Thursday, January 17, 2013

Part four on gun violence: The community's response

In the first three parts of this four part blog about gun violence in America, the current situation in America has been examined; the rights of gun owners discussed and the legal responses that should be taken were outlined.  Now, to use perhaps an ironic phrase, there must be a cultural call to arms about gun violence in our communities.

This portion of the series has been changing from the time I started writing it.    
The CEO of a Tactical Response in Tennessee, a company that trains people in weapon and tactical skills, recently created a video that said he would start “killing people” if they tried to take away his guns.  His response to increased gun control is not a measured and reasoned retort, but a threat to violence.  He will find followers that support his point of view.  A gang of bullies will have found a voice that will influence directly or indirectly individuals that are searching for outlets to express their own angst with life and the society around them.  Instead of a positive lesson on solving problems, they will feel empowered to commit violence.

There is no law that can changes this.  The legislative action that is called for in the previous posts is for structural support of the community and the culture.  The community can’t outlaw speech based on its content.  But, the culture can respond in a positive way to this vitriolic approach and balance the message.  If the response from the culture is strong enough, it will minimize the voices.
The first thing we need is a respect for others in our communities, no matter how different they may be from our own point of view.  Some of the violence is happening all across America not based on any real threat against any individual, but on perverse beliefs about the threats to our own personal way of life.  As individuals we must make our voices about tolerance heard.

The violence on television, in movies, in video games and other media must be turned off.  If we don’t consume the violence in media, it will not be created.  Even if it doesn’t directly affect an individual’s behavior (I do believe it does though in varying degrees) the culture can send a strong signal about the violent behavior played out in the media.  If this rejection is wide spread enough, it will minimize the effect it has on the players to a minimum. 
Communities must ensure that every child receives a strong education.  With an education, individuals feel empowered and have the resources available needed to solve problems. 

Stronger lessons on working through problems without violence in schools should also be taught.  Not just a structured lesson about non-violence, but also from the parents of the students and other community members.  They must stand up in their own community about the issue, rejecting violence in every form with positive examples of working through issues.
Communities should establish formal and informal boards that would advise gun licensing agency about people in the community that apply.  Who knows people more that family, friends and neighbors?  How many times have media reported that someone was in an unstable situation in their life after they have killed someone with a gun?  If anyone had asked the persons family, friends or neighbors, perhaps the purchase of a gun could have been stalled for a few weeks. (1)

Of all the cultural changes that could be made, we must also take a page from the Communitarian Philosophy.  We must come together to fight violence of any kind in our communities.  Of course, communities need to do this in response to the Sandy Hook’s of the world, but also the common criminal walking the streets of every neighborhood.  We all must learn to speak up when we witness violent behavior by the media, individuals and families.  Social pressure is one of the strongest means we have as communities to create and maintain a safe and free environment. 
We have an outstanding example of this in MADD.  What seems like many years ago now, it was once funny to see someone drunk.  Media depicted the drunk as a fun person to be with and talk to.  But, the human cost of the behavior was the deaths of millions of people by drunk drivers over the years.  Until, of course, a group of mothers who had children killed by drunk drivers began to turn things around.  While their progress was slow at first, politicians eventually took note.  State by state, year by year, more restrictive impaired driving laws were created and enforcement instituted.  Now, not only is it unacceptable to drive while impaired, the social pressure has reached down to each family and individual.  We are all watching out for each other with the legislative support of our communities.

We can turn this around, in just a few years, with the collective action by the federal and state governments, our local communities and every individual.  The price we have paid in the violent episodes over the last couple years that received nation media attention is just a drop in the bucket.  As stated above, the total count of people killed in the widely reported case over the last couple of years is less than the death toll killed in America every week.
We have a choice.  Make these changes and others that will be discussed as we hold the this national debate on gun violence or keeping reading about the death of more children until we become numb to it all. 

(1) This idea came from a friend and advisor, John Perry.  Thank you, John, for your support and wisdom through the years.
Authors note:  As with many political events, the landscape on gun violence is changing almost minute by minute.  Since the beginning of this series to the posting of the last chapter, the community discussion on the issue has advanced dramatically.  With as much volatility as this issue has, much of what is in this series would have been expanded, re-examined and perhaps even changed if written again.  But, the basic concept would remain the same.  That concept is this:  Communities must balance the responsibility of helping individuals with their personal safety and maintaining as much of the individual’s rights as possible.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Suggest changes in gun laws - part three of four parts

So far, we have examined the current situation about gun violence on both sides of the issue and the Constitutional issues surrounding the theories. With this we have a foundation for making some suggested changes in the ownership and use of guns in America.

