Posts Tagged ‘usa’

Gun control

People kill each other with guns quite a lot in America. (Though not, according to Wikipedia, as much as they kill themselves.) One particular cluster of such events recently has got everyone talking about guns again.

Some people want more legal restrictions on the ownership, possession, and the right to carry certain types of gun. Others think that outlawing guns means only outlaws will have guns, and that maybe there’d be fewer gun-related deaths if some of the victims had been armed and able to defend themselves.

Now, my libertarian sensibilities get a bit twitchy when liberals talk about the government enforcing rules about gun control. But something I’ve learned which many libertarians don’t seem to have picked up on is that my twitchy sensibilities are not that fucking important in this conversation.

And if my political ideology demands that I insist that any infringement on our liberties is a bad thing, it’s on me to explain why the freedom of this guy to buy an assault weapon and several thousand rounds of ammunition, with which he later murdered ten people in a cinema in Colorado, is worth protecting.

I was trying to remember a quote from The West Wing about gun control, and found it here:

If you combine the populations of Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Australia, you’ll get a population roughly the size of the United States. We had 32,000 gun deaths last year. They had 112. Do you think it’s because Americans are more homicidal by nature? Or do you think it’s because those guys have gun control laws?

But as the accompanying analysis on that site points out, that’s not really a fair dichotomy. Looking at the effects of gun control laws on the countries mentioned doesn’t support the idea that all those countries are only holding back a state of continuous pan-global massacre by some rules that make it a bit harder to buy guns.

But those statistics should still fucking appal you, and they still demand explanation. I’m not sure where Toby got his data exactly, but a 2002 UN survey also puts the USA’s firearm murder rate alarmingly far ahead of almost everywhere else, and vastly disproportionate for its population. So what’s going on? Are Americans just naturally more homicidal?

Well, I’d be bewildered if there turned out to be any genetic element to it. But culturally speaking, does anyone have trouble imagining just how murderous growing up in the US could make you?

Have you ever watched a movie, or a TV show, or a news broadcast, which comes out of that place?

Have you ever met a cop, or seen any of Google’s top image results for “police”?

The USA is a really, really gunny place.

And that’s not just about people’s ability to get their hands on guns. In Switzerland, men undergo basic military training by default, and there are estimated to be at least 1.2 million to 3 million firearms in private homes, including hundreds of thousands of assault weapons, in a country with just under eight million residents. The number of “killings or attempted killings involving firearms” in Switzerland in 2006 was thirty-four.

In a recent Swiss referendum, a majority of voters rejected stricter gun control laws. What would be the point?

In Switzerland, gun control doesn’t seem to be necessary. In America, I doubt it’d be effective. Because being issued instructions from some authority about what you are and aren’t allowed to do is not the sole defining factor in people’s behaviour, or even the most significant. Prohibition of alcohol and the War on Drugs were catastrophic failures; if anything, they both only exacerbated America’s troubled relationship with the problems they were trying to solve. Gun control laws could end up doing the same thing, if Americans remain determined to own and carry guns.

So no, I don’t think passing laws against gun ownership is the one true way to fix the problem.

But at least the people on that side of the argument are addressing the real problem, albeit in an inadequate way. I feel like, ultimately, I share some of their goals. I want fewer Americans to shoot each other. I want fewer Americans to own, carry, think about, obsess over, and use guns. I want the world to be less gunny. I just don’t think that trying to take people’s guns away, while they still really want guns for some reason, is the best way to get there. It’s going to take a cultural change which can’t be forced like that.

Maybe this is how I know I’m not really an anarchist yet, but I do find that camp much more relatable than the other side, which seems to have little more to offer than to go on about freedom and how the answer is MORE GUNS.

And if “If only more people had been in possession of deadly weapons on that terrible day” is all you have to contribute, you are making everything gunnier and worse.

ETA: This post at CounterPunch has similar things to say, and ties gun crime more directly to social and economic conditions, and wealth polarisation. It also makes a large part of my point, much more pithily than I managed: “[T]he problem is not the supply of guns, but the demand for them.”

