Tuesday, June 25, 2013

A Nation Divided

Monday night, several thousand mostly white Chicagoans celebrated the victory of a mostly white hockey team which has not one native Chicagoan on it. Our home team, consisting largely of Canadian millionaires, leads a league in what is sometimes referred to as the most segregated professional sport.

Many of the fans poured out of bars in various stages of drunkenness. Some threw bottles at police. Some broke store windows. Some tried to destroy a public sculpture. At least one woman took off her clothes for the entertainment of the crowd. Numerous arrests were made.

On the preceding Friday night, about a thousand Chicagoans, mostly African-American, took to the streets to march in protest of the gun violence that has once again made our city internationally famous, just like it was in the days of Al Capone. This crowd was peaceful, orderly, and generally somber. Nothing was destroyed. No arrests were made.

There is nothing wrong with frivolity or sport. There is something wrong with the divisions between people that allow violence to be the concern of only one racial group. Why weren't the hockey fans in the streets protesting gun violence a few nights earlier? Certainly the violence is more emblematic of Chicago than any game played on artificially frozen ice. Certainly the gun violence will affect people's lives more deeply than a five-minute penalty.

The answer is simply that one group is white and the other is not, and to an alarming and disgraceful extent, white people don't care very much whether black people get killed.

On the Saturday between the two street demonstrations, I spoke with a member of the Illinois State Rifle Association at that group's annual open house at their shooting range in downstate Illinois. A retired white Chicago cop, he said there was a much larger open-air shooting range not far away, – the south side of Chicago. He laughed as he called the residents of that area “free targets.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, making it more difficult for the government to assure that minorities in our country will be represented in our government.

Shortly, we will find out whether George Zimmerman is judged guilty of shooting Trayvon Martin. A lot of people on both sides of the great divide already know what they want the verdict to be.

Our country is suffering in many ways. The mayor of Chicago has responded by shutting schools in poor, largely minority neighborhoods and pledging money to build a new sports arena for relatively affluent college students. The reactions to the mayor's announcements were as divided as the reactions to the shootings and the hockey victory. Some people care. Too many don't.

Abraham Lincoln, referencing the Christian Bible, said that a nation divided against itself could not survive. It appears he was wrong. We have been divided for a long time, and the nation endures. So does the alienation, resentment, and suffering.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Lisa, Don't Take a Dive

When boxers, jockeys, or other athletes let themselves be beaten, they are labeled as crooked. What should we call a lawyer who gives up on a case she could win?

Lisa Madigan is the Attorney General of Illinois. Her job, according to her website, is to represent “the People.” Lisa claims to fulfill the obligation that the law places on her to look beyond representing the “parochial interests of State agencies and governmental units to what is the greater good and the more significant interest.”

Why, then, isn't she trying to uphold the Illinois law that bans carrying concealed weapons?

One popular theory is that she doesn't want to alienate downstate voters by taking a strong anti-gun stance, because it might jeopardize her chances of being elected governor if she decides to run. She isn't likely to be doing that, because if she did she would be placing her own political ambitions above the interests of her clients, which might well be seen as a violation of the code of ethics that governs her and all other attorneys. It would also be a pretty risky political strategy, because she would alienate the majority of voters, who don't want people carrying concealed weapons. Maybe she figures that people will vote for her even if she betrays the cause of gun violence prevention.

Another theory is that Lisa is avoiding taking a stand on gun violence simply because she avoids taking stands on all controversial issues. Her website boasts of her efforts to protect senior citizens from being taken advantage of, women and children from being abused, the environment from being degraded, and her work on other issues with which hardly anyone would argue. It doesn't look like she sticks her neck out often. For example, with all the political corruption in Illinois, why is it that the U.S. Attorney has such a long list of successes in prosecuting politicians and she doesn't seem to have a list at all?

Some people theorize that Lisa hasn't appealed the case that threw out Illinois' gun law because she is afraid of losing the case in the Supreme Court. But she has already lost the case in the federal court. If she loses the appeal, we are in the same position we are in now. There isn't anything left to lose. On the other hand, if she appeals, she can turn her loss into a win. It shouldn't be too hard a case to win, either. The federal court decision that she would be appealing is contrary to every other federal court decision on the topic of concealed carry. Since the day that the Illinois decision was announced by the 7th Circuit of the federal court, two other federal courts have taken notice of the Illinois decision and have ignored it. It's pretty clear that the Illinois decision is regarded by other federal courts as wrong, and that the Supreme Court would reverse it.

