Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Guns in America (part 7) - Absolutism

Last Monday, President Obama gave his second inaugural address. In it, he said:

We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate.

Apparently, this sentence did not sit well with some on the right, in particular Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The day after President Obama’s second inaugural, LaPierre gave a speech to the Weatherby International Hunting and Conservation Awards in Reno, Nevada. The primary focus of his speech was the aforementioned sentence from President Obama’s second inaugural address. Allow me to quote from LaPierre’s speech:

So what is this “absolutism” the president attacks? And what are the so-called “principles” that he wants us to settle for instead?

Obama wants to turn the idea of “absolutism” into a dirty word, just another word for “extremism.” He wants you to accept the idea of “principles” as he sees fit to define them. It’s a way of redefining words so that common sense is turned upside-down and nobody knows the difference.

We as gun owners face the same kind of false ultimatum. We’re told that to stop insane killers, we must accept less freedom — less than the criminal class and political class keep for themselves.

We’re told that limits on magazine capacity or bans on 100-year-old firearms technology — bans that only affect lawful people — will somehow make us safer.

We’re told that wanting the same technology that the criminals and our leaders keep for themselves is a form of “absolutism” and that accepting less freedom and protection for ourselves is the only “principled” way to live.

Think about what that means. Barack Obama is saying that the only “principled” way to make children safe is to make lawful citizens less safe and violent criminals more safe.

Criminals couldn't care less about Barack Obama’s so-called “principles”! They don’t have principles — that’s why they’re criminals.

Obama wants you to believe that putting the federal government in the middle of every firearm transaction — except those between criminals — will somehow make us safer.

He doesn't understand you. He doesn't agree with the freedoms you cherish. If the only way he can force you to give ’em up is through scorn and ridicule, he’s more than willing to do it — even as he claims the moral high ground.

He said it yesterday! In the very same sentence that Obama talked about “absolutism” versus “principle,” he also scolded his critics for “name-calling,” as he called it.

When Barack Obama says, “we cannot mistake absolutism for principle,” what he's saying is that precision and clarity and exactness in language and law should be abandoned in favor of his nebulous, undefined “principles.”

I’ve got news for the president. Absolutes do exist. Words do have specific meaning, in language and in law. It’s the basis of all civilization. It’s why our laws are written down: So the “letter of the law” carries the force of the law.

That’s why our Bill of Rights was written into law, to ensure the fundamental freedoms of a minority could never be denied by a majority. Those are the principles we call unalienable rights.

Without those absolutes, without those protections, democracy decays into nothing more than two wolves and one lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. I urge our president to use caution when attacking clearly defined “absolutes” in favor of his “principles.”

Mister President, just because you wish words meant something other than what they mean, you don’t have the right to define them any way you want. Because when words can mean anything, they mean nothing.

When “absolutes” are abandoned for “principles,” the U.S. Constitution becomes a blank slate for anyone’s graffiti and our rights and freedoms are defaced.

Words do have meaning, Mister President. And those meanings are absolute, especially when it comes to our Bill of Rights.

There’s more, of course, but those excerpts should give you the general tone and argument of LaPierre’s speech.

Now, before getting into a real substantive discussion about “absolutism”, I just want to note that LaPierre appears to be arguing that President Obama is wrong for “scolding” critics for name-calling. Yet, read LaPierre’s speech and his claims about President Obama and then go back and note that what President Obama really said was only that “We cannot … treat name-calling as reasoned debate”. Does LaPierre’s speech sound to you like “reasoned debate”? Or has he instead simply illustrated President Obama’s point about name-calling replacing reasoned debate? I’d vote for the latter.

Anyway, I want to turn my attention to the real substance of LaPierre’s speech. And remember this: The NRA may not speak for every gun owner in America, but the NRA’s speech is the loudest pro-gun speech you’ll hear. Moreover and more importantly, the NRA has enormous influence both on politicians and on electoral politics, due to both vast amounts of money and a well-organized grass roots (or Astroturf — it’s not really clear) campaign. One more quick preliminary point: Ask yourself whether the NRA really represents its individual gun-owning members or the gun industry that, to paraphrase Indianapolis gun store owner Don Davis, “just loves to sell guns”.

So let’s start with LaPierre’s basic premises, as summed up in the last sentence quoted above: “Words do have meaning … [a]nd those meanings are absolute, especially when it comes to our Bill of Rights.” Let’s presume for a moment that LaPierre is completely correct: Words have meanings and within the Bill of Rights those meanings are absolute. Well, then, I’m curious to know what meaning LaPierre would ascribe to the first thirteen words of the Second Amendment (emphasis added):

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.

Remember: Words have meanings and those meanings are absolute. Except, you know, the first half of the words of the Second Amendment which appear to be nothing more than a … um … er … principle?

But let’s go a step further. LaPierre says that the words of the Bill of Rights have absolute meanings. Thus, according to this reasoning, “shall not be infringed” must really mean “shall not be infringed”. So, under this hyper-literal, “absolutist” reading of the words of the Second Amendment, wouldn’t that mean that convicted criminals do have a right to keep and bear arms? After all, they’re still a part of “the people”. What about the mentally ill? Where does the Constitution allow the government to remove the mentally ill from the definition of “the people” for whom the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed? Are you comfortable with the idea of convicted felons or the mentally ill having weapons? I’m not. If you really take this words of the Second Amendment at their truest “absolute” meaning, then wouldn’t any gun licensing law be illegal? After all, unless the license is (pardon the pun) absolutely automatic to everyone who applies, then isn’t the very existence of a licensure program that might deny someone a license an infringement upon the absolute right to keep and bear arms without infringement?

And let’s look at the word “arms”. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (yeah, I know that the right-wing probably wouldn’t accept definitions from a “foreign” dictionary), “arms” means:

“Defensive and offensive outfit for war, things used in fighting” or “Instruments of offence used in war; weapons”.

Now remember, according to LaPierre, meanings, especially within the Bill of Rights, are absolute.

Thus, I ask, according to LaPierre’s way of thinking, why can’t I have a fully automatic rifle? Why can’t I have a rocket propelled grenade or hand grenade? Why can’t I have a Stinger anti-aircraft missile, a bazooka, a flamethrower, or an anti-personnel mine? Why can’t I have chemical or biological agents or even my own tactical nuclear weapon? Why can’t I own a switchblade (well, here in Indiana I might be able to soon enough…). Why can’t I buy all of the ammonium nitrate I want? After all, even a giant fertilizer bomb is still a form of arms and my right to bear that particular weapon shall not be infringed. Right? And of course, I should be able to stockpile all of the sarin gas or anthrax that I might want. Right? All of those things are “arms” and, according to LaPierre’s reasoning, the right to keep and bear arms is absolute as is the prohibition on infringing on that absolute right.

And think of some of the other “infringements” on our right to keep and bear arms that must surely be invalidated by LaPierre’s absolutist reading of the Second Amendment. Why can’t I keep and bear my weapon on an airplane? I mean, shouldn’t I have the right to defend myself from a terrorist? And why can’t my 13-year-old kids take AK-47s to school? Are they not a part of “the people” for whom the right to keep and bear arms can’t be infringed? For that matter, why can’t convicted felons in jail or the mentally ill in a hospital keep and bear arms? Why can’t I ring my property with punji sticks to keep out trespassers. Why can’t I have a rocket launcher on my car? It would make me feel better in a traffic jam…

Remember, according to the chief executive of the NRA, meanings within the Bill of Rights are absolute. Thus, the phrase “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” must be completely and totally absolute.

Is that the NRA’s position? Is it yours?

As long as we’re examining the absolute meaning of the Second Amendment, perhaps it’s worth applying the same absolute meaning standard to other parts of the Bill of Rights; after all, LaPierre didn’t limit his claim of absolute meaning to the Second Amendment. Rather, he called out the entire Bill of Rights.

So consider, by way of example, the First Amendment, applying absolute meanings to the words:

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.

Let’s start with that first clause which is quite clear: “no law”. Those five letters seem pretty absolute, pretty easy to understand. I’ll skip religion for a moment and jump to free speech. “No law … abridging the freedom of speech…” OK. So out of curiosity, what is it that the NRA wants Congress to do about violent movies and violent video games. Pass a law to prohibit them? Hmm. And what about the right to assemble? Can you and I and a few dozen of our friends parade down Main Street or do we need a permit? Can we peaceably assemble at the 50 yard line of Lucas Oil Stadium or in the chambers of the House of Representatives? Can we walk into the next NRA national conference stage a protest? Why not? If the words of the Bill of Rights are absolute, then “no law” must mean “no law”!

