What GVP Needs It May Finally Get: A Government-Funded Research Center Conducting Research On Guns.

I’ve said it before and no doubt I’ll say it many times again: when it comes to something new or different, it usually starts in California and moves East. Ronald Reagan?  Half and Half? Avocado and sprouts on a white meat turkey sandwich? And let’s not forget what Donald Trump would like to forget – taco shells con beans.

It’s worth thinking about this when it comes to considering a new gun bill just voted by the California State Senate, SB1235, which basically requires the same background check process required for gun purchases to be carried out for purchases of handgun ammunition.  The bill has been called the beginning of a ‘GunMegeddon’ by Breitbart and of course has got the NRA all up in arms (please no pun intended.)

         G. Wintemute, M.D.

G. Wintemute, M.D.

But what I didn’t see mentioned by the NRA legislative watchdogs, although some local Gun Nation groups are trying to rally the gun bunch against it, is another bill that came through the Senate Education Committee, SB1006, which establishes a gun violence research center somewhere within the University of California system. The center’s mission would be to conduct research, train researchers, implement ‘innovative’ violence prevention programs and receive both public monies and private funds. In other words, what we have here, for the very first time anywhere, is an attempt to establish the equivalent of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study, but with all the study focusing on guns.

Now I’m not saying there is any connection, but there happens to be a researcher at UC-Davis named Garen Wintemute, and this new initiative by the California state government sounds awfully like the gun research program that he funds largely from his own, private stash.  In addition to being one of the country’s principal gun researchers, Wintemute is also an ER doctor, which means unfortunately that when it comes to gun violence, he gets to unite theory with practice, so to speak, because the ER is usually the first choice for anyone who needs medical attention after being wounded by a gun.

The gun research program at UC-Davis, like the gun violence work at Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center and the Center for Gun Policy and Research at Johns Hopkins, limps along on a financial shoestring thanks to the defunding of CDC gun research in 1996.  This year a little federal research money trickled down through the Department of Justice and the usual effort to restore the CDC funding has picked up a little steam.  But don’t hold your breath folks, the NRA-compliant Republicans control Congressional purse strings, so that’s probably the end of that.

The biggest loser due to the lack of research dollars is not the absence of research per se.  Granted, there are huge gaps in what we know about the causes and results of gun violence, but the basic notion that a gun is more harmful than helpful has been driven home time and time again.  The much bigger problem, it seems to me, is that without funding, the field of gun violence research doesn’t attract scholarly attention, which means it doesn’t rank high on any institution’s list of research priorities, which means it doesn’t attract more young students and scholars looking to conduct serious research. When I was a graduate student, my own academic field – origins of early capitalism – had its own research society and held an annual conference that attracted several hundred scholars each year. Think there are more than 30 scholars engaged today in trying to figure out what to do about a problem that kills and wounds more than 100,000 people every year?  Think again.

I would love to see this gun violence research center get established, and if it comes to pass, I hope the center will hold an annual scholarly meeting to help develop and strengthen the field.  I guarantee that I’d show up for such an event and I promise to keep my mouth shut as well. Who knows?  Maybe I could learn something, too.

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They Keep Standing Their Ground In Florida And People Keep Getting Shot

Last week Michael Dunn, a dapper, 47-year old software engineer was hoping that his trial would end up the same way as George Zimmerman’s trial ended up but no such luck. Even if he’s never convicted of killing Jordan Davis, he could end up being sentenced to 60 years in jail because the jury decided that the fact that he kept shooting at the truck as it pulled away from him meant that he was trying to kill the other passengers who, it turned out, were armed with nothing more than big mouths.

What probably cooked Dunn’s goose, in addition to the forensic evidence which indicated that Davis was shot while sitting in his vehicle, not, as Dunn claimed, after he got out of the truck and came towards him in a menacing way, was the fact that he drove away from the scene, spent the night in a motel and then drove back home before contacting anyone to talk about the incident.   Not much different, when you stop and think about it, from the way that Curtis Reeves, the 71-year old ex-cop from Tampa pulled out a gun, shot and killed Chad Oulson in a movie theater and then calmly sat back down and waited for the cops to walk in, surround him and take away his gun.

10734Even the National Rifle Association, which champions the ‘stand your ground’ law that has been cited by lawyers both for Dunn and Reeves, draws the line when it comes to how someone should behave if they defend themselves with a gun.  Their course books on self-defense both in and outside the home specifically advise that anyone who is involved in a shooting incident should remain on the scene, contact law enforcement, separate themselves from any weapon, and make sure that they clearly state their name and their reasons for calling 911.  