Lisa hasn't said why she isn't appealing. She won't even admit that she isn't appealing. She's pretending that she is just waiting for the legislature to act. But if the legislature acts, she won't be able to appeal. Lisa is bobbing and weaving, but she isn't throwing any punches. She's just pretending to be fighting for the People. It's not a very convincing performance.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

To My Gun Nut Friends

So many people were upset when Attorney General Holder suggested that it is OK to kill American citizens on American soil that he backed away from that position. But not so many people are upset that our government kills other people in their countries every day.

Lots of people are objecting to the idea that our government may be using drone aircraft to spy on American citizens on American soil. But there isn't a lot of opposition to our government using drones to spy on other people in their countries, and even to kill them, their families, and innocent bystanders.

Lots of people aren't bothered that we are still imprisoning people from other countries for years without charging them with crimes. We're still sending them off to be interrogated (tortured), too.

Lots of gun lovers talk about how they want to keep their weapons so that they can fight off our government if it becomes tyrannical. I haven't heard one of them complain about the tyranny our government exercises all over the world.

Our government has been acting badly for a very long time. We tyrannize and terrorize large parts of the world. The gun lovers obviously aren't concerned about tyranny or justice, or they would have already started shooting. They are just concerned about themselves.

I'm quite concerned about how our government is acting, but my focus is not so narrow that I am only worried that my government will abuse my rights. I know that might happen. What bothers me is that it happens to other people every day, all across this country. People get rousted by local police departments for no good reason, and for lots of bad reasons, like racism. People get prosecuted and jailed for crimes they didn't commit.

There is so much wrong with the way our government works that sometimes it takes a real effort to remember that it does some things right. The corruption is outrageous. The abuse of power and privilege is deplorable. The inequality is disgraceful.

But I have chosen to respond to injustice using peaceful methods, not only because they will ultimately succeed, but more importantly because the other path would destroy me more quickly and certainly than any tyrannical government could. To put one's faith in guns is to turn oneself into an instrument of fear, intimidation, death, and destruction. That's not who I want to be.

And so, please give some thought, as you scream at me in meetings and send me angry emails and Facebook posts, to the fact that I am not the fool or coward that you like to think I am. I have just made a choice to be concerned not just with my own welfare, but also with how others are treated, and to approach the world with love and compassion, rather than with suspicion and hate. I disagree with you, but I do not despise you. I wish you no harm. And I wish you would not be so eager to harm others.

The world is not as dangerous a place as you seem to think. I am not afraid. You don't have to be either. I am not a danger to anyone. You don't have to be either. You can put away your guns and embrace your fellow human beings. They aren't really all out to get you. Most of them don't even know you exist, and don't care. You are creating your own prison of anxiety. You can free yourselves. Being alive doesn't really amount to much if you spend all your time worrying about dying and thinking about killing.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What if the crazies are right?

I have read many hundreds of comments that the pro-gun folks are posting online. I have listened to them speak in public and talked with them in private. I have read the emails they have been sending to me. I am starting to wonder, what if they are right?

What if more people having more guns really would lead to less crime? What if everyone was so prepared to unleash lethal violence that would-be criminals would be intimidated into not committing crimes? Would this be a country that anyone would want to live in, or would people flee the oppressive threat of violence and live as refugees in other countries?

What if our government really is poised to send jack-booted stormtroopers to grab the guns away from patriots and replace democracy with a totalitarian communist fascist socialism, whatever that is? What if the Jews really do run the world through secret international banking cabals? What if our president really is getting ready to execute a secret plan and turn our country over the the United Nations?

What if the crazies are right, and the rest of us are deluded dupes being led to the slaughter like sheep? What if it really is pointless to enact laws because bad guys don't always obey them? What if we all had the obligation and the God-given, inalienable right to defend ourselves with no limits on the amount of deadly force we could use, regardless of how many innocent bystanders we maim and kill?

What if all the thousands of newspaper reporters and columnists, and the TV and radio reporters and commentators are really conspiring to hide the truth from us? What if no children were shot at Sandy Hook, Obama wasn't born in the U.S., the federal income tax is unconstitutional, and each state is free to do whatever it wants because this is a Republic? What if the Constitution can't be interpreted in the context of modern experience but must be read according to some right-wing zealot's view of what it meant at a time when Africans were slaves, Native peoples were considered less than human, and women were property in America?