And let’s think about the free exercise of religion. What if my religion requires human sacrifice? Remember, “no law”. OK, let’s scale back a bit. Forget human sacrifice. What about animal sacrifice? What about smoking marijuana or peyote? What about the right not to seek medical care for my child? What about the right to seek an abortion if my religion tells me it’s OK? And if my religion tells me that I should kill infidels or stone my child for talking back to me or to stone you if you eat pork? Remember, the words in the Bill of Rights are “absolute” in their meanings.

Luckily, most of the rest of the Bill of Rights uses words like “unreasonable” or “excessive” or “unusual” thus making those provisions much less absolute and much more in the nature of … principles. But wait, I thought principles were a bad thing…

So isn’t it possible that the words of the Bill of Rights aren’t quite as absolute as LaPierre would like you to think they are? Might there not be room for compromise? Might it not be acceptable, notwithstanding words like “shall not be infringed” to recognize that the principle of the Second Amendment doesn’t stop us from prohibiting felons or the mentally ill from owning guns? Might it not be acceptable for our society to decide that danger to our citizens posed by fully automatic weapons or large capacity magazines or armor piercing bullets allows us to restrict their use to the well-regulated militia, now in the form of either the police or the military? Might it not be acceptable to impose registration requirements or enhanced background checks in an effort to try to limit the flow of weapons to those who ought not have them or to cut down on the black market transfer of weapons?

It seems to me that the NRA’s principle of helping gun manufacturers sell more guns is absolute and the principle of keeping our citizens, our families, our children safe, must by definition fall as a mere “feel good” principle that is trumped by the absolutism of the pro-gun lobby. Hmm. Isn’t that what President Obama was talking about?


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Monday, January 28, 2013

The Coming Republican Coup or The End of Democracy As We Know It or If You Can’t Win on Your Ideas, Change the Rules

When George W. Bush defeated Al Gore in 2000, we all had to recall that little nugget of knowledge from our middle school social studies class when we learned that it was possible for a presidential candidate to lose the popular vote but win the electoral vote and, with it, the presidency. It’s happened several times in our history, but prior to 2000, the last time was 1888 (and before that 1876 and 1824). We accepted the 2000 results because that is what the Constitution provides; however, I think that the result made some people at least begin to think about whether the possibility of an electoral college winner and popular vote loser was a good system.

But that was just an aberration, right?

Well, maybe not. At least not if Republicans get their way. And, if they do, I don’t think that I’m going too far out on a limb by suggesting that a Democratic popular vote winner will almost certainly always lose the electoral vote. Our system of a democratic republic will be destroyed by, essentially, a Republican coup.

What am I talking about, you ask?

Remember that in all but two states (Maine and Nebraska), the winner of the popular vote in that state is awarded all of the state’s electoral votes. Thus, here in Indiana, Mitt Romney won the 2012 popular vote and received all 9 of Indiana’s electoral votes. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Barack Obama won the popular vote and received all 20 of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. It’s also worth noting that the Democratic candidate has won the popular vote in 5 of the last 6 presidential elections (Bush’s defeat of Kerry being the exception, dating all the way back to 1988).

It seems that Republicans don’t like this losing streak, especially when they look at demographics (i.e., younger voters trend Democratic as do growing minority populations). Thus, Republicans have, in essence, three choices: 1) They can try to do a better job of convincing voters that their ideas are better, 2) they can change their ideas to match what voters want, or 3) they can change the rules to make it easier for them to win without getting additional votes.

It seems that many Republicans have elected (pun intended) option 3. “Win with less” you could coin it.

First, recall the efforts that Republican-led legislatures have taken to suppress votes among certain groups of citizens via the passage of voter ID laws, limitation on early voting or voter centers, refusal to expand voting hours, disproportionate allocation of voting machines, purges of voting rolls, and so forth. In each of these examples, the goal is not to get more Republican votes, but to reduce the number of Democratic votes. I’ve seen estimates recently, for example, that as many as 200,000 voters didn’t cast ballots in Florida because of long lines and limited early voting.

But even after taking those measures, Republicans still lost. By a lot. President Obama was re-elected with approximately 5,000,000 more votes than Mitt Romney and an electoral vote margin of 126.

Hmm. So how can Republicans fight this trend? If demographics are against you and you can’t suppress enough of the other side’s votes, how can you hope to win?

Well, you could change (or at least moderate) your positions. Um, nope. Not the current Tea Party-dominated GOP.

So what do they do?

Change the rules.

And that’s just what Republican legislators are proposing in a number of states that voted for President Obama but which have Republican dominated legislatures. Like Pennsylvania. And Virginia. And Florida, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

Now, before I get into just what the rule change would be, let’s remember why we have situations in which a state could be “blue” but have a Republican legislature: Gerrymandering. On the state level, it’s often even worse than at the federal level. State districts are drawn to insure that the party drawing the maps retains control. Here in Indiana, the new maps drawn by the Republican legislature after the 2010 census virtually guaranteed that in 2012 a Republican supermajority would be elected in both houses. And that’s just what happened. In other states it may be even worse. Again, let’s look to Pennsylvania which elected a Republican governor in the 2010 Tea Party wave election, but which voted for President Obama and a slate of Democratic candidates for statewide office in 2012. Recall the data presented in my post Does Legislative Representation Properly Represent the Votes of the Electorate? (Part 2) showing that Democrats won all but one statewide race by at least 5 points. More importantly, Democrats also won the statewide vote for the US House of Representatives, but because of the 2010 gerrymander, the Democratic candidates only won 5 of 18 seats in the House. Yes, you read that correctly.

With that in mind, let’s look at the rules change that Republican legislatures in “blue” states are considering (and note that they are not considering changes like this in states that reliably vote for the Republican candidate and note also that there aren’t any “red” states with a Democratic legislature).

The Constitution leaves it up to the states to decide how to award electoral votes. That is why Maine and Nebraska are able to use a different system. The Republican-controlled blue states are considering adopting the Maine/Nebraska electoral system, perhaps with an added “twist” to give Republicans a few extra bonus votes.

How would this work? Simple. Instead of awarding all of a state’s electoral votes to the candidate that won the state’s popular vote, the state’s electoral votes would be awarded on the basis of Congressional district. In other words, if the popular vote in a particular Congressional district went to the Republican candidate, that candidate would get the electoral vote representing that Congressional district. (Other proposed systems base the award of electoral votes on the proportion of the popular vote statewide, rather than by district.)

Go back to Pennsylvania for a moment. Remember that President Obama won 52% of the popular vote and thus received all 20 of the state’s electoral votes. But if the rule change that I just described were adopted, we’d have to look, not at the statewide popular vote, but at the popular vote by Congressional district. In that case, President Obama would have received only 5 electoral votes and Mitt Romney would have received the other 13!

So what about Pennsylvania’s other 2 electoral votes (5+13=18 but Pennsylvania has 20)? Here’s the neat trick for those “bonus votes” I mentioned. So far, the states that have experimented with awarding electoral votes based on Congressional district voting (again, that’s Maine and Nebraska) have awarded their extra 2 electoral votes (remember each state gets a number of electoral votes equal to the number of members of the House plus Senate, so each state has 2 more votes than Congressional districts, representing the 2 senators) to the candidate who won the statewide popular vote. Thus, if Pennsylvania followed that model, President Obama would have received those 2 votes because he won the popular vote. But the Republican legislature in Virginia figured out a way to prevent even those votes from going to the Democratic candidate. Instead of awarding the “senate” electoral votes to the winner of the popular vote, the rule change that Virginia has proposed (and which other “red” states may consider) would award those 2 votes to the candidate who won the most Congressional districts in the state. Thus, if that rule were in effect in Pennsylvania, President Obama would have won 52% of the popular vote but just 25% (5 of 20) electoral votes. Does that look like democracy to you?

And guess what happens if you apply that rule not just to Pennsylvania, but also to Ohio, Virginia, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin? Well, we would have just witnessed the inauguration of President Mitt Romney. (For some detailed analysis, please see Electoral College Changes Would Pose Danger for Democrats from The New York Times Five Thirty Eight blog and What The 2012 Election Would Look Like Under The Republicans' Vote-Rigging Plan from Huffington Post.)

Of course, it’s worth noting that back in 2004, when Colorado (then, a red state) had a ballot initiative to change the award of electoral votes to a proportional system (based on the percentage of the popular vote), it was Republicans who objected.