In both the shootings in Florida, Dunn and Reeves didn’t follow any one of those rules.  Neither contacted law enforcement directly after the incident, neither separated themselves from their guns, neither did anything that would have indicted even their awareness that something like an emergency existed based on what they had done.  Dunn not only waited more than 24 hours to contact anyone, but that gave him enough time to concoct a phony story that even his fiancee, who was on the scene, couldn’t support when she took the stand.

I’m beginning to wonder whether we have any idea about what’s at stake when we give civilians the right to walk around with a gun. Just this week the 9th Circuit in California ruled that the state’s concealed carry law violated the 2nd Amendment because it denied  residents the ability to carry a gun outside the home.   And while it will ultimately be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether the 2nd Amendment really does apply beyond the limits of one’s residence (in fact the Heller decision speaks only to possession of firearms within the home) the bigger issue is how we behave once the Constitutional right to self-protection is actually invoked.

Because we can talk and argue all we want about whether Americans are safer if everyone walks around with a gun.  But once the gun appears and the trigger is pulled, then what happens has nothing to do with the Founding Fathers.  It’s all about something called common sense and nobody should be protected by the Constitution if they fail to understand what that’s all about.

Wilderness Versus Progress: Is There Really A Conflict?

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and n...

U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt (left) and nature preservationist John Muir, founder of the , on Glacier Point in Yosemite National Park. In the background: Upper and lower Yosemite Falls. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first argument about preserving versus developing wilderness was the fight over the Hetchy-Hetchy Reservoir in California’s Yosemite Park which erupted in 1908. Opposition to the development of a new water system for San Francisco was led by the Sierra Club, which had been founded by John Muir in 1892.

Muir was originally an easterner who was closely associated with Roosevelt and other early conservationists, but he was not a hunter and his motivation to preserve natural spaces did not grow out of a desire to conserve animal habitat so much as to preserve wilderness areas. But as the country continued to grow and the space between the Missouri River and the West Coast was filled in, the issue of wilderness versus development could not remain a back-room debate for the simple reason that there was too much at stake.  Once railroad lines stretched not only from coast to coast but throughout the interior itself, the resources of the frontier zones – crops, animals, timber – were simply too abundant and could be moved to market too cheaply to resist exploitation by commercial interests on both coasts.

The early conservationists, including Roosevelt, acknowledged the inherent conflict between maintaining natural space on the one hand and retarding economic growth on the other.  But as the conservation movement morphed into environmentalism, a wedge was driven between the two movements that claimed management responsibility for as-yet undeveloped space, a wedge based on one question: what should be the role of government in managing the natural patrimony?

For hunters/conservationists, government’s role was to be limited to enforcing rules that regulated the relationship of hunters to wild game: giving hunters access to hunting areas, restricting the hunt to periods that would allow the natural migration and reproduction of species.  Environmentalists, on the other hand, wanted government regulation to cover the entire natural patrimony; not to control the behavior of hunters who otherwise might threaten wildlife, but to control the behavior of developers who otherwise might threaten the entire environment.

What we have ended up with is the notion that wilderness preservation versus economic development are inextricably opposed; that you either wind up with one or the other.  Every development initiative is a threat to nature, every preservation plan is an effort to derail economic development.  The fight over the Keystone pipeline is the argument in its current form.

The origins of the fight go back to 1890 when the Census declared the wilderness to be closed.  But the United States was the only country in the entire world that industrialized and closed its frontier at the same time.  In Europe, the wilderness disappeared a thousand years before the Industrial Revolution began.  In America we were laying railroad track and slaughtering buffalo at the same time.

The truth is that our extraordinary economic development took place not as a conflict with nature, but because we were able to tap the abundant resources of nature for the first time.  Urban centers that appeared in Europe during the 19th century competed for building materials that had to be expensively extracted and shipped from distances far and wide; Chicago was built from wood that floated down from Wisconsin.

Ten years after we closed our frontier the output of our national economy surpassed the combined production of all the other industrialized economies combined.  The resources that fueled American economic development were so cheap that re-investment and further growth could occur at three or four times the rate experienced in other industrializing zones.  The greatest irony is that the self-same conservationists, like Roosevelt and Grinnell, who mourned the disappearance of wilderness came from the elite class whose economic fortunes derived from the resources extracted from the wilderness itself.

This is the 3rd and final summary of our fourthcoming book on hunting and conservation to be published by the end of the year.

American conservationist John Muir (1838-1914)

American conservationist John Muir (1838-1914) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why Don’t Hunters and Tree-Huggers Like Each Other?

