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“The NRA Has Declared War On America”: A Bleak Vision Of Exaggerated Dystopianism In Service Of Sedition

As the annual meeting of National Rifle Association members started here this weekend, the gentleman seated next to me said to settle in: “It’s mostly administrative stuff. We vote on things.” He paused for emphasis: “It’s the law.”

He’s somewhat mistaken, of course. The NRA doesn’t have any state-mandated obligation to hold an annual meeting. What’s more, the NRA has very little respect for the law. A half an hour later, at that very meeting, NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre exhorted the crowd to a morally obligated vigilantism. He drew a vivid picture of a United States in utter decay and fragmented beyond repair, Mad Max-meets-Hunger Games, divided by Soylent Green:

We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all.

LaPierre’s bleak vision is exaggerated dystopianism in service of sedition, a wide-ranging survey of targets that put justice against the intrusions of the IRS on a continuum with (as an advertisement he ran during his speech put it) workplace “bullies and liars”.

Talk about mission creep. At its convention in 1977, the NRA rejected its history as a club for hunters and marksmen and embraced activism on behalf Second Amendment absolutism. Rejecting background checks and allowing “convicted violent felons, mentally deranged people, violently addicted to narcotics” easier access to guns was, said the executive vice president that year, “a price we pay for freedom.” In 2014, 500 days after Newtown and after a year of repeated legislative and judicial victories, the NRA has explicitly expanded its scope to the culture at large.

The NRA is no longer concerned with merely protecting the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms – the gun lobby wants to use those arms on its fellow citizens. Or, as the NRA thinks of them: “the bad guys”.

It is useless to argue that the NRA is only targeting criminals with that line, because the NRA has defined “good guys” so narrowly as to only include the NRA itself. What does that make everyone else?

“I ask you,” LaPierre grimaced at the end of his litany of doom. “Do you trust this government to protect you?”

This is not one of the items the membership voted upon. Indeed, Wayne LaPierre’s confidence in making this question rhetorical is one of its most frightening aspects, though of course it’s his prescription that truly alarmed me:

We are on our own. That is a certainty, no less certain than the absolute truth – a fact the powerful political and media elites continue to deny, just as sure as they would deny our right to save our very lives. The life or death truth that when you’re on your own, the surest way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun!

You cannot defend this as anything other than the dangerous ravings of a madman. LaPierre’s description of the world is demonstrably untrue, and not just in concrete, objective terms. To cite just one example: crime rates in the US have been falling for 20 years – a statistic that some gun rights advocates brandish as proof of the selectively defined cliché, “more guns, less crime.” Just as troubling is LaPierre’s internal inconsistency about what it means for NRA members to be “on their own”.

He rattled the audience with a listicle of abuses of power that included Solyndra and and Benghazi (those are Second Amendment issues now, I guess!), but consoled those gathered with the factoid that there are 100m gun owners in America – a third of the country. He railed against “the elites'” rejection of the NRA’s “more guns in schools” solution to Sandy Hook, but reassured his listeners that “city after county after school board after statehouse” adopted the strategy anyway.

You cannot have it both ways. You cannot be both winning and losing, alone but united, the minority but the majority. It is almost (almost!) as if Wayne LaPierre intended to mislead his audience with this whiplash oratory, intended to dizzy them into acceptance of his underlying message, which is almost disappointingly mundane: give us money. Give the NRA money. Give us money so we can create the legal environment that allows gun manufacturers to make more money so that they can give us more money.

Conspicuously absent from LaPierre’s list of grievances was any serious consideration of the economic system that might have a role destabilizing the society for which he pantomimes such concern. He referenced losing jobs to “hypocrites”–the kind of immediate and tangible grievance about which one can imagine an immediate and tangible retaliation. (And one of the reasons waiting periods for gun ownership are such a good idea.) He did not indict the powerful machinations of capital and power that limit people’s ideas about their future to only the immediate and tangible, the system that has turned the gap between rich and poor into an ever-widening gyre. (If there’s an apocalypse coming, look in that direction.)

The members of the NRA who cheered LaPierre, I’m quite sure, don’t think that they’ve turned against their country; they believe the country has turned on them – a distinction that the seceding states of the south made as well, but the distinction only really matters after the war is over and someone gets to write the history.

I could scare you with a sketch of what America might look like in a world where LaPierre’s urging leads to concrete and lasting political change. I think it would be grim and dangerous, though not as dangerous to LaPierre’s allies as it would be to everyone else. But that dystopia is beside the point, because I don’t believe LaPierre and his cronies actually want an armed uprising, or complete political supremacy. Arms dealers are never interested in victory, just eternal war.