The suggestion that the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is a trade group that protects gun manufacture’s sales, has brought forward in response to the shootings across the county in the last few months, including the tragedy in Newtown, isn’t all wrong. The association suggests that every school in America should have armed guards to protect against shootings. As a last resort, it isn’t such a bad idea. But, it is a little like going to the doctor to get treatment for lung cancer after you have been smoking for 45 years. It is good that the doctor is there but, the patient should not have been smoking for all those years. Stop smoking and we won’t need so many doctors to treat cancer. Stop the shooters and we won’t need as many armed guards.
Think about this, is there a person that would like to live in a community that posts armed guards at the doors of the local school? Given the shootings over the last six months, it should also be at shopping malls, movie theaters and political rallies. I don’t know about you, but when I go someplace and see armed guards, I don’t feel safer. What I think is there must be reason they are there.
A report in just the last month said that there are less police on the road today than ten years ago. At the same time, the population of the country has grown. If we can’t find the will to keep our policing levels the same as the population grows, we will not be able to find the will to add dozens of armed guards in every community.
This is not the America I envision. It may be the last resort at some places, but it should not be the only response to the violence in America.
If a community did nothing more than staff schools with guards, it will fail our children, the teachers and staff that work there and the community. Armed camps never stopped violence. Shootings over the last couple of years have taken place in buildings with armed police and military personnel. Even a police station in Detroit, for God’s sake, had someone walk in with a gun and start firing at police officers. If armed guards, police and military personal didn’t stop the shootings there, how is it that a single armed guard at every school should be the only thing we do?
Perhaps we need to back up from the school or any other place for that matter since shootings have taken place in movie theaters and shopping malls. As a last resort, the armed guard at a school should be considered on a community by community basis. The guard should only be a properly trained and a responsible individual. It could be a local police officer or a member of the National Guard serving active duty time. They must be answerable to the community, not to the school or any private citizen. Only then can we have confidence about the professionalism of the guard.
Schools, like other venues, should also be off limits to anyone carry a gun, open carried or concealed. It has been said that if you outlaw guns then only the bad guys will have guns. Well, that is actually the point. If people are allowed to openly carry guns into a school and other places, how will you know who the bad guys are? By outlawing guns and other weapons in schools, the guard will know immediately who the bad guy is. The guard will not need to approach each individual to request identification and a license. This would only give the gunman the opportunity to open fire immediately. The guard needs to be able to take action before the shooting starts.
The shooter in Newtown was able to obtain the guns needed to carry out the attack, apparently from his own home. We don’t know all the details about how he was able to obtain the guns and perhaps never will. It is hard to believe that they were securely stored since the gunman was able to take possession of them.
To prevent this, guns in the home must be stored in a fool proof place as possible. The owner must be given full responsibility to ensure that they don’t get into the wrong hands. An inspection of the security arrangements should be carried out by the local police before the arms are purchased. Additionally, people living with a mentally ill person must take extra precautions about the weapons stored in the home, if they are stored there at all. Think about this, even on a military base everyone, including the court clerk, is trained in weapon use. But, they also have secure locations to store the guns. This is also similar to many law enforcement officers when issued their weapons at the time they are hired, have a home inspection to ensure safe storage of the weapons.
The type and amount of weapons in a single location should be limited as well as the ammunition. It has been reported that one of the guns that the shooter in Newtown used might not be in his hands if the assault weapons banned had not lapsed over ten years ago. If he didn’t have access to that type of weapon (even if we can’t stop every assault weapon from getting into the wrong hands, at least some) there could have been far fewer deaths. As for the ammunition, when hunting for deer or birds in Michigan, the hunter can only carry 5 bullets or shells in the magazine at one time. That has stood the Constitutional test for many years. Why should we be allowed to carry 100 bullets in an assault rifle to carry to school?
Background checks at gun shops, gun shows or between private citizens must be instituted before any sale is completed. It is a ridicules assertion that we can’t tie in all the information needed in one system to make the checks reasonably certain. I can get a credit check in minutes and my bank always knows how much money I have in my account. It is a fallacy that we can’t know who everyone is and what their status is with various law enforcement agencies.
