to protect their family. In fact he hasn't proposed anything yet, but I imagine whatever he does propose will look similar to the NY state laws just passed, in which case it will *still* not prevent a responsible citizen from acquiring and keeping a gun to protect their family.

My quip about the secret service screening and training is my attempt to show how this comparison can easily be turned on its head to demonstrate why gun regulations and restrictions are important. Secret Service agents are extensively screened and trained before they are allowed to wield the deadly force they have. Yet according to the NRA, even subjecting citizens to background checks before purchasing firearms is "draconian."

Yes, it's true that a motivated individual could easily work around the restrictions set forth by the NY laws just enacted. The Virginia Tech shooter showed us how deadly a mass shooting can be even when the shooter must reload multiple times. But that doesn't mean banning high capacity clips would fail to reduce the total number of homicides. And I've never heard anyone argue (sensibly or otherwise) why owning a semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round mag is important for hunting or home defense. So why are we fighting so hard to keep it legal?

Your point about gun-control politicians passing ineffective laws to win political points is, I think, a valid concern. I believe it's a real danger, and its another reason why a responsible gun lobby would be a great asset, to call liberal hacks out on their bullshit. Or at least to raise legitimate concerns. For instance, my understanding is that the 1994-2004 federal ban on assault rifles may not have been effective overall in curbing gun violence. If that's true, where are the intelligent gun rights people with credible data and analysis to show us what we've already tried and what hasn't worked?

But even in the worst case -- even if the campaign against an unregulated gun market is motivated solely by the desire to win political points, that would simply make proponents of gun laws guilty of the same farce that I say the NRA is guilty of: Pretending to care about protecting a fundamental right of citizens while doing nothing to advance the dialogue in a meaningful or productive fashion.

But I've seen no evidence presented for why banning civilian ownership of 30-round clips has been and will be a completely ineffective measure for reducing gun deaths, nor have I heard any argument for why owning a 30-round clip should be protected as part of our second amendment right. That's because there's no argument to be made beyond fulfilling an individual's recreational desire to own mass firepower, even if protecting that person's right to do so means endangering the lives of other citizens.

There's a line between protecting a civilian's right to own a gun for sport and safety, and stoking, feeding and protecting a purely recreational addiction to massive firepower.  At the moment, that line seems to exist somewhere between the grenade, which is pretty much illegal (even though launchers of inert grenades are legal) and an AR-15 type semi-automatic rifles, of which there are roughly 3 million circulating in the U.S., which can be purchased online with no background checks, and which can be legally customized with slide stock barrels for "bump firing" which effectively transforms them into slightly less accurate but fully automatic machine guns.




This line has to be moved.  We need responsible leaders, both elected leaders and *true* champions of protecting citizens' rights -- especially when those rights are in conflict with each other -- to figure out how to move it.

And finally, I'm not at all opposed to having armed, volunteer guards in schools, provided: (1) the guards are screened and well-trained, (2) the program is piloted responsibly, (3) there is rigorous analysis conducted to determine whether such a measure is safe, cost-effective, and is likely to prevent school massacres if implemented nationally.  If a guard with a gun in every school (and every movie theater, and every church, and every place where citizens congregate in large numbers) is what it takes to prevent massacres, I will happily pay that tax, even if it's a stiff one.

But on it's face, the proposal seems prohibitively expensive (even if volunteer-based), and futile.  Considering that most massacres are well planned and end in suicide, all I see happening is that the crazy gunman starts by killing the security guard, and proceeds from there.  Two guards?  Study their routines long enough and a well-armed gunman could pick off both.

Still, I think it's worth considering.  But I don't believe the NRA has any interest in exploring this proposal seriously.  Their purpose is misdirection.  They expected the President to balk, which allowed them to run their "hypocrite" ads, stoking the ire of absolutist gun owners and manufacturers, all while avoiding the simple question of, "Okay, what limits and regulations are acceptable?"  No.  The NRA will not have that conversation.  Why?  Because protecting the right to unconditionally own an assault-rifle for recreation even at the expense needless deaths is an indefensible position.  So they offer a flippant plan at a press conference, take no questions, point to mental health and violent video games as issues that must be dealt with but make no attempt to define what they see as reasonable and responsible gun regulation.  They offer their sham of a plan and wait for the backlash, and then counter-backlash.  Avoidance, misdirection and ire-stoking are the only tools they have.

Meanwhile, lo! The President's 23-point proposal (full version here; summary from Washington Post here) includes six points for heightening school security, and two of those involve incentives and funds for hiring trained and highly-specialized armed guards (school resource officers) in schools that want them.  There are also proposals to fund more research into gun violence including the impact of violent video games, and several measures to improve mental health services and explore the relationship of mental health to gun violence.

