Archive for the ‘Social Issues’ Category

Kajieme Powell and Police Responses

August 22nd, 2014 3 comments

Well, a new fact has come up that puts a new face on the situation: the police officers who shot Kajieme Powell had tasers.

To me, this makes a world of difference. One fact I had not been aware of was that these days, metropolitan police forces tend to make tasers standard issue. The St. Louis PD reported that the officers did indeed have the non-lethal weapons.

Looking at the video, the officers do not appear detailed enough to see if they were wearing them. If they were not, then they were derelict; if they were wearing them… that adds a whole new light to the situation.

When the police arrived, they could not know what situation faced them. As they got out of their vehicle, they saw a man who appeared to be the suspect, standing in front of them, approaching them with his right hand in his pocket. That is justification for drawing their weapons; they could not know if the man had a gun or not, and if he did, then he could begin firing very quickly.

Powell then took his hand out of his pocket, and held out a kitchen knife. That action should have had two effects: first, it should have heightened the tension with the officers, as he was armed; and second, it should have “lengthened the fuse,” meaning that the police should have given them several seconds more space to deal with the situation.

If a suspect, even with a knife, begins coming at you, you still have to make a decision. At first, I thought, shouldn’t the police have made allowances to back up to extend the space between them should he approach? It’s not as if Powell was running at them.

However, there’s a problem: if you back up, you could fall over something you don’t see. Not optimal.

Still, the officers should have known that, with the knife, they had those extra seconds. Without the tasers, it would have made no difference; with the tasers, it made all the difference in the world.

What the police chief said:

“So you’ve got an individual armed with a knife, who’s moving towards you, not listening to any verbal commands, continues, says ‘Shoot me now, kill me now.’ Tasers aren’t 100%. If that Taser misses, that subject continues on, and hurts an officer,” he said.

One of the officers should have drawn the non-lethal weapon. Once Powell started approaching, the one closest to him should have made a sign to the other that he was going non-lethal, which would have signaled to the other to keep his gun drawn and ready. If the taser didn’t work, lethal force would still have been an option from the second officer.

If this is not in their training, then the department is negligent. It should be obvious that if tasers don’t always work, a partner can provide backup.

The chief also said:

Sam Dotson, chief of the St Louis metropolitan police, said the officers may not have been able to Taser Powell because of his sweatshirt.

That’s bull. The sweatshirt was clearly open—and his partner was right there.

Had the officers been armed only with guns and batons, I would have given them the benefit of the doubt. But having tasers, and with ten seconds to draw them, a tactic which should have been in their training and well-practiced….


This was not a necessity. This was not a situation where the officers had no choice. With the option of a non-lethal response with the ability to back up that response with lethal force if things went wrong, the officers clearly were not trained or not inclined to do the responsible thing.

If what happened is not murder, it is at the very least manslaughter.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

Not All Situations Are Alike

August 21st, 2014 2 comments

On August 19, Kajieme Powell, a 25-year-old man, reportedly with a history of mental illness, walked into a convenience store armed with a knife and took two drinks without paying for them. After leaving the store, the owner followed him and asked him to pay for the drinks. Powell went back into the store, picked up a package of pastries, and came back out. When the owner asked him again to pay, Powell threw them into the street. The owner then called the police.

Powell did not try to go anywhere. He remained where he was, having put the two drinks down on the ground near the curb. It was at this point that someone started shooting a video of the event. Powell can be seen walking back and forth near the drinks. He is wearing a blue jacket, with his right hand in the pocket. A police cruiser arrives, and two officers step out of the vehicle. Powell approaches them and starts to yell, “Shoot me!” The officers tell him to take his hand out of his pocket; he does so. Although it cannot be seen clearly in the video, Powell is holding something, and the officers begin to shout, “Drop the knife!”

Powell approaches, then stops about 12 to 15 feet away, continuing to shout at the officers to shoot him. He then turns to his left and climbs up on an elevated parking space perhaps three feet above the sidewalk, describing an arc which leads him to walk towards the officer who exited the right-side door of the cruiser.

When Powell is about 8-10 feet away from the closer policeman, the officers begin firing. By the third shot, Powell is falling, by the fourth, he is down. The police continue firing, the first seven shots in quick succession. There is a moment’s pause as Powell rolls on the ground in front of the officer, then two more shots are fired—a total of nine shots. It is unclear from the video which officer fired how many shots.

One thing is clear: Powell was attempting to commit what is often described as “suicide by cop.” He was clearly not interested in consuming the food he took from the store, nor did he make any attempt to escape; he was, almost certainly, trying to cause the police to arrive, and was waiting for them. When they arrived, he did what he needed to do to get them to shoot him.

People are outraged at this video for a few very obvious reasons. Especially in the wake of the shooting in Ferguson, the shooting of a young black man by white police officers seems galling. The reports that Michael Brown was shot six times despite having his hands up in the air in a gesture of surrender brings to this event the idea that Powell was similarly helpless. The video itself, however, appears to be the most damning evidence: we see a man who appears to be unarmed walking to the police, and for this, he is shot nine times, more than half of the fusillade fired when Powell was falling or on the ground.

There are some exculpatory facts. Powell was in fact armed with a knife. He was trying to get the officers to shoot him. It seems clear that he was not going to stop where he was, and had he not been shot, he would have continued at the officer. Whether he would have used the knife at all, whether he would have done real harm to the officer he was approaching, is a question to which we will never know the answer.

There are objections raised:

Powell does not move like a man who poses a threat.

You mean, other than committing a crime and then coming at police officers armed with a knife?

There is no evidence that anyone felt threatened before the police arrived.

That has no relevance to the situation; the police act according to what they find, and not according to what they have not been told.

Even when he advances on police, he walks, rather than runs. He swings his arms normally, rather than entering into a fighting stance.

I do not find this a convincing argument; if a man with aggressive intent is walking towards you with a knife, and will be upon you in two or three seconds, I do not see this as being so less threatening that a defensive reaction is unwarranted. Similarly for the argument that he was not in a “fighting stance.” If a guy comes at me with a knife clearly intending to start an incident, I do not consider the fact that his hand with the knife is at his side a very comforting one.

Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous.

What difference does that make? Is a mentally ill person armed with a knife less likely to commit an act of violence?

But the police draw their weapons as soon as they exit their car. They begin yelling at him to stop.

This is actually not surprising, as they are responding to an armed robbery and they find the suspect with his hand in his pocket.

There is no warning shot, even.

There has been discussion about warning shots, which many police departments have policies against; nonetheless, in other situations (this one in Missouri), it has worked.

On the other hand, by the time Powell was shot, it was clear to the police that he wanted them to shoot him, and was willing to endanger them to accomplish this. I doubt that a warning shot would have done much.

All in all, I find the objections less than compelling.

There is one rather simple yet significant fact: had the police waited a few more seconds until Powell was, in fact, just a foot away and (possibly) raising the knife, then our reaction to the video would be meaningfully different. Instead of seeing an apparently unarmed man being shot from a distance of 8-10 feet, we would see a man raising a knife a few feet away from officers shouting at him to stop. Self-defense would be arguably much easier to understand. Add to that the fact that these officers probably understood very well that this man wanted them to fire and therefore would probably do whatever it took to accomplish that, and it is somewhat more understandable.

And that is where the shooting becomes, if not less objectionable, then at least less incriminating in hindsight: there is almost no doubt that Powell would have continued to close the distance. Nor do I think that it would have made much difference had Powell never raised the knife. The fact that the officers shot from 8-10 feet instead of 2-3 feet is not meaningfully significant.

Despite my initial shock and horror of seeing the video, upon considering the situation, I do not see the officers’ actions as remarkably abhorrent. Disturbing, yes; tragic, yes. However, did the police act wrongly, when it is clear that two or three seconds more time would have made no difference in the outcome, except to make the officers’ actions appear more reasonable?

Below is the video in question. It is graphic in content (not bloodiness), and shows Powell being shot to death. At the key moment, if you play the video in full-screen 1080p resolution and zoom in on what happens, it is possible to see details that might be missed if you look less closely.

But then we have the firing itself. Powell is not just shot; he is shot nine times, in three seconds.

However, it seems that this is how officers are trained, and that “muscle memory” may be an issue. Police are trained to shoot several times, not just once. When they are trained, they may not practice shooting once or twice, evaluating, and then shooting again. They are likely trained to shoot many times, and this, in a panic situation with a live assailant walking towards you, could lead to the excessive firing.

Not knowing which officer fired how many bullets could be a factor; there is something called “contagious shooting,” where a gunman will fire on the signal of another firing. It is possible that the closer officer fired the first one or two shots, and then his partner, prompted by his partner’s shooting, fires his own gun several times, providing the latter shots.

We are also misinformed by television, where we most often see the “good guy” taking extra caution to avoid killing someone. How many times have you seen a video of a cop firing a bad guy in the arm or the shoulder, so as to remove the threat without deadly force? We see this and accept it as something that could happen in real life. However, if a man is coming at you with a knife with clear intent to do damage, and you have no idea what drugs he may be on, and he could be on top of you before you have time to evaluate after a single shot or two, and you know that a shot to the arm or shoulder could miss—do you really think you would try for just one or two shots to slow him down?

It’s easy for us to watch a video taken from afar and judge; it would be extraordinarily more difficult to actually be in that officer’s situation and have to make a split-second, adrenaline-fueled, life-or-death decision.

That is not to say that there was no wrongdoing by the police. I am not sure if the officer closest to Powell was right to remain between Powell and the vehicle, giving him no room to maneuver. I am not sure if the assailant having a knife and not a gun made the situation significantly different. I do not pretend to be knowledgable about any of this, so I could be very wrong in my assessment.