Guns and ammunition should not be sold over the internet or by mail order. Only person to person sales should be allowed. The shooter in the Colorado movie theater purchased his ammunition over the internet. It has been said that if he was purchasing fertilizer (as was used in the Oklahoma City bombing many years ago) all kinds of red flags would have gone up. But, if a purchase of a hundred rounds of ammunition for an assault rifle is made, no one notices. Besides all the checks and balances that should be in the system legally, there is also that human contact that might tip off a gun shop owner.
The sale of guns and ammunition must be recorded, for two reasons. It is a reasonable request to know who owns guns, the type of gun and how many. This doesn’t prevent anyone from owning guns. But, it is reasonable for police to know in case there is an event that threatens the community. Second, if a gun is used criminally, it is good to be able to trace the gun back to the original owner.
These programs, policies and laws must be instituted nationwide. It is difficult to police the movement of weapons from one state to another when every state has different laws. With uniformity across the nation, all law enforcement will know how to respond.
In the past, the argument has been made that it is not with in the power of the federal government to make such laws. Those who make that argument assert that it is a freedom left to the states. First, if a right is stated in the Constitution, the federal legislature and federal courts have the responsibility to protect and regulate those rights. In the Tenth Amendment, it says all other rights and responsibilities not stated in the Constitution are left to the states and to the people. Since gun ownership is in the Constitution, it is with in its powers to protect and regulate.
There is also the right created in the Fourteenth Amendment that must be considered. The amendment made it clear that all rights, responsibilities and limitations in the Constitution apply to all living in the country. Clearly a power granted the federal government to protect and regulate.
If the Tenth and Fourteenth amendment do not apply, then the states do have absolute control over all rights. This was believed to be the case before the Fourteenth Amendment. The Supreme Court granted broad powers to the states to restrict all the rights of individuals, not just gun rights. A return to that situation would mean that any state could take away all guns from private individuals. It could also take away voting rights, the freedom of speech and any other right that could get through the state’s legislature.
Another thing we must do is a restriction on the violence in all media. This is a parallel restriction to pornography. It has been said that while difficult to define pornography, people know it when they see it. The same thing can be said about violence. The depiction of violence being acted out in the media is appalling. And, it is getting worse. Recently, I had the opportunity to view the film “Hannibal.” On the screen there was more violence than was imaginable in the time of another violent film, “Psycho,” which was deemed outrageous during the time it was made.
These reasonable restrictions on violence in media are not something that is to be done with a wide violation of rights. But, examples like a Supreme Court ruling in the last two years that struck down a law in California that required parental approval before children could purchase violent video games, is one that should be allowed. The Supreme Court’s ruling, with a well-argued dissent by Justice Clarence Thomas, said that it was an unnecessary restriction of the freedom of speech. Thomas in his dissent asserted correctly, that the authors of the Constitution in recognizing the many freedoms we have never intended that those rights would prevent parents from raising their children as they see fit. By protecting children from violent media, we keep them from even considering violence as a method to solve problems and seeking out revenge.
Finally, there must be an increase of enforcement at all levels. Some of these changes are already part of the legal code either at the federal, state or community level. But, without enforcement, they are worthless. In the first post in this series, it is pointed out that while the ban on the ownership of guns in Washington, D. C. was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, the gun violence in the city went down. One of the reasons cited was that the enforcement of the existing laws was increased. The police forces in local communities are underfunded. They don’t have enough money to take preventative action. They only have enough money to react when something terrible has happen. State governments have also cut enforcement to bare minimums. Finally, reports that the chief gun control department of the U.S. government, the ATF, is handcuff when it comes to enforcement. If as a nation we really want to reduce gun violence in America, at the very least the current laws must be strictly enforced.
These changes will not stop absolutely every mad man. We all know that. But, if it can reduce the amount of gun violence, progress will have been made. Maybe by providing a longer period of time between the idea in someone's head to go on a rampage to the time a gun may be actually purchased is enough. Perhaps it will stop others all together. Maybe a smart gun shop owner will not sell a gun to someone that would normally purchase it over the internet. But, these laws will help support local communities and individuals in the the local effort to reduce gun violence.
The next post will be about the community’s response to gun violence.

