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“The Voice Of My Own Doubts”: The Conservative Case For Reforming America’s Sick Gun Culture

Yesterday, a man in Virginia murdered two people on live television. The news media exploded into a predictable shouting match about gun control, mental health, toxic masculinity, and the “politicization of tragedies.” There was also a new twist this time around, a debate about whether it was appropriate to share or broadcast the horrifying video of the killings. And then the killer uploaded his own video of the shooting.

At this point, a voice asserted itself in my conscience. It has become the voice of my own doubts about America’s gun culture. It was Irish-accented and belonged to a friend of my father’s. “But what about the guns?” he asked, looking at me gravely. “You must know.”

Almost any American who travels abroad and talks about politics hears something like that. Often in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone. In the rest of the world, it’s all they have to say: “What about the guns?”

I’m a conservative. I have friends who have guns. I’m convinced by some of the arguments for an armed citizenry. I told that Irish voice that his own country was freed from British rule by guns. That the number of privately owned Irish guns was of paramount concern to British ministers in the 1910s and 1920s, and that this was good evidence that an armed citizenry is a defense against tyranny.

I pointed out that because so much of America is rural, citizens need means to defend themselves and their property when the armed authorities are far away from them. I noted that America would face insurmountable obstacles in trying to confiscate guns, as so many Americans believe they are a necessary defensive measure against violence. I also observed that the same belief was held just a few hours up the road from him, in Northern Ireland, and that’s why Great Britain has considerably relaxed gun laws there compared to the rest of the country.

With the easy confidence of an American-Irish nationalist, I told him that the reason the Falls Road neighborhood wasn’t burned down again was three letters long: IRA. They had guns.

That was enough to not only impress my interlocutor, but to also silence him on the subject. But my conscience has been talking at me ever since. And on days like yesterday, it is screaming: What about the guns? I have no answers, but I have some doubts about our gun culture that American conservatives should consider:

An armed citizenry is not the same thing as an armed consumer public

In America we have background checks to prevent certain criminals from owning guns. It’s a system that presumes good citizenship on the part of everyone who has not been convicted of a crime. But not having a criminal record is a very different thing from being a responsible citizen. The only test most people have to pass to gain access to weapons of exceptional lethal power is this: Do you have enough cash or credit?

That’s not enough. Classical republican theory restricts arms ownership to those it deems responsible enough to uphold public order. Our system of guns as a consumer good, and our democratic presumption of good citizenship, puts guns into unsteady and untrained hands.

Making sure a person is qualified to own a gun is something responsible societies do. Many families, gun clubs, and organizations like the NRA do the work of training responsible, conscientious gun owners. It’s plausible that some kind of mandatory socialization in gun clubs for potential gun owners would be a good first step at preventing gun violence. It’s more plausible than simply wishing for more ‘good guys with guns’ at every possible location for a tragedy. As things stand, this constructive, social gun culture does not encompass the totality of gun owners; gun shops certainly don’t inquire about your sociability and training.

I know what conservatives are thinking: “So you think the government has the power to disqualify citizens from gun ownership?” The government will prove terrible at this task, and it defeats the purpose of an armed citizenry. And to be sure, I don’t want a government that can put a gun owner in prison for having the wrong politics. And of course, this power of restricting guns — like restricting the franchise to “responsible, invested citizens” — echoes a historical tie between gun control and racist efforts to confine blacks to a lower status. And yet, we still ought to consider stronger guarantees of responsible gun ownership. Perhaps tests that aim at qualifying the character of a gun owner, rather than searching only for a criminal disqualification.

Increased firepower among citizens is leading to an arms race with the state

There are plenty of horror stories about cops getting geeked-up in discarded military gear to deliver a warrant or make a drug arrest. They kick in a door, throw a flash-bang into a crib, or shoot to death an innocent unlucky enough to be holding a television remote that looks like a weapon. The militarization of the police has many causes, including our drug policies and federally subsidized military-grade equipment. But it is also the case that cops in America expect to go into gunfights, and naturally they want the bigger gun. Countries without as wide access to guns don’t have such heavily armed or fearful police.