On some level, the NRA is correct when it turns the problem of gun violence into the schoolyard litmus test of good guys and bad guys. Maybe firearms, as objects, aren’t the problem, or they’re not the problem with the NRA. Anyone backing with full faith the argument made by LaPierre likely made up their minds long before they ever stepped on a target range or fired a round. The problem with the NRA lies with the people who lead it.

I was somewhat undercover at the convention this weekend. And being among people who believe they are surrounded by other members of their tribe does mean that they say things they might not otherwise say – but to be unguarded, to be vulnerable, doesn’t always reveal the worst in people. It can reveal the best.

I’m not sure if I opened any door other than the one to my room the entire weekend. People smiled and scooted over to make room on seats. Strangers said “howdy.” I was instructed in the proper stance for shooting a Glock by a former police officer that saw my interest (and ignorance): “Just so you don’t look like a beginner once you get to the range.” One middle-aged woman let me take a picture of her garter belt holster, an act of the kind of stunning bravery and intimacy one usually only sees on the battlefield.

And throughout, I marvelled: these are friendly, apparently prosperous people, surrounded by physical evidence that their belief system is thriving – Over 9 Acres of Guns and Gear! – both economically and culturally. Why are they so incredibly frightened?

I sat in on a lecture on home defense, expecting a more localized version of LaPierre’s speech. (HOME INVASIONS!) But the instructor was impressively subdued and sober about his subject, emphasizing that he taught defense, which ideally does not include using a gun. Evasion is an honorable outcome, he told us. Have a safe room. Know the routes out of the house. “Legally and morally,” he said, “Shooting someone is always the last resort.”

Afterward, I told one of the sponsoring company’s instructors how impressed I was by the conservativism of the presentation. I admitted I hadn’t expected that; I thought anyone teaching a home defense workshop would probably rattle off as many scary scenarios as possible. He disagreed. People who are really paranoid about home invasions aren’t going to take a class, he observed. They’ll just buy a gun. “And who knows if they ever learn to use it.” If they do take a class, he continued, they won’t absorb the lessons very well – they’re too busy being afraid.

“Of course, there is such a thing as just the right amount of paranoia,” he smiled. “But any instructor who tries to scare people into taking his class is just trying to ramp up business … or pump up his ego.”

I don’t think he realized he was describing the business model that surrounded us that very minute.

 

By: Ana Marie Cox, The Guardian, April 29, 2014

April 30, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, National Rifle Association, Wayne LaPierre | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“We Live In States Of Insanity”: Trigger Happy In The Gunshine State

Doug Varrieur likes to shoot.

Problem is, it’s 25 miles to the nearest range, where they charge $45 an hour. What’s a gun enthusiast to do?

Lucky for him, Varrieur lives in Florida. Problem solved. Just erect a makeshift range in the back yard and fire away. It’s perfectly legal.

Re-read that if you want. It’s just as nutty the second time around.

In a story by my colleague Cammy Clark that appeared in Sunday’s Miami Herald, we learn that Varrieur, who lives on Big Pine Key, once complained to a gun-shop owner about what a pain it was going to the range to shoot. The owner put him onto Florida statute 790.15, which lists the conditions under which one may not legally discharge a firearm in the state. Turns out there aren’t many. You may not shoot “in any public place or on the right-of-way of any paved public road, highway or street,” over any road, highway or occupied premises, or “recklessly or negligently” at your own home.

Otherwise, let ‘er rip.

There are no mandatory safety requirements. Indeed, the language about recklessness and negligence was only added in 2011. Prior to that, apparently, it was even legal to blast at shadows and hallucinations, assuming you did so in your own back yard. Shooting actual people is presumably still illegal, though the family of the late Trayvon Martin might beg to differ.

Because he is a responsible gun owner, Varrieur, who has been shooting in his back yard once a week for a month, took precautions, even though, again, he is not required to. They include a wooden backstop seven feet high, eight feet wide and a foot thick.

Can you imagine living next door to this guy? Worse, can you imagine living next door to a Doug Varrieur who doesn’t take the precautions the law says he doesn’t have to bother with?

For what it’s worth, even Varrieur thinks the law is too “loose” and would like to see safety precautions mandated. County Commissioner George Neugent, also a gun owner, says the law is “a little scary.”

Ya think?