So you tell me… Is it fair to create a system in which the person who receives a majority of the votes nationally loses and where a component of that system provides that the person who receives a majority of the votes in some states may also lose those states? When you think of how our American democracy works, is that the system that comes to mind? How do you think those who are part of the majority voting for a particular candidate or party would react if their candidate regularly won the popular vote and still lost the election? How would we react if we read about that sort of electoral result in your average banana republican or fledgling democracy? We’d laugh and snicker and talk about American exceptionalism.

And note again that Republicans are not proposing these sorts of changes in states like Indiana or Texas that voted for Mitt Romney. If these rules were in place in Indiana, Romney would have won only 9 electoral votes (instead of 11), with Obama winning the other two. More importantly, in Texas, Romney would have won just 24 of the state’s 38 electoral votes. So, no, I don’t expect to see the Texas legislature take up this sort of bill anytime soon, though it is worth recalling that Texas has been to the Supreme Court to try to argue that its gerrymander that tried to dilute the Latino vote. And lost.

There are yet two further elements of this to consider.

First, let’s consider how the sponsor of the Virginia bill explained it:

Sen. Charles W. “Bill” Carrico, R-Grayson, said the change is necessary because Virginia’s populous, urbanized areas such as the Washington, D.C., suburbs and Hampton Roads can outvote rural regions such as his, rendering their will irrelevant.


The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Charles W. Carrico Sr. (R-Grayson County), said he wants to give smaller communities a bigger voice. “The last election, constituents were concerned that it didn’t matter what they did, that more densely populated areas were going to outvote them,” he said.

“This is coming to me from not just my Republican constituents,” added Carrico, whose district voted overwhelmingly for Republican Mitt Romney in last year’s presidential election. “I want to be a voice for a region that feels they have no reason to come to the polls.”

Think about what Sen. Carrico is really saying. Those “urban” voters (and just what, do you suppose, he really means by “urban”? If you’ve been paying attention you should realize that is simply a dog whistle term for “black”) can “outvote” rural voters. Hmm. Imagine that. One area has more voters and thus casts more votes! So, we need to dilute those votes in favor of rural areas with fewer voters. Hey, that’s what he said! He wants to “give smaller communities a bigger voice.” Why not just provide that votes from certain regions only count … hmm … what ratio should we use? … I know! … make votes from certain regions count just three-fifths as much as regions that don’t have an “urban” population. That would be fair and democratic, right?

The other point to recall goes back to the GOP’s efforts at voter suppression. Those efforts have even included attempts to overturn or repeal the Voting Rights Act. Now just imagine if these changes are made and a Republican wins the Presidency with a minority of the votes but is then able to appoint Republican judges who would be willing to overturn the protections of the Voting Rights Act or to decide that there is nothing wrong with poll taxes and so forth. It would be before those same judges that challenges to excessive gerrymandering would be heard … and likely rejected. We could be in jeopardy of creating a permanent ruling party and permanent political under-represented class.

If Republicans enact a system whereby a minority is likely to win and where the rules aren’t uniform, then what we’d really be looking at is simply a undemocratic coup d’etat that would make a mockery of what our system represents: Fairness. Thankfully, at least a few Republicans in some of those states have begun to recognize that these rule changes might be good for Republicans but that they’d be bad for democracy. We need to let other legislators know that if they want to win, they need to do so on the basis of their ideas, not on the basis of unfair rules or gerrymandered maps. We need our system to be fair.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Guns in America (part 6)

One of the things that I keep reading is that some decent percentage of gun owners, NRA members, and Republicans support certain elements of increased gun control. But, while I hear about that support, it doesn’t appear to be manifesting itself in efforts to convince legislators to do something. Or, perhaps that support is there, but subsumed within other gun control organizations rather than making the pro-gun organizations and politicians cognizant of support for increased gun control.

Moreover, during the past few weeks I’ve had a number of conversations about gun control in various online (and, oddly, in person) venues. A few things have become apparent. In an apparent corollary to Godwin’s law (the longer an online discussion continues, the greater the likelihood that someone will be compared to Hitler), the longer a gun control discussion goes on, the greater the likelihood that a gun rights advocate will claim that gun control proponents want to disarm people and take away their guns. No matter how often you say that disarmament isn’t the goal, the gun rights advocates (see, I’m avoiding the pejorative “gun nut” phraseology) will not concede the point. To them, it’s an all or nothing, black or white proposition. Any restriction is just the first step to a slippery slope that inevitably must lead to a total ban and disarmament.

Furthermore, it appears, that the discussion has become one about gun control or mental illness, violence in the media, and violent video games. Gun rights advocates can’t seem to grasp that we can discuss all of these things and take action in many areas at the same time. The nuanced idea that we could take broad action now and then research and examine and tweak and we observed and learned is just too … nuanced.

I’ve also seen the repeated use of the “but look over there” sort of defense to discussing gun control. By this I mean that gun rights advocates will point to particular situation and say, “But how would your gun control ideas have stopped that shooting,” in order to criticize broader gun control measures and draw attention away from the horrific examples that demonstrate why gun control legislation is required.

Another observation that I’ve made in these discussions are the crazy and hysterical scenarios presented by gun rights advocates to explain why certain forms of gun control are bad ideas. For example, during a Twitter conversation a few days ago, a gun rights advocate, when asked why people need a 30-round magazine for an AR15, actually said:

Great. We’ll tell people fighting packs of violent wild animals that they’ll just have to make due with 10 shots.

Seriously. Packs of violent wild animals. (In a pique of snark, I responded that I was more concerned with zombies and Martians.)

Or, as I discussed in Guns in America (part 2), the gun rights advocates will talk about their fear of tyranny and the need to be able to protect themselves from the government. Or the UN. Or the New World Order. Or whatever it is that they’re afraid of. But if you really drill down into what the gun nuts (and yes, here I’m going to use that pejorative) are claiming, what you’ll discover is that they’re talking about using (and needing) their guns to kill American police officers and American soldiers. They need their guns to kill Americans who might come to take their guns. Or something.

But what I’ve found really interesting is that the gun rights advocates, when questioned about specific gun control measures, usually either vanish from the discussion altogether, or take a sort of absolutist view that the Second Amendment doesn’t permit regulation (never mind the “well-regulated militia” clause). Or they just make shit up. For example, I’ve seen a number of gun rights advocates explain that the Second Amendment prohibits government from restricting people from owning weapons except military weapons. Um, which phrase in the Second Amendment includes that exception? The guns that 18th Century American colonists used to fend off the British were no different than those that they used to hunt or to protect their families. So “military” application doesn’t seem to be a real distinction.

So query then what lines we can draw. Does the right to bear arms include the right to an rocket propelled grenade or bazooka? What about claymore mines or hand grenades? Why do we have to fill out forms and so forth before buying fertilizer that can be made into bombs? Am I allowed my own personal tank? Can I drive it on the highway? What about an armed drone? Chemical or biological weapons? Why can’t I have my own personal nuclear weapon. You know, just in case of tyranny. Or zombies.

But seriously, where are gun rights advocates willing to draw their lines in terms of which types of arms Americans can and can’t have in our possession? And what is the basis for the line that they’re willing to draw. I think understanding the answers to those two questions is critical to a real discussion about gun control.

It’s also important, when talking about arbitrary line drawing (why is it that we can’t outlaw semi-automatics, but we can outlaw full automatics, for example) that we recognize that we’ve drawn all sorts of arbitrary lines when it comes to virtually all of the other rights protected by the Bill of Rights. But apparently, the position of the National Rifle Association (NRA) is that the right to bear arms is a God-given absolute right. More on that in Guns in America (part 7)…

One comparison that I’ve encountered is to the First Amendment. I’ve heard gun rights advocates say that improper use of a gun is similar to defamation; both the ownership of the gun and the speech itself were constitutionally permitted, but there is a punishment or remedy for the consequences of action associated with the exercise of the rights. But there is one very, very important difference. Defamation, no matter how egregious, doesn’t kill someone. Guns do. An award of damages to the person defamed may help alleviate some of the damage caused. That same award of damages to a person killed by a gun won’t bring that person back to life. Moreover, it’s hard for a depressed man to exercise his First Amendment rights and defame his wife and children to death or to walk into a theater or classroom and defame dozens of people. Guns, on the other hand…

As a nation and as a society, we’ve come to terms with the fact that there are and must be limits on rights and on the conduct associated with the exercise of those rights. It’s time for gun rights advocates who believe in this simple proposition to stand up and make their voices heard. If the only voices echoing through the halls of Congress are those of gun opponents, then the likelihood of reasonable reform will be diminished. We need to hear the voices of people who want their guns, but who are willing to live with certain reasonable restrictions on the right to keep and bear arms.