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Holy shit America, how much defending do you need?

– You know, men can (and should) be something other than knights or beasts.

– If you’re going to insist that people earn at least slightly less than a living wage, why not give everyone a hundred bucks an hour? Huh? Satirez!!

– Sometimes skeptics just ought to knock it off when someone has faith. It can be a beautiful thing in their lives. Who are we to say it’s wrong, with our “facts” and “reason”? Follow what you know to be true in your heart, Ezra.

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Almost every debate in American politics, about the law and what things it should or should not allow, brings up the issue of constitutionality.

The US Constitution, drawn up in the late 1700s when little ol’ America was just starting to cut loose of the apron strings and make its own way in the world, has formed the bedrock of its legal system ever since, and provided vital and unassailable decisions on how hundreds of millions of people’s lives should be run.

I’m not really a fan.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s got some good ideas. It’s just weird how reverentially it’s treated sometimes. A lot of major political players and law-makers seem to act like it’s the unquestionable be-all and end-all of every legal dispute that can be imagined. If what you want to do is unconstitutional, no dice, end of.

And I don’t get it. If you share the values it espouses, then by all means embrace it for that, but… You do know that whether or not something matches up with what some guys 250 years ago had in mind isn’t as important as whether it’s actually a good idea, right?

I’ve seen this a number of times with regard to gun control. People who like their guns point to the “right to bear arms” guaranteed by the Constitution, while those on the left often claim that this was only intended to refer to the 18th century weaponry that existed at the time it was written. The country’s founders couldn’t have predicted the range of pistols, assault rifles, and the like available today, and wouldn’t have condoned their unchecked possession.

It’s hard to imagine what could be less useful to the gun control conversation that the imagined and hypothetical opinions of some people two centuries dead on the subject of modern technologies of which they had absolutely no knowledge. Can’t we try to be smart and figure out how it makes sense to act, based on what we know now?

Actually, you don’t even have to go as far as the Second Amendment to find a good example:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

This is generally about the government staying out of people’s way, which is largely a good thing. But the question of exactly what constitutes “freedom of speech”, against which no law shall be made, is a notoriously knotty one. There’s no mention of fraud, libel, or shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre anywhere in the clause. There have been numerous legal decisions since the Constitution regarding these subjects, as well as on things like obscenity and campaign finance, and the law itself acknowledges a good deal of nuance to an obviously complex issue.

But it still tends to be framed around whether certain harmful or undesirable forms of speech or expression are “constitutional”. It always seems to be about whether something “counts” under that part of the Constitution. Surely a decision to restrict or punish certain types of behaviour should stand on its own?

In practice, I imagine it usually does. The law is trying to reflect what behaviours are actually desirable or should be punished, and it probably doesn’t make a lot of difference that technically this takes the form of contrivances and qualifications being continually added to those important, constitutional principles. It just seems a strange obeisance to continue making.

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You may recall that yesterday I explained to some five-year-olds how the economy works.

Today, the over-simplified political discourse continues.

The opposition to raising taxes on the extremely wealthy generally comes down the value of their status as “job creators”. People and corporations with incomes well into the millions or billions of dollars provide employment for numerous workers across the country, the argument goes, and raising their taxes will cripple their ability to stimulate the economy in this vital way.

The implicit claim, then, is that making sure super-rich people don’t pay too much tax is good for everyone. The country as a whole benefits from their existence, and it will actually hurt more than just the fat cats at the top if you stifle their growth by raising their taxes.

Whether this is true in any given situation depends on too many factors for me to competently consider. But here’s one thought that should maybe temper our concern for the billionaires and all the good they do us:

With a debt of, as I keep hearing, around $14,000,000,000,000 to be paid off, some decisions may come down to either adding to the burden of the mega-rich – which, by the reasoning mentioned earlier, could possibly have negative repercussions for even the most socially disadvantaged Americans down the line – or simply placing the burden directly on those most socially disadvantaged by cutting welfare programs and the like.

