Saturday, December 29, 2012

Battle of the Amendments

This interactive map, complied and published by the
Journal-News in White Plains, NY, shows the
names and addresses of gun permit owners and
has ignited a firestorm of debate.
Prepare to be amazed.

A newspaper did something with which I disagree.

(OK, that's not so amazing, but I was trying to catch your attention. Did it work?)

Recently the Gannett newspaper in my old stomping grounds of Westchester County, N.Y. did something in reaction to the shootings in Newtown that garnered national attention.

The Journal News, which was once a dozen different independent newspapers now blended into one homogeneous whole under the Gannett rubric, published an interactive map with the names and addresses of handgun permit owners in Westchester and neighboring Rockland and Putnam counties.

The information was publicly available and they were perfectly within their legal rights to do this.

But as I've said to many people over the years, "legal" and "right" are not synonyms.
The Dec. 28th front page of the Journal-News

Primarily, although I admire the reporting skills necessary to accomplish this feat, I think this was just stupid.

The second half of having a right is to exercise it responsibly.

The right to Freedom of Speech does not give you carte blanche to shout "fire" in a crowded movie house, as the old saw goes.

The right to Bear Arms does not give you carte blanche to shoot anyone or anything you feel like.

And the right to a Freedom of the Press does not give you carte blanche to encourage crime.

One of the old saws exercised by those who support Second Amendment rights is that criminals use guns in ways that law-abiding gun owners do not and further gun control laws only further restricts the rights of those who have done nothing wrong.

While I do not consider this to be the black and white argument the NRA does, it is true that criminals steal guns and use them to commit crimes. Publishing an on-line map to where all the guns that can be stolen are located does not seem like a responsible use of the Freedom of the Press.

Now I realize the publication of this map did not happen without serious thought.

“Frequently, the work of journalists is not popular," Journal News Publisher Janet Hasson wrote in a statement published by the Washington Post.

"One of our roles is to report publicly available information on timely issues, even when unpopular. We knew publication of the database (as well as the accompanying article providing context) would be controversial, but we felt sharing information about gun permits in our area was important in the aftermath of the Newtown shootings,” Hasson wrote.

Reaction on the publication was immediate and virulent.
It was not long before Hasson's name and address, along with reporters and editors, including the person responsible for the puzzle and the comics, were published on conservative web sites, according to the Post article.

Bloggers even published descriptions of the yards, the contents of the homes, and the apparently likelihood of the homes being empty.

This is of course no more proper, but does seem to demonstrate the aspect of the map's publication which so angered gun owners.

Understandably so.
An NRA campaign advertisement

I am not disputing the newspaper's right to do what it did, just the judgement of those who decided to do it.

The debate about guns in this country is super-heated. And for years it has been stalled, with the NRA holding the upper hand and generating support with tales of the government's plans to take people's guns.

Against the odds, the shootings in Newtown appear to have broken that log-jam and now the pent up righteousness on both sides of the issue seem to be spilling over into the general conversation.

It is a long-overdue discussion, but, as this example demonstrates, not one that is likely to be held civilly.

Consider the example of David Gregory.

As The New York Times reported Wednesday: "The Metropolitan Police Department said on Wednesday that it had opened an investigation into whether NBC and David Gregory, the host of “Meet the Press,” broke the law when Mr. Gregory displayed a high-capacity gun magazine during an interview on Sunday with the vice president of the National Rifle Association."
David Gregory holding an illegal ammunition
magazine on "Meet the Press."
"NBC had asked the police for permission to use a high-capacity magazine and 'was informed that possession of a high-capacity magazine is not permissible, and their request was denied,' said Officer Araz Alali, a police spokesman."
According to a federal law enforcement official, an NBC employee contacted the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives on Friday to ask whether it would be legal for Mr. Gregory to show the magazine on television without the ammunition.
The bureau, which does not enforce Washington’s gun laws, said it would be legal. That information, however, was incorrect, as it is illegal to have any empty magazine in Washington, the official said.
NRA Vice-President Wayne LaPierre on "Meet the Press."
Mr. Gregory displayed the magazine, which rapidly feeds ammunition into the chamber of a gun, about 10 minutes into his interview with Wayne LaPierre, the N.R.A. vice president. The host picked it up from the table in front of him and held it in the air as he questioned Mr. LaPierre.
“Let’s widen the argument out a little bit,” Mr. Gregory said. “So here is a magazine for ammunition that carries 30 bullets. Now isn’t it possible that if we got rid of these, if we replaced them and said, ‘Well, you could only have a magazine that carries 5 bullets or 10 bullets,’ isn’t it just possible that we can reduce the carnage in a situation like Newtown?”
Mr. LaPierre said he did not believe it would have made a difference. “There are so many different ways to evade that, even if you had that,” he said.
This episode illustrates the pitfalls of this discussion. Obviously, David Gregory had the magazine for purposes of illustration, but the nation's patchwork of gun laws has many variables and the Washington, D.C. at play here apparently does not take intent into account.

Which is an argument the gun lobby could make, that banning a type of gun or ammunition does not take into account someone's intent to use it harmlessly.