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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Arthur Schiller (1921 – 2013)

Just a few months ago, I took a break from my usual social and political commentary to offer birthday wishes and recognition to my father-in-law, Arthur Schiller, who died Tuesday night at age 91. In lieu of trying to express thoughts now, allow me to just repost what I wrote back in August 2012.

Today is my father-in-law’s 91st birthday. In recognition of that, I thought I’d step aside from my usual political and social commentary (at least for a few minutes) and highlight something special. If you visit to the Indiana War Memorial and tour the museum (and if you haven’t, you should), toward the end of the World War II exhibit, you’ll see a fairly new display.

photo 1

That’s my father-in-law. The display describes how he was awarded the Bronze Star for bravery in 1945 but didn’t learn about it or receive his medal until 2007. He doesn’t really like to talk about the events that led to the award. In fact, for a long time he was worried that if he talked about that day he’d get in trouble because, by taking the actions that he did, he’d actually disobeyed an order, though in doing so he was able to alert his unit to the location of German forces. For 60 years he worried about getting in trouble for doing something for which he was actually awarded a medal for bravery.

In case the text is too difficult to read:

Arthur Schiller was born in Elkhart, Indiana, and enlisted in the US Army on March 22, 1943, at the age of 21. Assigned to the 3rd Division, he departed for Europe on March 23, 1945, arriving on April 4. After fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, the 3rd had joined the invasion of France, smashed through the Siegfried Line, and crossed the Rhine into Germany itself just before Schiller arrived. In April, Schiller took part in the fighting as the 3rd took Nuremberg, Augsburg, and Munich in Bavaria, Germany, and was in the vicinity of Salzburg, Austria, when the war ended in May.

During the fighting in Southern Germany and Austria, Schiller earned the Bronze Star for bravery in combat. His most vivid memory of the war was of the day Germany surrendered, May 8, 1945. Schiller had taken off his helmet and put down his rifle to take a nap, but heard loud noises that sounded like bombs exploding. When he charged outside to investigate, he was met by another soldier who asked, “Hey Schiller, what the hell is wrong with you? The war is over.”

Schiller was discharged on April 11, 1946, and eager to put the war behind him, tucked away his discharge papers which listed the Bronze Star and other honors he earned during the war. He then pursued a career as a salesman, got married, had five children and three [now four] grandchildren, and eventually retired. Then, three years ago, he and his wife rediscovered the papers and noticed the Bronze Star which he had never received. With the help of Senator Richard Lugar, the 86 year old Hoosier her was finally awarded the Bronze Star he’d earned on the battlefields of Germany more than 60 years earlier, during a Veteran’s Day 2007 convocation at Carmel High School.

I want to mention one anecdote to go along with this story. At that 2007 convocation at Carmel High School where my father-in-law was formally awarded his Bronze Star, there were quite a few active duty service members present. The respect that they showed my father-in-law and the interest that they expressed in his experience was truly something to behold. I don’t know if they were all sincere (though I suspect that most were); but the appreciation and honor that they showed to my father-in-law made a memorable day that much more special for him. Those men and women are a true credit to our military, to themselves, and to our country. And watching that ceremony, watching my father-in-law receive his award, and watching the way those other soldiers reacted, was also a special moment for his grandchildren (my children) who were there to share the day with him.

There aren’t too many World War II veterans still with us; and too many of those who are suffer from ailments, both physical and mental. But they, like soldiers who’ve served after them, continue to deserve our appreciation and recognition. We must all remember to thank them for what they’ve done, what they’ve given of themselves, and the sacrifices that they’ve made.

Thanks, Art. Happy Birthday.

Here is the obituary that the family asked me to write for Arthur. I was honored to do so. I was honored to know him and to be a part of his family. We have requested that when he is laid to rest tomorrow, he receive the military honors that he deserves.


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Friday, January 11, 2013

The Stupid Just Keeps Getting More and More Stoopid (part 2)

In yesterday’s post The Stupid Just Keeps Getting More and More Stoopid (part 1) I focused on Senate Bill 230 which would allow Indiana to nullify federal laws with which Indiana disagrees. Today, I want to turn my attention to a sort of companion bill that would require federal agents (think FBI agents, for example) to get the permission of Indiana’s Attorney General and/or a county sheriff before serving a warrant or making an arrest for a federal crime. And a federal agent who makes an “illegal” arrest “must be prosecuted”. Yes, your read that correctly.

Senate Bill 127, authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse (the same senator that wants Indiana’s school children to recite The Lord’s Prayer) follows along the path set by a number of far, far right fringe groups who seem to think that the primary government official in our system is the county sheriff. Doug Masson directed my attention to an article from the Denver Post about the inaugural convention of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association. A quick reading of that organization’s website turned up this gem:

The county sheriff is the line in the sand. The county sheriff is the one who can say to the feds, “Beyond these bounds you shall not pass.” This is not only within the scope of the sheriff’s authority; it’s the sheriff’s sworn duty.

And this:

We are forming the Constitutional Peace Officers Association which will unite all public servants and sheriffs, to keep their word to uphold, defend, protect, preserve, and obey the Constitutions of the United States of America. We already have hundreds of police, sheriffs, and other officials who have expressed a desire to be a part of this Holy Cause of Liberty.

We are going to train and vet them all, state by state, to understand and enforce the constitutionally protected Rights of the people they serve, with an emphasis on State Sovereignty and local autonomy. Then these local governments will issue our new Declaration to the Federal Government regarding the abuses that we will no longer tolerate or accept. Said declaration will be enforced by our Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers. In short, the CSPOA will be the army to set our nation free. This will guarantee this movement remains both peaceful and effective.

Just read those parts of the mission of the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association and I think you’ll pretty quickly get an idea of the mindset behind Sen. Kruse’s introduction of SB127. Or, you could just read the last provision of SB127:

Under the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution of the United States and the state of Indiana's compact with the other states, the general assembly declares that any federal law that purports to provide federal employees with the authority of a sheriff in Indiana is:
        (1) not recognized by and specifically rejected by the state of Indiana; and
        (2) invalid in Indiana.

I’m really not sure what to say about either this mindset or the bill. It does seem to me, though, that bills such as this one come from a viewpoint that considers the Federal Government as the enemy out to stomp on the rights of Hoosiers. It’s the same viewpoint that wants assault weapons and high capacity magazines to protect against a tyrannical government. It’s the same viewpoint that that wants to “take our country back” and talks about “Second Amendment remedies”. It’s the viewpoint that fears black helicopters and the New World Order. It’s the viewpoint that thinks President Obama is a Muslim Marxist Kenyan that wants to destroy America. It’s a viewpoint that I don’t understand.

I’m curious to know whether Sen. Kruse cheers against the United States when he watches the Olympics or wonders why Indiana doesn’t have its own Olympic team. Does he think that homes and businesses should fly, not the American flag, but that of Indiana? Or, perhaps the flag of the particular county? Does he remain seated for the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, preferring instead to sing Back Home Again in Indiana?

But more seriously, what precisely are people like Sen. Kruse worried about? What actions of federal agents are they afraid of? I doubt that Sen. Kruse is worried about the federal government arresting an undocumented immigrant or enforcing a drug law; I can’t imagine that he would object to the FBI arresting a Muslim terrorist. So what kinds of federal arrests give rise to the sort of concern expressed by SB127? There are only two things that I can think of: Guns and taxes.

Just imagine a situation in which Congress bans the sale of assault weapons but Sheriff Dipshit in Bumfuck, Indiana, disagrees with that law. Should he be able to stop the ATF from searching a gun dealer’s store following an allegation that the dealer is selling weapons illegally? Or what if Sheriff Dipshit thinks that Congress has exceeded its taxing authority and refuses to allow the IRS or another federal agency to seize property? What we’d be looking at is chaos. And rebellion. It really wouldn’t be any different than a Sheriff in the South refusing to allow federal officers to enforce a desegregation ruling, would it? We’ve seen standoffs between federal agents and cults (remember Ruby Ridge and Waco?); are we ready for standoffs between the FBI and a county sheriff because they disagree on the scope of federal power or whether a law passed by Congress is constitutional?