American may be more violent precisely because we have guns

We’re often told that Americans are just more violent than other people, and that’s why we have so many guns. And I agree, to a point. But the truth might be the other way around, and conservatives should make generous allowances for the pre-rational or the anti-rational in our politics. Our tools and our physical surroundings shape our self-conception and our intentions. A beautiful church sanctuary reminds us of the transcendent and sends a hush over us. A well-appointed room may cause us to stand straighter. And training with a hand gun, an object designed to kill other human beings, causes us to imagine situations in which we might kill another human being.

Doing this constantly makes us more likely to “see” a situation in which we could take lethal action. It may cause us to perceive more danger in the world than actually exists. Mentally unsound people are obviously much more likely to lose themselves in this kind of self-induced paranoia, but a stable person should be aware of that pull on their subconscious intentions as well.

It is this intuition about human nature that makes me recoil instinctively from certain guns, often marketed as “tactical,” which are designed to look sinister and appeal to young men who spent a lot of time in their adolescence playing Counter-Strike.

Firearm-related deaths are one of the only truly “exceptional” things about America, and that’s embarrassing

There are lots of places on Earth where you can make a prosperous living. There are lots of modern commercial nations. In history there have been empires that bungled through the Middle East like we do. And there are lots of countries that are torn by disorder and violence that are caused by an absence of state authority. America is really the only nation that is orderly with an almost unchallengeable state, and yet has a gun-death rate similar to much poorer Latin American nations experiencing low-grade civil wars and disorder.

Yes, many of our firearm-related deaths are suicides. But our firearm-related homicide rate is noticeably higher than every comparable industrialized nation. And furthermore, there seems to be a strong correlation between reduced access to firearms and a reduced rate of suicide.

None of these lines of thought has carried me all the way over to Mike Bloomberg’s side. Gun crime, like all crime, has been receding for most of my life. I recognize that most of the proposals made by gun-control groups in the aftermath of a tragedy would have done little to prevent the tragedy in the first place. I admire most of the gun-owners I know, many of whom have politics that are on the left or are outright radical. I have thought of purchasing weapons and training with them myself and I would regret the loss of my ability to do so. The concept of an “armed citizenry” makes sense to me, from my reading of history. And I think responsible citizens have a right to defend themselves against each other, even with guns. The results of preventing them from obtaining firearms lawfully can also be deadly and unjust.

But overall, the results in this part of the American experiment are not encouraging. If the Virginia killer did not have easy access to guns, if his scheme for murdering his former colleagues had to be accomplished with knives, hammers, or a home-made explosive device, the truth is that those murders would have been much less likely to occur. Conservatives who generally support the idea of an armed citizenry should let that thought sink in.

 

By: Michael Brendan Dougherty, The Week, August 27, 2015

August 27, 2015 Posted by | Gun Control, Gun Deaths, Gun Lobby, Gun Ownership | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Broken Windows Policing”: Eric Garner Was Choked To Death For Selling Loosies

The controversial deaths of African Americans Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island at the hands of white police officers don’t just speak to racial divides and raise questions of discriminatory law enforcement in America.

In very different but related ways, they raise fundamental questions irrespective of race about how policing gets done. Unless we want to subject ourselves to endless repeats of similarly tragic events, we need to confront and work through both the militarization of police and commitments to so-called broken windows policing.

In August, Brown was shot and killed during a struggle with Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson, who was ultimately not indicted by a grand jury. Whatever else you can say about the case, it was the ham-fisted overreaction to protests by the Ferguson and St. Louis County police forces and the Missouri National Guard that catapulted the story to prominence. The Ferguson story captured the national conversation because it showcased the ubiquitous militarization of police that has been proceeding apace, often with the help of liberal politicians, during the past 40 or more years.

Indeed, just earlier this week, four members of the Congressional Black Caucus made a “hands up” gesture on the House floor to show solidarity with Brown and Ferguson protesters. Yet each of the members who raised their hands—Yvette Clarke, Al Green, Sheila Jackson Lee, and Hakeem Jeffries, liberal Democrats all—voted against “an amendment in June that would’ve limited the transfer of military equipment from the Department of Defense to local police agencies.”