That said, before knowing more, I would tend to assume that, while appearing trigger-happy and excessive in shooting, the officers involved may actually have been justified in their actions.

It hurts to say that, considering the Powell deserved medical attention, and not to be shot to death. Most likely, this is much more about our failure to treat mental illness than it is about police procedures.

Not that police procedures should not be questioned. In fact, there was an incident in Toronto last year where a younger man was also shot by police nine times as he wielded a knife—this shooting appearing far, far less justifiable.

And then, of course, there is the shooting of Michael Brown, which also seems indefensible.

I know I will probably catch a lot of flak from people who have the same political beliefs and human sensibilities as I do; the same thing happened when I tried to understand Rodney Peairs’ actions when he shot Yoshihiro Hattori to death. Nevertheless, I believe it is necessary to come to as complete an understanding as possible, and then to judge reasonably, and not just in a way that justifies your sense of moral outrage.

There is still something else that disturbs me greatly about this incident. This is from one report:

When police arrived, they said Powell walked toward them clutching his waistband. They say he then pulled out a knife and held it up in what Dotson described as an “overhand grip.”

We see this again and again: police reports, filed after the fact, differ greatly from what we later find to be the facts of the case. In this case, the police reports make it sound like Powell was in fact right on top of the officer, with the knife raised over his head, ready to strike.

The video clearly belies this account.

We saw something similar in the arrest five years ago of Henry Louis Gates Jr. by a police officer whose official report was fairly clearly filled with inaccurate statements intended to justify the officer’s action.

This is what worries me as much as anything else: that police misconduct if much more common than we believe, and that much of it is covered up by police reporting which is to a great extent self-serving, and designed to the greatest extent possible to make the suspect appear guilty, and the officer completely justified. We saw this in Ferguson as well, when the police released a video intended clearly to justify the officer’s actions, despit that video having zero relevance to the misconduct in question.

But then there is the statement of the Saint Louis police chief describing the reaction to Powell’s killing. He stated that police officers have the right to defend themselves. This is true. But then he says something more:

“Officer safety is the number one issue.”

Which I find interesting. I thought public safety was the number one issue. And that may be part of the problem: the police do not see keeping the public safe as their main job—“to protect and to serve.” Instead, they appear to see it as a public management issue, with their own safety being paramount.

I do not begrudge the police the ability to defend themselves. However, when they view their safety as much more important than the safety of the public in general, that’s when things become worrisome.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

What Do You Think of These People?

July 17th, 2014 6 comments

There is a crisis going on in Northern Africa, one causing immeasurable violence in impoverished areas. The situation is intolerable even for the strongest of people, but the children are being hit the worst. If they stay, they face worse and worse fates, many likely to die. Thousands of children are forced to flee, and make their way across the Mediterranean to France, a nation with not just proximity but political investment in their home region. Boatloads of young children, wave after wave, wash up on the shore, hungry, desperate, frightened, and lost. It is a refugee crisis, but made up of the most innocent of the displaced.

The French, however, are pissed. Sure, they had a hand in what happened in that region, but these children are unwanted. They don’t give a crap about their plight, they don’t even care that they’re children. Thousands of French people, backed by millions throughout the country, mass at the shores and around the holding camps where the children are, yelling and screaming at the children. “Nobody wants you!” those in the crowd shout angrily at the kids. “Go back where you came from!” they spit. “They should come here legally,” protesters tell reporters. “These kids carry disease, and they expect us to pay for their needs,” one French patriotic group claims, distributing fliers vilifying the children. “They should go back to where they came from.” When reminded that such a return would likely result in their deaths, the protesters shrug. “Not our problem.” As buses filled with the young refugees drive out of holding centers, protesters surround the buses, beating on the side of the vehicle and shouting angrily. Some even go so far as to call it a literal “invasion” for which the military should be tasked to respond.

This, of course, is not happening in France. But reading the story, tell me: if it were, what would you think of these people?

More importantly, what would the people who are doing this now have thought if this were France doing it a year ago? Having helped create a crisis in a nearby developing country, to have waves of innocent children forced to flee for their lives… and then have the wealthy, comfortable first-world nation callously treat them like vermin and go ballistic at the thought that we might actually help them or something. No, let’s go out of our way and scream at them.

And send them back to the slaughter.

I think that even these wingnuts would have been taken aback at that—had another country done it. But us? No, that’s perfectly justified.

The idea of looking at things from a different perspective works with immigration in a more general sense as well:

Imagine you are married with two kids. The country hits really hard times, akin to the Great Depression of the 30’s (we almost went there a few years ago, remember). You lose your job, your house, almost all of your possessions. No work is available, though you would take any job and are constantly looking. You are reduced to living in a shack in a filthy part of town. Your kids frequently border on starvation, gravely need basic medical care. You are desperate.

Then a well-off family in a gated community tells you they will hire you to clean their house. It’s for way less than minimum wage, but you are way past that by now. Anything is better than going without food. But in that gated community, they voted in rules to disallow such hires—only approved cleaning services. The problem is, those services charge a lot, and this family would rather hire you for cheap—so they’ll bend the rules for their own sake.

However, because of these rules they supported and passed, they demand that you sneak through the hedges in the park near the creek in the back area of the community. If you’re caught, they’ll deny knowing you, and you could go to jail for trespassing. It’s degrading, not to mention a pain to do this at 5 a.m., but you have no choice. You do what they demand.

Later, reports come in that grungy-looking people have been spotted in the community. The neighborhood is outraged, fearing for their safety and worried about property values dropping. “These people just steal things, use drugs, and are violent,” the refrain goes—and the people who hired you echo these complaints. Worse, they scream at you because the landscaper is charging extra because of lawn damage in the private park—something you can’t help because the only way in is across that field right after it has been watered. But your employers blame you for it anyway.

What would you think of people like this? Because the gated community asshats are pretty much who we are.

We hear all the time about illegal aliens causing all these problems. How come we never hear about illegal employers? Because they’re far more at fault. You think the immigrants are the ones causing Americans not to be hired? You think the immigrants are the ones making off with the loot? You think they would not rather come into the country legally? No, they don’t want these things—but they have no choice. We have the choice—but instead of doing the right and responsible thing, we do it the screwed-up way.

You know how often illegal employers are caught or penalized? Almost never. And the “penalties” are a joke—usually a pittance, and then negotiated downward from there.

The immigrants are not the problem. Not by a long shot.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

What Stereotype Do You Fit?

July 15th, 2014 3 comments

Pew has a “Political Typology” quiz you can take, but fair warning: it’s a very blunt tool, and shouldn’t really surprise you much at all. Unsurprisingly, I was tagged as a “solid liberal,” but was very unhappy with a lot of the choices I was forced to make. You could very easily see where the questions were taking you to, and you will probably find yourself making statements you don’t agree with, being steered towards a group you don’t feel comfortable with.

The questions, mostly polar opposites, tend to be incredibly simplistic and often force you to extremes. For example, you either believe that you have to do “whatever it takes to protect the environment” or that we’ve “gone too far” already. Answer one way, you’re a tree-hugger; answer the other way, you’re a hard-nosed industrialist. In terms of U.S. international involvement, you have to decide if we usually make things worse or if things would be worse without us. Answer one way, and you’re an isolationist; answer the other way, you’re an adventurist. What if you believe in tempered involvement? Not major land wars, except in true emergencies (WWII was the last one to qualify), but definite strategic involvement with a military element. How is that factored in? The answer is that it isn’t—you’re forced to choose way too far in either direction.

In fact, I am not sure that you can test out as a moderate—the results do not even allow that. The categories in the center are called “hard-pressed skeptics” and “young outsiders,” but you get there by being polar on some issues that are left and some that are right. There is pretty much no allowing for people who want middle-of-the-road solutions.

Some questions are too politically vague for the spectrum they are laid upon. For example, is it best for our future to be active in world affairs, or should we concentrate on problems here at home? That supposedly falls along a spectrum from liberal to conservative—despite the fact that I have seen people on both extremes, and in the middle, voice that particular sentiment.

Finally, many of the questions and vague in a general sense; for example, “stricter” environmental laws are good or they are bad. Well, what does “stricter” mean? Stricter than we currently have? Stricter than is currently acted upon? How much more “strict”? Strict in a harsh, arbitrary way, or strict in terms of protecting the environment while maintaining the best future for business? Does this allow for or discount laws which encourage green technology which can be a significant economic benefit?

In order for this to be a meaningful quiz, it should be allowed more depth. For example, take this choice:

This country should do whatever it takes to protect the environment
This country has gone too far in its efforts to protect the environment

These should be changed to:

The country should do whatever is necessary to protect the environment
The country should focus all available resources to stem the damages
caused by global climate change
The country should use strong economic incentives to discourage
non-renewable energy sources and encourage renewables
The country should focus on using nuclear power to stem coal, oil,
and gas use until renewables become economically feasible
The country should allow market forces to determine the best use and
development of energy resources and technology
Renewables are a pipe dream and should be abandoned in favor of all that
can be done to make coal, oil, and gas resources more available

My list is probably incomplete or not properly balanced, but you see where I am going with this. The answers could then be sorted into more coherent political identities. Questions could be added which would determine specific tax policies; instead of “taxes are too high” or “corporations make too many profits,” we would be able to set what we believe would be proper fundamental tax types–e.g., income, capital gains, and corporate taxes.

Such a poll would be much more complex and would require quite a bit more work—but I would be really, really interested to see how that comes out.

Categories: Journalism, Social Issues Tags:

Why Are There No Good Conservatives Comedians?