And SB127 doesn’t just require local consent; it also requires the State of Indiana to prosecute a federal official who acted without that local consent. Just picture, if you will, what our society would look like if states like Indiana start prosecuting FBI agents for their attempts to enforce federal laws. We would suddenly have a system where there would no longer be a national standard; there wouldn’t even be state standards. Rather, each county, throughout the country, would be a jurisdiction unto itself. I can just see some “whites only” or “no Muslims allowed” counties. Maybe counties where gays can be tied to fence posts after being beaten would be OK. Perhaps efforts to ensure that all people are allowed to vote wouldn’t be permitted in some counties. If that’s your view of America, perhaps you should find a more accommodating Banana Republic in which to reside.

And don’t forget to think about the interplay of SB127 with SB230 (which would allow for Indiana to “nullify” a federal law with which it disagrees).

Sen. Kruse, Sen. Boots, and others with similar mindsets seem, intentionally or otherwise, set on tearing America apart and creating a loosely affiliated group of 50 independent states (or thousands of independent counties). But we’ve already had these discussions … several hundred years ago. And we’ve already looked into the ugly mirror of “state’s rights” and nullification. That led to the Civil War and Jim Crow. Is that where Sen. Kruse and Sen. Boots really want to take our country? Apparently so. And Sen. Kruse wants our kids prayer all the way there…

Please, please, please contact your legislator and explain that bills like SB127 and SB230 must not be enacted!

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Thursday, January 10, 2013

Gun Owner and Firearms CEO: “I’m Going to Start Killing People” (Guns in America [part 5])

So this is where we are now on the discussion of gun control. The CEO of a Tennessee-based company called Tactical Response (“sole purpose of providing the highest end firearms and tactical training possible”) heard that Vice President Biden was going to encourage President Obama to circumvent Congress to impose an assault weapons ban. He posted his thoughts online (warning: Language is not safe for work or appropriate for children):

“I’m going to start killing people.”

And there is the face of the gun advocate.

“I’m going to start killing people.”

Here is the proverbial poster child for why we need to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines and so forth…

“I’m going to start killing people.”

What is it that we always say about negotiating with terrorists? And what would you call someone who threatens to start killing people if he doesn’t get his way? I’d call that person a terrorist. But this is what we’re up against. We’re up against people so deranged, so in fear of mythical tyranny, that they’re willing to “start killing people” to keep their right to keep guns to kill people.

We can’t allow our country to be taken hostage by people who live in paranoid fear of the New World Order or whatever it is that keeps them awake at night in their bomb shelters. And we can’t allow our national policies to be determined by our own fear of people like this. Most importantly, we can’t keep allowing our children to be killed so that people like this can live out their deranged little fantasies.


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The Stupid Just Keeps Getting More and More Stoopid (part 1)

First, read this article by Dan Carden writing for The Times of Northwest Indiana:

Ind. senator wants Legislature empowered to nullify federal law

When the U.S. Supreme Court in 1958 explicitly struck down nullification, the theory that states can declare federal laws unconstitutional and ignore them, the court warned state legislators that endorsing nullification violates their oath to support and defend the U.S. Constitution.

State Sen. Phil Boots, R-Crawfordsville, doesn’t care.

“I think our state’s rights have been illegitimately violated by the federal government and I think it’s something that we need to address,” Boots said. “Somebody at some point has to take a stand. We have to stand up for what the Constitution says and right now, no one is doing that.”

Boots is sponsor of Senate Bill 230, which authorizes the Indiana General Assembly to declare federal laws unconstitutional. Any person caught implementing or enforcing a federal law declared void by Indiana would be guilty of a Class D felony, punishable by up to three years in prison.

The legislation specifically finds the 2010 Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, exceeds the powers of the federal government and is therefore unenforceable in Indiana.

That contravenes a June 2012 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that Obamacare is constitutional.

“The Supreme Court is misinterpreting the Constitution,” Boots said. “We’ve seen case after case after case of the federal government telling us what to do and I don't think they have the authority to do that.”

Boots contends that states created the federal government and gave Congress a list of specific enumerated powers. He said any action taken by Congress is illegitimate if it's not on that list, and the states, not the Supreme Court, have the authority to determine the legitimacy of federal laws.

That argument for nullification has been made several times in U.S. history, most often by southern state lawmakers seeking to protect the institution of slavery prior to the Civil War and trying to prevent racial integration of public schools during the 20th century.

U.S. courts have repeatedly struck down state attempts to nullify federal law.

In the most significant ruling, Cooper v. Aaron (1958), the Supreme Court declared the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution makes nullification impossible, as federal law is always superior to state law.

In that decision, the nation’s high court also instructed state lawmakers, like Boots, that refusing to accept the supremacy of federal law, and the authority of the Supreme Court to interpret it, is “war against the Constitution” and a violation of their oath to support America’s primary governing document.

Boots, however, is unlikely to be punished by the Republican-controlled Senate.

Though Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, has assigned Boots’ legislation to the Rules Committee, where bills Long doesn’t like typically go to die.

Boots said he'll ask Long to at least give his proposal a hearing.

I think Carden does a very good job of setting forth the lunacy of Sen. Boots’ Senate Bill 230. But it’s worth taking a few moments to really contemplate what Sen. Boots’ is both claiming and proposing. First, he knows better than the United States Supreme Court what is and is not constitutional. And he knows that the rights of Indiana have been “illegitimately violated by the federal government” (notwithstanding that some of us might disagree). And he believes that “Somebody at some point has to take a stand. We have to stand up for what the Constitution says and right now, no one is doing that.” That’s right. The Supreme Court doesn’t know what the Constitution does and doesn’t permit and, apparently, doesn’t have the right to decide what the Constitution does and doesn’t permit. On the other hand, a state senator from Crawfordsville, Indiana, does have the right to make those sorts of determinations. And if those big, bad, evil legislators in Congress, elected by the people, vote to do something and the Supreme Court rules that something to be Constitutional, well never-you-mind, because good ol’ Sen. Boots and the State of Indiana can just tell ’em they’re wrong! You know, just like the South did when they wanted to preserve the right to own humans.

And this is the type of person being elected to Indiana’s legislature.


If Congress were to pass a law that says you can’t fire someone just because they’re gay, could Indiana say, “nope, sorry, we hate them faggots here in the heartland and if we wanna fire ’em, then gosh darnit, we can! Maybe imprison ’em, too!”? Under SB230 it would appear that the answer to that question would be “yep”. Or maybe Sen. Boots would like to nullify federal laws that prevent Indiana from charging poll taxes to people whose skin is a few shades darker than his. Maybe he’d like to nullify federal laws that require prisoners to be treated humanely or hospitals to treat anyone who shows up at the emergency room. Maybe only men should be allowed to decide what a woman does with her body!Who knows. But do recognize that the law that has caught Sen. Boots’ attention is designed to help people by broadening those covered by insurance and to do so through the private marketplace. In Sen. Boots’ fantasy world (maybe horror is the better genre), that is the kind of “evil” that needs to be stomped out, via nullification or, perhaps if that isn’t enough, through revolution. You know, the “blood of tyrants” and all that really needs to be spilled to keep people from having healthcare.

Think about it this way: If states have the right to nullify federal laws, then aren’t we really creating a system of total chaos where Republican states will simply nullify laws passed by a Democratic Congress (or, similarly, where Democratic states would nullify laws passed by a Republican Congress)? For that matter, why can’t Marion County or Hamilton County nullify a state law that they find “unconstitutional”? Why can’t Carmel overrule Hamilton County? Why can’t my subdivision overrule Carmel? Why can’t I overrule my subdivision? Nope. No possibility of chaos here. Move along.

Ah, but Sen. Boots’ form of stupid stupidity isn’t unique. Nope. In part 2, I’ll take a look at Senate Bill 127 authored by Sen. Dennis Kruse (yes, the same guy who wants Indiana’s children to recite The Lord’s Prayer) which would require a federal agent to get the permission of the attorney general or county sheriff before arresting someone for violating federal law. Seriously.

Updated to fix typos.

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Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Guns in Dorms (redux)

So apparently a hallmark this year’s session of the Indiana General Assembly is going to be the reintroduction of bad bills … about which I’ve written posts in prior sessions. A few days ago I wrote about the bill to require students to recite The Lord’s Prayer (Republicans Want to Require Indiana Students to Recite The Lord’s Prayer (Redux)). Now it’s time to re-examine the brilliant (sarcasm!) idea of allowing college students to carry guns on campus. This year’s bill, Senate Bill 97, has been introduced by Sen. Jim Tomes and Sen. Jim Banks (and now also co-authored by Sen. Greg Walker) and is much more detailed (and problematic) than the “simple” version introduced in 2009 by Sen. Nugent (and discussed below). So here is what I wrote about the 2009 version of this really, really bad idea. At the conclusion of my original post, I’ll offer some new thoughts on the 2013 version of the bill.