Similarly, Garner’s death in July after being placed in a chokehold is not simply about race. It’s about community policing and the ability of top brass to enforce restrictions on beat cops’ behavior. As cell phone footage of the incident makes clear, the police approached the 43-year-old Garner after he had helped to break up a fight on a busy street in Staten Island. The cops were less interested in the fight than in asking Garner whether he was selling loose cigarettes or “loosies,” which is illegal. “Every time you see me, you wanna arrest me,” says Garner, who had a rap sheet for selling loosies and was in fact out on bail when confronted.

Footage of the incident shows New York Police Department Officer Daniel Pantaleo placing Garner in the chokehold that was the main cause of death according to the coroner, who further ruled the death a “homicide.” (Police at the scene initially claimed that the asthmatic, 350-pound Garner had suffered a heart attack). Like Wilson, Pantaleo was not indicted.

Why were the cops so hell-bent on stamping out the sales of loosies, which typically sell for 75 cents a pop in Staten Island (and two times or more that in Manhattan)? New York City boasts the highest cost for cigarettes in the nation, with a pack ranging anywhere from $12 and up. The city lays its own taxes on top of the state’s, in an effort both to raise revenue and discourage use of tobacco.

The result is a thriving market in sales of loosies and black-market cigarettes more generally (for a fascinating look of how the market in loosies operates, check out this 2007 study published by the National Institutes for Health). Since 2006, the tax on cigarettes in New York have risen 190 percent and cigarette smuggling has risen by 59 percent, writes Lawrence J. McQuillan of the Independent Institute. Whether it’s liquor, drugs, or cigarettes, when you try to stamp out something consenting adults want, you cause as many or more problems as you ameliorate.

Stretching back to the Rudy Giuliani years, the NYPD has been committed to “broken windows” policing, which focuses on stamping out misdemeanor offenses and “quality of life” issues such as graffiti that proponents say lead to more serious crime. “Murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes,” Giuliani argued in the 1990s, “but they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.”

Last January, the city passed stronger penalties for selling loosies and other illegal cigarettes and in early July, reports the Daily News. The NYPD’s Chief of Department, Philip Banks, specifically called for crackdowns on loosie sales in Staten Island. “Among the specific public complaints of illegal activity in that area included the sale of untaxed cigarettes as well as open (alcohol) container and marijuana use and sale offenses,” an NYPD spokesman told the News.

Police Commissioner William Bratton introduced broken windows policing to the NYPD when he was first hired by then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani in 1993, and he is continuing its use while serving under current Mayor Bill de Blasio. But just as the response to Ferguson protests raised questions about the sagacity of outfitting local cops with military grade weapons and gear, the death of Garner and other non-violent suspects is forcing a debate over broken windows. “I don’t think it’s a necessary police tactic,” City Councilman Andy King told the News. Councilwoman Inez Barron argued that “such enforcement ‘leads to confrontations like this [one].’”

As in most cases involving social science and broad cultural trends, supporters and critics of broken windows policing can marshal seemingly irrefutable evidence in favor of their position. There’s little question that New Yorkers support arrests for low-level offenses. A Quinnipiac Poll of New Yorkers in August found that 60 percent of respondents agreed that “when a cop enforces some low-level offense…it improve[s] quality of life.” Only 34 percent said it increased neighborhood tensions, with “very little difference among black and white voters.”

Yet clearly something has gone horribly wrong when a man lies dead after being confronted for selling cigarettes to willing buyers. Especially since, as even Bratton has acknowledged, the chokehold applied by the restraining officer is prohibited by the NYPD’s own rulebook. Does the commissioner really control his officers, and is it time to rethink nanny state policies that create flourishing underground markets?

The conversation over the militarization of police started by Ferguson is well under way and has already yielded real change: In the name of transparency, more police departments and the federal government are calling for the use of wearable body cameras that will at least capture parts of confrontations like the one that ended in Michael Brown’s death.