What if everyone who disagrees with the loonies is a traitor to our country who should be beaten senseless? What if the John Birch Society is right and fluoridated water really is weakening our minds and vaccinations against childhood diseases really are destroying our bodies? What if psychiatric drugs are to blame for all the school shootings? What if AIDs was invented by the government, gays really are polluting the gene pool, Mexicans really have taken all the good vegetable harvesting jobs, affirmative action is making our country effeminate, and aliens from outer space are among us? And what about the zombies?

What if evolution is an unproven notion that threatens the existence of God, climate change is just a theory, and cigarettes don't cause cancer? What if unions destroy jobs and hippies don't take baths? What if every soldier is a hero and it really doesn't matter how many Afghan, Iraqi, and Vietnamese civilians we've killed? What if Iran really is getting ready to launch nuclear warheads they don't have on missiles they don't have? What if Muslims really are trying to destroy everything America stands for, regardless of what it says in the Koran?

Maybe the crazies are right. Or maybe they're just crazy.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Saving the Second Amendment

Gun lovers don't seem to understand that their own actions are endangering their beloved Second Amendment. People in this country were horrified by the slaughter of innocent schoolchildren at Sandy Hook. People are growing weary of the daily news of drive-by shootings, shooting suicides, rage shootings, crime shootings, and accidental shootings. After decades of complacency about gun violence, people want change.

People are asking their representatives in government to enact new laws to reduce the level of gun violence. Most people will be satisfied if rather modest changes are made, such as banning assault rifles and requiring background checks of everyone who buys guns, including people who buy them at gun shows. If the NRA would simply accede to these changes and let them become law, the public's furor for any additional new legislation would dissipate.

But the NRA has been resisting all change, just as it has for years. They insist that the Second Amendment gives them the right to have whatever weapons they want, free of government interference. If they succeed in blocking even the modest laws that are now under consideration, the majority of Americans will feel their will has been frustrated. It is very likely that they will start talking seriously about repealing the Second Amendment. People who want to protect their children from guns will feel that they have no choice other than to eliminate the one thing that the NRA gives as the reason why change can't occur.

With only 25 percent of Americans owning guns, it probably won't be all that hard to get rid of the Second Amendment. The Constitution only requires 75 percent of the states to ratify an amendment. There have been quite a few amendments over the years.

Repealing the Second Amendment will not ban guns. It will simply put gun laws on the same footing as other laws. States and municipalities will be able to decide whether they want guns around or not, and on what terms. Since most people don't own guns and don't have much interest in guns, a lot of places will probably put rather severe restrictions on gun ownership and use. We will start to see our death rates from guns decline to be more comparable to the rest of the world, which does not have the guns or the gun problems that we do. These successes will be noticed, and states will follow each others' examples and enact progressively stricter laws.

The Second Amendment protects the rights of the minority of Americans who own guns. That minority has been shrinking steadily for decades as our population has shifted from rural to urban. City folk and suburbanites just don't hunt much. They don't grow up with guns, so they don't have any emotional attachment to them. They don't think they need guns to protect themselves. Guns are simply irrelevant to an ever growing majority of Americans. If they get fed up enough with gun violence and an intransigent NRA, they'll dump the Second Amendment without regret.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Building a Safer World

Building codes all across the country prohibit people from doing things on their properties that endanger people on nearby properties. For example, you can't run a golf driving range unless you put up a net to keep balls from going through neighbors' windows. If you drain your swimming pool, you can't let the water flood your neighbor's house. If you have a vicious dog, you have to fence your yard or restrain the animal. You can't let it attack people as they walk by on the sidewalk. You can't play music so loudly that it disturbs neighbors, and you can't shine searchlights into your next door neighbors' windows.

You also can't operate an outdoor shooting range unless you bank up the earth so that bullets that miss their targets don't hit people who live in houses located behind the range. If you run an indoor range, it must be constructed so that bullets don't fly through the walls into neighboring houses. These laws are all constitutional and generally accepted.

Why, then, not require people who have guns in their houses to make sure their bullets don't hit their neighbors?

It would be reasonable to require gun owners to bank up the earth or erect walls around their properties to contain errant bullets. That way, people would be able to keep guns at home to protect themselves but would not create an unreasonable danger to the families in their neighborhood.