For every good bill introduced in the Indiana General Assembly, there are a handful of bad bills. And each year there are also a handful of bills that are so bad that they are just idiotic. Senate Bill 12 (authored by  Sen. Johnny Nugent, R-Southeast Indiana) is the winner (at least so far) of dumbest bill of the 2009 legislative session. The bill would add one new chapter (consisting of once sentence) to the Indiana criminal code:

A state educational institution may not regulate in any manner the ownership, possession, carrying, or transportation of firearms or ammunition.

When I first saw this bill I presumed that it was in response to the tragic events at Virginia Tech University and Sen. Nugent’s letter to the editor of The Indianapolis Star (in response to an opinion column opposing the bill) confirms that presumption. While I understand (well, kinda…) Sen. Nugent’s desire to allow college students to pack heat in order to protect themselves from nutcases who might be intent on violence on campus, it doesn’t take much thought to see why SB 12 is a really, really bad idea.

Let’s consider a few things. First, most students don’t live by themselves on campus. Thus, the gun, when not carried by the student, will likely be sitting in a dorm room to which many other people (roommate(s) and friends, for example) will have access. My freshman dorm room was often a bit like Grand Central Station and there weren’t many good hiding places. And remember that college roommates don’t always get along (I used a jar of gefilte fish when I needed a little privacy; my Korean roommate preferred to use his mom’s kimche). Fights among roommates (whether merely verbal or escalating to something more) are not uncommon. Add to this brew the fact that we are talking about young adults, many of them away from home for the first time, often under a great deal of stress (presuming that they are taking their studies seriously). Do we really want to introduce guns into that situation? Oh, I forgot to mention alcohol. Last time that I checked, use of alcohol (and even drugs) was fairly common on college campuses. And we know how well guns and alcohol mix.

And let’s go back to Virginia Tech for a moment. I suppose that the shooter might have been stopped had another student been armed. Maybe. But unless the other armed student (students?) really knew their way around their firearms, how much collateral damage (i.e., other students) would have been caused. Police officers undergo extensive training before being allowed on the street with a weapon, but virtually anyone can obtain a license to own a gun. If you are the parent of a college student, would you be comforted to know that your child might be protected from a crazed serial killer by other students with concealed weapons? Or, are you more concerned that those weapons will pose an even greater danger to your child than the rare serial killer?

And ask yourself this: Why limit this statute to colleges? Why not allow guns in high schools or hospitals or courtrooms? Maybe if the passengers aboard the planes on 9/11 had been armed, they would not have been hijacked (of course, the passengers defending the planes might have shot out windows and caused the planes to crash anyway…)! Maybe we should require everyone to have a gun! Yeah, that’s the ticket. If we all have a pistol on our hip, an assault rifle on our shoulder, a few grenades on our belt, and maybe a rocket launcher strapped to our back, no one will mess with us and we’ll be free of crime and violence forever! Of course one little misunderstanding could get pretty ugly, very quickly, but I guess that is the price that we should pay for safety, right?

Sarcasm aside, I think that guns are dangerous. They are supposed to be. But when it comes to college campuses, I think that students will be much safer in a gun-free environment. Sure, from time to time someone may come along with a means and motive to do harm. That, unfortunately is part of our society (of course, if that person had a more difficult time obtaining a gun in the first place…). But to address that rare occurrence by allowing yet more weapons is simply asking for trouble and yet more  violence. We should be looking for every opportunity to reduce the chance of gun violence rather than increasing that chance in order to reduce the isolated really bad instances of gun violence.

Please call your legislators (remember, you can check the Indiana General Assembly’s “Who Are Your Legislators?” page to learn who your legislators are and get their contact information) and tell them to oppose Senate Bill 12.

Now in 2013 we have Senate Bill 97 which covers far more than colleges and universities. It applies to all state agencies (but specifically includes colleges and universities) subject to a limited list of exceptions. Thankfully, those exceptions do address many of the most important places where guns just don’t sound like a good idea! Most. Not all. Interestingly, the Indiana Statehouse is included in the places exempted from the bill. But the bill would prohibit a college or university from a general prohibition of guns on campus or in dorms. And, for the reasons set forth above, that seems like a really, really, really bad idea.

But that’s not the only troubling aspect of SB97. Nope. This bill also gives aggrieved citizens the right to sue the State of Indiana and win damages. Most statutes that prohibit or require governmental inaction/action do not provide citizens a right to sue, or, if they do, they do not permit the recovery of damages. SB97 includes not just the “private right of action” for a citizen who has been “adversely affected” by a state agency (or college or university) that prohibited guns in violation of the statute, but also permits the recovery of damages and attorneys’ fees.

So just think about this for a second. Not only would this bill allow guns to be taken onto college campuses, but the authors of the bill are so enamored with that idea that they’re willing to force the State of Indiana to pay money in case a state agency were to try to keep guns away. The State could be forced to pay a citizen for, you known, trying to protect other citizens. Talk about a good use of the State’s resources! (Sarcasm, again.) I’m curious, though, whether Sen. Banks, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Walker are similarly willing to put the State’s money at risk in the event that a person is injured by a gun at a state agency or university that didn’t do enough to protect the person who was injured by that gun?

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Friday, January 4, 2013

Republicans Want to Require Indiana Students to Recite The Lord’s Prayer (Redux).

Almost exactly one year ago, I published my post Republicans Want to Require Indiana Students to Recite The Lord’s Prayer. Seriously. Though it’s almost hard to believe, the bill has been introduced again this year (now designated Senate Bill 23). The text of Senate Bill 23 is identical to the version introduced in 2012 as Senate Bill 251. The only difference that I can find is that (at least so far), this year’s incarnation of the the bill is only sponsored by Sen. Dennis Kruse; Sen. Tomes and Sen. Holdman have not (yet?) added their names as co-sponsors.

So I decided to re-publish my initial post (in its entirety, as originally written) and to add a few additional thoughts at the end.

Last night while I was watching the most boring football game ever played (and rooting for both teams to lose…), I read a tweet from Indiana blogger Doug Masson (and if you don’t regularly read Doug’s posts, you should…). Each year, Doug (who I believe used to work for Indiana’s Legislative Services Agency) writes brief recaps of new bills introduced in the Indiana General Assembly. The tweet in question directed me to Doug’s newest post on another bill that has been introduced … and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Doug was writing about Senate Bill 251 which would add the following law to the Indiana Code:

Indiana Code Section 20-30-5-4.6.

(a) In order that each student recognize the importance of spiritual development in establishing character and becoming a good citizen, the governing body of a school corporation or the equivalent authority of a charter school may require the recitation of the Lord's Prayer at the beginning of each school day. The prayer may be recited by a teacher, a student, or the class of students.

(b) If the governing body or equivalent authority requires the recitation of the Lord's Prayer under subsection (a), the governing body or equivalent authority shall determine the version of the Lord's Prayer that will be recited in the school corporation or charter school.

(c) A student is exempt from participation in the prayer if: (1) the student chooses not to participate; or (2) the student's parent chooses to have the student not participate.


Before discussing the specifics of SB251, I want to go ahead and direct you to the Senators responsible for this abomination. Call them. Write them. Email them. Tell them that you’re outraged. Express your disbelief that they clearly don’t understand certain basic concepts of our constitutional framework:

Sen. Dennis Kruse (R-Northeast Indiana [District 14])

Sen. Jim Tomes (R-Southwest Indiana [District 49])

Sen. Travis Holdman (R-Northeast Indiana [District 16])

So let’s start with a simple question: What is the Lord’s Prayer? I admit that all I really knew was that it was a prayer that was commonly recited by Christians. So I immediately turned to the irrefutable authority on all things religious: Wikipedia.

The Lord's Prayer (also called the Pater Noster or Our Father) is a central prayer in Christianity. In the New Testament of the Christian Bible, it appears in two forms: in the Gospel of Matthew as part of the discourse on ostentation in the Sermon on the Mount, and in the Gospel of Luke, which records Jesus being approached by "one of his disciples" with a request to teach them "to pray as John taught his disciples." The prayer concludes with "deliver us from evil" in Matthew, and with "lead us not into temptation" in Luke.