May 25th, 2014 5 comments

It’s a good, legitimate question. Some answers are based upon the idea that conservatives are simply shut out of the business. “The mainstream media is mostly liberal, so conservatives are not given a chance.” This doesn’t ring true; first, there are plenty of right-wing outlets (not the least of which is Fox), and second, if someone is funny they will find an audience—and an audience pays, which always gets you on the air. It’s not as if there haven’t been attempts to popularize right-wing comedians; they simply have not taken off.

Others respond that “liberals don’t like others making fun of them.” Well, OK, but that only explains why conservative comedians don’t find a liberal audience, and cannot explain why conservative audiences don’t give them all the business they need.

It can’t be that liberals can’t be successfully mocked—watch John Stewart and you’ll eventually see him make fun of Democrats in a way that can evoke more than enough laughter (and scorn) to keep you going.

There’s no way you could convince me that it’s impossible to make enough hay out of video clips of Democrats, MSNBC hosts, and liberals in general saying stuff that could be mocked to fill a half hour comedy show four nights a week, especially if you pad that with takes on media in general and interviews with people pushing something or another. Humor can be fitted to any taste. I once made what I thought was a compelling case as to how Rush Limbaugh could have made a really funny, comic argument satirizing the contraception debate. Instead, he engaged in what amounted to hateful, dehumanizing diatribe—and called it “humor.”

In this way, many right-wing attempts at humor fall disastrously flat. Take this attempt by Fox to produce their own version of The Daily Show:

Pretty much one halfway good joke in there, and it was a really obvious one. Go ahead and look up other videos from the show’s very short run; you’ll find it similarly awful. Not unfunny because of one’s point of view, but simply not funny. Even for conservatives—after all, it flopped even on Fox.

However, the above clip is rather telling in a very important respect: the laughter. Not the fact that the laughter for the video was obviously canned, but the live laughter in particular: harsh, forced, almost angry.

Maybe the difference in humor has to do with a certain mindset. Comedians may often come from backgrounds that include being bullied and outcast, where a person might develop a sense of humor as both a defense mechanism and a way of becoming popular. But this is often tied in with a sympathy for those who are trodden upon, people who are undervalued and at a disadvantage—values more liberal than not. It might be argued that a lot of comedic talent naturally springs from a liberal viewpoint.

The clip from Fox shows the reverse: it comes across as a bully’s humor, even down to the harsh laughter. It does not so much playfully engage in satire and joking as it does condescendingly mock and degrade. This is the kind of “humor” that right-wing talking heads like Rush Limbaugh employ. Liberal humor comes from an attitude where the world is falling apart around you and you need to make fun of it to keep from descending into despair. Conservative humor comes from an attitude where you occupy a position of righteous assuredness and you need to make fun of those you see as different and therefore wrong.

And I think that’s at the heart of it: liberals are more apt to feel pain, conservatives to feel anger. Laughter comes from the need to dispel one’s pain; from anger comes something more akin to taunting—and that’s not funny for people who are not taking the bully’s point of view.

Categories: Entertainment, Social Issues Tags:

When to Tolerate Intolerance

April 5th, 2014 7 comments

If someone in a position of authority makes public statements of intolerance towards a class of people, should that person be forced to step down? Most people would say yes, as they are demonstrating an outward intolerance which could easily translate into discrimination against that class of people.

But what if the same person made a contribution to a cause associated with intolerance? Is that the same thing? Arguably so; it may be a political contribution, but it is effectively an active statement of support.

However, should a person be barred from career advancement, or from holding any position of authority, because of their beliefs?

The answer to that is clearly “no.”

Somewhere in there is a line that is crossed, and it’s not all that easy to identify. If the authority holds public office, there is a somewhat higher standard, as there would be if that authority makes decisions that can easily affect people of the class they disapprove of. Public statements are willful, outward expressions, signaling an intent to more than just hold a personal belief.

However, we are also talking about taking actions which could, albeit in a limited fashion, deprive someone of a specific career. In stating any public opinion on this, I believe it is important to carefully specify how certain lines are being crossed and exactly where they are.

Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was promoted to the position of CEO in the organization. Eich, however, had made a $1,000 donation in 2008 to support California’s Proposition 8, which outlawed same-sex marriages. As far as I can determine, that’s all that there is; he has made no other public statements on any such issue, nor has he apparently taken any other actions which might impact anyone.

Eich had served for two years as the chief technology officer for Mozilla, with the donation known. However, when he was made CEO, that apparently was too much for some. Half of the foundation’s board members quit and a large number of employees and local citizens expressed their outrage.

As a result, Eich stepped down as CEO, arguably forced out by those unhappy with his personal beliefs.

The question is, is that justifiable?

It could be argued that as CEO, Eich would be in a position to make specific decisions that significantly effect people in the LGBT community, at the very least those who work for his company. As an official in a private organization, however, can he be punished for something that is simply more likely? A public official must live up to a higher standard, must avoid even the appearance of discrimination. Does the same standard apply to the head of a private organization? Can someone be denied a position because of what they may do? I think not.

Eich could be in a position to steer the company towards certain policies or toward supporting certain movements. The question is, should he be judged based on what he actually does, or what he could potentially do? Again, I think a person in such a position is only accountable for what they actually do.

Also, as the CEO, he represents that organization, is the public face of it, and therefore whatever beliefs he has also reflect on the organization. This is perhaps the strongest argument for forcing Eich to step down, as such representations can seriously affect the organization, fair or not.

Personally, I am loathe to participate in anything like this, which, frankly, smacks of persecution. No one should be discriminated against because of their beliefs.

I think a key factor, however, lies in the fact that this was not simply a belief that Eich held, but rather a belief he took action on.

His donation would have publicly stripped an entire community of a valued civil right. This was not just a private belief: Eich was taking action to force this belief on others. This goes well beyond Eich simply believing something but having tolerance otherwise. It showed that he would willfully and actively affect the lives of others based on his belief.

If a person, for example, believes that Christians are somehow harmful, this person should not be discriminated against because of that belief. If that same person is in a leadership role, then perhaps they should be carefully watched to see if they take action on the belief. However, if they try to get a law passed which, say, bans Christians from holding public office, that is a completely different matter.

Of course, this gets into a sticky area: what specific political causes could trigger such a response? Clearly, just voting for a certain political party is absolutely unjustifiable as a cause for denying anyone a position. No, this is about supporting a specific cause.

But is this just about people supporting causes we don’t like? The answer is just as clearly no—if Eich had, for example, contributed to a campaign to privatize social security, that would not create anything near the same furor. One could argue that such a campaign could adversely affect large numbers of people—though pretty much any political policy could do that.

There is a significant difference between supporting policies which are based upon beliefs regarding how society and its resources should be run, and supporting policies which legislate discrimination against specific groups defined by innate characteristics.

The line being crossed is, in fact, specific: we’re talking about a policy that discriminates against a class of people. We’re talking about someone in a position of authority, someone who acts as a representative, who took willful steps in that act of discrimination. That it was a political act of discrimination rather than a private act is a distinction without a difference.

Then there is the matter of which position is being denied. It is not as if Eich is being denied any job; he was not pushed out of his relatively high-profile CTO position despite his contribution being known. In this case, he was denied a leadership position—one which reflected on the company’s image, one which essentially said that everyone in the organization had or would have confidence in his judgments—something clearly contrary to fact.

When I first saw this story, my immediate reaction was against the call to remove Eich; I saw it as many now do, as persecution based upon beliefs. However, as I consider the specifics—in particular, the fact that Eich took positive action to discriminate, and that he would be in a leadership position with implications well beyond any specific actions he takes in that position—I changed my mind.

I probably would still not personally call for his ouster. However, I would not judge any such call as unjustifiable.

Categories: Corporate World, Social Issues Tags:

It’s Not About What Others Do

March 17th, 2014 4 comments

Fred Phelps is reported to be near death in a health care facility.

When he dies, no one should picket his funeral. Wrong is wrong.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

No, Outlawing It Isn’t Worse

October 19th, 2013 Comments off

At TPM, Cathy Reisenwitz made an argument that laws against revenge porn are worse than the problem itself. She begins with a disturbing hint that the law may be like marijuana laws that put people in prison:

The state of California can now add people who post naked photos of their former partners to its criminally overcrowded prisons if they do so without permission and with the intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation.

It seems to me that this comment is wholly unnecessary. If the prisons are overcrowded, we should not put people there who have committed awful crimes? And yes, revenge porn is that sort of crime. Not nearly as bad as rape, but definitely in the same category. I am perfectly OK sending such people to jail.

She then gapes in puzzlement that the law would do more:

Proposed legislation in New York would actually widen to the ban to include photos victims take of themselves.

Yes, that’s right. Just because someone took a selfie does not make it any better when the jilted boyfriend publishes it on the Internet. Why should it?

But that’s not Reisenwitz’s main objection.

While well-intentioned, this kind of legislation is over-broad, poses serious free-speech threats and may not even be necessary going forward.

The first thing it’s important to keep in mind is that revenge porn laws criminalize speech.


As the ACLU has discussed, such laws can be used to censor photos with political importance. As Jess Rem pointed out for Reason magazine, people such as Jeff Hermes, Director of the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard, share this concern about the law. Hermes has stated that revenge porn laws could have kept former New York Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D) nude selfies legally suppressed.

Uh yeah, no. Aside from the less significant but still relevant points that (1) it is arguable that politicians’ personal sexual peccadilloes are really newsworthy, and (2) relevant parts of the photos can be blacked out or pixellated in the case that context is somehow deemed necessary, there are two reasons why this is not an issue.

