Friday, March 29, 2013

Reason #282: The Pursuit of Happiness

However tempting, I don't want to comment directly on the issue of the week. The two gay-marriage cases being considered by the Supreme Court at the moment could prove to be a huge deal once they're decided, but really, that's still a ways off--and in the meantime, there's no shortage of existing posts on this blog on the subject; I'll add a few highlights under "Further Reading" below.

The one thing I haven't really gotten into when it comes to gay rights, because it's more of a personal feeling and harder to tie into my "taxpayer" shtick, is that I really don't care about most of the arguments we're having on the subject.

I don't mean that I don't care in the sense that I don't support gay rights, I mean that I'm opposed to the nature of the conversation.

I'll back up: say scientists held a press conference tomorrow to announce that they had proven, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that homosexuality had no genetic component whatsoever. That being gay really was a choice, and no one was just born that way. Why would that matter at all? 

Returning to my earlier comments about looking at the bigger picture--which is shaping up to be the theme of this month, apparently--the gay "conversation" shouldn't be about science. It shouldn't even be about whether gay parents produce healthy children, because it's not as if heterosexual parents have some awesome track record to point to. The absolute ground level of this conversation is, do we have the right to stop people from loving who they want--not even need, just want--to love? From choosing who makes up their own household, who they want to visit them in the hospital, who gets their stuff when they die?

Any other argument, by its mere existence, implies that there's an empirical answer out there that would outweigh that core philosophical issue. Do we, as a country, allow people to have families because of research that shows families are good for society? Or do we do it to facilitate the pursuit of happiness?

Last I checked, the Declaration of Independence doesn't say shit about research.

Further Reading

The Onion - Supreme Court On Gay Marriage: 'Sure, Who Cares'

Reason #10: Self-Identifying Gay Couples

Reason #101: Half-Measures

Reason #124: Lucky Number Seven

Reason #127: Semantics

Reason #204: Race to the Finish

Friday, March 22, 2013

Reason #281: Picking Your Battles

Like I said last week, I tend to look at politics through a wide-angle lens--something that seems like a big deal when you're in the middle of it may not actually be all that consequential in the proper historical context. That means that some things, like gay marriage, seem so inevitable that I can't make myself get especially riled up about them.

It also means that I occasionally see certain bits and pieces of larger issues--a law here, a tax there--as grey areas; meaning, I don't necessarily support them, but I don't see them as worth fighting, either. Bloomberg's 16-oz-soda ban is a good example; philosophically, that's hardly the best way to approach the problem of obesity, but I didn't really expect the law to stick around either way, so I can't really fault them for trying.

Another grey matter: "assault weapons" bans.

Here's the thing: we tried an assault weapons ban already, and Columbine happened right smack in the middle of it. The DC sniper shootings were a couple years later.

Both involved guns that were at least partially banned under the law, but neither incident was prevented by the ban--for one thing, the ban was only on the future manufacturing of certain guns; the millions that already existed, and the millions of high-capacity magazines that already existed, were perfectly fine.

Furthermore, even if the ban had been in place for decades, it only mentioned 18 models of firearm by name, and only precise configurations of those types at that. Part of the problem is that the term "assault weapon" isn't even an actual classification for guns, which are actually divided into, for starters, automatic and semiautomatic. Fully automatic guns, which fire continuously as long as the trigger is held down, are and have pretty much always been illegal, or at least very tightly regulated. Semiautomatic weapons are pretty much everything else that's not a handgun, and the ban picked and chose from among that group based on numerous easily modifiable configurations, which meant that if I wanted, say, a Bushmaster AR-15, the gun Adam Lanza wasted twenty children with last December, I could probably have gotten one--I'd just have to pick the right grip, say, and make sure there wasn't a grenade launcher or bayonet on it. Pretty strict, huh?

And remember, all that only applied to guns manufactured after the ban went into effect--there was actually a surge in production of banned materiel immediately prior to its passage, as manufacturers rushed to move as much merchandise as possible while there was still time.

The larger issue, to me, is that even an efficient, precisely-targeted assault weapons ban is only going after a tiny portion of the gun violence in this country, and ignoring the thousands of non-massacre-level firearm deaths involving guns that no one's ever even thought of banning. Metrics vary, but 2011 was definitively the worst year ever for mass shooting in the US, with around 150 casualties. Compare that to the 31,672 overall firearm deaths in the US that year--even if an assault weapons ban had prevented every single mass shooting in 2011, that alone would have accounted for less than half of one percent of overall firearm deaths.

Again, all this isn't to say I oppose a new assault weapons ban--if they can get one through, hey, bully for them. If even a haphazard and poorly-laid out assault weapons ban stops even one person from being killed, that's awesome. But Harry Reid is taking a lot of flack for detaching the ban from the overall gun control package, despite it being absolutely the right thing to do.

Let's look at Adam Lanza's Bushmaster again. Another Bushmaster model, the XM-15, was used by the DC snipers--despite the assault weapons ban, mind. When investigators determined the distributor from which the gun had been purchased, they found that they had no record of it or hundreds of other purchases in the preceding years--records it wasn't required by law to keep, even under the ban period. Conceivably they would have at least run a background check on John Allen Muhammad at the time he did buy the gun, but given that the distributor, Bull's Eye Shooter Supply, had an ATF file with 283 pages full of sales and records violations, I wouldn't put money on it--not that we'd know either way, because he had no reason to worry about the government asking.

