Tag Archives: gun control

How to Reduce Gun Violence

The Guardian just published a thought-provoking article about reducing gun violence. Definitely worth a read.

…In response, jurisdictions all over the country passed get-tough gun laws, gang ordinances, three-strikes laws and school zone violations – laws that caused our prison population to explode. In 2002, when the shooting epidemic began to subside, the National Institute of Justice published a study showing that all of those get-tough laws had virtually no preventative impact on gun violence.

On the other hand, experts found, there was a way to shut gun deaths off like a switch. In Boston, where the strategy was first tested, homicides went from 113 in 1991 to 31 in 1999. They called it Operation Ceasefire.

Walk through this door, the men doing the shooting were told, and we will help you get jobs and build a life. But go back out there and keep at it, and you will not like what comes next. After the first meeting in 1996, not a single teen in Beantown was shot to death for 29 straight months. In Chicago gun violence was reduced by as much as 73%. According to a report co-published by Pro Publica and The New Republic last month, the same thing happened in cities all across the United States.

Despite these outcomes, Boston police discontinued the Ceasefire meetings in January 2000. Homicides skyrocketed to 69 in 2001, and up to 75 in 2005. When it became clear that our police stings and aggressive crackdowns – max bail, max jail was our motto in court – weren’t working, I quit my job as a prosecutor in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston and started a program that was modeled after Ceasefire across the street from the courthouse.

The guys in my program – mostly former gang members – told us that, when they carried guns, it was because they were hustling for money and in constant danger of getting robbed or shot. We could’ve passed laws with 100-year minimums, outlawed every type of gun (and Boston tried), but it wouldn’t have made the slightest difference to our participants because no penalty outweighed the need to eat, pay rent and live.

So we tried a different approach. We helped young men with arrest records pay their court debts, which researchers had determined were a major impediment to rehabilitation, and we helped them apply for jobs. In no time most of them were working in the mainstream economy…

The article begs the question, why would city officials de-fund a program that achieved such dramatic results? Hmm. Could it be that many local governments and law enforcement are highly invested in keeping inner city violence high? Gun violence creates fear, which justifies their violent crackdown on people of color. The war on drugs, after all, has as its political goal the decimation of entire communities and the disenfranchisement, especially, of young black men. Draconian drug laws also feed our for-profit prison system.

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Charleston : Blood on Our Hands?

Here we are again. Another massacre by a mentally ill person with a gun– this time, a young white supremacist so filled with hate, he wanted to start a race war. Why, oh why, do these things keep happening? And in a church of all places! Why would God allow that?

First of all, let’s not blame God for human evil and stupidity. It’s not God who allows it; we do. The Almighty has made men and women to be his representatives on earth, to govern with justice and wisdom, and when we fail in that mission, the results can be tragic.

We could say these things happen because evil is a real force in this world. Ok. We could also be more specific and say, as many are saying, that if this country has an original sin, it’s racism. Check. Then we could go further and say that plain, old-fashioned greed also plays a role (witness the inconceivable remarks of the NRA spokesperson who blamed the murdered AME pastor and church members for not carrying guns. Really. For him, as a shill for the greedy gun industry, the problem is not enough guns. He thinks the world won’t be right until every parishioner is packing heat and there’s a sharpshooter in every choir loft.).

But bottom line, these bloodbaths keep repeating themselves because deep down, at the end of the day, the vast majority of Americans are ok with it. Don’t get me wrong. Sure, we shake our heads in disbelief, clack our tongues, maybe even shed a real tear on behalf of our fellow human beings—we feel that sense of brotherhood. We even mention it from our pulpits : “Let us pray for Charleston and our brothers and sisters who have experienced such loss.” (But no sermons on racism, please; after all, we don’t want to get political.) And then we go into the voting booth in November and vote for the same clowns (of both parties) who continue to make all this mayhem possible.

Why? Because as sad as these events are, the victims are merely collateral damage in a war to preserve the status quo. That’s right. All the talk about abortion, prayer in schools and family values we hear from white Christian America is merely lip service, a smoke screen for what people really want, which is to keep things the way they are, provided they continue to profit from it. The religious coating is just a way to feel good about ourselves while we’re doing it.

I heard a Christian brother the other day say, “I don’t like it when they talk about these kind of events from the pulpit. I go to church to get peace. I don’t want to keep hearing about it.” QED (quod erat demonstrandum). As long as we continue to go to church to have our prejudices and ignorance massaged instead of blown apart, the church will never be an agent of change.

God forgive us. We have blood on our hands.