First, it is not necessary to show the image in order to report on the story. Even if a story about a politician sexting someone is not gratuitous in and of itself, the photos certainly are. I would not deem it a great threat to free speech if the media were limited to only telling us about Weiner’s selfies rather than showing us the images.

And second, no journalist would ever be prosecuted for revenge porn that did not specifically involve them. To make the person who released them liable is not something that affects freedom of the press, any more than outlawing the release of classified documents did in cases like Edward Snowden’s.

Not to mention that these laws often include language that specifies the offender must have “intent to cause emotional distress or humiliation.” If someone releases photos of a politician in a state of undress, it could be for the purpose of revenge—but the claim could very easily be made that it was for the purpose of informing the public, thus making even the person releasing the images safe from prosecution.

In fact, the laws may not be strong enough. People wishing to release these images will probably find loopholes, like having a third party post the images on the Internet. If sharing the photos with a private third party is not illegal, and if the third party has no cause for humiliating the victim, then probably no case could be made.

Reisenwitz suggests, however, that there is enough legal protection without the new laws:

Civil lawsuits have always been available to victims. Late last year a Texas judge ordered an ‘indefinite’ lock on revenge porn site as Shelby Conklin sought “punitive damages of more than $1 million for intrusion on seclusion, public disclosure of private facts, appropriation of her name and likeness and intentional infliction of emotional distress.”

The case was eventually settled, and the offenders paid restitution instead of serving time in jail. This is just one example of the many successful lawsuits by victims of revenge porn.

Before the law, there were already at least seven different kinds of laws revenge porn could have violated, depending on the circumstances. They include but are not limited to laws dealing with extortion and blackmail, child pornography, invasion of privacy, copyright infringement, voyeurism, intent and violation of the Consumer Protection Act.

The first example Reisenwitz cites is clearly inapplicable. It was against the revenge porn site, not the person releasing the images. You don’t even need revenge porn sites to release such photos, and sites not intended for such photos could claim they had no idea of the photos’ origins. Also, many of the charges dealt with commercial distribution, something that would not apply to an individual posting to a porn forum. Not to mention that many such sites will not be within the courts’ jurisdictions, or that any victim making such a case will become a huge target for similar sites and their supporters.

The other laws? Extortion and blackmail laws would only apply if the jilted party made such threats, which is probably very rare. Child pornography would apply only in limited cases. I’m not a lawyer, but I would think citing invasion of privacy is pretty weak—people are not penalized for spreading personal information about exes, and the fact that the photos were consensual probably negates this as a possible legal avenue. Copyright infringement could apply to selfies, but not to images taken by the perpetrator—and it would be pretty difficult to assess financial damage if you had no intent to sell the images yourself, and the perpetrator did not profit themselves. Voyeurism is laughable in this context. As for the Consumer Protection Act, it relates to commercial profit, again not applicable to the individuals.

It’s pretty clear that these laws are insufficient. Mitchell Matorin has a much more detailed rundown.

No, the law is not worse than the crime. Not in the least. And frankly, laws against privacy infringement are far, far too weak in this country. As with all forms of intellectual property and information in general, we are in a new age, and the laws are too far behind. These new laws are not inappropriate, and in fact, we need a lot more regulating how information is collected, disseminated, and bartered.

Balking at making revenge porn illegal is, if anything, a frightening step in the wrong direction.

Categories: Social Issues, Technology Tags:

Oblivious to Your Surroundings

October 10th, 2013 Comments off

A terrible story out of San Francisco:

The man drew the gun several times on the crowded San Francisco commuter train, with surveillance video showing him pointing it across the aisle without anyone noticing and then putting it back against his side, according to authorities.

The other passengers were so absorbed in their phones and tablets they didn’t notice the gunman until he randomly shot and killed a university student, authorities said. …

“These weren’t concealed movements — the gun is very clear,” District Attorney George Gascon said. “These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

In a case such as this, of course it seems horrifying that a gunman who would eventually shoot someone would go unnoticed (although how the situation would have been improved if anyone had noticed is not exactly made clear). However, there is also a clear judgment being made here: that it is a bad thing, perhaps irresponsible, negligent, or asocial, to be engrossed in a technological device in a public place.

This is one of those time I have to roll my eyes and sigh out loud.

The context here is riding a train for long periods of time, something I do on a daily basis. Without some kind of diversion, you are just sitting there looking at nothing. 99.9% of the time, nothing is happening. People are just sitting and standing. This is not a social situation. No one is interacting—nor do people want it to be that way; you’re mostly surrounded by strangers, and people get annoyed when there is too much active talking. As a result, you mostly get people being there, silent, like they would be in an elevator. However, in an elevator, you’re just there for a minute, not an hour.

What are you supposed to do, remain quietly observant and vigilant in case someone brandishes a gun?

The clear implication is not only were people “oblivious” to their surroundings, they were pathetically or irresponsibly detached because they were engrossed in electronic devices.

This has become somewhat of a popular complaint for some time now. It stems from the idea that if people engage in some new portable personal entertainment, in particular of an electronic nature, while in public, it is assumed to be impolite, like you are shutting yourself off from others.

I have never respected that complaint. It’s as if the one complaining expects everyone else in public to pay attention to them. Why?

Sure, if someone keeps bumping into other people or causes some kind of damage, that would be different. But that’s regarding something that occupies your visual attention while moving or operating a vehicle. That’s a legitimate concern, and I fully agree with laws about texting while driving. Or if there is a social event where a person attending is supposed to be paying attention to others—a party, a meeting, even just a conversation—then yes, it’s asocial to instead be absorbed in something else.

However, that’s not what we’re talking about here. Train passengers are not driving the vehicle. Someone sitting alone in public, in a park, at a coffee shop, at a bus stop—these people are not expected to be engaged with anyone else.

So, how is it asocial or in any way wrong for these people to occupy themselves?

But that’s not the only point here—it’s not just occupying yourself, it’s doing it with some new device. Remember complaints some time back when Walkmans first came out? Same thing now. It’s the same scorn for technology that even still generates fear of crime on the Internet when the same crimes could just as easily happen in any other context.

Consider how different the reaction would be if people on the train with the gunman were reading books or engaged in conversation with someone they were traveling with. Would there be the same level of disdain, the same feeling of contempt? Almost certainly not. There would be more of a sense of shared horror, a feeling of sympathy rather than condescension. Like nobody in a movie theater noticing someone in the back row brandishing an Uzi, or no one in a library noticing the someone walking by carrying a handgun. It would be considered more proper.

But entertain yourself in public? With an electronic device? Of course not. You should be happy to ride a train for long periods of time with nothing to do. Jerk.

Categories: Social Issues, Technology Tags:

My Right to Swing My AR-15

September 14th, 2013 1 comment

Every once in a while you read about a story like this one, from Appleton, Wisconsin:

Police detained two men openly carrying AR-15 rifles near Saturday’s farmers market, setting off a debate this week about response at the highly attended event.

It appears that two local citizens, Charles A. Branstrom and Ross A. Bauman, decided to exercise their constitutional rights by going to a peaceful public gathering armed with weapons designed to kill large numbers of people. Obviously, it was a stunt designed to flaunt gun-toting rights, with someone ready to video the whole thing.

Police told Branstrom and Bauman “that walking into a farmer’s market filled with a couple thousand individuals would be a recipe for disaster.”

Branstrom and Bauman maintained that they had the right to do so, the report says.

They have the right to provoke public fear and disruption. Interesting. I wonder what the revolutionary Minuteman fighters would have thought about heavily-armed people needlessly marching about the town square. Something tells me they would have had a better sense of propriety and responsibility regarding a solemn duty.

One can assume that Branstrom and Bauman point was, “We have a Second Amendment right to ‘bear’ arms, and that means we can carry our AR-15s wherever we damn please.” Gun advocacy groups call such stunts “educational,” claiming that people will get used to such things.

However, despite the viewpoints of people such as these, most Americans—including, and perhaps especially those who own guns themselves—do not like the idea of the streets being populated with people wielding military assault rifles. One can assume that the open-air violent crime rate in Appleton, Wisconsin is not in fact an actual threat, and even if it were, both police and local citizens would not feel more comfortable with random citizens eager to let go with their AR-15s in public taking it upon themselves to open fire on streets where their children walk.

Branstrom and Bauman acted ignorant of such attitudes, stating:

“I guess some people don’t like guns.”

They then claimed that the purpose for carrying the guns was “self-defense.” Really? They expected to get shot at at a suburban farmer’s market event? Or perhaps they thought it possible they might empty a few dozen rounds into a pickpocket?

Bullshit. There was no threat to them, and therefore no reasonable cause to carry the weapons. The reverse, in fact, is true: they were the threat. With no reasonable peaceful use for such weapons, their presence is a very real implicit threat to the other citizens there. It’s not that “some people don’t like guns,” it is that “some people don’t like implicit threats to slaughter their children.”

These gun-toting idiots may actually even think they were making a point about their rights and freedom, but what they were doing is the classic example of the only legitimate reason why any constitutional rights are abridged: infringing on the safety and rights of others. Some tend to forget about that rather vital and necessary counterpoint to one’s constitutional rights.

Categories: Right-Wing Extremism, Social Issues Tags:

He IS the Messiah! Or At Least One of Them

August 13th, 2013 Comments off

A few days ago, a child support judge in Newport, Tennessee decided a case from two parents disagreeing over their child’s surname.

The mother, Jaleesa Martin, wanted to name the boy Messiah DeShawn Martin, using her surname only. The boy’s father wanted the boy to have his surname, McCullough. The reports make it unclear whether the couple is married or not.