Whether it's all political showmanship, a sincere attempt to reduce gun violence, or somewhere in between, it's hard to deny the President's plan is comprehensive.  It's not all about gun regulation.  It includes measures and addresses issues that were featured in the NRA's proposal.  The door is now open for real dialogue and productive compromise.  His proposal invites the question, once more: What gun regulations and restrictions are sensible, and reasonable, in the view of the NRA?

Their response?  "Attacking firearms and ignoring children is not a solution to the crisis we face as a nation. Only honest, law-abiding gun owners will be affected."  That's twenty words, out of 120 words total.  You can read the NRA's full response to the President's plan here.  It does not address any of the specific points in the President's proposal, not background checks, not assault rifles, not video game research, not mental health, not even armed guards in schools.  So whose proposal are they talking about here?

The NRA claims they lead efforts "...to promote safety and responsible gun ownership, " and that "keeping our children and society safe remains our top priority."  But the non-response to the President's proposal immediately following that statement, about leadership and priorities, is just the latest evidence contradicting that very claim.

And so I repeat: the NRA is not about protecting the second amendment; it's priority is protecting a prolific and profitable gun market --- no matter how unnecessarily lethal the guns are, and no matter who gets them --- even if that means endangering the safety of Americans.  They accomplish privately through lobbying, and publicly by avoiding and preventing any conversation about gun regulation, sensible or otherwise.

And the NRA is 4.3 million strong.  For shame America.  If promoting responsible gun-ownership is truly important to you, you do not belong in the NRA.

Billy again:  Sure, I don't mind man. Not some of my better responses since I mashed them out on my phone. This issue just strikes a nerve since I am a firearms instructor for deploying service members. Swooping bans of anything never works with our society, history has proven this time and time again. Instead of pushing for bans on certain types of firearms, the inept government should work on producing programs to educate the masses and promote safe handling.

Me again:  I wish the NRA was willing to articulate those kinds of arguments, Billy. If there's truly evidence that bans have not, and will not, work, then I would want to know that, and want the government to focus its attention on solutions with greater potential.

Billy again:  The evidence can be seen in most major US cities. If you take a look at the written law, most major cities have very strict laws and regulations on handguns. Does this stop all the violent crimes committed? Not in the least bit. Last year saw some record high numbers of murders or crimes committed with a handgun. This leads to my other question. Why are people up in arms about "assault rifles"? The number of deaths are a fraction compared to that of handguns. I really think this is all just a giant political joke playing on the heart strings of Americans.

Art (another friend of mine) adds: I think it'd make sense to have armed guards in some schools (provided that program is managed well). But Columbine had an armed guard (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/21/columbine-armed-guards_n_2347096.html) so, obviously, that in itself is not the end-all. I'm on the fence about the assault rifle ban. On one hand I think weapons specifically designed for super efficient slaughter of people do not belong in civilian hands. A quote from Josh from The West Wing, as he throws his hands up in exasperation dealing with a colleague on an assault weapons bill: "...with an issue as hot as gun control, I'm prepared to accept a lot of different points of view as being perfectly valid. But we can all get together on [banning] the grenade launcher, right!?" On the other hand, I can understand the frustration/anger with a law that might ban the AR-15 and have nothing to say about the equally capable Ruger Mini-14 wood-stock hunting rifle. That's discrimination. I don't know that the two are equally capable, this guy says they are (http://liberaltaria.com/?p=7). But I'm inclined to believe the packaged features of the AR-15 must give it a tactical/military advantage over its hunting counterpart. The hunting question gets asked a lot (i.e. "Why is owning a semi-automatic rifle with a 30-round mag important for hunting?"). But the context of hunting isn't the point, the issue is whether the 2nd Amendment allows each of us the right to own a particular type of gun or not. Personally, I think "Yes" if it's a small pistol, "No" if it's a surface-to-air anything, and "I'm not sure" if it's an AR-15, but, for now, I'm leaning towards "No" based on what little I know of it. My problem with the 2nd Amendment: despite that (or maybe because) it's only 1 sentence, nobody knows what it means! Was it meant to grant an inviolable right to all citizens to own a gun or was it meant to put guns in the hands of militiamen only? Was it meant to cover weapons deadlier than muskets? We know how some founding fathers felt about these questions because they wrote down their own opinions in journals while they drafted the Constitution. But that doesn't mean those personal views were captured in the language of the Constitution - some of those viewpoints lost their debates and didn't make the final draft
Me again:  Art, yours is exactly the kind of thoughtful, balanced view that I wish captured the essence of the national dialogue on gun control.  But even if the NRA doesn't wield the kind of political influence it used to, I fear they still affect the national dialogue.  By always defaulting to a fanatical, any-regulation-is-a-violation position, they manage to cast all gun control policy and proponents as fanatical (draconian) too, thus distorting the very real possibilities for regulation that both protects a greater number of citizens from gun violence but also preserves their second amendment right.

Rachel Maddow pointed to these two polls that show a majority of registered Republicans are opposed to Obama's plan yet support the individual elements of the plan.  D'urgh?

