In Florida, School Prayer And Stand Your Ground Is The Same Thing.

In 1956 I was a 7th-grade student at Public School 29 in New York City and we began every day with a prayer from the New Testament read by our teacher who happened to be a communicant at the Catholic parish across the street. When I refused to fold my hands and bow my head because my family read the Old Testament at home, the teacher made me stand out in the hallway until the prayer was done.

SYG             It’s now more than 50 years since the Supreme Court ruled that public-school officials could not organize prayer services, but many states and localities get around the religion issue by letting the students lead the prayers. Last week the Florida Senate approved a bill (SB 436) that requires all school districts to allow for ‘voluntary’ expressions of religious belief on school property, which basically protects public prayer in the classroom, but does not contain any protections for students who choose not to participate, such as the way I behaved back in 1956.

The bill got a big play last week because it was passed as part of an agreement to pass another bill, SB 128, which makes it easier for Florida residents to use a ‘stand your ground’ defense if they happen to shoot someone besides themselves. This bill basically puts the burden of proof on the prosecution from the moment a defendant appears in Court, which means that if the State isn’t ready to present all relevant evidence at an initial, pre-trial hearing, the guy who did the shooting walks free.

Every Republican in the Florida State Senate voted for the change in SYG, ditto for what is being called a ‘stand for liberty’ by the sponsor of the religious ‘freedom’ bill. This State Senator, Dennis Baxley, represents the 12th District, which covers Marion, Sumter and Lake Counties and delivered between 60% and 70% of their 2016 Presidential votes to our temporary 45th President, a.k.a. Donald Trump. Baxley’s website says he understands that “family, freedom and faith must all flourish to keep our state and nation strong.”  Is he endorsed by the NRA?  Is New York a city?  I mean, family, faith and freedom – give me a break.

              Regarding Senator Baxley’s commitment to freedom, he says “As the father of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, Dennis Baxley believes that our Second Amendment rights are the bedrock of our nation’s freedom. He will fight against the erosion of this fundamental freedom.” In other words, Baxley has jumped on the latest lie being promoted by Gun-nut Nation, namely, the idea that the 2nd Amendment is the most important test in the Constitution, because armed citizens are the last defense against the tyranny of the state. And if you don’t believe this to be true, the proponents of this nonsense will also tell you that the Holocaust might not have resulted in the extermination of 6 million human beings if the Nazis had to go up against armed Jews.
              The moment that public officials like Dennis Baxley start waxing eloquent about their commitments to family, freedom and faith I find myself back in my 7th-grade classroom being marched out into the hall by a religiously-minded teacher who simply couldn’t comprehend my lack of religious belief. And I get the same, slightly sinking feeling whenever someone from Gun-nut Nation starts chanting about their God-given ‘rights’ to self-defense with a gun.
              I’m not sure why a fervent belief in gun violence is so often joined to a fervent belief in God, but they often seem to go hand in hand. And if anyone actually believes that SYG or concealed-carry laws help prevent gun violence, then I suggest you take a page from Senator Baxley’s playbook and join him in his support of the NRA. Because we shouldn’t have to justify or explain our belief in the power of the Almighty or the usefulness of a Glock 19.
Advertisements

Does Stand Your Ground Work? Sure Does If You Want To Shoot Someone.

Caroline Light’s provocative and original book, Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self Defense, is making its official debut next week and you can pick up a copy at (where else?) Amazon but I’m sure it will be at your independent bookseller as well.  Its appearance, incidentally, will no doubt coincide with the beginning of another attempt by Gun-nut Nation to push a bill through Congress that will let anyone with a concealed-carry license carry his gun through all 50 states.

light_standyourground_2             The idea that a gun license should be no different than a driver’s license has been a cherished gun-nut dream since then-Senator Larry Craig came out of his men’s room stall to speak in favor of a national, concealed-carry bill on the Senate floor. The bill is routinely filed every two years, it has always been just as routinely ignored, but guess who’s sitting in his office at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue just waiting to sign such a bill into law?  And what better way to rev up his sturm und drang base and take their minds off the fact that he can’t really get anything done than to announce that they can now run around anywhere in the United States carrying their guns?