It's a bizarre example to be sure, but it is on-point.

This patchwork of laws within which this issue is debated is largely due to the fact that the NRA has successfully prevented any kind of comprehensive national legislation on this issue, leaving it to be debated and legislated in statehouses and city halls; and ultimately, the Supreme Court.

For example, in this Christmas Day article in the Times about the Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, or ATF, it was reported the the federal agency’s "ability to thwart gun violence is hamstrung by legislative restrictions and by loopholes in federal gun laws, many law enforcement officials and advocates of tighter gun regulations say."
Here's more:
For example, under current laws the bureau is prohibited from creating a federal registry of gun transactions. So while detectives on television tap a serial number into a computer and instantly identify the buyer of a firearm, the reality could not be more different.
When law enforcement officers recover a gun and serial number, workers at the bureau’s National Tracing Center begin making their way through a series of phone calls, asking first the manufacturer, then the wholesaler and finally the dealer to search their files to identify the buyer of the firearm.
About a third of the time, the process involves digging through records sent in by companies that have closed, in many cases searching by hand through cardboard boxes filled with computer printouts, hand-scrawled index cards or even water-stained sheets of paper.
Is this the most efficient way to search for gun records?
In an age when data is often available with a few keystrokes, the A.T.F. is forced to follow this manual routine because the idea of establishing a central database of gun transactions has been rejected by lawmakers in Congress, who have sided with the National Rifle Association, which argues that such a database poses a threat to the Second Amendment.
In other countries, gun rights groups argue, governments have used gun registries to confiscate the firearms of law-abiding citizens.
Advocates for increased gun regulation, however, contend that in a country plagued by gun violence, a central registry could help keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and allow law enforcement officials to act more effectively to prevent gun crime.
The heart of this debate lies, of course, in the wording of the Second Amendment.
"A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed."
My readings of history, limited as they are, have convinced me that the gun rights crowd has this right.

The founders actually meant for people to keep guns in their homes.

There are several reasons for this.

Settling a forest in colonial times often required a gun to put 

protein on the table.
First, it was often prohibited in monarchies as a way to prevent revolution, so allowing people to keep the guns on which many of them depended for food served two purposes -- building support for the Revolution and taking a position opposite one taken by the monarchies they were asking the citizens to fight..

Second, and this one is interesting, the founders had an abject fear of standing armies.

They believed, probably correctly, that standing armies were the tool of empires and required national debt and taxes to pay that debt to fund mercantile wars of conquest.

They had had a taste of that cost when they were required to house the British troops stationed here.

Most of the Founding Fathers feared and loathed

standing armies like the British used.
Which is why they added yet another amendment to the Constitution (the third) dealing with standing armies: "No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law."

It is one reason Alexander Hamilton's national financial system was viewed with such suspicion by both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson -- who by this point didn't agree on much -- because his system required a national debt and would make it easier to establish and pay for a standing army.

Indeed Hamilton was among several founders who believed the U.S. should become what it had fought, a great power that vied with its European counterparts for control of the globe.

Hamilton briefly got his wish by using his old commanding officer, George Washington, as cover but Adams, who was president at the time, ultimately resolved the crisis with France without going to war and sent Hamilton packing.

Most founders preferred a "well-regulated militia," that
not only went home after a war, but who supplied their 
own weapons.
But to get back to the point, the alternative to a standing army was a "well-regulated militia" that could be called up when needed and, as an added bonus, provide its own guns -- something else for which the cash-strapped government did not have to pay.

Further, America was one of the few countries explored and created after the gun had become an item of common use.

Modern England and many other European states were established long before the gun was central to the wars held to establish them.

Few would debate we have abandoned the
fears of a standing army. Having done so,
the right to bear arms also be abandoned?
Ironically, what began as a right to make standing armies unnecessary has, since we created the permanent army (and military/industrial complex) in the wake of World War II, become the gun rights advocate's argument for keeping guns.

In other words, now that we have a standing military machine, they feel citizens should be allowed to defend themselves from their own government, not the standing armies of foreign governments.

All these accidents of history have resulted in a gun culture that is difficult or impossible to dislodge from the greater American consciousness.

What Newtown has done -- unlike the endless stream of killings in urban areas where numbers are higher, just less concentrated -- is brought us face to face with the consequences of that culture, along with all the other factors which play a part.
How much do video games 

... to our gun culture?

Yes, other factors play a part.

But look at other countries which have all the same factors -- video games, Hollywood movies that glorify violence -- and then look at their statistics for death by guns.

Per capita, they are demonstrably lower, so the gun culture here, and the laws that both accommodate it and restrict it, obviously should be part of the discussion.

The question before us is what to do?

What will work?

And how can we reach an accommodation without devolving to the point that both sides feel like the other is encouraging people to rob their homes?


  1. Evan, just one observation: in your piece you twice interchanged the names of Dick Gregory, the comedian, and David Gregory, the news anchor. I'm confident you intended to consistently refer to David Gregory. Done that myself, albeit with different names, more than I care to remember.

    1. Thanks for the catch Joe. I fixed it.

      Wish it was that easy in the real world.