Saturday, February 02, 2013

What are we debating in the gun debate?

I just discovered, or maybe it just today re-entered by consciousness, that a bookstore near me sells the weekly Anderson Valley Advertiser, which modestly bills itself as "America's Last Newspaper." It also features on its masthead the slogans, "Fanning the Flames of Discontent" and "Peace to the Cottages! War on the Palaces!" I should probably be quoting from it regularly.

That later slogan is a translation of the slogan used by the dramatist Georg Büchner (1813-1837) on a paper, Der Hessische Landbote, promoting democratic revolution in the Electorate (Grossherzogtum) of Hessen-Darmstadt , now the German state (province) Hessen. Germany's most important literary prize today is the Georg-Büchner-Preis, whose winners have included Erich Kästner (1957), Hans Magnus Enzensberger (1963), Günter Grass (1965), Heinrich Böll (1967), Golo Mann (1968), Uwe Johnson (1971), Christa Wolf (1980) and Wolf Biermann (1991).

But I digress. This post is about guns, not books or literary prizes or famous 19th-century German democrats. So, the "Off The Record" column of the Anderson Valley Advertiser's 01/30/2013 issue summarizes what Sen. Diane Feinstein's proposed assault weapons ban, currently titled Assault Weapons Ban of 2013, is about:

DEMOCRATS, led by Dianne Feinstein, have listed the guns they want outlawed, Feinstein and Ca. also want to ban magazines that carry mare than ten rounds. The proposed bill would prohibit 158 combat-inspired rifles, including that Bushmaster XM15 that Adam Lanza used in the mass shooting of children in Connecticut. Feinstein introduced the original assault weapons ban, which became law in 1994 but expired in 2004. The proposed ban contains no sunset provision and protects 2,258 hunting and sporting rifles and shotguns, a provision aimed at undercutting gun-owner fears that Congress is intent an seizing legal guns in the aftermath of Newtown. The legislation also would ban any military-style weapon with a detachable magazine and a single military-style feature, such as a pistol grip, a flash suppressor or a bayonet lug or grenade launcher. The 1994 ban barred weapons with a detachable magazine plus two military-style features, which gave gun manufacturers too much leeway in refashioning weapons ta comply with the law, Feinstein said. If the' new proposal were ta became law, a legal weapon could have a detachable magazine but net a pistol grip, fer example. Under the previous law, such a weapon would have been allowed. [my emphasis in bold]
That spells out several important features to watch as the law proceeds through Congress. (Or not!) It's focused on assault weapons, which are defined in the legislation. As proposed, it looks to avoid some of the limitations of the 1994 ban, like the multiple-feature definition and the sunset date, that helped to seriously weaken the law and eventually end it altogether when it came up for renewal in 2004 under the Cheney-Bush Administration when the Democrats were largely still cowering in post-9/11 fear of looking "soft" on anything.

Feinstein's website has a page on the proposed legislation, Stopping the spread of deadly assault weapons, with a page summarizing the provisions of the bill, Assault Weapons Ban of 2013.

It does not ban either rifles or handguns as such. It even specifically excludes "Any weapon that is lawfully possessed at the date of the bill's enactment," which itself is a major loophole. It does ban "All semiautomatic pistols that can accept a detachable magazine and have at least one military feature," which features are defined, and both semiautomatic rifles and pistols that have fixed magazines "with the capacity to accept more than 10 rounds." And it does include "a safe storage requirement for grandfathered firearms, to keep them away from prohibited persons." And it "bans the sale, transfer, manufacturing and importation" of the proscribed items. There was an importation loophole in the 1994 that significantly weakened it.

That's why I have mixed feelings about articles like this that report on a bunch of gun deaths: Jason Cherkis, U.S. Gun Deaths Since Sandy Hook Top 1,280 Huffington Post 02/01/2013. Cherkis reports, after a heart-wrenching story about a father who left a loaded pistol out that his 2-year-old son picked up and killed himself with:

There were 29 other shooting deaths across the U.S. on Christmas. A soldier was shot and killed in his barracks in Alaska. A man was murdered in the parking lot of Eddie's Bar and Grill in Orrville, Ala. A 23-year-old was shot at a party in Phoenix. A Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department employee was killed in a drive-by.

A 20-year-old Louisville, Ky., man was shot and killed after walking his sister home. On Christmas Eve, he had posted an R.I.P. on his Facebook page for a friend and former classmate, who had been gunned down that day.

A 10-year-old in Memphis, Tenn., Alfreddie Gipson, was accidentally shot to death by gun purchased by an older brother, who had gotten the weapon after being bullied at school. Gipson was jumping on a bed when the gun slipped out of a mattress. It discharged when his 12-year-old brother tried to put it back, their mother said at a vigil.
On the one hand, I'm glad that the press is giving more attention now to gun deaths across the country. Because it's a horrible problem and should be regarded as a shameful national scandal.

