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.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Overthrowing the Government

The reasons people give for owning guns have changed over time. It has been a long time since most people would say they needed guns to keep their African slaves from rebelling or fleeing, and it has been quite a while since people said they needed to be able to defend themselves from native American savages. At a forum a couple of days ago in a suburb of Chicago, one guy shouted out that he needs his guns to protect himself from people who live on the south side of Chicago. I wonder who he had in mind?

Not many people around where I live, or where most people live in the US live, still say they need to be able to hunt so that they will have food to eat. Not many say they need guns so they can kill themselves, even though that's what a lot of gun owners do with their guns. Most suicides in the US are committed with guns, and most gun deaths are suicides.

It used to be that only those on the really weird fringes said they needed guns so that they could fight against their own government if it ever became tyrannical. Not a lot of rational people think their handguns or even their assault rifles would make them much of a match if they were up against their local police department or sheriff's office, let alone the entire US government. But remarkably, that was the overwhelming view of about 200 people who showed up at the recent suburban public forum.

The Illinois State Rifle Association had asked their people – who love their guns more than they care about other people's lives – to go to the forum. They showed up and, on a pre-arranged signal, interrupted the moderator's introductions by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. There's nothing wrong with pledging allegiance, but this demonstration was designed to take control of the meeting and display their power. You may have seen something like it in movies like Cabaret and The Sound of Music, which chronicle how Nazis would intimidate patrons of beer halls and other public events by singing, saluting, scowling, taking names, and following up with beatings.

The pro-gunners seemed to think that they were displaying patriotism, and every so often during the forum one of them would accuse people who were promoting reasonable solutions to the problem of gun violence as being un-American.

So it was shocking when one man stood up, wearing what appeared to be military patches on his jacket, announced that he had served in our military, and then went on to say that the reason he needed to be allowed to own assault weapons was so that he could take over the government by force if he decided it was tyrannical. What was more surprising was that the entire roomful of gun lovers stood and erupted in cheers for the idea of armed resistance to the very government that they claimed to love so dearly.

When most people think of modern armed insurrectionists they probably think of kooks living in a cult compound somewhere in the hills out west. But there they were, right in the middle of a prosperous Midwestern suburb, in a meeting that was being held in the public assembly room of the local police station.

The contradiction between claiming to support the government and being eager and ready to overthrow it didn't seem to occur to these people. It made sense to them to cheer a returned soldier just for being a soldier, and in the next breath cheer the idea of killing our own soldiers and federal agents if they were carrying out their duties and their oaths to protect and preserve our country.

One might expect, knowing as we do that various agencies of government in the US routinely spy on people in our country who might be considered threats, that people would be reticent to openly show support for such radical viewpoints. But the gun lovers in the room enthusiastically declared their support for the idea of armed revolution.

At the end of the program a handful of pro-gun folks came up to me, apologized for the rude behavior of the crowd, shook my hand, and said they hoped we could find “common ground.” Maybe we could, if those few represented the majority of gun owners. But they were vastly outnumbered at the meeting, and I'm having trouble thinking of where I might find common ground with people who advocate the violent overthrow of our government and takeover of our country.

Monday, January 21, 2013


Yesterday the NRA and Illinois State Rifle Association rallied more than 200 of their supporters to jeer, boo, and heckle the speakers and disrupt a panel discussion that was titled, “Guns and Public Safety: Where We Stand After Sandy Hook.” Today I heard the President of the United States recite lofty praise for the noble character of the American people. It is hard to reconcile yesterday with today.

Perhaps the President believes that by appealing to people's better natures he will move them towards showing respect for one another. Little respect was shown yesterday, not even for a man as he was telling about his son being gunned down at work. The crowd kept shouting as the slain boy's photo was shown on the screen. As another of the speakers talked about feeling compassion for the family members whose loved ones have been shot, the crowd continued to shout insults. I doubt the angry gun owners who were at yesterday's public forum will be moved by the President's speech. I doubt they will listen to it without screaming at their televisions. Actually, I doubt they bothered to listen.

It is hard to tell how small a portion of our populace seethes with the fear, anger, and hatred that we saw in the audience yesterday. They want us to think that they are the majority. I doubt it. We would have already come apart as a country if most of us were that crazed.

The influence that these people have is not to be denied. It should be denounced. The President, in talking as if they weren't among us was probably trying to deliver a speech that would be looked upon by history as noble and visionary. That's what most presidents aim for. Maybe painting a picture of America as it can be is all that they can do. I hope our president doesn't forget that the image he created is not accurate.

The NRA and its supporters do not embrace dissent. They do not tolerate divergent opinions. Their mode of discussion is imbued with the same violence that their weapons promise. Yesterday, they wouldn't even agree that babies shouldn't be slaughtered. These people, who think that their guns are more important than other people's lives, do not seek common ground or reasonable solutions. They see public discourse as something to be disrupted. After yesterday's meeting, the NRA congratulated its members for doing a good job of sabotaging the public forum.

I do not think that our President is unmindful of what is happening in the country. He had to deal with the haters and obstructionists throughout his first term. Had he been at yesterday's forum, he wouldn't have been surprised by what went on. I don't criticize him for pronouncing a vision instead of reporting on reality. I am just disappointed that he was not able to find a way to confront the destructive attitudes that are frustrating his efforts to lead us forward.

It's wonderful that our president can still look upon the world and talk about marching towards a better tomorrow. But it's about time he turned to the rabble and told them to stop throwing rocks. It's time we all did. Then we would see just how puny they are, and their influence would be diminished to be proportionate to their ranks.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Doing As Little As Possible

President Obama today asked Congress to expand the federal requirement that says that before people can purchase guns, they must pass background checks. These background checks would make sure that people are not allowed to buy guns if the law says they cannot own guns because of their prior felony convictions or disqualifying mental conditions. Right now, about forty percent of guns are purchased without the background checks, because checks are only required if the guns are purchased from federally licensed gun dealers. No background checks are required if guns are purchased from unlicensed individuals. This is what is called the “gun show loophole.”

Obama also proposed that the background checks be required for purchases of ammunition, not just guns. He also wants to outlaw assault weapons and magazines that hold more than 10 bullets.

Yesterday, the New York legislature enacted its own package of gun controls, including a ban on new assault weapons, a requirement that all such weapons that are already in New York be registered within a year, and a requirement that anyone who sells ammunition report to the government purchases of large amounts of ammo.

These measures will do some good. But they aren't nearly enough. Although assault weapons have been used in a number of spectacular mass shootings, by far the greatest number of shootings are not committed with assault weapons. Handguns are the weapons used in most shootings.

What is happening in New York and in Washington D.C. right now is that politicians are responding to the shootings that are most embarrassing to them – the mass shootings at theaters and schools. They are paying very little attention to most of the shootings that kill about 80 people each day all around the country, including the suicides which make up more than half of all shooting deaths.

The politicians are not really trying to solve the problem. They are trying to look like they are solving the problem. If they wanted to solve the problem of gun violence, they would have to look at the causes of gun violence, and mental illness isn't the only cause. Poverty, inferior education, inadequate policing, lack of opportunity, racism, bigotry, isolation, drugs, sexism, historical and cultural attitudes and other factors can all contribute to violence. The politicians don't want to open up those cans of worms.

There have been enough studies that we know what it will take to reduce gun violence. We will have to remedy the causes of violence, and we will have to reduce the availability of guns of all kinds in all places.

All that will be accomplished by the small efforts that politicians are now making to reduce gun violence is that in a few years, the NRA will be able to argue that today's inadequate efforts did not work, and that therefore gun control is a waste of time. Why don't we just do what needs to be done now?