The case should have been simple, but the judge did something unexpected: not only did she decide in favor of the father, but she decided in favor of herself: in addition to giving the boy the surname “McCullough,” she also struck down the baby’s first name as well, replacing it with the mother’s surname, making his full name Martin DeShawn McCullough.

The reasoning the judge gave was even more problematic:

The word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.

The judge gave other rationales as well, in particular that they lived in a heavily Christian community and that bearing a name like that would create difficulties for the child. Perhaps—but that’s not for the judge to decide.

Making such a change because you worship Jesus Christ is, without question, unconstitutional. The judge cannot force her own beliefs on the parents or the child.

Not to mention, this would not be the first time a baby has been named “Messiah” in the country:

In 2012, 762 other Messiahs were born in the U.S., making it the 387th most popular name for U.S. boys in the U.S., according to the Social Security Administration. And because only 368 Messiahs were born in the U.S. in 2011, it’s also the fourth-fastest-growing boys’ name in America.

Not to mention that an another acceptable baby name is “Salvador.” Meaning: “savior.”

And that’s what “Messiah” can mean as well—both specifically and generally. “Messiah” is defined not only as the deliverer of the Jewish nation (Jews do not see Jesus Christ as the Messiah), but also as “a leader or savior of a particular group or cause.”

In short, the baby’s name was perfectly fine, and the judge screwed up. The question is, why did she screw up?

The apparent cause was that she allowed her religious beliefs to sway her decision; this is a teachable moment, as many people are likely not aware that such religious bias is not uncommon in supposedly objective legal decisions. In child custody cases, for example, judges often side with a religious parent over one who is an atheist. And then we have Anthony Scalia attempting to force his own religious beliefs on the entire country by essentially trying to nullify the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

However, there is a difference possibility, or perhaps a contributing element: this happened in the South. The judge is white. The baby is black. There’s certainly no direct evidence, but when you have an arsonists’ convention and the building next door bursts into flames, it is perhaps unwise to ignore the arsonists as suspects. Had the baby been white, would the judge have done the same?

Categories: Religion, Social Issues Tags:

On Zimmerman

July 13th, 2013 2 comments

Josh Marshall summarizes my own view very well:

If you’re a wannabe cop loser with a gun who starts stalking a kid in the dark, you’re responsible for the outcome.

I blogged pretty much the same thing back in April 2012, and my opinion is not changed now:

In my mind, Zimmerman is guilty. Not because I know how the specifics played out, that Martin did not assault him, or anything else. Instead, it was because Zimmerman was the one holding a gun, he did not need to pursue Martin (the 911 call made that clear), and so he bore responsibility.

Too many Americans have too cavalier an attitude about what it means to carry a gun—essentially, “I’m packing so don’t frack with me.”

There’s a reason why we ask professionals to take care of law enforcement, and reasons why cops train long and hard for it. Zimmerman had not been through this. There are damned good reasons why even a late response time from cops is better than grabbing your gun and taking care of things yourself.

But this was not even that. Zimmerman was not defending his home. He was not even “standing his ground”—you cannot stalk someone and chase them and then claim you were “standing your ground.” He was, in fact, instructed to hold back, and not for no reason.

He defied the instructions from authorities, violated the principles of armed confrontation, and had he not done these things, Trayvon would have had his Skittles and iced tea and Zimmerman would have finished his trip to Target. It was Zimmerman’s gross misconduct which caused the death.

That’s my take, at least.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

The Institution of Marriage

July 6th, 2013 1 comment

There are several reasons people may oppose gay marriage. A predominant reason is that people are at least uncomfortable about homosexuality, or they feel threatened by it somehow, or they simply despise it. However, these are highly subjective; one cannot deny others rights simply because one does not like them. Not to mention that hatred does not play well publicly. Since such reasons will not withstand debate, they are very seldom proffered as the reason to oppose the rights of gay people.

Another common reason is religious opposition. The Bible offers up enough basis for those either inclined to follow prescribed moral values over apparent ones, or who are pre-inclined to dislike gay people, to ostracize homosexuals and/or to define what they do as an “abomination.” Many, if not most, religious groups choose to do so. This is more often cited in public debate, especially by those who believe that marriage is primarily a religious function, or else feel there is enough of a connection to make a difference. However, we live under a set of laws that do not allow religious beliefs to strip others of their rights. As a result, they also will not withstand much public debate.

However, let’s not fool ourselves: the above two reasons are the real grounds upon which most people oppose gay marriage. We all know that these are the primary objections, but they are not the primary argument because, from the objective standpoint of public and legal debate, they are weak and increasingly unpopular.

So instead we hear a different argument: gay marriage will weaken the institution of marriage. That’s the primary public argument forwarded by those opposing gay marriage. Thus, the “Defense of Marriage Act.”

It sounds like it could be a solid reason. Institutions are important. They are the foundations of society. We don’t want to weaken them. And, especially if you are inclined to dislike homosexuality, it sounds reasonable that allowing gay marriage would “dilute” or otherwise diminish the institution. As a result, this is a popular argument, even though it is not a reason most who oppose gay marriage ever would have considered had it not been handed to them.

The problem is, this argument is meaningless. Or, more specifically, it is semantically void in any way that could apply to public legal debate.

First of all, when the “institution of marriage” is cited, which institution of marriage is being referred to? I can think of several: historical, societal, religious, personal, legal, or semantic.

Historically, marriage is an evolving institution, so acceptance of gay marriage does not “weaken” or “dilute” it. This is like strict grammarians making similar assertions about new linguistic practices; what it comes down to is that they don’t like things changing. However, language by nature changes and evolves. So does marriage. As has been pointed out many times, the “one man, one woman marriage based on love” is hardly the classic form of wedlock.

The societal institution of marriage can be defined as what society decides it is. Again, this is liquid and changing, based on what a society wants. Well, our society wants this now. The institution cannot be weakened by allowing what society allows; it can only be weakened if society is not allowed to define the institution as it likes. Ironically, this argument was valid (and I believe was often proffered) before, but now it works the other way, supporting gay marriage instead of defying it.

One aspect of the societal institution could be the idea that marriage is intended to encourage and/or maintain population growth. However, no society I know of requires reproduction or even reproductive ability as a prerequisite for marriage. For the “dilution” argument to work, we would need to ban marriage between any couple incapable of having children. In fact, couples who clearly cannot or do not intend to have children are not even frowned upon in the slightest. Furthermore, as noted below, the arguments that gay marriage will somehow discourage childbirth is ludicrous.

The religious institution of marriage is what a lot of people point to; however, there are some problems. First of all, religious texts, even within any specific sect, do not usually have rigidly defined or consistent definitions of marriage. Second, there are lots of different religions with different ideas about marriage. So, the argument that changing this institution would damage it is already somewhat weak.

However, most religions will consolidate at least current theological standings into dogma. It could be argued that defying this dogma could weaken the institution of marriage within a church, especially with a specific type of marriage that the church has never supported.

The problem with this argument: churches are not being asked to accept or sanctify gay marriage. Therefore, gay marriage does not really affect the internal institution. Still, these people will argue that publicly allowing gay marriage infringes on that institution—but this only could be true if one accepts the idea that religious organizations “own” marriage in our society, a premise which is not valid. Just as one religion may not impose its dogma on all of society, no religion may impose their internal institutions on all others through legal means. Religious people may feel threatened by gays marrying outside of their own institutions, or they may feel that what other people do in light of societal approval affects them somehow; however, that is not a rational public argument.

The personal institution of marriage could be defined as the meaning of marriage to the people engaging in the institution. This also has many variations: it could be for love, for reproduction, for appearances, for wealth, for convenience—for a myriad of personal or legal reasons relevant to the people involved. Since the personal institution is, like the societal institution, defined by what people want it to mean, gay marriage cannot detract from or otherwise diminish this. It does, in fact, add to it.

Only if, as with religious institutions, people feel like they have joined a select membership and are offended by people they do not approve of also joining, can they see the “institution” being harmed. This, however, like the religious objections, is exclusive; they deny other people rights based solely on subjective claims to ownership of an institution which is intended for all. It is, in fact, a stronger argument that gay marriage supports the personal institution, as it makes marriage between all people possible, something previously denied.

Then we come to the legal institution of marriage. This one is simple: like societal and personal definitions, this is what we decide it to be. Gay marriage no more weakens the legal institution of marriage than equal pay for women weakens the legal institution of employment. It’s a null argument.

One odd-man-out argument could be called the “semantic” institution of marriage, that marriage simply won’t “mean” the same thing, and some go as far as saying that changing the meaning of marriage will mean that we no longer have the concept of marriage in its “traditional” sense. That even the meaning of terms like “husband” or “mother” will be diluted and will no longer have the same meaning (see page 53 of this tome).

Forgive me, but this is simply utter bullshit. At worst, it will add new definitions (what standard terms for “two mommies” or “two daddies” may have, etc.), but the long-standing definitions will still be there. If there is confusion over the meaning (“Do you mean your traditional ‘mom’ or your gay ‘mom’?”) terms will evolve to fit.

So, what are we left with? The only “institutional” arguments that have any meaning at all are religious and personal, and the damage done is highly subjective and indirect. Any “weakening” done is purely in the eye of the beholder, and, together with the fact that neither religious nor personal biases are allowed to dictate the legal rights of others, is meaningless in terms of objecting to gay marriage becoming legal.

Secondly, beyond the philosophical questions about the meaning of “the institution of marriage,” one has to ask, “What actual, real-world effect will gay marriage have on those wishing to participate in the institution of marriage?”