This isn’t to say there are no savings to be made in the realm of social welfare spending. But telling us that not raising income tax on billionaires is the best thing for society as a whole is going to ring hollow when you have to take away people’s food stamps to do it.

The people who’d love the chance to work a 40-hour week at minimum wage to stop their family going hungry are society. For all that politicians claim to want what’s best for them, I worry about how they’re actually doing.

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So, Reason magazine. Any thoughts?

I’ve been following their online presence for a while. For some reason, I had the preconception that they were mostly focused on religion, secularism, and rationality, but I may have been thinking of someone else. Reason predominantly cover politics, and they’re an interesting crowd. Even when I’m not entirely on board with their message, disagreeing with them tends to feel more worthwhile than it does with a lot of other commentators, who are often just boringly wrong.

Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason.com who may or may not be played by Bill Hader, was recently on Bill Maher’s talk show:

I take issue with a number of things he said, but in a way that’s more fun to unravel than when someone like Rush Limbaugh says something obviously stupid and cruel.

Among the generally liberal panel on liberal Bill Maher’s liberal show, Nick seems to be kind of on his own in suggesting that America’s economic problems should be primarily solved through spending cuts. Here’s something he said that was received with particular agitation:

We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.

I’m not so interested in whether this statement instantly proves Nick Gillespie to be a Republican, as Bill Maher reckons it does. But I do think it misstates the problem.

Actually, I suppose it’s possible that the problem only lies in one area, but the situation of “being in debt” depends on the relationship between two factors: how much money you acquire, and how much money you spend. (Stop me if the Micawber-esque economics is getting too technical.) Given only that the US is spending more money than it makes, there are clearly two methods available for getting out of the red:

  1. Increase the amount of money made (while avoiding a corresponding increase in money spent),
  2. Decrease the amount of money spent (while avoiding a corresponding decrease in money made).

America doesn’t just have a spending problem. It has a problem with the money, and the money both comes and goes.

If we’re spending money in ways that aren’t worth the trouble of raising the funds, we should cut that spending. But if we’re spending money on things important enough that raising more funds (which generally seems to mean taxes) is the less harmful option, we should do that.

Given just how many $1,000,000,000,000s are being talked about, it seems unlikely that enough spending can be cut to clear the debt, without increasing revenues at all. Nick Gillespie does actually have some suggestions that would make this a more practical idea, such as ending America’s engagement in the wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, and Drugs (the scariest foreign land of all), but none of this seems to be remotely on the table for any of the country’s actual politicians, even the purportedly “small government” supporters on the right.

So it doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable, given this massive amount of money that’s already been spent which needs to actually be paid, to wonder whether the super-duper rich folks could be chipping in any more than they are now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for supporting enterprise. I don’t want to punish people for working hard and becoming wealthy. I’m not saying we go crazy with this.

But I’m pretty sure the US economy was coping with income tax rates being what they were in the 1990s, before the Bush tax cuts came into play in 2001 and 2003. Those cuts were set to expire in 2010, but were extended. Business wasn’t being crippled and major corporations weren’t moving daily overseas to more liberal climes. And, presumably, tax revenues were significantly higher than they are now. So, maybe we could look at some things going back to how they were before?

I’m not saying that’s definitely the way to go. Someone who actually understands economics would surely see many ramifications to something like this which would never occur to me. But shouldn’t it at least be on the table? Or am I a socialist line-toeing democrat for even bringing it up?

So, that was a bit of a ramble which rather got caught up on one particular point made during the above clip. A lot of interesting stuff comes out in the rest of it, though, so have a look if you’ve got time.

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Newt Gingrich is running for President.

I’ve only really found out who he is over the past few weeks. If you’re also new to Newt, he’s a Republican politician, of the kind who campaigns against gay rights on a “family values” platform while working his way through three marriages.

If he sounds like the kind of fun guy you want to get to know better, Mother Jones has a pretty good start. Among my favourites:

Asked whether he agrees with then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s comments that opposition to the Bush administration’s Iraq policy is tantamount to appeasing Hitler, Gingrich responds, “Yes.”