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Liberty v. Liberty

At an address in Baltimore in 1864, one year before the end of the Civil War and his own death, President Abraham Lincoln discoursed on the subject of liberty. The word had had a great deal of exercise during the war, since Abolitionists in the North saw the goal of the struggle as the liberation of slaves; while the South saw it as the liberation from Northern tyranny. Lincoln here adds his own log-splitting common sense to the debate:

“The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men’s labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name, liberty. And it follows that each of the things is, by the respective parties, called by two different and incompatible names –liberty and tyranny.

“The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as his liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act, as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly, the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty…”

In the debate over gun legislation raging in Washington, as well as all over the country, advocates for stricter gun laws and their opponents among the gun lobbies are currently wrestling with that very issue:  what is freedom? The former would like to be able to drop their children off at school without having to furnish them with bullet-proof vests; the latter want government to get off their backs and stop restricting their “constitutional freedom.” One seeks freedom from fear; the other, freedom from Uncle Sam.

But when someone else’s definition of freedom puts us all in danger, we have every right to seek the government’s protection. When the freedom enjoyed by the few threatens the freedom enjoyed by the multitude, something must give.

A total ban on assault weapons and clips, designed for military use, is not a violation of our constitutional right to bear arms. Neither are a background check and waiting period for private gun sales.  These are hardly examples of government tyranny; they are a very rational and necessary response to a problem that has become a national nightmare, an epidemic that threatens us all. As much as they may have wished ordinary citizens to possess weapons as a check on government tyranny (at least, that was one of Mr. Madison’s arguments), the Framers of our Constitution would have been horrified at the thought of ordinary Americans’ being able to stockpile, not to mention use, weapons of mass slaughter.

Times have changed. Single-shot muskets, which took even a highly experienced soldier at least 15 seconds to reload, have given way to more rapid weapons of annihilation. New technologies create new challenges and demand new thinking, or at least, a more sane and rational approach to the old thinking.

Our children, as well as the rest of us, deserve a more sporting chance.


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America, Arsenal of Democracy

This week our household has been visited by some kind of nasty postervirus. Last night with my little daughter it began its intestinal stage. After vomiting all over the den, she was moved to her own bed, which she proceeded to render uninhabitable; then to our bed, with the same results. Our washing machine could not keep up with all the sheets, towels and blankets. Out of beds and clean sheets, we finally made a bed for her with a little mattress on the floor, and there she stayed for the night. As my wife remarked, after yesterday’s horrific events in Connecticut, we’re grateful for the petty annoyances of childrearing.

Like most Americans I feel heartsick and angry at the endless repetition of these killing sprees. Following the news and social media, one watches how such emotional events become a pivot point for just about any and every social issue, with pundits blaming the mayhem on inadequate gun control or austerity cuts to mental health programs, violent video games or movies, absence of prayer in schools or the lack of teachers who carry guns. (Only in America would you hear such sophistry that our problem is not enough guns.) I imagine somewhere someone was relating the deaths to God’s judgment for homosexuality in the military, abortion, or fluoridation of our drinking water.

Gun control advocates definitely have a point. So do mental health advocates. It would seem there are just too many guns, especially assault weapons; they’re too easy to get, and too many are in the wrong hands. Ours is also a broken society, with a high divorce rate and increasing isolation of hurting individuals. But there is a wider backdrop to this story, besides the easy access to guns, which I believe helped make the difference between a troubled adolescent and a mass murderer.

We live in a violent nation. Our history is a violent one. The American frontier was “tamed” at the end of a rifle. Much of the land we live on was taken by the same method, with its previous inhabitants eliminated or rendered helpless. If we wanted something, we took it by force. For over 200 years, much of our economy was built on the backs of slaves, who were branded, whipped or maimed if they tried to escape. When he visited this country for the first time, author and social reformer Charles Dickens noted how may column inches in the newspapers were given to runaway slaves, who could be easily identified by the marks of their masters’ cruelty. Yet the mayhem did not end there, for white-on-white violence was just as rampant: “’These are the weapons of Freedom,’” Dickens writes. “’With sharp points and edges such as these, Liberty in America hews and hacks her slaves; or, failing that pursuit, her sons devote them to a better use, and turn them on each other.’”

Four of our Presidents have been assassinated with guns, not to mention numerous other attempts. When JFK was felled by a rifle shot, Malcolm X remarked that America’s violent foreign policy had finally “come home to roost.” Violence has a way of breeding violence. We have always been a culture that likes to settle its private disputes with bullets, and its larger conflicts with bombs.

America was once called the “arsenal of democracy.” The democracy dropped out long ago; now we are simply the largest arsenal in the world, with the weapons and arms trade making up a significant portion of our economy. We spend more on “defense” (the tools of war) than all of the other world economies combined. The more weapons you have, the more likely you are to use them, and the more probable that violence will be the first response. As former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once remarked, “What’s the point of having this superb military that you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”

American movies and other media celebrate this military superiority and use of violence, as well as our dangerous exceptionalism. It’s a game. Why should we be surprised that a disturbed young man thought he had the right to gun down 20 innocent children? The US and its allies, such as Israel, do that as a matter of policy. We call it “defending democracy.” The rest of the world calls it murder. Violence, even when committed 10,000 miles away, has a way of coming home to roost.