I don't expect miracles: the public discussion around a complex and heated issue is always hyperpolarized, oversimplified, etc.  But the discussion about gun control is SO distorted, and it kills me because it's a matter of life and death, and because the organization making intelligent conversation impossible is supported by 4.3 million people.  It kills me because there seems to be no alternative to the NRA, a movement or organization that believes the right to bear arms must be protected, but acknowledges it must also co-exist with other inalienable rights, like protection from criminal violence, and would serve as a responsible voice at the table whenever policy-making related to guns is discussed.  It kills me because balking at any hint of gun regulation, while offering no justification, seems to be a form of activism to some people, as if it makes them patriotic somehow.  But standing up against gun-stealing laws and politicians is a bullshit cause that addresses a non-existent problem.  Imagine if those 4.3 million people lent their money, effort and voice to a real problem?  Unemployment? Poverty?  Education?  Actually protecting the second amendment (as opposed to protecting an unregulated weapons market and pretending it's second amendment)?  Even if I didn't agree with their solution, at least they'd be contributing to a discussion worth having.

I'll stop there, but thanks for getting me fired up (in a good way) again.  I can see you've thinking about this even longer than I have.  And, holy shit, I've had that quip from Josh Lyman running through my head ever since the NRA press conference!  Good call.  Though I was relieved to discover that, technically speaking, live grenades are illegal, and the legal grenade launchers sold are intended/manuafactured(?) only for firing flares and chalk-dust training rounds.  If we tighten up background checks, limit ammunition capacity, etc, I think I could accept guys firing fake grenades.

Open Letter to the NRA

Dear NRA,

You are, collectively, a shameful excuse for an American organization. Period. A movement with your resources and the support of 4.3 million members could accomplish any number of amazing things in this world. Instead, you fight to protect and promote the supply and demand of massively destructive weapons, despite the overwhelming evidence that this contributes to thousands of needless deaths. Worse still, you do it under the guise of defending Americans' fundamental right to bear arms. You are doing no such thing. If the second amendment right is defensible at all, you are the scourge of that right.

You have repeatedly claimed, in the wake of mass shootings, that "now is not the time" for a conversation about gun policy. (When, then?) In mere anticipation of the President's gun policy proposals, with no specifics in hand, you paint him as a hypocrite by drawing a ludicrous comparison between Secret Service protection and an ordinary citizen's defense of his home, knowing full well that whatever proposals he offers will not impede the ability of a responsible person to keep a gun to protect his family (and if you really want to make a Secret Service comparison, lets start with the extraordinary level of screening and training agents must undergo in order to carry those guns they have).

And now you are "outraged" by the landmark laws just passed in New York State, calling them "draconian." Please explain which one of these new laws is a violation of the right to bear arms? Is it the banning of high-capacity magazines? The expanded ban on assault weapons with military-style features? The background checks prior to purchases? The ability of psychologists to report a patient they see as a gun threat? Which of these infringes on your right to keep a gun in your home to protect your family, or your right to hunt, or your right to shoot targets for sport, or your right to be prepared to join a Revolutionary War-era militia should such an opportunity present itself? No matter how one interprets the second amendment, no matter why one believes it's a right worth defending, nothing in the New York State laws comes anywhere close to infringing on that right, because the second amendment asserts our right to bear arms, not to possess unlimited and unconditional deadly force.

I believe there is, in theory, a sensible argument to be made in support of protecting a citizen's right to have a gun. And the NRA is nowhere near making that argument. I would hope that any clear-headed and compassionate proponent of gun rights would be appalled by you and your farcical campaign.

If you were one person, I could dismiss you, but the you represent the collective consciousness and financial investment of 4.3 million Americans who are, at best, ignorant, reckless and misguided, and at worst selfish, greedy, and soulless. That's what kills me, is that you're not some unfortunate but tiny fringe group like the Westboro Baptist Church. Because of your size and your ability to maintain an air of undeserved credibility, you are far more dangerous and depressing. Whether you're the NRA President, a wealthy gun manufacturer, or just a "proud card-carrying member," you are actively impeding change that will *not* threaten an American's second amendment right but may save thousands of American lives. And as long as you continue to oppose change in this absolutist fashion, you have blood on your hands. If you are my close friend and I discover you support the NRA (not gun rights but specifically the NRA), I will almost certainly think less of you. If the NRA was ever serious about protecting the second amendment, it isn't any longer. It's supporting a fanatical appetite for, and attachment to, weapons of mass destruction, and the profiteering from those appetites.

I'm sure you get thousands of open letters. This is just mine. But I want to be clear I'm addressing all 4.3 million of you. If you're serious about protecting American citizens while defending our second amendment right, you should leave the NRA and join a responsible gun lobby, if such a thing even exists. And if it doesn't exist, you should help start one.

As for the rest, there's nothing American about what you're doing.

Sincerely,

Jim Cooney

*Read some follow-up discussion/debate here.