Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dollars, Sense, and #Gunsense

This week I’ve been following news of the ALEC gathering and attendant protests in San Diego. ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, describes itself as a non-profit think-tank serving conservative state legislators. It’s also been described as a secretive bill mill for major corporate interests. Funded by corporations, corporate trade groups, and corporate foundations promoting and profiting from privatized prisons, privatized schools, fossil fuel, weapons and tobacco, the organization creates “model legislation” and trains and motivates state legislators to introduce the bills in their home states. ALEC boasts that 1 in four state legislators are members, and that over one thousand ALEC-proposed bills are introduced in state legislatures every year, with one in five enacted into law.

My interest this week was prompted by education. ALEC grades states on their compliance with the ALEC agenda of defunded public education, unregulated privatization, and “free choice” for disabled students that funnels public dollars to for-profit cyber schools. K12 INC, a private corporation that is a key ALEC sponsor, has benefited in the millions from legislation that forces local PA school districts to pay cyber and charter school without local oversight or proven educational benefit. 

Midweek, the shooting in the Louisiana movie theater, so soon after the deaths in Chattanooga and the horror in Charlestown, turned my attention from schools to guns, mass shootings, and the reminder that not all mass shootings make it to the national news. 

In Philadelphia last month, seven people were wounded in a Monday afternoon shooting in Kensington, just blocks from the church where I helped lead a summer children’s outreach every July for over a decade. Three children were hospitalized: two 10-year-olds and one 3-year-old girl. Just days earlier, a shooting at a West Philly block party left another seven wounded, including an 11-year-old girl struck on the knee, a 13-year-old boy with a shot to the shoulder, and an 18-month-old girl rushed to Children’s Hospital with a neck wound. 

Those shootings came too late for the March 30 Gun Report which described shootings of children in Kalamazoo, Milwaukee, West Palm Beach. And since they didn’t happen in schools, they didn’t make it onto the log that lists an average of one shooting a week in US schools since 2012.

Not long ago on our back patio, a friend who has lived many years in Australia recounted the fallout of that country’s mass shooting at Port Arthur in 1996: a conservative Prime Minister said “that’s enough,” the legislature agreed, a strict gun control measure was passed, a gun buy-back program cleared the country of more than 600,000 guns,  and there hasn’t been a mass shooting since.

Here in the US it appears we’re headed in the opposite direction. Every time a weeping parent says “No more!” the NRA springs into action, shoveling out statistics on why only guns can keep us safe, and only by arming ourselves can we remain free and hold off complete tyranny.


Follow the money, which leads us back to ALEC.

Until outcry over the Trayvon Martin case and the Castle Doctrine of Stand Your Ground, the NRA was a major component of ALEC. ALEC’s “Public Safety and Elections Task Force” initiated, wrote, and promoted Stand Your Ground laws as well as legislation gutting gun safety regulations, Concealed carry and guns on campus have been pushed by model ALEC legislation, while legislators have also been encouraged to sponsor and pass bills limiting municipal barriers to machine gun sales or armor piercing bullets.

Until the early 1990s, there was general agreement: regulations restricting the sale and use of weapons keep us all safer while allowing for appropriate use of certain classes of guns. The NRA was a friendly organization promoting gun safety, hunters’ groups, instruction in gun use for kids at camp.

I was once an NRA member myself, the kid version. I earned an NRA Sharpshooter pin on B-B guns, and a Marksman First Class patch with twenty-twos.

I have nothing against guns. I have friends and relatives who own guns, who hunt, who enjoy rifle ranges or skeet shooting. I also have friends and relatives who want nothing to do with guns, who wouldn’t even play paintball because of the implied violence.

That shouldn’t be a problem. Agree to disagree. I don’t know anyone who thinks completely unregulated firearms would be a good thing. And I don’t know anyone who wants to ban guns completely, or see all guns removed from private hands.

But as I said, somewhere along the way something changed. It became impossible to advocate for reasonable regulation without being accused of wanting to outlaw guns. 

