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.


This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft

September 15, 2015

This campaign makes me nostalgic for the draft.

The Republican candidates have been telling us who they want to keep out, and whom they don’t like or wouldn’t lift a finger for – Mexicans, Iran, Muslims, the poor, women, peaceniks. And they make it pretty obvious whom they do like – whites, “real men,” cops, soldiers, guns, the U.S., especially the U.S. before any of us were born, and Christians. It’s all stereotypes, of course. No group of people is all good or all bad – not even conservatives, a big stretch for me. There are always gradations – people need to be judged on their behavior. But that’s too much work. Simplification is so much easier.

Let’s talk about something else they don’t like – democracy. All their blather about the free market and government is little more than an attack on democracy. In fact polls reveal that, on average, conservatives are typically less supportive of the freedoms in the Bill of Rights – except the freedom to carry guns so that, if what they define as the need arrives, you can blow whomever away. Heaven forbid we should have to live together. I glory in walking out of Penn Station in New York – it seems like the whole world is right there and managing to get along; how wonderful in this increasingly contentious world.

Oh on the subject of New York City, that’s a stereotype right there – for much of America New York City is Sodom and Gomorrah. Never mind that the City is actually composed of Americans from all over the country – their own relatives, friends and classmates – as well as a major first stop for immigrants, the same immigrant streams that composed the rest of the country. No, New York is heathen. I remember stopping downstairs for a haircut in a building where I had a temporary apartment in Ohio. The barber was a woman and as we chatted she told me that she was surprised that New Yorkers actually tried to help each other in the days after 9/11. Really – did she think we were coyotes?

It makes me nostalgic too – for the draft! There was actually a time when Americans from all over had to meet, interact, make friends, and did. They introduced each other to their eventual brides, formed business partnerships, learned to appreciate the best in each other’s backgrounds. The draft was truly the incubus of democracy. Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed “the military tent, where all sleep side-by-side, will rank next to the public school among the great agents of democratization.”[i] Got that right.

Actually the military has been working on that problem since the country was formed. Contrary to what many people think, Americans at the founding spoke many languages and have continued to speak many languages. The military struggled with whipping those disparate forces into a unified fighting team. They tried separate local units and units recruited by leaders like Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” but they tossed all that aside and put people into those military tents without regard to their origins.

The racial divide forced the military to think again about the problem. It turned out that mixed race units in World War II came back positive about the possibilities of integration. But Vietnam was hard, a stalemate in the swamps in the middle of turmoil back home. But the military responded by making it a part of every officer’s responsibility not only to achieve racial peace and cooperation, but to make sure that soldiers of all races developed appropriately, got training and took on responsibilities leading to promotions.

As a youth I feared the draft; I knew my own physical weaknesses. For me the Peace Corps was a good choice, one that helped me develop as a human being. And there were problems with the way the draft was handled. But I miss it nonetheless. Truly national service is a very good idea for a democratic country.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 15, 2015.

[i] Quoted in John Whiteclay Chambers, II, Conscripting for Colossus: The Progressive Era and the Origin of the Modern Military Draft in the United States in World War I, in The Military in America From the Colonial Era to the Present 302 (New York: Free Press, Peter Karsten, ed., rev. ed. 1986).

The Threat of Self-Styled Armed Militias

May 20, 2014

Some of us remember having to sign loyalty oaths. In the language of the U.S. Supreme Court, one had to swear that he or she had not “advocate[d] the overthrow of government by force, violence, or any unlawful means.” That included the overthrow of “the Government of the United States or of any political subdivisions.” In the 1950s everyone from barbers to professors had to sign those things and even cafeteria workers got fired on mere suspicion of disloyalty, the absence of proof notwithstanding.

Of course it was political. Senator McCarthy famously attacked President Truman and many of the people in the cabinet as disloyal. Republicans attacked Democrats and liberals as if they supported a Communist invasion. It was a campaign of character assassination. Charges were brought without facts that prosecutors were willing to reveal until the Supreme Court pointed out that it had the obligation to insist on fundamental due process like the right to see the charges and confront witnesses. But at least, at some level, however misguided, it was about patriotism.

Now, a group of armed self-styled militiamen blocked the federal government from charging Cliven Bundy the fee for grazing his cattle on federal land. Then they took their weapons to a closed federal canyon, to open it by force for use by ATVs. They bluntly deny the authority of the federal government. To make it worse, prominent Republicans called Bundy’s refusal to pay for grazing his cattle on federal land, and the armed intervention of his militia supporters, “patriotic.” 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 »

Guns, Militias and Public Safety

February 12, 2013

I’d like to address the debate over guns from an angle very different than the general conversation. Most of the conversation is about whether guns increase or decrease the risk of homicide or suicide. I’m pretty well convinced that the most likely victims of guns in the house are the people in the household, just as most car accidents happen within a short distance from home. But that’s not what I want to talk about. I see another problem that I think is quite significant.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has developed a great deal of expertise and information about the existence of hate groups around the country. It has identified thirty-seven different hate groups operating around New York State, forty-seven in New Jersey, thirty-four in Pennsylvania, ten in Massachusetts, five in Connecticut, four in New Hampshire and one in Vermont. These groups spew their venom at virtually every racial group, many religious groups, and gays. They comprise a litany of despicable groups from the KKK, neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups to anti-Muslim, anti-white and Holocaust deniers. Some of them just write, speak and blog, but some have been involved in criminal violence. Read the rest of this entry »


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