They call Florida the “gunshine state.” But this madness is not Florida-centric. In Colorado, you can have a gun in class. In Arizona, you can take one to the bar. In Georgia, they’re trying to make it legal to take one to church. So this isn’t just Florida. It’s America. We live in states of insanity.

As it happens, I have been corresponding with a reader who wrote me with what I regarded as promising ideas for moving the gun-rights argument forward. They included mandatory gun-safety training and mandatory liability insurance.

The dialogue faltered on his contention that he needs his gun because crime is spiraling out of control, and the country is not as safe as it was 20 years ago.

This, of course, is false: Crime is at historic lows. In 1993, according to the FBI, the violent-crime rate was 747.1 per 100,000 people. In 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available, it was 386.9. Almost 10,000 fewer people were murdered in 2012 than in 1993.

My reader was impressed with none of this. “Forget stats,” he said, “talk to victims.” If I did, I’d learn that road rage and knockout incidents are way up and that nightly, there are home invasions, robberies, stabbings and, ahem, shootings.

His insistence on perception over fact is emblematic of the nation we’ve become, so terrified by local TV news and its over-reportage of street crime that we think every shadow has eyes and we need guns in school, the bar, the movies, church.

Until some of us get over this media-driven paranoia, even promising ideas for ending the guns impasse are doomed. So I will close with some words of advice to anyone thinking of visiting or living in Florida or any other state of American insanity. One word, actually:

Duck.

By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., The National Memo, January 29, 2014

January 30, 2014 Posted by | Gun Violence, Guns | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Mandatory Ineffectiveness”: Mandatory Minimum Prison Sentences Don’t Make Us Safer

There are many reasons to oppose mandatory minimum sentencing laws. They frequently require excessive punishments, they put too much power into the hands of prosecutors (at the expense of judges), and they are expensive. Defenders of such laws say they’re worth it because they keep society safe. They argue that crime rates drop whenever mandatory sentences are enacted and rise when they are repealed or reduced. But after 30 years of experience with mandatory sentences at the federal and state level, we know that’s not true.

Congress passed strict mandatory sentences for buying and selling cocaine, marijuana, heroin and other drugs in 1986. Selling even small amounts of these drugs resulted in automatic five-year prison sentences (10 years for higher quantities). Beginning in 1987, when the new mandatory sentencing law took effect, the violent crime rate actually rose over the next four years by a startling 24 percent and did not return to its 1987 level until a decade later.

Before it reached that point, however, Congress acknowledged that the new mandatory minimum prison sentences were sometimes excessive, and in 1994 voted to exempt certain first-time, nonviolent and low-level drug offenders from mandatory minimums. In those cases, courts were authorized to impose individualized sentences based on the defenders’ role in the crime.

So crime went up, right? Not even close. Since the mandatory minimum carve-out, known as the “safety valve,” was implemented, roughly 80,000 drug offenders have received shorter sentences, and the crime rate has dropped by 44 percent. Needless to say, a theory that says mandatory sentences reduce crime cannot explain how the crime rate dropped so far and so fast when tens of thousands of drug offenders were spared the full weight of such sentences.

The experience of the states is even more devastating to mandatory sentencing’s defenders. Over the past decade, 17 states took steps to reduce their prison populations, including by repealing or curtailing their mandatory sentencing laws. In all 17 states, prison populations fell, and so did their crime rates.

What we have learned is that, while punishment is important, mandatory prison sentences for everyone who breaks the law don’t make us safer. University of Chicago economist and “Freakonomics” author Steven Levitt was perhaps the most influential supporter of pro-prison policies in the ’90s. He said that sending more people to prison was responsible for as much as 25 percent of the decade’s crime drop. Proponents of mandatory sentences cited Levitt at every turn.

But recently, Levitt concluded that as the crime rate continued to drop and the prison population continued to grow, the increase in public safety diminished. He told The New York Times earlier this year, “In the mid-1990s I concluded that the social benefits approximately equaled the costs of incarceration.” But today, Levitt says, “I think we should be shrinking the prison population by at least one-third.” No one in Congress is proposing anything that radical. But reducing our nation’s prison population and crime rate are achievable goals.

Next month, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on a bipartisan bill introduced by Sens. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which would give federal courts more discretion to depart from ill-fitting mandatory minimum sentences. The bill, the Justice Safety Valve Act of 2013, would build on the success of the 1994 legislation. Thirty years of evidence suggests this approach will make us safer.

 

By: Julie Stewart, U. S. News and World Report, September 2, 2013

September 3, 2013 Posted by | Criminal Justice System | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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