This is where the opposition to gay marriage falls apart even more rapidly. The answer to the above question tends to be even less well-established than what the “institution of marriage” is supposed to mean in the first place. Most people who oppose gay marriage prefer to remain vague, even when citing what they believe will be the real-world effects of the change. I have tried to find and categorize these claims as best I can.

Public endorsement of gay marriage will legitimize and therefore increase the incidence of homosexuality. There are at least a few aspects to this argument: whether it is possible, whether it would happen, and whether it would be a bad thing.

The first hinges on a controversial point: that people have a choice in their sexual orientation. To refute this, a common question asked to heterosexuals is, “When did you decide to be straight?” Since straight people make no such decision, it is hard to classify sexual orientation as a real choice. It is, in a sense, like right- or left-handedness: one is more common and the other is stigmatized; one can force oneself to act like everyone else, but it goes against one’s nature to do so.

The argument that sexual orientation is a matter of choice is vanishingly relevant. It’s pretty clear that in most cases, it is not possible for an individual to determine that for themselves. Children raised in gay environments, for example, tend not to be any more or less gay than people in straight environments. And just recently, a significant conservative organization selling a “pray the gay away” therapy not only shut down, but publicly apologized for being wrong and harming people.

That said, it is also apparent that human sexuality is not binary; the evidence seems to point to the fact that, as in most all things, we live along a spectrum, or even a landscape of sexual orientations. Few if any people are “100%” straight or gay. Where we are in that landscape is not variable—we do not slide up or down towards one area or the other. However, someone more between defined areas than most may be able to make themselves comfortable in various camps, bisexuals being one example. However, even this “preference” is not necessarily a “choice”; bisexuals usually report that the preference leads them, and not the other way around.

The only way that the legitimization of gay marriage could have an effect on the incidence of homosexuality, as I see it, is if we have a formative stage in which people who are towards the middle of the sexual spectrum form habits that dictate the sexuality they will feel comfortable with.

However, the legitimization of gay marriage would not have a chilling effect on this; rather, it would create a freer environment in which a person could develop more naturally, with fewer external pressures to conform forced upon them unnaturally.

The only way in which this could be seen as a negative would be if one judged that anything but strict heterosexuality were immoral or otherwise wrong. This, however, is a subjective decision. Homosexuality is not innately immoral. Innate immorality stems from an act being non-consensual and/or harmful to others. Since homosexuality is consensual, and only stigmatization leads to physical or mental harm, it does not fit in that category; instead, it is only subjectively immoral, like taking the name of a god in vain, or walking around naked. Only a circular argument could assert that homosexuality harms people, as the putative reason it harms people is because it is immoral.

To sum up, the development of sexual orientation is a natural process and has no innate moral impact. It is highly improbable that legitimization of gay marriage could increase the incidence of homosexuality, nor would such a thing weaken our intrinsic moral basis as a society or people.

The legitimization of gay marriage would discourage straight people from marrying. This one is simply idiotic. First, while I can think of many trends that were enhanced by gay participation, I cannot think of a single one that was made less popular by gay participation. Second, can you even imagine a straight couple saying, “We’re deeply in love and really want to get married, but since gay people can do it, it’s just meaningless to us”? I mean, seriously.

As I argued a decade ago, it is far more likely that people would be deterred by generic aspects of marriage than by any aspect of gay marriage. Indeed, when people argue against marriage, they cite broken marriages in general. That the social and personal pressures of marriage weigh them down and make them unhappy; that promises of fidelity may not be realistic; that wedlock can make people feel as though their options are limited and possible futures are closed off. They cite unhappy couples, spousal abuse, and other pitfalls of the institution. None of these are caused by, nor would be exacerbated by gay marriage. In fact, many straights will, perhaps jokingly, ask gays if they really want to deal with all the baggage that comes with marriage.

Now, if there’s a gay couple living next door, and a person is so disgusted with having to live near that, then it is only that person’s own bigoted hatred would be the problem, and not the happy couple living nearby. If this causes fewer of these people to have children to whom they would hand down this hatred and bigotry, then I see no problem in that result.

Gay marriage will have a chilling effect on population. How this will occur is usually left unsaid; I can only infer two possibilities, these being the two purported effects listed directly above. That gay marriage could increase the unnatural incidence of homosexuality is bunk, and the idea that straights will stop getting married and/or having children because gays are marrying is, not to put it too lightly, one of the most breathtakingly stupid ideas I have ever heard. To the contrary, it might bring new life to the institution.

Gay marriage is unnatural. See the discussion above. This is also often conflated with the argument of a divine mandate. Homosexual behavior occurs naturally in the animal kingdom, and the evidence that we have on human sexuality right now points strongly to it being a natural phenomenon. And since marriage is a human construct in any case, citing “nature” does not really apply anyway.

Gay marriage will lead to polygamy and bestiality. Another chestnut among conservatives, that allowing gay marriage will open the floodgates to any form of marriage, from group marriages to people deciding to marry chickens and goats. In short, the classic slippery slope and false choice fallacies. This is not a package deal, not to mention that the alternate forms cited as “next on the list” are incredibly more rare than homosexuality. While a few people do promote group marriages (ironically, mostly religious people, and mostly citing biblical example!), nobody is pushing for, shall we call it, “animal husbandry.” This is simply yet another dishonest or ignorant attempt to smear homosexuality with the stigma of very different (usually non-consensual) sexual activities; as with the attempts to equate homosexuality with pedophilia, there is simply no relation whatsoever. As much as I am sure that there are conservatives out there secretly harboring their love of barnyard animals, they will simply have to live with their own self-hate and leave the rest of us alone.

Taxpayers would be forced to subsidize gay marriages. Taxpayers are forced to subsidize all marriages, which has no meaning regarding the type of marriage or the moral status of those involved. We are already “forced” to subsidize marriages we do not approve of; we don’t get to pick and choose which ones we like.

What this argument really is, however, is a new conservative tactic borrowed from the reproductive-rights arena, the “religious-rights” appeal. Direct government subsidy of a single religious group violates the establishment clause; one lesser aspect of this is that individuals are forced to subsidize religious groups with their taxpayer dollars. It has always been a side issue next to the greater issue of government endorsement and state religion; however, conservatives glommed onto this and now claim that anything they don’t like is now barred from receiving any government funding whatsoever, even indirectly. As a result, because Planned Parenthood also performs abortions, conservatives want to ban it from getting government funding for any health services whatsoever.

The use of this in regards to gay marriage is just a rebranding of that same twice-borrowed side issue, and is just as irrelevant as the fact that people without children may resent subsidizing education, or that people who are single may resent subsidizing anyone who is married. We already subsidize sham marriages, and marriages with abuse, and marriages of convenience, and so forth and so on. Tax-funded support of married couples does not equal personal taxpayer endorsement of the morality or lack of same within that marriage.

Marriage is about having children. No it’s not. If it were about having children, we would not allow people beyond childbearing age to marry. Nor would we allow younger people who, by condition or choice can no longer conceive, to marry. There is nothing in the legal or even the religious institutions of marriage that tie those institutions solely to childbearing.

Many more stupid arguments. Just too many to list one by one. Here’s a “top ten” list, including some of the arguments above, as well as: “Schools would teach that homosexual relationships are identical to heterosexual ones,” “Freedom of conscience and religious liberty would be threatened,” “Fewer people would remain monogamous and sexually faithful,” “Fewer people would remain married for a lifetime,” “Fewer children would be raised by a married mother and father,” and “More children would grow up fatherless.” Most of these are supported by bogus “research” (note that the source scrupulously avoids citing any specific research).

Here’s a super-idiotic list, one that really pushes the envelope. He claims that gay marriage “can bring huge financial and emotional stress” (gays will be more able to sue religious bigots for discrimination, thus causing the “stress”), “The health risks are enormous to themselves and others” (essentially he cites HIV/AIDS, as though somehow gay marriage will cause increases in such diseases—presumably gays will otherwise remain celibate and healthy), “The morals of the minority forced upon the majority” (ironically, the opposite is now true), and “Gay Marriage affects people spiritually” (religious folk will be mentally harmed by being forced to see married gay couples). He also makes the falling-birth-rate claim, and as is usual, gives no evidence to support the claim, nor any framework under which such an effect could occur.

If you think that’s as stupid as stupid gets, he gets stupider: Gay marriage “forces government to get involved in changing laws which automatically affect everyone in society.”

Really. He wrote that.

What all of this ultimately comes down to is, we have a heteros-only club, and it would just be ruined if those icky gays got in. But like I said, this does not play well, so we get the “institution” argument instead.

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NOW Can We Talk about Gun Control?

May 13th, 2013 2 comments
This is getting to be morbidly absurd.

We are now seeing mass shootings as common occurrences, and it is most likely we are become inured to them. After a shooter kills a few dozen first-graders, after all, what’s all that big about 19 shot in a New Orleans Mother’s Day parade?

Certainly, we should not react in a shocked manner, and absolutely it’s not something that should, for the nth time, trigger discussion about actually doing something about reasonable gun control. After all, HITLER! And OBAMA WILL CONFISCATE YOUR GUNS! And BOOGAH BOOGAH!!

Though I am not sure what effect this will have; after Newtown, not only did Congress fail to pass gun control, they actually passed laws that weakened gun control. Will the New Orleans mass shooting trigger even more pro-gun laws? Hard to tell.

It does beg the question: what will it take?

At least 19 injured in New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting
Sunday, May 12, 2013
At least nineteen people in New Orleans, including two children, were injured on Sunday when multiple gunmen opened fire on a Mother’s Day parade, police said. A 10-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl were grazed by bullets but are in good condition, New Orleans Police spokesman Garry Flot said in a statement.