There would be some expense involved in erecting safety barriers, but lots of laws impose financial burdens on people who want to use their properties in ways that present hazards. In many places, if you have a swimming pool, you have to erect a fence around it to keep neighborhood kids from drowning. If a pool owner has to pay to minimize the risk that a kid will drown, surely a gun owner should have to pay to minimize the risk that a kid will be shot.

It only makes sense that the people who create a risk of injury or death to the public by keeping guns should bear the cost of minimizing the risk. That's what the law says about driving automobiles. We don't expect motorists to intentionally crash their cars and injure their passengers, other motorists, and pedestrians, but we know that accidents can happen. We let people drive cars even though there is an inherent risk, but the law mandates safety features on cars to minimize the likelihood that accidents will happen and to minimize the consequences of those accidents. The cost of those safety features is included in the cost of the cars. The cost of preventing the accidental shooting of one's neighbor should similarly be paid by the people who want to have guns.

Some people might not want their properties to be walled in. They could be given the option of installing bullet-proof windows that could not be opened, provided that they understood that they could not take their guns out of their houses into their yards. Of course, their houses would have to be built of brick, stone, or some other material that would be impenetrable by bullets, because some of today's ammunition is capable of shooting right through aluminum siding and drywall. There have already been plenty of incidents where people were shot by bullets that came through their walls from outside their houses.

Requiring people to erect safety barriers on their property might seem like a drastic measure, but similar requirements have been imposed by law on commercial properties for years. Companies that handle flammable materials, for example, are required to construct their buildings to minimize the risk that an accidental explosion will endanger their neighbors. Nuclear power plants have to enclose their reactors in massive containment buildings for the same reason.

We live in a world of rights and corresponding responsibilities. The gun lobby has been telling us that people should have the right to keep guns in their homes so that they can take personal responsibility for the safety of their families. If they really believe in personal responsibility, they shouldn't have any objection to erecting barriers on their properties to assure that their activities don't endanger their neighbors. That would be real responsible gun ownership.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Who Owns the Constitution?

Linguists, historians, first year law students, and Supreme Court justices all agree that there are many ways to determine the meaning of an old document such as the U.S. Constitution. You could try to give the words their “plain meaning”, using a dictionary to supplement generally understood terms. But people don't agree on what is generally understood, and the definitions in dictionaries change over time just as the usages of words change.

You could consult dictionaries published at the time the document was written. But dictionaries contain alternate meanings for words, and some dictionaries have meanings that are inconsistent with other dictionaries. How would you know which dictionary to choose and which meaning the authors intended?

You could read other things the authors of the Constitution wrote to try to discern what they meant. But the Constitution was written by a number of people who disagreed on many things, especially on what the Constitution should say and mean.

You could look at how others have interpreted the document. But over the hundreds of years the Constitution has been around, judges and other people have interpreted it lots of contradictory ways.

You could give up on interpreting the Constitution altogether and let some expert tell you what it means. This is a very popular approach, especially with judges who claim to base their decisions on a strict construction of the constitution. The problem is, who do we let decide? Often, judges rely upon people with recognized expertise, like university professors who have researched the Constitution and its history. But the experts often don't agree with each other, and they are as susceptible to error and bias as anyone else. You can find an expert who supports pretty much every possible theory of what the Founding Fathers meant.

People who don't agree with a particular interpretation of the Constitution may point out that times have changed and that the Constitution, which was written before modern technology reshaped our lives, must be made relevant to today's world or it will cease to be useful in guiding our government and our people. On the other hand, people who agree with an interpretation of the Constitution may argue that while technology may have changed, fundamental principles do not. The same people who rely on either of these arguments may use the other argument when it suits them. We see this when people who decry judicial activism in protest of a decision they dislike applaud the same kind of activism when it results in a decision that is to their liking.

Ultimately, it is not only impossible to know what the Constitution was originally supposed to mean, it is irrelevant. What we need to keep in mind is what the Constitution was supposed to do. It was written to be the framework for a nation that would be governed differently from the way many other nations at the time were governed. It was meant to establish a relationship between the government apparatus and the people.

It was not meant to be the law. Instead, it provided a mechanism for making, interpreting, implementing, and enforcing laws. It was not meant to be immutable, so it set out a procedure by which it could be amended. And it was not meant to be the property only of scholars, historians, linguists, judges, or experts. It belongs to all of us, so ultimately we, the people, acting as a nation and not just as individuals, say what it means and what we need it to mean.