And this is what concealed-carry is really all about, namely, playing out a fantasy that I can protect myself from all those street thugs and bandidos because I’m carrying a gun. The fact that most of the folks who have concealed-carry licenses happen to live in places with little or no violent crime is entirely beside the point.  I really loved it when Trump-o said he could stand on the 5th Avenue sidewalk, shoot someone down and his supporters would still give him their votes. If he did, it would be the first time that a violent crime was committed on 5th Avenue since I don’t know when. But that didn’t stop Trump from bragging about how he allegedly walks around carrying a gun.

Caroline Light’s book isn’t about concealed-carry per se, it’s really a study of a peculiarly American legal phenomenon known as Stand Your Ground (SYG.) Because other Western countries may make it more difficult to get a concealed-carry license, but they are issued if you can show cause.  On the other hand, SYG laws are a peculiarly American phenomenon, and Professor Light does a first-rate job of explaining how and why our ‘love affair’ with lethal, self-defense departs so dramatically from Common Law traditions which, in England and other British colonial zones, don’t support the SYG legal position at all.

When the Supreme Court gave Americans a Constitutional protection in 2008 to keep handguns in the home for self-defense, the majority based its reasoning on a rather arbitrary analysis of the phrase ‘keep and bear arms.’ But according to Scalia, who wrote the majority opinion, it also reflected an American ‘tradition’ of using guns, particularly handguns, for personal defense. What Light shows is that from the very beginnings of the country, the earliest legal cases which codified SYG involved physical disputes that were settled with a gun. I’m not sure that we yet fully understand exactly how and why guns proliferated in the United States, but the connection between gun ownership and the legal sanction of SYG is made very clear in this book.

The problem we have today, however, is that with so many guns floating around, what to the shooter may be a defensive act could be an offensive act to the person who gets shot.  Recently a 60-year old St. Louis man was found not guilty of assault after he shot and killed a 13-year old kid at a distance of 70 feet.  The teenager was running away after breaking into the man’s car, but under Missouri law, since the man felt ‘threatened,’ he had the right to yank out his gun. What kind of country do we live in where something like this can occur?  Some answers to that question are provided in Caroline Light’s new and important book.

 

 

Why Do Americans Stand Their Ground? Because The Law Says We Can.

Last September I reviewed Caroline Light’s book, Stand Your Ground, and said it was a must-read.  The book is now about to be published, so I thought I would go back and discuss what I didn’t cover in my previous review.  Last time I discussed the major theme of the book, which is how and why America departed from the British, common-law tradition of retreating in the face of a direct threat and replaced it with laws which basically sanction the use of homicidal force in just about any kind of direct confrontation that might occur.  And what’s the most efficient way to respond to a real or imagined threat? We all know the answer to that.

laws           This time, however, I want to look at the issue which is somewhat tangential to Professor Light’s primary concern, but nevertheless must be addressed. At the same time that states began passing SYG laws, they also began easing restrictions on the ability of citizens to walk around with guns, two legal developments that are promoted vigorously by Gun-nut Nation, and which may set the legislative gun agenda on Capitol Hill in the Age of Trump.

For SYG and CCW the argument in favor goes like this: gun-owners are extremely law-abiding, people with concealed-carry permits even more so, bad guys will always try to avoid a criminal situation where their victim might be armed, hence, the armed citizen protects society from crime.  The NRA has been peddling this formula for more than twenty years, they trot it out every time an act of gun violence occurs in places where citizens should be able to carry guns (schools, airports, etc.) and Trump vigorously promoted this nonsense at every opportunity during the campaign.

But what if it’s not nonsense?  What if the end result of people walking around with guns is no real increase in gun-violence?  In that case, what difference would it make if a bunch of children masquerading as adults want to pretend they can behave like citizen-protectors and use their guns to shoot the bad guys and reduce our risk of harm?  The problem is that the evidence on the value of people carrying guns and playing cops and robbers is ambiguous, if not wholly incorrect, but the counter-argument, that the presence of armed citizens increases the risk of gun violence is also not a proven fact.

On the pro-gun side we have, as always, the works of Gary Kleck and John Lott. On the basis of 221 completed telephone interviews, Kleck decided that armed citizens were responsible for preventing upwards of 2 million crimes each year. Kleck’s fantasy has been more or less consigned to the dustbin and replaced by John Lott’s statistical mish-mash which nobody else can validate or reproduce. He says that when the number of concealed-carry licenses goes up, violent crime goes down.  Lott could teach Donald Trump a few things about how to get caught in a lie and keep insisting it’s the truth.