But it's not at all clear that any of the individual incidents Cherkis describes in that article will be impeded in any way by this particular piece of legislation. People who already have semiautomatic pistols with fixed magazines that accept more than 10 rounds can still leave them lying around for their two-year-olds to pick up and spray bullets around the room, or into themselves. I say it that way for emphasis; hopefully most two-year-olds would be scared into stopping with the first shot, assuming they don't kill themselves with the first one, but it's not a very comforting qualification. Semiautomatic rifles and pistols can still by used for drive-by shootings or gunning down guys walking their sisters home.

Universal background checks might have at least impeded the older brother who bought a gun supposedly because he was being bullied at school and wound up being used by his 12-year-old brother to accidentally kill himself. And bans on the manufacture of assault weapons along with universal background checks will make it harder for drug gangs who use drive-by shootings to get the weapons and large magazines.

One of the tactics of the NRA and others who favor gun proliferation will be to point to cases like this to say, "See, all these here gun laws just don't work! And this won't do nothin' about most of these killin's. So go buy more guns!"

There are lots of things to look for in the gun regulation debate. One is the firearms industry's attempt to put in more gaps and loopholes in the legislation to allow aspiring mass murderers and wannabe assassins of politicians to maintain relatively easy access to semiautomatic assault weapons and large-capacity magazines to gun down school children and churchgoers and people in malls and movie theaters and to murder the occasional mayor or member of Congress. That will also let them make their argument, though it's goofy on the face of it, that because the legislation doesn't stop 100% of gun murders that we should have no legislation at all.

But the regulation advocates also need to be careful to not overpromise on this legislation. Feinstein's bill is a ban on assault weapons, not on all semiautomatic rifles and handguns, and not a ban on handguns as such at all. What the assault weapons ban will do is to put serious impediments in the way of the kind of rapid-fire mass murderers we've seen in Sandy Hook and Aurora and way too many other places in the last few years.

Then there's the chronic ailment of democratic timidity in the face of Republican devotion to allowing aspiring mass murderers to easily acquire assault weapons with large-capacity magazines. Here are Sleepy Mark Shields and David "Bobo" Brooks on the Shields and Brooks Clown Show, aka, the PBS Newshour Political Wrap of 02/01/2013. the good old boys get around to guns at around 6:35:

Bobo does his favorite schtick of trying to come up with moderate-sounding reasons to justify what the Radical Republicans want, in this case weakly making the dubious suggestion that there might be glimmers of reason among some Republicans in Congress on gun proliferation:

Well, in terms of the theater of the hearings, [Gabby] Giffords and the people who want more gun control certainly dominated.

I still think the NRA is weirdly inept. I assume they know what they are doing. This is their business. But they are not projecting it, at least to me. And having said that, though, my sense is -- and it's just a vague atmospheric sense -- that a lot of the oomph has gone out of the president's initiative and what Biden is doing.

He is up there working hard, but it's very hard for members of Congress to vote when their calls -- their phones are being flooded. And the people who really vote on this issue are on the gun rights side. And so I sense a little dissipation in the passion.

And it's still possible to get some reforms on gun control -- on the background checks and things like that. But one senses -- like the immigration, you see a move. You see real movement toward a possible law. I don't see that same sort of bipartisan or even partisan in a few movement on the gun stuff. [my emphasis]
It almost goes without saying that if Bobo knows of some actual polling or voting analysis that suggests that there's even one person in the entire Union "who really vote[s] on this issue ... on the gun rights side" (i.e, the pro-proliferation, pro-gun-massacre side), or that any of those voters aren't already part of the most loyal Republican base, he didn't bother to cite it. He also didn't mention that the gun lobbies and the hate radio screamers have been saying all along that Obama was on the verge of bringing in the UN black helicopters to confiscate everybody's guns. Nor that the polls show overwhelming approval for better gun regulation or that opinion has shifted dramatically toward that side since the President started very publicly advocating that position.

Sleepy Mark, in his usual state of semi-consciousness, was already pre-emptively surrendering on behalf of the Democrats on the assault-weapons ban:

I think that -- I think there is emerging consensus on the universal background check. And it's something that the NRA did support in the past and is now opposing. I mean, the NRA strategy is something else. I mean, when they have got David Keene, who has been on our program, is the president, is sort of avuncular and reasoned, and then they go with Wayne LaPierre, who is bombastic and strident, and following Gabby Giffords and especially Mark Kelly, her husband, who said that, in fact, if there were a background -- background -- that Gabby Giffords wouldn't have been testifying that day.

I think there is a good chance on high-capacity magazines. I mean, when you have got military-style assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, they're intended for one purpose. And that is to inflict as much damage on human beings in as short as time as possible. That is what they are there for.

I thought the president showed some presence when he talked about people growing up with rifles, a 10-year-old receiving a rifle from his father, that there is not the demonizing of the other side, of people who have firearms and as part of their family and tradition. I thought that showed a certain maturity and, I hope, a political awareness.
I took a somewhat dimmer view of Obama's display of "maturity" and "political awareness" on the topic.

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