But hey, no one was killed, right? Just like no one was killed here:

North Vallejo Little League cancels Saturday games after shooting
Sunday, May 12, 2013
VALLEJO, Calif. (KGO) — Vallejo Little League players are disappointed after they learned that all of thier Saturday games were cancelled because of another shooting near one of their fields. This is the second time shots were fired near North Vallejo little league players.

I mean, just because we have multiple incidents of shots being fired near Little League games doesn’t me we should be concerned! After all, who would be upset that kids can’t play baseball in their own neighborhood for fear of being shot? Besides, we all know that Vallejo is a shooting gallery anyway.

And it’s not like any of this is unusual. In an incomplete count, Slate tallies a minimum of 3963 shooting deaths in 149 days, about 25 people killed each day. But don’t worry, only 75 were children—well, unless you count the 199 teens. But that’s only three or four children and ten teenage kids killed a week. Perfectly acceptable losses for the right to unfettered gun ownership!

Why bother with training, controls, screening, and registration when we’re only talking about 60 small children slaughtered every year? 70 tops! And only 500 or so teens, which is OK, because they don’t count as much. [Note: suicides are typically not counted in the tolls being referenced here.]

Here’s a very small sampling of gun violence in the past 24 hours, from Google News—and you can be certain that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Buncombe County Triple Shooting
Sunday, May 12 2013, 03:33 PM EDT
The Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office is investigating a domestic shooting that injured two people and left another dead. It happened around 1:30 this morning on Rathfarahan Circle. Investigators say Arthur McArdle and Banning McArdle were taken to Mission Hospital. The shooter, Joshua McArdle, died at the scene from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Deputies say there are no other suspects. Neighbors tell News 13 Joshua Mcardle had been fighting with his father and brother for the past few days.

Four injured during shooting at motorcycle club
May 12, 2013 at 12:16 PM
APACHE JUNCTION, Ariz. — Four people were injured early Sunday morning when a shootout took place at a motorcycle club in Apache Junction.

Police Investigating Double Shooting In Hartford
2:37 p.m. EDT, May 12, 2013
Police are investigating a double shooting that took place early Sunday morning on Lawrence Street. Police said officers responded to the area of 172 Lawrence St. at 1:54 a.m. for reports of several shots fired. When they arrived at the scene they found one victim shot in the arm. A second victim arrived later at St. Francis with a gunshot wound to the foot, police said.

Four dead in Waynesville shooting
May 12, 2013
Autopsies will be conducted Monday on the bodies of four people murdered inside a home in Waynesville in Bartholomew County.

Man, woman wanted in connection to D.C. shooting
May 12, 2013 6:01 pm
Police are on the lookout for a male and female in connection with a shooting on the District’s southeast side early Sunday morning. Around 1:43 a.m. Sunday, D.C. police responded to reports of a shooting on the 2500 block of Pennsylvania Avenue SE. On the scene, authorities found an adult male suffering from an apparent gunshot wound. He was conscious and breathing.

Elderly man charged with murder after Mother’s Day shooting
May 12, 2013 at 6:33 PM
GASTON COUNTY, N.C. – Police arrested an elderly man after they said he shot and killed a woman Sunday afternoon. The shooting happened around 12:30 p.m. on Venn Drive. Authorities said they answered a call for a cardiac arrest, but when they arrived they found Vivian Schronce, 80, shot in the chest. Shortly after the shooting, she was pronounced dead at Caromont Regional Medical Center.

Hammond man killed at party early Sunday
May 12, 2013
HAMMOND | A 21-year-old man was killed after being gunned down early Sunday at a party on the 600 block of Sibley Street in Hammond, police said. Jeffrey Morgan, of the 6400 block of Monroe Avenue in Hammond, died from multiple gunshot wounds about 1:27 a.m., according to a release from the Lake County coroner’s office.

Police search for two suspects in Saturday shooting
MAY 12, 2013
Revere police are searching for two men who allegedly shot a man in the back on Sagamore Street Saturday night before fleeing on foot.

Man killed, woman in critical condition after Jacksonville shooting; 1 in custody
May 12, 2013 – 3:01am
A Jacksonville man who served 21 years in prison for the attempted murder of civil rights leader W.W. Schell is back behind bars after a weekend shooting killed one man and critically injured a woman.

Neighbor heard ‘angry voices’ prior to fatal shooting in Central District
May 12, 2013 at 9:10 AM PDT
SEATTLE — A man believed to be in his 20s was fatally shot in the city’s Central District neighborhood early Sunday morning, Seattle Police said.

Man, 22, Killed In Bridgeport Shooting
4:35 p.m. EDT, May 12, 2013
Police are investigating a fatal shooting Sunday morning on Berkshire Avenue near the Noble Avenue intersection. Police responded to the area at 4:15 a.m. after receiving a report of gunfire and found a parked silver Ford Fusion with several bullet holes, authorities said. Inside the car was Robert Rivera, 22, of Bridgeport, who had been shot multiple times, police said.

Just another Sunday in America. But hey, freedom ain’t free, right? And if we had to get training for guns and submit to background checks, we wouldn’t be free, now would we? Mandatory firearm safety training? Might as well just lock us all in concentration camps. FEMA has some ready, I hear.

Categories: Social Issues Tags:

The Weight of a Gun

April 6th, 2013 2 comments

The Trayvon Martin case has a number of elements which are, to say the least, distracting. The fact that the police accepted Zimmerman’s story and seemed to dismiss Martin as a criminal, failing even to identify him in a timely fashion. The fact that Zimmerman’s wounds were not at all apparent from then-current evidence, and that police may not have collected evidence properly. The fact that parts of the 911 call were unclear, and there was not a small amount of media sensationalism regarding an assumed racial epithet. All of this fired up discussions of racial profiling, police collusion, and the possibility of a conspiracy. While this may have helped motivate the police to act more properly on the case, it also created a flurry of red herrings.

This only got worse as time went on, with problems in the other direction as well. Which photos of Trayvon were used created complaints, and that the friend who Trayvon was on the phone with had made false statements under oath. All of these became issues that everyone focused on.

Today was no different. Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, posted (or re-posted) an image on Twitter:


While this throws a certain amount of doubt as to whether there is indeed racism in the Zimmerman household, it is yet another red herring—possibly the mother of all red herrings. Robert is not George, and George should not be held responsible for crap his brother posts. Whether or not Robert intended only to demonstrate how photographs can be used to make any associations and that people should not judge Trayvon Martin based on his “harmless friendly teen” images, the post was the height of idiocy and insensitivity—and not the least bit relevant to the main questions of the case.

These distractions are not only less relevant, but they distort perceptions: for example, so much attention was placed on whether or not Zimmerman had any injuries, that when photos came out showing the injuries were real, many seemed to assume that was the end of it, case closed—as if that were the only real question in the case.

At the time when the story first broke, and still today, I held and do hold that most of that is irrelevant, and there is one central issue here: George Zimmerman was armed, and deliberately left his car to follow and confront someone who only looked suspicious to him. I hold that a key lesson of this incident is the cavalier attitude we have assumed toward the carrying and use of guns, especially in terms of vigilantism.

This is what I posted almost a year ago, comparing Zimmerman with Rodney Peairs, the man who shot and killed Yoshi Hattori:

[T]he most significant factor, at least to my reckoning, was that the men who wielded the guns failed to act responsibly. Neither did what they were supposed to do. Rodney Peairs, the man who shot Yoshi Hattori, had a right to defend his home–but he violated that precept when he unnecessarily stepped outside his home to actively confront the “intruders.” No matter how it played out in terms of specifics, George Zimmerman made the same error: instead of holding back and allowing trained professionals to do their job, he pursued Martin, and Martin is now dead as a result. In both cases, the men with guns felt the necessity to confront the people they felt threatened by, no doubt emboldened by the possession of their weapons. …

Peairs and Zimmerman both owned guns, and they both assumed a right to step beyond their own bounds and confront people they believed to be criminals. That is an explosive combination that will result in the deaths of innocent people. Peairs required no training to be armed in his home; Zimmerman only needed to take a few hours of gun safety courses before he was allowed to walk the streets armed. If either received training which firmly emphasized that they retreat from confrontation instead of seek it out, it certainly did not take.

In my mind, Zimmerman is guilty. Not because I know how the specifics played out, that Martin did not assault him, or anything else. Instead, it was because Zimmerman was the one holding a gun, he did not need to pursue Martin (the 911 call made that clear), and so he bore responsibility.

As far as I’m concerned, that by itself should be a separate element in any judgment about Zimmerman. What happened specifically after that—whether he initiated the confrontation with Martin or was attacked, whether there was justification to shoot or not—these I see as separate issues.

Zimmerman carried a gun. He willfully engaged in vigilante behavior. He left his car and followed a suspect, against the instructions of the police, apparently assuming too much about who he was following, apparently without thinking how his actions might be perceived were the person in fact innocent.

What happened after that was a result of this choice on his part.

I think this needs to be emphasized and recognized as a central issue. How photos are used in journalism, the significance of race and racial profiling, even the details of the confrontation itself—these all are relevant within their own contexts, but irrelevant to a very critical issue.

That issue is armed engagement: that, when you carry or use a gun, you must also assume a responsibility to be cautious in the extreme.

We have moved in the opposite direction, sending all manner of signals—cultural and legal—telling people to shoot first and ask questions later.

That has to stop, it has to be reversed. People need to be sent the message: if you pick up the gun, you should feel the weight of the responsibility it carries.

It also highlights a critical element of gun control: training and licensing. These are absolutely essential and should be required nationwide.