For GVP, the evidence pointing to increased gun violence in SYG states is not entirely conclusive but it’s strong.  On the other hand, the argument that letting people walk around ‘strapped’ generates more gun violence is less clear.  The numbers of gun deaths committed by CCW-holders averages roughly 100 per year – that’s not even 1 percent of all gun homicides and in many states the toll is less than 1 per year.

I like Caroline Light’s book – concise, readable and the analysis of court decisions is very well done.  It’s too bad it will only be taken seriously by advocates on one side.  The other side is too busy awaiting the day that every single last, bothersome gun law will finally be put to bed.  But a funny thing seems to be happening in DC because more people may show up to rally against Trump than to celebrate his great day. And most of the folks who give Trump low marks so far happen to be people who aren’t enamored of guns.  So we’ll see what we see.

 

 

What Do States That Vote GOP Have In Common? They Love Their Guns.

Take a look at the projected electoral map on Nate Silver’s website.  Now take a look at the map which shows state-level gun-violence rates constructed by our friends at the Center for American Progress (found on Page 6 of their report, America Under Fire.) Notice anything?  I’ll give you a little hint: The states with the highest levels of gun violence are also the states that will probably end up voting for the GOP.  And if you want to talk about the elephant in the living room when it comes to guns, this is it.  Simply put: red states are where most gun violence occurs.

conference-program-pic           You won’t ever see this elephant if you listen to Gun-nut Nation, because as far as they are concerned, gun violence is only a problem in minority neighborhoods, and many, if not most of those neighborhoods are located in cities (Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles) within states which contain relatively few voters who back the GOP.  So when The Groper stands up at one of his Klan rallies and says that violent crime will go down if we make sure to be armed when we walk around those crime-infested spots, he’s pandering to the racist mentality of the lunatic fringe, but he’s also saying something that simply isn’t true.  Gee – what a surprise that Groper Trump would say something that isn’t true.

What is true is that gun violence appears to correlate most of all with lax gun laws, which is a polite way of saying that in many red states that there are no gun laws at all.  Or if there are any laws covering guns, they tend to be laws that actually give people more, not less legal use of guns.  The worst in this respect are ‘stand your ground’ laws (SYG) which allow people to use any level of lethal force if they believe they might otherwise face imminent harm, and they do not have to retreat or otherwise try to avoid the problem before yanking out a gun.  These laws now exist in 22 states, of which The Groper will probably win 17 or 18 of those states unless he screws things up a bit more. And what happens when an SYG law is put into effect?  According to a very comprehensive study from Everytown, the justifiable homicide rate goes up by more than twice.

Why are red-leaning states so resistant to passing laws that reduce gun violence, in particular laws which in other states appear to work?  Why is it so hard, for example, to get extended NICS-background checks in these states when all the polls show that even a healthy majority of gun owners believe that requiring background checks for private transfers would be a good thing? It would be tempting to put it down to the fact that since these are the states where most people own guns, therefore Gun-nut Nation can easily rally the troops, so to speak, whenever a new gun is being discussed.  But the issue goes deeper than that, and here is what it’s really all about.

The most powerful argument that Gun-nut Nation puts forth to block any kind of gun regulations is the ‘slippery-slope’ argument; i.e., if you let ‘them’ have any new law at all, then they’ll take another bite here, another bite there, and sooner or later there won’t be any guns at all.  And there happens to be a bit of truth to this argument, if only because most gun-sense activists, no matter how much they claim to ‘respect’ the 2nd Amendment, would be just as happy if all the guns really did go away.

Because the truth is, and here’s the real elephant in case you didn’t know, there’s one thing and one thing only which accounts for every act of gun violence, and that’s the existence of a gun. I apologize for putting it in such clear and uncompromising terms, but if you pull the trigger of a loaded gun, it’s going to go – bang!

 

 

An Important Book On Gun Violence Is Worth Waiting For.

A new voice is about to be added to the debate about gun violence, and for those who take this debate seriously (because there are some debate participants who don’t) this is a voice with something important to say.  I am referring to Caroline Light, who directs undergraduate studies of women, gender and sexuality at Harvard and is about to publish a book, Stand Your Ground, America’s Love Affair With Lethal Self-Defense.

blacks-gunsNow you would think that a Harvard faculty member would, of course, be anti-gun.  But Professor Light happens to be a Southern girl who, not surprisingly, grew up in a family where there were guns. And while she clearly understands that gun violence can’t be separated from the existence of guns, particularly so many guns, she’s not barking up the usual, gun-control tree.  What she is after in her narrative, and certainly succeeds in this respect, is to explain how and why ‘stand your ground’ (SYG) laws have become so evident and pervasive throughout many parts of the United States.  Because the point is that 33 states now have such laws. And most of these states also grant residents the unquestioned right to walk around with a gun. Put two and two together and what do you get?  The legal sanctioning of gun violence, which is what the book Stand Your Ground is really all about.