Gingrich tells Bill O’Reilly that “there is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us.” The gay and secular fascist movement, Gingrich charges, is “prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it.”

Gingrich warns that Obama’s agenda “would mean the end of America as it has been for the last 400 years.”

Yep. Obama’s trying to ruin what your country’s been like, consistently and without incident, since the year 1600. Every American citizen from all 63 states should be outraged.

Vote for Newt.

[Late edit: Ooh, here’s some more.]

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If you didn’t have enough evidence yet that the Tea Party – the bizarre right-wing movement that’s been moving in from the fringes of American politics lately, determined to “take back their country” from the scary black man who somehow took charge – is actively dangerous, then here ya go.

Christine O’Donnell is the Republican nominee for the United States Senate in the state of Delaware, and could be elected into office this November. And she thinks distributing condoms will spread AIDS.

I know a lot of people probably like her mostly because she seems like one of them, and that she “shares their values”, whatever exactly that means. It’s hard not to make your initial judgments about someone on a sub-rational level, a gut sense on whether they seem like the right sort of person. I know I liked Obama based on how he looked and how he spoke, non-specific recommendations from other people I liked, and snippets of reputation, before I could tell you anything about his politics.

But it’s really kinda important not to let that continue to be the one driving force that defines how you see someone; to latch onto them as “one of us” and be forced to justify any other position they take, whether or not you’d normally agree with it. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned about Obama since his election. Maybe I’m still overly hopeful, maybe I’m being too quick to be cynical and should give him more of a break, I’m not really sure – but the important thing is that I’m trying my best to base my opinion rationally, on what he says and does.

I’m never quite going to get there, not perfectly. But it’s important to try. And it’s important to be aware when your preferred candidate has expressed support for a policy based on incorrect information, which will result in an increased spread of a deadly disease.

This kind of introspection is something the Tea Partiers don’t seem to be great at. They don’t seem to be basing their allegiances on actual policies or views on things, in any rational way, as there doesn’t appear to be much consistency as to what they stand for. O’Donnell has spoken out against pornography, and campaigned against masturbation. Carl Paladino used to email colleagues video clips of bestiality.

How much do the people who shout their support for the Tea Party movement actually understand the people they’re championing?

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Damned lies

I have no idea what to think about polls like this.

41% of Americans questioned believe that the second coming of Jesus “probably/definitely will happen” in the next forty years. Is that more or less than I should have expected? The proportion goes up among evangelicals, predictably enough, and is relatively low among “mainline” white Protestants – but even then, it’s over 25%. More than one person in every four who think Jesus is going to come back within my lifetime.

In fact, given that a recent Gallup poll had only 78% of Americans identifying as Christian, this implies that more than half of American Christians are expecting the second coming of Christ really, really soon.

Perhaps most baffling is the 1 in 5 “religiously unaffiliated” who share this belief. I must be failing to account for some significant number of non-Protestant, non-Catholic Christians, because how do you believe in the imminent second coming of Christ while not even being a Christian? Are that mysterious 20% all just big fans of zombie movies, who think that a rabbi from two thousand years ago will be among the dead walking the earth and hungry for brains?

But in the same poll, 65% thought that “religion in the United States will be about as important as it is now in 40 years”. 30% say it will be less important.

So, I suppose some people might think they’re seeing an increased secularisation in America today, and predict that this will continue (though I imagine most of them would consider this a bad thing). But I’m surprised there aren’t more people thinking it would be more important. (Was that even an option in the answers?)

In particular, taking into account the 41% figure from earlier, a lot of people apparently think that religion isn’t going to be any more important a factor in American life than it is now, even though Jesus will have come back.

Maybe he’s not planning to make much of a fuss. I haven’t read the book of Revelation, but I should think that the second coming of the son of God is expected to be a fairly low-key affair that won’t shake people’s lives up all that much.

Aren’t statistics fun?

(h/t Atheist Revolution)

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