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The War on Reason Rages On

March 26th, 2013 2 comments

Remember how we believed that the horrific national tragedy of twenty little children being slaughtered with an assault rifle, especially after so many other shootings like the Aurora theater massacre, would lead to an assault weapons ban, or at least a law to limit the number of bullets in a cartridge?

Apparently not.

While the public may have been sufficiently aghast at such tragedies to pull the switch, Congress seems to feel differently. A majority appear to be saying, “No, we think more than two dozen first-graders need to be shot to bloody pieces before we act. Let’s wait and see.”

Not that an assault weapons ban would lead to an immediate halt to such slaughters, but the later you act, the longer they go on. So, good work, senators. You just proved that the NRA is not as weak and ineffective a lobby as some had started to believe.

But hey, at least we can all agree on universal background checks, right? Background checks, even in their currently weak form, have proven effective at stopping two million gun sales, over one million of those to felons, over the past few decades. Obama’s plan for shoring up their weaknesses so that criminals and the mentally ill will have a hurdle in their way before they can acquire a major arsenal is the most milquetoast, sensible, non—

Other gun control efforts like universal background checks on people buying guns are also struggling in Congress, despite public anger at the Connecticut shooting and other massacres.


It is, after all, what, three months since we saw those children gunned down. So, who cares any more?

The Last Acceptable Prejudice

February 18th, 2013 1 comment

Confronting prejudice seems to be a matter of not just social norms, but of visibility, psychology, and choice.

On visibility, race and gender cannot be hidden, so they were confronted much earlier.

Homosexuality is easier to conceal, but hardly easy altogether; it came next.

Belief, however, can be the easiest thing to conceal, making it less necessary to confront.

Then there is how these prejudices tie into our psychology. Race was perhaps the easiest to confront on the grounds that it was justified partly a false scientific claim (that we are significantly different physiologically and psychologically), which was not too difficult to debunk, leading to the exposure of the fact that we are simply xenophobic. Our shared similarities across groups and differences within them helped to cancel much of this out.

Gender is more difficult to confront not just because there are physiological and psychological differences, but also because of the sharp duality most people see, not to mention historical and traditional roles and assumptions—many accepted or even embraced by many women themselves—making it harder to break through.

Homosexuality is tied to any number of sexual mores and bugaboos we still wade neck-deep in, and like gender, is tied to issues of control and self-identity, thus making it more difficult for some to break through.

Atheism, however, confronts some of our deepest fears: that of meaning, purpose—and oblivion. This connects to levels of suppressed horror and despair for some, which, even if subconscious (especially if subconscious!) are most difficult to confront.

Race, gender, and sexual orientation do have something in common, however, which sets them apart from atheism: choice. This is one thing that also delayed acceptance of homosexuality, that it was seen as a lifestyle rather than a permanent, set state of being. This still persists as a way for people to discriminate, because when it comes down to it, one of the best ways to justify a difference in human society is to demonstrate that the difference cannot be chosen or avoided, and thus demands equality on the basis of humanity.

Atheism, however, is in fact, a choice—mostly. Here, it is possible for one to truly convert as one cannot with race, gender, or orientation. I say “mostly,” however, because it is not always easy or even possible to change one’s convictions. For some, it is, but for others, it is so deeply tied to their self-identity that it is pretty much impossible.

All of these reasons explain why outright prejudice against atheists is still accepted.

Think about it: if Newt Gingrich had come out and said he would not accept non-whites in his cabinet, there would have been an outrage. Same for if he had said he would exclude women. Both may have been acceptable—or perhaps, politically survivable—statements more than half a century ago, but are utterly unacceptable today.

Had Newt Gingrich said he would not have any gays serving in government, there would also be public outcry against him. We still hear things like this, but they are now socially unacceptable; as gays come out of the closet, homophobes go in, to join racists and sexists.

But Gingrich did not say any of these things. He said, instead, that he would not accept any atheists serving in his administration.

Nobody even seemed to notice that he had said anything wrong.

And here, Gingrich even noted how it is easier to discriminate against atheists than it is to reject members of other religions:

Now, I happen to think that none of us should rush in judgment of others in the way in which they approach God. And I think that all of us up here I believe would agree. But I think all of us would also agree that there’s a very central part of your faith in how you approach public life. And I, frankly, would be really worried if somebody assured me that nothing in their faith would affect their judgments, because then I’d wonder, where’s your judgment—how can you have judgment if you have no faith? And how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray? Who you pray to, how you pray, how you come close to God is between you and God. But the notion that you’re endowed by your creator sets a certain boundary on what we mean by America.

In short, I can accept you if you’re a Mormon (he was speaking to Mitt Romney’s religion, ironically defining himself as tolerant), or if you’re Jewish, and even potentially if you’re a Hindu or a Muslim (though he would very likely escort such people quietly out the back door).

But if you’re an atheist? You’re damaged goods and have no place in our society. If you think I exaggerate, go back and read what he said again.

Following is a snippet of a discussion on this topic, which prompted this post.

Categories: Religion, Social Issues Tags:


January 31st, 2013 Comments off

The good news: despite NRA opposition, it looks like there may be consensus on closing background check “loopholes” (actually, more like “gaping open chasms”).

The bad news: conservatives insist that the right of every citizen to possess a high-powered semi-automatic military-style assault weapon with 100-round drum-type magazines. Despite no one having put forth any reasonable explanation as to what legitimate use one would have for such a weapon.

One right-wing activist tried:

“Young women are speaking out as to why AR-15 weapons are their weapon of choice,” Trotter explained. “The guns are accurate. They have good handling. They’re light. They’re easy for women to hold.”

She added: “And most importantly, their appearance. An assault weapon in the hands of a young woman defending her babies in her home becomes a defense weapon, and the peace of mind that a woman has as she’s facing three, four, five violent attackers, intruders in her home, with her children screaming in the background, the peace of mind that she has knowing that she has a scary-looking gun gives her more courage when she’s fighting hardened, violent criminals.”

“And if we ban these types of assault weapons, you are putting women at a great disadvantage, more so than men, because they do not have the same type of physical strength and opportunity to defend themselves in a hand-to-hand struggle. They’re not criminals, they’re moms, they’re young women. And they’re not used to violent confrontations.”

Riiiiight. Because what woman hasn’t had to protect her babies from a pack of violent attackers in her home? Happens all the time. What you don’t need is a handgun; after all, what if there are seven armed rapists going after you and you only have a six-shooter? What then, Mr. gun-banning smarty-pants? No, in this time when gangs of armed murdering rapists routinely break into homes and mothers have no choice but to fend them off with military-style assault weapons, banning such weapons would be insanity.

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Arguing From Both Sides of Their Factoids

January 20th, 2013 9 comments

In writing the last post, I re-read the definitive posting I made on gun control back in 2006 and the comments, which ranged into late 2007. The last comment I made held a point which I had forgotten about over time, but which points out a very subtle and ironic flaw in two major arguments made by gun advocates.

Gun advocates say that gun control or even gun bans are not effective; that with such laws, criminals are still able to get all the guns they need.

Gun advocates also argue that if a dictatorship establishes itself in our country, they will institute restrictive gun control or gun bans, and these will be so effective that we will be defenseless against said dictator.

See the slight flaw in the reasoning?

It’s actually quite similar to the arguments made by conservatives about taxing the wealthy: when you try to raise their taxes, the argument is that they don’t have enough money to make a difference. But when they want to lower their taxes, the argument is that they are paying the lion’s share of the nation’s tax revenue.

These kinds of inconsistencies betray either the lack of logic or reasoning in creating the argument, and/or a fundamental dishonesty when it comes to making the point.

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No Kidding?

January 20th, 2013 1 comment

A few gun stats noted in the Washington Monthly:

— According to the CDC, having a gun in your home is associated with triple the risk of homicide and nearly fivefold the risk of suicide.

— The Harvard Injury Control Research Center (HICRC) has found that suicide attempts using a gun are far more likely to be fatal than such attempts using any other method. HICRC also reports that the availability of more guns is associated with more accidental deaths.

As if to prove the point, yesterday was “Gun Appreciation Day,” and TPM points out a little twist of irony: five people were sent to the hospital with gunshot wounds from at least three accidental discharges at gun shows commemorating the event.

The next article at TPM has a very appropriate note in a letter from a reader, making a point about a gun control requirement I have long supported but which was left out of Obama’s package:

Over Christmas, the family was talking to my brother in law —a sheriff in rural Maine, a hunter, an NRA member —about the possibility of limiting guns, and the “defense argument” —that we all need guns to defend ourselves.

He looked at me and said he definitely did not want me to carry! Then he made the serious point, that using guns to defend oneself or others takes both skill and emotional training. This is not something that just anyone can do. He could not imagine arming school teachers. And he noted, from 20 years as a sheriff, most gun deaths are from stupidity (accidents of various kinds) or family anger (and the human stupidity that encourages).

What we need: mandatory gun training, testing, and licensing. Because even if you are a clear and clean law-abiding citizen, if you do not know how to properly store, maintain, and use your arms, then you are statistically a far greater threat to yourself and those around you than is any burglar or phantom dictator. A gun should be denied to you not just if you are a criminal or mentally incompetent; it should also be denied to you if you are incapable of using it with at least nominally safe skills.

Nobody denies that we all have the right to travel, and part of that is the right to own a car. But we also all agree that if you are a menace with that car, if you are untrained or untrainable, if you cannot operate it safely, then you have no right to get behind the wheel of one.

Guns, unlike cars, are designed to kill people. That is their primary purpose. And right now, it is 100% legal in many if not most places in this country to acquire, keep, and use a gun with no training or testing whatsoever. That is completely insane.

Which is why I advocate a national training and testing requirement just as we have for motor vehicles. It makes eminent sense.

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