It’s past time to have that same sort of open conversation about broken windows policing. It’s safe to say that noboby thinks selling loosies is a capital offense, but if the police cause the death of a man they are taking into custody by using chokeholds, things get pretty murky very fast.

 

By: Nick Gillespie, The Daily Beast, December 3, 2014

December 6, 2014 Posted by | Criminal Justice System, Eric Garner, Police Brutality | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“An Opportunity For Change”: Could The Ferguson Conflict Produce Actual Reform On The Limits Of Policing?

Every once in a while, a dramatic news story can actually produce real reform. More often the momentum peters out once the story disappears from the news (remember how Sandy Hook meant we were going to get real gun control?), but it can happen. And now, after the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missiouri, turned to a chaotic nightmare of police oppression, we may have an opportunity to examine, and hopefully reverse, a troubling policy trend of recent years.

The focus has now largely turned from an old familiar story (cops kill unarmed black kid) to a relatively unfamiliar one, about the militarization of the police. The images of officers dressed up like RoboCop, driving around in armored assault vehicles, positioning snipers to aim rifles at protesters, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets at Americans standing with their hands up saying “Don’t shoot!” has lots of Americans asking how things got this way. This issue offers the rarest of all things, an opportunity for bipartisan cooperation.

One member of Congress, Rep. Hank Johnson, has already said he’ll be introducing a bill to cut back on the 1033 program, under which the Department of Defense unloads surplus (and often brand-new) military equipment to local police departments at little or no cost. So for instance, a town might be able to acquire a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP), designed to protect soldiers against roadside bombs and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, for two or three grand. Radley Balko found towns with as few as 3,900 residents that had acquired an MRAP.

In the past, all that firepower has usually been directed at individuals—the person suspected of selling drugs who’s sitting at his kitchen table when a SWAT team made up of local cops, fancying itself Seal Team Six taking down Osama bin Laden, comes barrelling through the wall. But in Ferguson, a militarized police force was unleashed on an entire community.

On Thursday, Rand Paul wrote an excellent op-ed in Time magazine on both the militarization of law enforcement and the unequal treatment of black Americans by the police. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, this would be a great opportunity for a liberal who, like Paul, has something of a national constituency—let’s say Elizabeth Warren—to join with him and push for a bill, whether it’s the Senate version of what Hank Johnson is proposing or a different way to accomplish a similar set of goals.

So could they actually come together? This is unlike Sandy Hook for one big reason: in that case, there were powerful interests standing in the way of change. It wasn’t just the power of the NRA that stopped any gun reform from happening, it was the fact that almost no elected official in the Republican party wanted it either. That’s not the case here—as much as cops might like these shiny toys that make them feel like warriors, there isn’t a core interest of the GOP at work.

On the other hand, there are limits to what the federal government can do. The militarization of the country’s police forces is something that has been growing for a couple of decades, fueled first by the War on Drugs and then by the insane idea that the police in every hamlet in every corner of the country needed to be able to wage battles against Al Qaeda strike teams. Congress could turn off the spigot that pours this equipment into these communities, but unless the federal government starts repossessing the equipment it already distributed (highly unlikely, to say the least), police departments all over the country will still be awash in military gear.

And that’s the biggest challenge: the problems the Ferguson case highlights are widely distributed, through thousands of police departments and millions of interaction between cops and citizens. The federal government can respond in a limited way to what we’ve all seen, but its actions will go only so far.

But I can’t imagine there’s a police chief anywhere in America who hasn’t looked at this situation and concluded that the Ferguson police completely bollixed it up. They also can’t help but notice what happened when the Ferguson police were told to stand down in favor of the Missouri state troopers, who didn’t bother with the riot gear or armored personnel carriers, but just went out and listened to people, and the result was so different. So maybe some of those police chiefs will examine their own policies, when it comes to both using that equipment and dealing with crowds of protesters. Ferguson surely won’t change everything. But it might be a start.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, August 15, 2014

August 16, 2014 Posted by | Ferguson Missouri, Law Enforcement, Michael Brown | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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