Meanwhile, now that Harry Reid has unmoored the Senate's gun reform legislation from the never-passable-in-the-first-place assault weapons ban, the current sticking point is over, you guessed it, whether to make gun sellers keep records of their sales. But how many liberals are going to be too busy fretting over assault weapons to fight the good fight on that one?

Further Reading

Everything you need to know about the assault weapons ban, in one post

Wikipedia - Federal Assault Weapons Ban

Wikipedia - Beltway sniper attacks

Here’s what’s holding up a gun bill (Hint: It’s not the assault weapons ban)

Friday, March 15, 2013

Reason #280: Chilling the Fuck Out

This is one of those totally below-the-radar factoids that I just love talking about here: for roughly 40 years now, the percentage of households in the US that own guns has declined by more than a third--from around 50% to around 30%.This is according to the nongovernmental General Social Survey, an annual series of around 2000 interviews conducted by the University of Chicago.

I say "nongovernmental" because for the last ten years or so, the NRA has successfully kept the federal government from tracking any kind of statistical data on gun ownership--which is interesting, because I would think that, if asked, they'd make the case that increased gun knowledge could only help their side. Go figure.

Anyway, this decline is evidence in both the GSS and Gallup's polling--Gallup shows somewhat less of a decline, but the GSS is notable for being the only survey to consistently ask the exact same question, with the exact same wording, for such a long time. What their numbers mean is that, despite the media loving nothing more than to toss around statistics about how the number of guns in America is going through the roof--and, well, it is--these guns are being concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer people. In other words: they're becoming a boutique item.

My first reaction to that information was to picture less random street crime and greater numbers of batshit militiamen, and while that's probably true to an extent, the GSS remarkably found that the decline remained true across American households of pretty much every imaginable stripe--even in the South. As the New York Times put it in this borderline-Seussian paragraph:
"The rate has dropped in cities large and small, in suburbs and rural areas and in all regions of the country. It has fallen among households with children, and among those without. It has declined for households that say they are very happy, and for those that say they are not. It is down among churchgoers and those who never sit in pews."
For both good and ill, I've always had a very strong tendency to see every issue from a much broader perspective than everyone else. It's my opinion that, whenever a situation seems especially dire, all you have to do is "zoom out" enough and you'll find that the overall human condition tends to get better over time.

That optimism has been a major factor in shaping the tone of this blog, and I'm happy to say it's borne fruit more often than you might think. America's gun violence is absolutely evidence of a sickness, but it's a far more complicated problem than the sheer volume of guns, and making it entirely about that will get us nowhere and make both sides miserable.

Further Reading

Share of Homes With Guns Shows 4-Decade Decline

Gun Ownership among Americans 1960-2008

U.S. Gun Policy: Global Comparisons

Analysis: Fewer U.S. gun owners own more guns

Friday, March 8, 2013

Reason #279: Talking

I'm not even going to get into drones again, as my conflicted feelings on the subject have been reiterated in this space many times, but if there's one point in their favor I haven't already touched on, it was their prompting Wednesday of Senator Rand Paul to mount a 13-hour filibuster of John Brennan's appointment as Director of the CIA. Not just a bullshit filibuster like the hundreds that Republicans have used to delay or stop anything the Democrats have tried to do since Obama took office, but a real, honest-to-god talking filibuster.

The only other person to do this in the past several years was Bernie Sanders in 2010; though it wasn't technically a filibuster, Sanders spoke for eight and a half hours about the disintegration of the middle class in protest of the two-year extension of the Bush tax cuts--you know, the one whose end led to the fiscal cliff showdown just two months ago?

Paul, on the other hand, may not have had intentions quite as honorable as Sanders', who unlike Paul didn't follow up his own talking session by telling Politico mere hours later that he was "seriously" considering a run for President in 2016.

Make no mistake about it--a great deal of Paul's filibuster was bravado and bullshit (at least 51% according to Jeremy Scahill's Twitter feed, which was particularly enlightening on Wednesday given his longstanding disapproval of the Obama drone program), culminating in at least one Hitler comparison, but like Scahill, I think it was a net positive occurrence. Both for the attention it drew to the drone issue and for the renewed interest in talking filibusters, which I've said all along should be the rule as opposed to eliminating filibusters altogether.

The only reason the filibuster should exist is for situations when someone in Congress feels so strongly about something that they're willing to put their personal comfort on the line in front of the American people and risk forever being associated with that issue. Filibustering without the whole world watching you isn't just beside the point of filibustering, it's in direct opposition to the point.

Personally, I think Rand Paul is a moron and I look forward to him and Rick Perry competing for the prize of America's Next Top Dipshit in 2016. But like his father before him, he is nothing if not a true believer, and I'd rather deal with a moron standing in front of my car than a smart person cutting my brake line.

Further Reading

The filibuster: A look at the rise … and rise of this obstruction tool

Bernie Sanders Filibuster: Senator Stalls Tax Cut Deal

Rand Paul: ‘Seriously’ weighing 2016 bid

Twitter - @jeremyscahill