There are other countries that have higher per capita gun ownership but only a tiny sliver of the violence. The U.S. accounts for 80% of the gun deaths among the 23 most developed nations. Over 8,000 Americans are killed by guns each year (not including suicide or gun accidents). While certainly necessary, new and tighter gun legislation alone will not entirely solve the problem until we as a nation also come to terms with our culture of violence, both past and present. Until the “family values” we desperately want for ourselves are something we want for other peoples as well, we will have neither.


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The Short Route to Chaos

In Act One Scene 2 of Robert Bolt’s celebrated play A Man for All Seasons (1960), Cardinal Wolsey tries to enlist Thomas More’s aid in securing a Tudor heir. King Henry VIII wants a son to ensure his dynasty, but his wife of 20 years, Queen Catherine, is as “barren as a brick.” As Lord Chancellor, Wolsey plans to secure a papal divorce for the King by applying pressure to church property. Then Henry can marry his mistress Anne Boleyn. Sir Thomas, an idealistic scholar and a deeply religious man, is horrified.

WOLSEY:  I think we might influence His Holiness’ answer…

MORE:  I’ve already expressed my opinion on this.

WOLSEY:  Oh, your conscience is your own affair; but you’re a statesman! Do you remember the Yorkist Wars?…Let him die without an heir and we’ll have them back again. …England needs an heir; certain measures, perhaps regrettable, perhaps not… All right, regrettable! But necessary, to get us an heir! Now explain how you as Councilor of England can obstruct those measures for the sake of your own, private, conscience.

MORE: Well . . . I believe, when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos.

Since last week’s mass homicide in Aurora, there’s been much talk about the need for appropriate gun control. Every year this country must endure heartrending and macabre acts of mass murder. Among the cacophony of voices are those who blame the failures of our mental health system or the entertainment industry, and still others who claim the real problem is that there just aren’t enough people carrying guns (as if more guns would actually make society safer). And of course, these are followed by the annual cries for sane gun legislation. They all might as well be spitting on a forest fire. Coupled with the climate change crisis, extra-judicial killings, American drones terrorizing populations abroad, campaign spending out of control, and the undue influence of corporations in our government and media, we get the clear picture that our system is terribly broken, that we are all held hostage by special interests running amok.

America is and always has been a violent nation. Yet over the past decade that culture of violence has received a huge shot in the arm from the rampaging violence of American might overseas and the ever expanding War on Terror, from executive power without checks and balances, from the growing militarization of local law enforcement and the shooting of unarmed citizens, and from the economic violence committed daily by a financial sector without accountability. In short, everything seems out of balance because everything is out of balance. Without justice, without the rule of law in the highest places, there can be no peace elsewhere.

It may seem simplistic, but nonetheless accurate, to say that the entire world would be amazingly better off if the US would simply reform its campaign finance system. Think of it. There would be fewer wars. Real action on climate change and a switch to a greener economy might be possible. Appropriate gun control would not be just a pipe dream. More justice at home and abroad. One system of justice for rich and poor. Fairer diplomatic policies that reflect our actual values as a nation, instead of the fiats of a handful of multinational corporations, would mean fewer acts of terrorism. The list is really endless and should serve to demonstrate what our priorities need to be in the years ahead.

Speaking of the breakdown of the rule of law, later in the play, Thomas More confronts his would-be son-in-law, Will Roper, whose religious zeal almost makes the scholar’s flesh crawl.

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you–where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast–man’s laws, not God’s–and if you cut them down–and you’re just the man to do it–d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

More’s words paint a frighteningly accurate portrait of the kind of chaos that is unleashed when the rule of law breaks down, or rather, is sacrificed for reasons of security or even simple greed. The current administration’s mainstreaming of injustices and acts of violence that in former years were practiced in back rooms are, as history may judge, the most dangerous crimes ever committed by a sitting president. I am of course referring to the policies of indefinite detention, the assassination of US citizens and foreign nationals, the use of drone warfare, not to mention the most egregious trade bill ever concocted by man, which may render national and local legislation completely powerless in the face of multinational corporations.

No one yet knows what was going through the tortured mind of a young man who entered that theater through an exit door last week. Most probably, none of the above issues ever passed through his head. Yet injustice has a way of breeding more injustice, and violence more violence. Both breed rage, hopelessness, and despair. As our government grows increasingly unrestrained, the people will follow. And violence and mayhem have a way of coming home to roost, even when they are practiced ten thousand miles away.

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