Why do hunters and conservationists dislike each other? It wasn’t always that way. In fact, the modern American conservation movement that appeared in the 1880’s was started by hunters, chief among them our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt. In the many books and articles that he authored about hunting and wilderness, Roosevelt tried to find a balance between conserving wilderness to protect animal habitat, while also allowing economic development of the frontier to move ahead.

But the world has changed and so have the battle lines between hunters on the one hand and conservationists on the other. Or have they?

For a moment, let’s put aside the vitriol and passion surrounding the proposed legislation  in California to ban all lead ammunition, a bill that that is on its way to Jerry Brown’s desk and will shortly become law. There are arguments to be made on both sides. The environmentalists have data to prove their point of view; likewise the hunting lobby can roll out their set of facts.

The problem is that nothing in nature is that easy to understand; nothing can be reduced to a simple take-it or leave-it explanation, no matter what proponents on either side would like you to believe. And Roosevelt keenly felt the need to unite both sides, as he said in a letter written in 1902: “the lover of big game and wilderness [is] an instrument against, instead of in favor of both.”

The degree to which hunters and conservationists should be fighting the same battles is remarkably underscored by the data found in the National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation newly published by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a division of the Department of the Interior.

In 2011, more than 90 million Americans either fished, hunted, watched wildlife or did all three. Of the total, 26 million went hunting and fishing, 64 million looked at birds or animals either near their own residence or by taking a trip. Together, all three groups spent $144 billion.
Three-quarters of the people who went fishing engaged in fresh-water angling, bass being the catch of choice. For the hunters, 60% went after big game: deer, elk, bear and wild turkey. As for the wildlife watchers, three-quarters did it primarily around their home, but more than 25 million took trips away from home. Both groups primarily watched (and fed) birds.
watching When we break down fishing, hunting and wildlife watching by size and location of community, all of a sudden the three types of activities blend into one. The highest proportion of residents engaged in fishing, hunting and watching are found in rural locations. Break it down on a state-by-state basis, the north-central and deep-southern states have the highest proportion of people who do all three.

You can discard the stereotype that hunters are blue collar and birders are the educated, upper-class elite. The same communities where hunting is most popular are also the communities with the greatest number of people who enjoy wildlife. When you stop to think about it, why shouldn’t this be the case? After all, people closest to nature tend to get out into nature.

Hunters and conservationists would do everyone a big favor if they would sit down together and figure out what they have in common, rather than always arguing about what keeps them apart. There may be competing claims about what to do with natural spaces but these spaces belong to all of us.

Conservation Begins With Wildlife

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One of the issues that keeps coming up in the argument about banning lead ammunition is that substituting non-toxic materials for lead will drive up the price of ammunition, making it more difficult for the “average” gun owner to indulge in his hobby, be it hunting or target shooting.  There are even the usual conspiracy notions floating around the Internet that the effort to prohibit all lead ammunition is just another example of how the “elite” is looking to get rid of guns by pricing ammunition out of everyone’s budget.

Americans have been arguing about hunting and environment since the founding of the country.  Once British rule disappeared, many of the Colonial regulations and laws that governed hunting no longer applied, and many of these laws were repugnant to Americans because they represented a holdover from the English tradition that allowed only the upper classes to engage in outdoor sport.

But opening hunting to everyone, particularly commercial hunters, resulted in the depletion or extinction of many species.  As early as the 1840s, white-tail deer and wild turkeys were disappearing, then the passenger pigeon and the heath hen became extinct, and of course the great buffalo herd was reduced to a tiny fraction of its former size. By 1900, hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts realized that management of wild game was the only alternative to the complete loss of many species and the ending of hunting altogether.

Enter two visionaries: Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell.  Both were Easterners, Ivy Leaguers, elitists in every sense of the word.  Both were also captivated by wilderness and both purchased Western cattle ranches in 1884.  Grinnell had his first taste of the outdoors when he accompanied General George Custer to the Black Hills in 1874 (he wisely declined Custer’s invitation to take part in the 1876 expedition.)  Roosevelt’s father founded the Museum of Natural History in New York City and Theodore explored the Adirondacks as a teenager and also purchased a Western cattle ranch in 1884.

Grinnell, editor of Forest and Steam magazine, founded the Audubon Society in 1886.  The following year, Grinnell and Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club.  At this point, America’s foremost naturalist, Grinnell, and America’s foremost outdoorsman, Roosevelt, created the modern conservation movement. And what did these two men share besides a love of wilderness?  They shared a love of hunting.