Like most of our legal system, these laws came from the British common law tradition, which, on the one hand, recognized that a person had the right to protect himself from attacks except that the attack had to occur within the home; i.e., the ‘castle doctrine’ as it was known.  British law did not sanction lethal self-defense outside of one’s domicile, in fact, it was presumed that in a civilized, ordered society, retreat in the face of possible injury was always preferred.

The sanctity of human life transcending the necessity to protect oneself from possible injury disappeared, however, in the evolution of American penal law.  For that matter, the law’s recognition of armed self-protection in the case of home invasions (the ‘castle doctrine’) was extended to justify lethal self-defense in any location where the defender had the legal right to appear.  Cases which upheld this kind of reasoning appeared as early as 1806 and became common in the decades following the Civil War, particularly in the South.

Here is where Professor Light’s narrative gets interesting.  Because what she argues is that armed, self-defense, as codified in SYG laws coupled with concealed-carry laws (CCW) reflect a culture which celebrates the dominance of white men, particularly in the South, where ‘rugged individuality’ is a code for keeping women and African-Americans in their (subservient) ‘place.’ And rather than guns being used to equalize the power relations between white males and everyone else, what the author refers to as do-it-yourself (DIY) security just hardens the degree to which white male dominance continues to control the perceptions of crime, gender and race.

This is a complicated subject and I cannot really do justice to this book or fully discuss its subtle twists and turns. But it should come as no surprise that when we talk about anything related to gun culture (which certainly would embrace SYG) that we are basically talking about the South, because that’s where a majority of the civilian-owned guns and a majority of NRA members happen to be.  And while SYG and CCW laws have spread far beyond Dixie, this region gave birth to those laws and this is where such laws have resulted in significant increases in ‘lawful’ violence against women and Blacks.

The South may have lost the Civil War, but the mind-set which justified slavery back then is the same mind-set that embraces inequality today.  And anyone who believes that owning a gun endows them with more freedom than someone who is unarmed is drinking the same Kool-Aid that Jefferson Davis drank before Fort Sumter when he believed that Lincoln would back down. But plenty of that Kool-Aid is still going around.

Do We Always Need To Use Violence To Get What We Want? Dandy The Chimp Shows Us Another Way.

In a brilliant and spellbinding book, Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are, Frans De Waal describes an experiment in which a bunch of chimpanzees walked over some partially-hidden grapefruits and then later in the afternoon when the group were dozing off in the trees, one of the chimps, Dandy, made a beeline back to the grapefruits and devoured every one.  Had this chimp tried to eat one of the grapefruits when the other chimps were around he probably would have been able, at best, to eat one or two.  But by developing a strategy that avoided confrontation with the other chimps he was able to reap a much greater reward.

conference-program-pic           I was reminded of this story by a report (thank you MH) about an 11-year old boy in Alabama who picked up a 9mm pistol and shot someone who had ‘invaded’ his home.  Now the whole episode still remains to be sorted out, but in fact the kid didn’t shoot the intruder because otherwise he would have been hurt, he fired his gun as the ‘bad guy’ was trying to jump over a back-yard fence and run away. The teen-age shooter’s mother said she didn’t know the identity of the burglar, but he had burglarized their home before. Huh?

It turns out that 22 states, including Alabama, have passed “Stand Your Ground” laws in the last ten years, although of late there have been some attempts to revise or scale back the extent of such laws.  But basically such a law gives an individual the right to use deadly force, not just in their home, but in just about any circumstances where they believe that otherwise they might be harmed or killed.  And the problem with such laws is that it may be used as a defense in the case cited above, even though the youngster shot someone who was running away.

As you might suspect, states with this law have experienced a substantial increase in justifiable homicides, even while the overall homicide rate continues to slowly dwindle down.  A report issued by our friends at Everytown found a 53% increase in justifiable homicides in states where STG laws were enacted, with a doubling of that number where the victims of justified murders were black.  Gee, what a surprise that violence, even state-sanctioned violence falls disproportionately on the shoulders of African-American men.