Since 1994, many gun restrictions have been lifted, and any attempt to move in the other direction has been voted down. Decisively. At the cost of careers, reputations, and reasonable public discourse.  
What happened?

I’m no expert, but it seems almost obvious: if there’s a limit on legal guns, once people who want them have them, a few, a modest collection, the gun industry’s market slows. And in an economy based on unrestricted growth, on constant demand, on greater profits this month than last, anything that slows that growth is the enemy.

Which is why the gun industry has poured millions into the NRA, into ALEC, into legislation advocating more guns, and more dangerous guns, for anyone who wants them, deliberately working to destroy anyone who gets in the way. 

According to Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, "Today's NRA is a virtual subsidiary of the gun industry. While the NRA portrays itself as protecting the 'freedom' of individual gun owners, it's actually working to protect the freedom of the gun industry to manufacture and sell virtually any weapon or accessory."

“If guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns.”

That’s one of the slogans introduced by the NRA.  It’s dishonest on lots of levels: to start, as I said, no one wants to outlaw guns. Even in Australia, guns are still permitted, but with clear legal safeguards, and outright bans on automatic repeat weapons like machine guns. 

“Guns don’t kill. People do.” 

That’s another NRA slogan. If you’ve been in a situation with escalating violence, you know: violent people are scary. Violent people with baseball bats, kitchen knives, crowbars are very very scary. But violent people with guns? Impulsive, angry people with guns? Something else completely.

“Guns make us all safer.” 

Seriously? '

Try telling that to the family of the pregnant Kensington mom shot in a drive-by shooting. 

Or the kid who witnessed a murder, admitted she saw it, and was shot a month later. 

Or the four year old who shot himself in the eye, playing with a gun in his babysitter’s home. 

Or those toddlers caught last month in the mass shootings on Philadelphia streets. 

The more than 30,000 depressed men each year who grab a gun and end it all. 

“Any controls will start us on a slippery slope, leading to a ban on all weapons.”

This may be the saddest, most dangerous idea of all: that any step away from extremity can be interpreted as a mad dash toward the opposing extremity. Concern about unregulated commerce is interpreted as a move toward communism.  Suggestion that some sectors of common life (Education? Health care? Roads? Prisons?) might be best handled by public, rather than private, entities is interpreted as outright socialism. Yet without incremental reform, nuanced concession, reasoned compromise, unbiased research, policy becomes a football tossed to and fro by angry, irrational extremists.

For me, policy and politics are shaped by what I know of the families in Kensington: the children afraid to pass the drug dealers on the corner, the young adults struggling to stand firm against the implacable pressures of poverty and violence. The trauma that shadows even the healthiest children, causing them to flinch at the backfire of a car, anxious and fearful at the slightest hint of conflict. 

In Philadelphia, groups opposing unregulated guns proliferate: Mothers in Charge, Ceasefire, Neighborhood Partners to End Gun Violence. Every weekend, on some street corner, or church, or local park, there’s a vigil: in memory of someone killed by a gun, in protest of a notorious gun shop, in prayer for greater protection from the scourge of gun violence that shapes the daily life of those in urban neighborhoods.

Nationally, Mayors against Illegal Guns, a coalition of over 1000 current and former mayors, joined forces in 2014 with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense In America to form Everytown for Gun Safety, a coalition of more than ‘”3 million mayors, moms, cops, teachers, survivors, gun owners, and everyday Americans” commtted to enacting and enforcing common sense gun safety legislation.  

Back at ALEC, a new initiative, ACCE (American City Council Exchange), has been formed to meet the “threat” from local governments on everything from regulation of shale gas to minimum wages to to for-profit charter schools to local gun safety.

I’m troubled by Christians who proudly repeat slogans promoted by groups like ALEC or the NRA.

Troubled at how little we know about the motivations behind our laws, or the loyalties of our lawmakers.

Praying that maybe this time, we’ll decide we’ve had enough.

Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

And those who trust in guns? 

Will never be safe.

Or free.

[This summer I'm reworking some earlier posts, as travel and time outside limit my time for blogging.Parts of this appeared, in substantially different form, in the July 15, 2012 post, Guns and Good News.]

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