Most of the original conservationists were hunters – Roosevelt, Grinnell, Audubon, Olmsted, Parkman, Pinchot.  Even Thoreau considered himself to be an “outdoorsman” (I am indebted to John Reiger for this information.)  Whether it was the establishment of nature sanctuaries, or the saving of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, or the creation of forest preserves, hunters instinctively understood the connection between preserving habitat and protecting animals.

These hunters turned conservation-activists also understood something else; namely, that to strike a balance between survival of animals on the one hand, and requirements of hunters on the other, both wildlife and hunting needed to be managed.  And management meant enlisting government at every level – local, state, federal – because wild animals, birds and fish all migrate. So an alliance developed between hunters, conservationists and government agencies that resulted in the creation of the National Parks System, the Migratory Bird Act, the Duck Stamp Act and the Robertson-Pittman Act which so far has pushed more than $2 billion into conservation and hunting programs.

This alliance no longer exists due to the polarization of the gun control debate.  If the NRA and the NSSF believe that the Federal Government is a threat to law-abiding shooters, they aren’t about to align themselves behind programs that might enlarge the ability of government agencies to control access to guns.  At the same time, environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Audubon believe that only the federal government has the resources to control environmental threats arising from new technologies for energy extraction.

Right now there is a hot contest in California (A.B. 711) over whether to ban all lead ammunition.  The NRA and its hunting allies like Boone & Crockett and Ducks Unlimited oppose the measure; the Audubon Society and its allies are promoting the ban on lead ammo in California and elsewhere.  These groups should not be fighting one another.  They should be sitting down together, acknowledging their common heritage and history, and finding ways to make sure that what Roosevelt and Grinnell said 125 years ago still holds true today: Conservation Begins With Wildlife. 

Let’s Get The lead Out Of Ammo

                  The reason the NRA wins in Washington is because their opposition isn’t organized.  The opposition only comes to life when a terrible tragedy (Sandy Hook) occurs, and as soon as the posturing and pleading comes to an end, support for more gun control quickly disappears.  The NRA, on the other hand, never misses an opportunity to remind its members that the 2nd Amendment right to own guns must be constantly and continually defended.

                The problem is that people who support gun control usually don’t own guns.  But they do own something else.  What they own, and they share this ownership with gun owners by the way, is the world in which we live.  Whether we call ourselves environmentalists, preservationists, naturalists, ecologists, bird-watchers, tree-huggers, or just good, old-fashioned lovers of the outdoors, the number of people who support and enjoy the beauties and wonderment of nature dwarfs the NRA’s membership by far.

And now it appears that, for the very first time, these folks may be gearing up to challenge the NRA’s monopoly over discussions not about guns per se, but about the ways in which they are used.  I am referring  to the legislative battle in California over Assembly Bill 711 which bans all lead ammunition within the state. Previously lead ammunition was prohibited in areas inhabited by the California condor and certain other flyways; now environmentalists are attempting to extend the prohibition state-wide.

As expected, the NRA is using a combination of scare tactics (‘they’re really after your guns,’) pseudo-science (‘more animals die from road kills than from lead shot,’) and economic Armageddon (‘thousands of jobs are at stake,’) to spearhead the anti-711 crusade.  But the NRA’s campaign isn’t about what kind of ammunition will be used to shoot at game or targets per se.  It’s about who will set the terms and the tone for any discussion about guns.

The NRA has been very successful in making sure that government regulation over the gun industry, particularly the regulation of products, is minimal at best.  They know that if California bans all lead ammunition, that the regulatory virus will spread.  The country was settled East to West but new things tend to move from West to East.  Remember where half-and-half first started messing up coffee?  Remember a guy named Reagan?

The problem isn’t the lack of alternative, non-toxic materials.  The problem is the lack of communication between the two sides.  For example, we have banned lead-based paint and leaded gasoline, and nobody who wants to be taken seriously in any discussion about public health would question the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations on protecting children from exposure to lead.  Manufacturing lead ammunition creates the second highest consumption of lead, the 65 million metric tons used in 2012 ranking only behind the amount used in the manufacture of batteries.  But ammunition manufacturers have been petitioning the ATF for years without success to create realistic rules governing ammunition components that would allow non-toxic materials to be substituted for lead.

Here’s a real opportunity for the two sides to sit down, put the vitriol aside, and come up with a plan that satisfies both the public health risks of lead exposure on the one hand, and the ability of the ammo manufacturers to utilize non-toxic substances on the other.  And it wouldn’t have to involve any government regulation at all.  One of the NRA’s favorite symbols is our beloved bald eagle.  That bird lives today in great numbers because naturalists and environmentalists fought a long and difficult battle to get rid of DDT.  Why can’t we get together and do the same thing with lead?