Friday, January 11, 2013

We have the right to own guns, but in balance with the greater good

After the high profile shootings in the last couple of years that took maybe 200 lives, the United States seems to be getting serious on the issue of gun violence.  The previous post examined the current situation in America.  It found that the outcomes on both sides of the argument contradict the theory.  In various parts of the country attempts have been made to stop the violence by enacting more restrictions some places and less in other places.  Yet the violence grows.

Today, we will discuss the Constitutional right to own a gun.
We do have the freedom to own guns in America, as guaranteed by the Second Amendment of the Constitution and our own natural rights.  (Yes, there is a phrase in the Second Amendment that uses the term “well regulated.”  But, the position in this blog post is not based on the meaning of “well regulated.”)  The Constitution also protects the freedom of speech, voting and many other freedoms.  Of all the freedoms listed in the Constitution and all the others that are part of our natural rights, only one when abused can have an irreversible outcome, the right to own a gun.  All other rights may at the worse, cause temporary harm to an individual or a community when abused.  If someone exercising their freedom of speech by slandering someone, it doesn’t cause death and the statements can be evaluated in plenty of time for corrective action.  If people vote for someone based on incorrect information, at the very least, the vote can be reversed during the next election.  So it is with every other freedom. 

The right to carry guns, by extension, the right to use the gun, if abused can cause great harm and the extreme possibility of death.  After the harm is done, the individual who lost his or her life is not able to respond.  This means that the right to own guns warrants special consideration when it comes to safeguarding members of the community.
Part of the discussion about the right to own guns should also include the constitutionally acceptable limitations of other rights.  As for the freedom of speech, the individual is not able to use fighting words and can’t use the freedom of speech as a protection for distributing pornography to certain age groups.  Voting, which is part of the original constitutionally mandated right can be limited by age, residence requirements and other limitations.  Why should the right to own a gun not be limited?  As with any other right, reasonable restrictions should be allowed by communities to protect their citizens.

In support of this, I believe the authors of the Constitution had every intention of allowing reasonable restrictions to be enacted for any of the rights.  Consider this, the original Constitution, before the Bill of Rights, guaranteed very few rights.  It certainly didn’t guarantee the freedom of speech and the right of gun ownership.  They had a different idea about rights. They looked for a balance between the community’s responsibility to protect its citizens and the rights of the individual.  The way this balance worked was through voting rights.  Some felt that the most important right “of all that could be listed on a piece of paper” was voting.  This right was important because if elected officials went too far and enacted laws that offended the citizens, with the right to vote, they could be removed from office during the next election.  Then, be replaced with someone that would find a better balance between freedom and safety.  It is this balance they intended future legislatures to follow.          
If the intent is to balance the responsibility of the community with individual rights then legislatures can act to protect people from harm.  But, it must be a compelling reason.  Action should never be taken lightly and must be balanced with the greater good for the community.  Never should action be taken to prevent the wholesale limitation of any right or to restrict the rights of any particular political point of view.     

One last thought on this idea of balancing of the responsibility of the community and individual rights.  The phrase, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is in that order for a reason.  The protection of life is of the first importance, even when weighted against liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Even the phrase that didn’t make it into any of our official documents that substitutes “pursuit of happiness” for property, places property third.  With life, all other rights flow, without, there are no other rights.  When a life is taken, so is all the freedoms that can be listed on a piece of paper are gone.  It is this logic of the balance of rights and safety that must be applied with enacting legislation.
None of the restrictions that are suggested in the next post will ask that people not be able to own guns.  It only suggests reasonable restrictions on them, like the reasonable restrictions on other rights in balance to the degree of harm they can cause by the abuse of a right.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Gun violence in America - Part one of four parts

With the tragedy at Newtown and others over the last couple of years, we may be finally taking a serious look at gun violence in the United States.  President Obama has asked Vice-President Biden to chair a bi-partisan committee staffed by elected officials from both houses of congress to work through possible proposals for action.  Biden is also hosting discussion groups at the White House with representatives from all sides of the issue.

This post is part of a four part series because of the depth that the issue is explored.  Part one is on the current situation in the country.  Part two explores the issue of gun rights in context with all rights.  This third is about legal issues that need to be explored for possible legislation.  Finally, taking a page from the Communitarian philosophy, we look to the cultural and social pressures that should come to bare on the issue of gun violence. 
While the tragedies that have received national attention are horrific, the real problem is experienced by families and communities every single day.  The amount of people killed in the media spot light is less than the total amount of people killed every week in the United States.

Depending on what research is examined, it appears that we have more guns per capita than any other nation.  There are those that believe that by arming the citizenry it will make for a safe environment from gun violence. (I believe the phrase is, “An armed society is a polite society.”)  But, the reality is, that again depending on the research, we are among the top 15 nations for the amount of deaths by gun violence. 
An extension of the armed society concept are the stand your ground laws.  In Florida, a man is on trial for shooting a 17 year old, his defense being the stand your ground law.  The argument is that people will be less likely to initiate crime if they think the other person has a gun and is legally allowed to use it in their defense.  A Texas A and M study reports that the homicide rate has increased in states that has enacted stand your ground laws.  Again, the downside appears to contradict the basic argument.    

On the other side of the spectrum, some want to take guns away from everyone except police and military.  The argument is that by removing guns all together people will not have easy quick and disassociated action of firing a gun. Two cities in America enacted very strict guns laws to reduce gun violence.  In both cases, the Supreme Court struck down the laws.  In one of the cities, Chicago, after the law was deemed unconstitutional, the homicide rate increased sharply.  In the other city, Washington, D.C., the homicide rate went down.  Something else must be going on beyond the gun laws because, again, the evidence contradicts the theory.
The two extremes of the argument don’t make a lot of sense when examined against the facts.    Gun violence in America is happening at a higher rate than almost any other country.  Yet, we have more guns than anywhere else and a wide variety of gun laws in attempt to curb the violence. 

But, we have a right to own a gun.  We will examine that right in context with our other rights in the next blog post.