Shootings, Guns and the SAFE Act

October 6, 2015

The shooting at a community college in Oregon saddens me and leads me to these observations about guns.

One of my students has convinced me that the guns used in most of the recent mass shootings do not fit the description of assault or military style weapons. And they don’t fit the categories banned or regulated by the so-called New York Safe Act. In fact some of the damage was done by pistols, by handguns. So I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the New York statute is a piece of high profile posturing, sound and fury signifying nothing. Who knew? Perhaps the problem is a bunch of people writing legislation about something they know little about. I won’t speculate.

Certainly there are weapons that no people ought to have their hands on unless they are in the military – not even police need bombs.

But more than that, gun ownership should be licensed. All of us have licenses. I have a driver’s license and a law license. It’s a reasonable protection for all of us. If I can’t see well enough I won’t be able to get behind the wheel. That’s a good thing – regardless of how I might feel about it when and if that happens to me. And when I was a practicing attorney, people who came to me could expect that I could help them. That too is a good thing – although lawyers, professors and students have all sorts of quibbles about what is actually on the bar exam. Plus the bar examiners want to know if we have good character, and they collect affidavits from everyone we have ever worked for, to make sure.

Licensing makes sense, to make sure that people with guns have no record of crime or insanity as well as the knowledge to handle and store guns carefully. Licensing will not stop everyone from getting guns who shouldn’t have them. I lost a client years ago, the dedicated leader of a community organization, to a disgruntled job-seeker. But licensing would help. And tracing technology would deter some shooters. Nothing in the decisions of the Supreme Court denies the ability of states and cities to do record checks, licensing or require identifying technology.

The resistance of the NRA to licensing and tracing methodology is so irrational and so perplexing that it makes one wonder about their loyalty as well as their good sense. Indeed I think the NRA has been catering to the extremists in its membership, and some reflect the same animus. An NRA president recently referred to “The War of Northern Aggression”, his description of the secession of the Confederate States and South Carolina firing on Fort Sumter, the federal fort protecting the Charleston harbor. Some gun toting members of private militia style organizations clearly are aiming their rhetoric at public servants, at government, and at the people they call “Fourteenth Amendment citizens.” That’s right, they object to the fact that our Black brothers and sisters are free, equal, citizens who can and do vote. In other words they are still fighting the Civil War.

Hate groups are proliferating in this country. They are the most determined gun owners. All it takes is one of their number splitting off and firing into a crowd. Timothy McVeigh, who bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City was nursed in those groups.

Do you really want to put gun policy in their hands? Or, for that matter, people who posture about gun control without taking the time to study the problem?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 6, 2015.


Do the police really have no time to do anything but shoot?

August 4, 2015

Perhaps you read the NY Times story over the weekend about the self-described expert in police killings, William Lewinski, who justifies every police killing on the ground that the policeman had no time to protect himself, no time to do anything but shoot. Victim’s back turned, no time. Hand in pocket, no time. Victim doing what the officer told him to do, no time. All the evidence contradicts the statement of the officer, no time.

On Lewinski’s logic, we should all not only carry weapons, we should shoot everyone on sight, because we have no time to react, so we should all practice  preemptive killing – dead men can’t shoot us. What we should really do is move to Iraq or Syria because that’s a matter of course there. Shoot, shoot, shoot.

And understanding that the police are taught by nut-jobs like Lewinski to shoot pro-actively, what we should really do is go out like armed vigilantes and attack the police systematically, kill ‘em all so they can no longer attack us. And in case you hadn’t noticed there have been groups that have targeted the police and for just that reason.

Lewinski’s approach is good only for the undertakers. I don’t know what the undertakers give him but they should chip in a lot because they will certainly benefit from a shoot on sight society.

Of course if you or I actually took that advice, we’d be charged with murder. But the rules don’t apply to the police. We can’t shoot unarmed people but police can – and get away with it. We can’t shoot people in the back but police can – and get away with it. We can’t tell a bunch of lies about what happened that are contradicted by the provable facts and get away with it but police can – and get away with it. Thanks to Lewinski.

Think what Lewinski and others of his ilk would have to tell the police if, like most of us, they weren’t armed. They’d have to tell the police to use their heads, not their guns. They’d have to tell the police to cool tempers instead of raising them. They’d have to tell the police that the best response to a disagreement isn’t a hole in the head. They’d have to tell the police that a traffic stop isn’t ground for ending someone’s life.

What a different world it would be if we learned to live together, if we learned that there is a difference between civilization and a jungle, if we learned that the default rule is respect for human beings, respect for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as the Declaration of Independence tried to tell the world. What a different world it would be if police in America acted like our servants, not our rulers, that they don’t have a God-given right to issue commands but that like most of us, the magic word is “please.”