(Footnotes, links, and emphasis deleted.) The basic form of the Lord’s Prayer is:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

Apparently, the appeal to forgive debts is often replaced by an appeal to forgive sins. In all honesty, I was surprised that the Lord’s Prayer didn’t include an explicit reference to Jesus. But given that the prayer was supposedly recited by Jesus as an example, then I guess this makes sense. (I’m told that some Christians append a call to Jesus at the end of this and other prayers, something along the line of “In Jesus’ name we pray” or something similar).

In any event, the issue isn’t really the text of the prayer; rather it is the notion of a prayer mandated by the government (or an entity of the government). Perhaps Sen. Kruse, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Holdman (who, believe it or not, is an attorney) forgot the words of the First Amendment to the Constitution:

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.

It seems hard to argue that a state statute directing school boards to adopt a specific denominational prayer is a form of impermissible establishment of religion.

And certainly, the Senators appear to have forgotten to text of Article I of the Indiana Constitution:

Section 3. No law shall, in any case whatever, control the free exercise and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.

Section 4. No preference shall be given, by law, to any creed, religious society, or mode of worship; and no person shall be compelled to attend, erect, or support, any place of worship, or to maintain any ministry, against his consent.

I would certainly argue that a statute mandating a specific denominational prayer would, at minimum, be an impermissible preference to the Christian mode of worship.

Moreover, these Senators also appear to have missed the fact that the United States Supreme Court ruled on the issue of government-mandated school prayer nearly 50 years ago (in fact, this year is the 50th anniversary of one of the two main cases on the issue of school prayer)! Furthermore, it is worth noting that most of the school prayer cases have dealt with (and found unconstitutional) non-denominational prayers. But these Indiana Senators want to impose a core Christian prayer upon Indiana’s school children.

And don’t for a minute think that this isn’t a Christian prayer. When was the last time that you heard a Jew or a Muslim recite the Lord’s Prayer? Apparently Mormon’s don’t recite the Lord’s Prayer (but then, according to a whole bunch of fundamentalist, evangelical Christians, Mormon’s aren’t “real” Christians anyway…). Nor, I suspect, do Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, or the followers of any of the myriad of other religions practiced in Indiana, recite the Lord’s Prayer. And certainly atheists and others who do not profess to any religious belief would not recite the Lord’s Prayer. The point is, this prayer is derived from instructions in the New Testament and instructs Christians on how to pray. It is a Christian prayer for Christian belief.

One might also think that this bill was “necessary” because of the notion that kids can’t pray in school. That is patently false. First, kids can pray when they wake up. They can pray at the breakfast table with their family. They can pray while they brush their teeth. They can pray on the school bus. They can pray in the school hallways or standing at their locker. They can gather in a group by the flagpole and pray to their heart’s content. They can sit at the homeroom desk and pray. And when the teacher hands out the math test that they didn’t study for (because they were too busy praying), they can pray then as well. The can pray silently or out loud (as long as they don’t disturb others). The only thing that they can’t do is ask the school to make them pray or to direct everyone in prayer. And why, with all of those opportunities for individual prayer, is state-sponsored, coercive prayer, really necessary?

Why do Sen. Kruse, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Holdman care whether my child prays. And why do they care what prayer my child utters? Perhaps I should be asking them why Christian students aren’t being asked to say a prayer that Jesus probably recited every morning and every evening:

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad

Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One

I mean, Jesus was a Jew, wasn’t he?

I also want to note the red-herring contained in the SB251. Yes, the bill permits a student or parent to opt-out of saying the prayer. How realistic of a remedy is this? You try being an impressionable school child, burdened by peer pressure, your own insecurities as your learn who you are and what you believe, and the weight of a teacher or school administrator, and raising your hand to say, “No, I don’t want to say the prayer.” My 12-year-old children, who have heard me talk about issues like this since they first started in public school, had a difficult enough time telling their choir teacher that they were uncomfortable singing the Hallelujah Chorus and Silent Night. And that was just for a single performance; it wasn’t something that was going to start each and every school day.

Query further why it is the job of the schools to teach “spiritual development” (isn’t that what parents and houses of worship are for?) or why that is important to “establishing character and becoming a good citizen”. Do these Senators really suggest that atheists or others who don’t have “spiritual development” don’t have character or aren’t good citizens? Are they really implying that the ills of society are tied to a failure to establish good character that would be cured if we just had (Christian) prayer in schools? Let me quote from my Ben Stein post (go back and read that for a much deeper discussion of certain church-state issues):

The email next furthers the foregoing argument by suggesting that America is in trouble because we no longer read the Bible in schools and it is the Bible that teaches “thou shalt not kill, thou shalt not steal, and love your neighbor as yourself”. I guess, that we are to understand that, if we still taught the Bible in our public schools, we wouldn't kill or steal and we would love each other. First, just because our children don’t read the Bible in public schools doesn’t mean that we can’t (or don’t) teach our children not to kill or steal or can’t or don’t teach them to love one another. [2011 update: Note that it would also appear that the “love your neighbor” admonition only applies if your neighbor is the right kind of neighbor; certainly, you shouldn’t love your Muslim neighbor or your homosexual neighbor, right?] And even when children did read the Bible in public schools, bad things happened: Jim Crow laws prevented blacks from voting or forced them to sit at the back of the bus (and sometimes left them hanging from a tree), but I would be willing to wager that supporters of those laws prayed quite a bit. Murder and burglary did not suddenly start the day that prayers ceased in the public schools; it seems that those societal ills have been with us (and with all of humanity) from the beginning of time, whether or not people prayed (and irrespective of the type of prayer or the deity to which those prayers is offered). It is simply too easy to say that things are bad and to place blame accordingly without empirical evidence supporting the allegation.

Look, I could go on and on, reciting and discussing all of the reasons why prayer in school is inappropriate. I could spend countless pages talking about the basis for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment or the premises behind the religious freedom clauses in Indiana’s Bill of Rights. But I think that by 2012 these issues really aren’t that difficult anymore. Sure, there are still some open issues (student-initiated prayer at school-sanctioned events, being one of the current hot-button issues). But whether the state can mandate that children pray and mandate the specific prayer that the children must recite (or listen to) is as unconstitutional now as it was when the Supreme Court ruled on this issue in 1962.

The scary thing isn’t the prospect of this law’s passage (though I suspect a lot of Indiana’s legislators would vote for it); I think the courts will have an easy time tossing this on the rubbish heap of other unconstitutional laws. No, the scary thing is that three Indiana Senators think that this law is a good idea (not to mention constitutional). These three think nothing of having the State of Indiana tell Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, atheist, and other children not only that they must pray but that they must offer a specific Christian prayer. What does that say about our society? About tolerance and diversity? To me it says, “Hey, if you’re not a Christian, you’re not a part of ‘real America’, so just fuck off and let our Christian country move backward.” I would just love to see the reaction of these Senators if a school district chose to require children to recite a Jewish prayer or … gasp! … a Muslim prayer. Can you imagine the outcry, horror, and gnashing of teeth? But right now, we need to come to terms with a society that has become so polarized, so afraid of the “other”, so willing to believe in the “War on Christmas” hyped by Bill O’Reilly and Faux News, that legislators are willing to even contemplate, let alone introduce, bills such as SB251.

Welcome to the Theocratic States of America where we make all decisions on the basis of What Would Jesus Do … except, you know, we don’t really pay attention to things that Jesus said. Instead we just force majority religious beliefs on others, discriminate against gays and Muslims in particular (and those with differing beliefs in general), worry incessantly about what’s going on in a woman’s uterus, and grip tightly our God-given guns. And we don’t give a damn about the sick, homeless, and poor. I mean, I’m certainly not a scholar on Christian theology or the teachings of Jesus, but I know that he was far more concerned with guns, gays, and abortion than he was with charity, helping those in need, and, you know, just being a good person. If Jesus had cared about those sorts of things, he probably would have created some kind of golden rule or something, right?

Call Sen. Kruse, Sen. Tomes, and Sen. Holdman (each can be reached at 800/382-9467 or via email). And tell them what you think of their efforts to bring theocracy to Indiana. Oh, and you might also suggest that when they’re done reciting the Lord’s Prayer, they ought to go read Jesus’ thoughts on prayer (from Mathew 6:56):

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men … when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret…

Sorry if I seem a bit snarky or cranky, but bills like this really, really make me angry. And they remind me that the American Experiment in tolerance, diversity, and religious liberty remains a work in progress.