So there are two problems, it seems to me, with these laws.  First, the laws place the burden of proving that the homicide was not justifiable on the individuals least likely to be able to defend themselves in court because they just happen to be dead. But second, and more important, is the idea that we are justifying and embracing a form of behavior that rewards people for not trying to avoid confrontations and, if anything, for taking what might have been a brief and otherwise harmless difference of opinion and escalating it into a deadly and ultimately lethal fight. And what is the mechanism that always, in the classic words of Lester Adelson, “converts a spat into a slaying and a quarrel into a killing?“  A gun.

Now at this point if you want to send me a snarky email about your God-given right to defend yourself against criminals, terrorists or Hillary Clinton, save yourself some time.  The purpose of this comment is to provoke discussion among people who are genuinely concerned about America’s seeming infatuation with refusing to back down; refusing to find another, non-violent way; refusing to acknowledge the possibility that a non-confrontational response to a threat may, in fact, yield better results.

Which brings me back to Dandy the chimp who realized he had a choice between fighting with the other chimps over who would eat the grapefruits as opposed to waiting until he was alone and could eat all the fruit himself.  Now maybe if Dandy had a Glock he wouldn’t have needed to wait.  But if he had a Glock, another chimp doubtless would have owned a Ruger or a Smith.  Then what?

 

What Happens When People Walk Around With Guns? People Get killed.

This week the Colorado legislature showed itself to still have enough members with brains to beat back the annual brain-dead attempt to ‘restore’ gun ‘rights’ to the good citizens of the Centennial State. The Colorado GVP community shot them all down. You may recall that in 2014 Colorado expanded background checks to cover private transactions, and while the pro-gun strategy this year did not include an attempt to repeal the background check law, it did include Gun Nation’s favorite gun-rights ploy; i.e., permitless concealed-carry, including on school grounds.

ccwSpeaking of the joys and virtues of concealed carry, our friends at the Violence Policy Center have just updated their website which contains data on gun fatalities committed by CCW-holders, with the number now standing at 863 non-defensive deaths since 2007.  Since there is no official count for how many of the 31,000+ gun deaths each year occur thanks to someone using a gun that was being legally carried around for self-defense, we have to assume that the VPC number is far below the real number, but that’s not the point.

The point is that I have been listening to this crap about the millions of times each year that legal CCW-holders use their guns to prevent crimes, and if this is really true, then what’s the difference if a few hundred or even a few thousand people kill themselves or kill someone else with their concealed-carry guns?  One of the brain-dead legislators in Colorado explained why state residents should be able to bring permitless concealed-carry guns into schools in the following way: “I, for one, am tired of sending my daughters to school on blind faith that they will return home from a place where people are prevented by state law from equipping themselves to protect my daughters.”  Okay, so this friggin’ dope can go lay brick.

But to give the all dopes their due, I decided to look into the situation a little further by trying to figure out whether, in fact, all these people walking round with a concealed gun are making our communities more safe.  And what better place to examine the situation than in Florida because, after all, the whole concealed-carry movement first erupted in the Gunshine State.  And according to the Florida Department of Agriculture, which issues CCW, there are now 1.5 million active concealed licenses, so Florida must be a pretty safe place, right?

Wrong.  Let me give you a few numbers.  In 2011, the metropolitan area with the highest violent crime rate in the entire United States wasn’t Chicago, wasn’t Philadelphia, it was Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach.  In 2014, that wonderful family vacation spot known as Orlando had a higher violent crime rate than Chicago or New York. I could go on like this but the truth is that the massive armed citizenry in Florida hasn’t been worth a damn when it comes to keeping the good citizens of that state free from crime.

But let’s drill down a little further and look specifically at the issue of how CCW guns are actually used for or against the commission of crimes.  According to the VPC, there have been at least 21 Floridians killed by CCW-holders since 2013, an average of 7 each year.  On the other hand, justifiable homicides, have averaged roughly 23 per year in Florida since ‘Stand Your Ground’ was passed in 2005.  But while gun homicides have increased since SYG, no other violent crime category showed any real change at all.

Now wait a minute.  I thought the whole point of concealed-carry is to make communities safe.  So how come in Florida of all places the number of people getting legally killed with guns keeps going up but the crime rate doesn’t go down?   Here’s the bottom line and you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand what it means.  Know what happens when more people walk around with guns?  More people get killed.  Gee, that was hard to figure out.

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.