It’s time to imitate the British and take the guns out of the hands of the cops and leave to special rules those more unusual occasions when guns should be issued for specific jobs and reasons. The ordinary rule must be to use our heads instead of blowing away everyone in sight, leaving only death and destruction in the wake of the police.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 4, 2015.

Police Accountability

January 6, 2015

I’ve been reading a case decided in the European Court of Human Rights. It involved opposing libel suits arising out of claims of police brutality in Bergen, Norway.[1] The opinion of four judges, whose names I will not try to pronounce, struck me. The judges pointed out that the purpose of the libel suits brought by the police officers “was to suppress the debate on this issue….” But they pointed out that the government has “a monopoly over force” and that monopoly “also entails the danger of force being abused to the detriment of the very values it is meant to uphold.” Therefore “abuse of force by officials is not just one of many issues of broad general interest.” Instead, “it is … a matter of primary concern in any society.” Keeping authorities in check is particularly important for a democracy. And the ability to hold the states’ use of force in check requires protecting those who raise the alarm.

The European Commission for Democracy Through Law observed that “In numerous states … [there is a] general ban on the creation of para‑military formations.”[2] That’s because they are armed and dangerous.

So the judges in the Bergen case emphasized the “vital need for every society to exercise strict supervision over all use of force in the name of society.” Critics of official abuse need to be protected. The 1984 United Nations Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment specifically protects the right to complain.

But not about the New York City police.

It’s time we learn that there are wonderful police, and there are terrible police. But the culture of silence by which they protect each other against any and all criticism makes the wonderful police into allies of the terrible police. They’re unaccountable to each other and they’re unaccountable to the rest of us.

You and I can’t go walk down the street saying that guy down there could be armed, so if he puts his hands in his pocket I’m going to kill him. That’s not self-defense; that’s murder. But the police, who have sworn to defend us, insist they have that right to kill on the mere possibility that someone could be armed with evil intent. They insist they do not even have to account for it or defend themselves – it is disloyalty even to criticize or call for an investigation as Mayor de Blasio has done.

What the police are doing is showing that they are a special interest, not public servants. Everyone else is accountable, from the President down to the janitor, everyone is subject to investigation and criticism, everyone’s methods are open for revision. Heads of government departments and heads of corporations are accountability to us, to the public. But not the guys that claim the right to kill us. That has a clear meaning for me – I don’t trust them. They have a code of silence and self-protection and they just dare us even to question them. That means they should not be trusted. Just one more special interest trying to bilk the public. New York City’s Police have LOST my respect.

Soldiers in the military, regardless of politics, do not turn their backs on the Commander-in-Chief. That’s unacceptable. But it’s typical of the NYPD – they’re spoiled, dangerous and out of control.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 6, 2015.

[1] Opinion of Judges Kūris, Türmen, Strážnická and Greve, dissenting in Nilsen and Johnsen v. Norway, [1999] ECHR 23118/93[GC] (25 NOVEMBER 1999).

[2] Explanatory Report, incorporated as part III of Guidelines On Prohibition And Dissolution Of Political Parties, note 361 above, at ¶11, available at

Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

March 11, 2014

Should we care about the fate of prisoners?

A number of listeners have been raising that question in the wake of WAMC reports of lack of medical care in prisons, and my support for Cuomo’s position about educating prisoners.

Let’s assume that we don’t care about them at all. But we care about us. So what is the effect on us of what we do to them?

Actually the implications are huge. Read the rest of this entry »

Prisoners and the Price of Anger

February 25, 2014

People are angrily attacking Gov. Cuomo’s proposal to provide a college education for some prisoners in order to put them on a path toward more constructive, and law abiding, lives.

How much is anger worth? I understand the anger at funding an education for prisoners. They’re in prison because they have been adjudged guilty of a crime – some pretty minor but some pretty nasty.  Read the rest of this entry »

The New Jim Crow

July 16, 2013

While coming to record last week’s commentary, I was listening to Michelle Alexander on Alternative Radio. If you haven’t heard her or read her book, The New Jim Crow, I strongly recommend it. Some of us knew the basic facts but she fills in the details and makes the argument brilliantly.

I want to elaborate something implicit in her talk but not fully expressed – what she described is why civil liberties matter, one of the major reasons the ACLU was formed, and why Alexander was an attorney for the ACLU of Northern California. Read the rest of this entry »

We Will Not Comply

March 5, 2013

Did you hear the demonstrators against New York’s new gun law chanting in unison “We will not comply!”

That’s the problem. Guns allow some of their owners to think that they can define right and wrong and everybody else has to comply. In the hands of some of their owners, guns puff up their sense of self-importance, their sense that laws are written for everybody else but that they are above the law. Read the rest of this entry »


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