And now a few new (2013) thoughts:

I’m curious to know if Sen. Kruse, who apparently thinks that his proposal would pass constitutional scrutiny, would also support the right of a school system to create separate schools for Christian students and those who aren’t of the Christian faith. Or maybe just a single separate school for Muslims. Would that be OK, Sen. Kruse? For that matter, I wonder whether Sen. Kruse thinks that it would be acceptable for Reverend Governor Pence to declare a Church of Indiana and require all Hoosiers to attend worship services. Maybe Sen. Kruse should simply stop playing at the edges and introduce legislation banning the practice of Islam or any religion other than his brand of Christianity. That bill would be no less unconstitutional than SB23

I mean, as long as we’re ignoring the Constitution, why stop with a simple denominational prayer in schools? We may as well give judges the right to chop off the hands of those caught stealing, allow the police to search and detain without warrants, and allow the government to appropriate property without due compensation. Maybe we should even abandon the idea of a republican democracy and go straight to a theocratic dictatorship. Should our head of state be called Pope or Bishop or just, you know, to be humble, Reverend?

One other thought worth noting (prompted by something I read in a comment to this post on Doug Masson’s blog): What would happen if the version of The Lord’s Prayer adopted by a school system (or, more likely a charter school) wasn’t quite in line with what Sen. Kruse and his theocratic friends had in mind? For example, what if the version of The Lord’s Prayer that the school decided to use went like this:

Please stop using my name as a political football.

Please stop killing in my name, for it is not my wish.

Or this:

Our Father in heaven

Or not, if you don’t believe in a deity, or perhaps Mother, if you’re more inclined that way,

hallowed be your name.

Your kingdom come

or, perhaps, a republic or constitutional democracy instead,

your will be done

so long as it doesn’t, you know, cause fathers to try to kill their children or involve turning whole cities to salt or killing the first born of folks we don’t like or enslaving people and so on,

on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread

preferably whole wheat and gluten free,

and forgive us our debts

especially to the big banks, credit card companies, and payday lenders,

as we also have forgiven our debtors (not that many of us have debtors).

And lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil

like Fox News and Glenn Beck

And people who would try to impose belief in You on others.

Would Sen. Kruse approve of that version of The Lord’s Prayer? Or how about this one:

Oh physics that control the Universe,

understood you should be.

Your expansion continues,

your wonders slowly discovered,

on earth as it is in the cosmos.

Give us this day the elements

from which we derive our sustenance,

and forgive us our doubts about the reality of science,

as we also have forgiven Republicans who don’t believe in science.

And lead us not into the belief that a imaginary being created us,

but deliver us from the belief in fairy tales.

Yeah, I’m sure that one would go over really well with the theocrats, don’t you?

Call Sen. Kruse and tell him what you think of SB23. Call and tell your Senator to oppose this bill and all others that would turn our state or our country into a theocracy.

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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Guns in America (part 4)

Over the holidays, a friend shared a story on Facebook which I think is relevant to the current discussion of guns in many ways (though not necessarily the ways that my friend intended or that the author of the original story desired). Here is the story, as posted on Facebook, that caught my attention:

On Sunday December 17, 2012, 2 days after the CT shooting, a man went to a restaurant in San Antonio to kill his X-girlfriend. After he shot her, most of the people in the restaurant fled next door to a theater.... The gunman followed them and entered the theater so he could shoot more people. He started shooting and people in the theater started running and screaming. It’s like the Aurora, CO theater story plus a restaurant!

Now aren’t you wondering why this isn’t a lead story in the national media along with the school shooting?

There was an off duty county deputy at the theater. SHE pulled out her gun and shot the man 4 times before he had a chance to kill anyone. So since this story makes the point that the best thing to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun, the media is treating it like it never happened.

Only the local media covered it. The city is giving her a medal next week.

Just thought you’d like to know.

I remain disgusted with the media’s deliberate attempt to whitewash news while at the same time creating their own narrative for whatever sinister reasons.

Before diving into the arguments being made by the story’s author, I want to focus on the actual facts of the story for a moment. First, here is another version of the story from a San Antonio online newspaper. Note that the newspaper article never says that the shooter said he was going to kill his ex-girlfriend; rather he apparently said that he wanted to “shoot someone”. Moreover, he didn’t actually shoot his ex-girlfriend; she wasn’t even at the restaurant at the time. Now, while I agree that those particular differences aren’t really a big deal, they are examples of a fact that the author of the story above simply made up “facts” in order to further sensationalize his story and the point that he was trying to make. More importantly, however, the newspaper article talks about the shooter chasing an employee and “shooting in the air and at other cars”. Hmm. Now that’s very different than simply shooting indiscriminately at people as we see in mass casualty shootings. And it certainly doesn’t conform to the author’s claim that the shooter entered the theater “so he could shoot more people”. Yes, the shooter did eventually shoot someone, but the article doesn’t make it sound like that person was the (or an) intended target. It’s also worth pointing out that the shooter didn’t have an assault weapon, but rather a handgun (though, I believe, an automatic). It sounds like the shooter went to the restaurant at which his ex-girlfriend (and possibly he) worked when he was angry that she broke up with him. He chased another employee toward (or into) a nearby business (the theater) while shooting into the air and at cars. And then he was shot and wounded.

The most important fact, though, that isn’t quite clear from the article above, is that the “off duty county deputy” was a 13-year veteran sergeant “who was working off-duty as a security guard” at the theater (emphasis added). In other words, despite the suggestion from the original article that an armed person just happened to be at the the theater and was able to shoot the shooter omits the fact that the officer was working security at the theater and had, obviously, at least 13-years’ of firearms and related training.

As to the suggestion that the national media ignored the story, yes, that’s probably true. But the conclusion drawn by the original author that the media ignored the story in order to “whitewash news” for “sinister reasons” seems to miss a few very critical facts. First, nobody died. The national media doesn’t tend to pay a lot of attention to most instances of gunplay and violence. For that matter, the media doesn’t tend to spend a lot of time reporting on instances of domestic violence or violence stemming from domestic disputes (other than local media reporting on local stories). And how often does the national media focus on stories where a police officer shoots a criminal? Yes, this was undoubtedly a scary incident for those who were at the theater and the restaurant, just as any shooting or act of violence is scary for those who are impacted by it. But to suggest that the story was “whitewashed” for “sinister reasons” is simply silly. Or paranoid. If the shooter had killed or wounded more people would it have gotten more press? Of course. But it’s because of the nature of mass casualty shootings that they generate press in the first place. Police stop crimes and criminals everyday; individuals fire shots every day; police shoot and wound or kill people every day. But those aren’t “stories”, at least not ones that merit national coverage.

By way of comparison, did the national media cover the death of 23-year-old Jovan Sconier, 41-year-old Eugene Wilson, 24-year-old Officer Sean Callahan, 58-year-old Anthony Garland Rice, 70-year-old Jan L. Hepworth, 40-year-old Larry Bradley, 38-year-old Sherman Horton, 27-year-old Marvin Lockridge, 20-year-old Melvin Duane Fletcher, 31-year-old Nishant Patel, 69-year-old Cheryl D. Hepworth, 31-year-old Quiana Phillips, 21-year-old Chelsea Magoon, 14-year-old Damin T. Russell, 4-year-old Aydan Perea, or the unnamed 18-year-old and 35-year-old men all of whom were killed with a gun on December 17, the same day as the San Antonio shooting?* Why is the author not bemoaning the lack of national coverage given to those stories (especially the death of a 4-year-old)? Could it be that the news media is trying to “whitewash” the extent of gun violence for “sinister reasons”? Or might it just be that we’ve become so immune to the horror of gun violence that it takes the death of 20 children for us to really take notice?

Finally, with regard to the suggestion that the this story stands for the proposition that the “best thing to stop a bad person with a gun is a good person with a gun”, I would respond that the story does not, in fact, stand for that proposition at all. Rather, to me, the story stands for the proposition that to stop a bad person with a gun, we either need well-trained, armed police officers in virtually every public place or we need to do more to lessen the number of guns so readily available in our society. Perhaps with fewer guns (and especially less dangerous guns), the need for an armed, well-trained police officer on every corner and in every public space will be lessened. Or, we can keep the easy access to guns and turn our streets, our restaurants, our movie theaters, and our schools into heavily armed zones where everyone packs ever increasing firepower. We can decide to accept armed guards in every school and every shopping center and every theater and every restaurant and every store and every park and every street corner and any other place where people might congregate. And hey, what could possibly go wrong with streets full of heavily armed people?

*The data on gun deaths on December 17 comes from the ever-growing daily gun violence fatality data being compiled and maintained by Slate magazine in their feature “Gun Deaths in America Since Newtown”. This is a tremendous, though frightening, resource.


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