Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gun Control and n'at ...

So there is an ordinance being debated in City Council to require gun owners to report lost or stolen guns. You would think this would be common sense, that guns are this very dangerous tool that can kill many people at a considerable distance. Gun owners, however, see this as a threat to their rights to own guns and an indication that our government is turning into a dictatorship. At least, that is the way the debate has shaken out on the Burgh report. It doesn’t help that Tonya Payne said (out loud, instead of just thinking it) “Who really cares about it being unconstitutional?". The measure had six votes, which is enough to overcome a Mayoral veto. But perhaps this legislation will lose a vote or two before the final vote next week.

So what is the big deal, why do we care if I report my gun stolen? Actually, this law is designed to reduce straw purchases, buying a gun (or several) and turning around and reselling them to criminals. The original buyer would then say, if they were ever asked, that the gun was stolen at some time in the past. The notion would be to expose straw purchasers, force them to identify themselves (by indicating that 100 percent of their gun purchases were stolen or lost). But it is likely to be difficult to enforce the law just within City limits, it really needs to be a state, or better still, federal law. But this very law was defeated at the state level by rural legislators, including Daryl Metcalf of Cranberry.

During the course of the debate, someone mentioned a similarity to the abortion debate. That didn’t really resonate with me until I read this on the wikipedeia entry on gun control “The American public strongly opposes bans on gun ownership, while strongly supporting limits on handguns and military-type semi-automatic weapons” with a footnote, referencing a “Gun Control Handbook”. That strikes me as similar to what people say in polls about abortion, opposing partial birth and late term abortions, and supporting parental notification, while opposing total bans on abortion. But the advocates on both sides of both issues are much clearer, taking the absolute positions. My own personal position on gun control is similar to what polled Americans say. I think sensible limits ought to be placed on gun ownership, particularly limits on carrying concealed handguns (which have no role in hunting, by the way), and certainly on this straw purchasing business.

Now, the Wikipedia article suggested that guns are used in defense of home and businesses perhaps as much as two and a half million times a year. Perhaps this is so, but I would like to see sources for that (and none of the Wikipedia sources in footnotes were linked). Also, guns are cited as helpful in preventing domestic violence. Many of the murders and injuries using guns in the home are between husband and wife or boyfriend/girlfriend. Those were the victim is a male are apparently assumed to be a case of domestic violence. My own research into this can’t confirm these findings (and may never be able to). My personal thought is that if someone is threatening you at your business or home with a knife or club, you could probably threaten them back with a baseball bat or other sort of club-like or edged weapon. If you assailant has a gun and you respond with a gun, the situation has escalated and several bad things could result. Similarly, we need to encourage women to feel they can come forward if there is a domestic violence situation. If you think the situation can only be resolved by killing the other person, that solution is drastic enough that we should be able to step in with other solutions, legal remedies.

Of course, gun rights advocates might say legal remedies for domestic violence don’t work. But on the other hand we don’t need additional laws for gun control if we just enforce the ones on the books. There is an obviously convenient view of the law here.

Depressingly, most efforts at gun control have produced few if any positive outcomes. Apparently the problem is that if DC and Baltimore ban guns from their cities, criminals will buy guns from Virginia residents. Our hodgepodge of laws create gaps in enforcement possibilities big enough to drive trucks (full of guns) through.

But I persist in my belief that intelligent gun control, limited in scope but applied all over the country, would have a positive effect on the outcomes if not the incidence of crime in the US.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Jack's still around...

Well, I never did get to Ruth Ann, but now I have a little time and some desire to say something about Jack Kelly column today. I’m probably motivated by a desire to steal the thunder of 2PJ’s, but I shan’t bring in links from Huffington Post or Daily Kos (because I almost never read them).

So Jack Kelly commits a couple of mistakes, in my opinion, in today’s column. First, he cites a poll of Obama supporters as proof that liberals don’ know as much as they think they do. The poll was conducted by the Zogby organization, but commissioned by a “conservative documentary maker” John Ziegler. I don’t know anything about John Ziegler, I’ll et others poke any holes to be found there. But I do wonder if Mr. Ziegler gave Zogby at least the subject matter if not the form of the questions to ask the 512 Obama supporters. There were the obvious questions, such as who had the pregnant teenage daughter and who spent $150,000 on their wardrobe as well as a gothcha question – who can see Russia from their house (correct answer, Tina Fey lampooning Sarah Palin, and I didn’t catch this one as read the column).

But there was also questions like what percentage of Obama supporters knew that Obama started his political career in the home of two former Weather Underground members, what percentage knew that Biden had to end a previous Presidential run because he plagiarized a speech, a question about who controls both the House and Senate, a question about how Obama won his first election by getting all his opponents removed from the ballot, a question about the 57 states remark by Obama, and a question about how Obama said his energy policy would bankrupt the energy industry.

I’m not going to bother with the quotes taken out of context (the 57 states that was apparently supposed to be a joke, the energy policy issue part of a much larger, complex discussion), the first election thing is ambiguous at best (and no one ever said he wasn’t a smart politician). The question of who controls the House and Senate is interesting because I have often said in comments on other blogs that the record number of blocked votes for cloture and the record number of holds put on legislation means that the Republicans have been much worse about holding up legislation than the Democrats ever were in the previous six years. Just for the record, sixty democratic votes in the Senate scares me almost as much, but the Republicans have simply turned into this obstructionist force, and even bad change might be preferable here. But anyway the upshot is that the Obama supporters did not know about the “insidious” past of their candidate (although now we do, and we can’t say Jack didn’t warn us). But Jack doesn’t exactly blame the Obama supporters, they were ignorant dupes of the main stream media, in the pocket for Obama. I guess his message is that they could be easily led sheep by the truth telling conservative media as well as the liberal liars. Then if polled they would know the out of context and unfair conservative talking points (not that Jack characterizes it quite that way).

The second thing I want to say about this column is … who cares? We have to accept the wishes of the American people in elections. I know, you’re going to say that liberals called for Bush and Cheney to be impeached and removed from office. Sure, but that is inherently a political process, you have to have proof (which some liberal thought did exist), you have to convince both the House and the Senate, and if you remove just Bush you have President Cheney. Of course, Kelly starts off his column with an excerpt from an email where a (critical) reader suggests that the mass support that the republicans do have comes from “lower middle class voters, many of whom are poorly educated and inarticulate” and it later characterizes the base by saying “as a mass movement it reflects stupidity and ignorance”. So you can see why Kelly was interested in talking about how smart he thinks Obama’s supporters are. But I will say that now that the election is over, what is going to be important is how smart Obama and his staff will be. Now, lots of conservative commenters want to say that Obama coasted through school, that teachers and professors gave his good grades because of affirmative action. I doubt that very much, but regardless of what I or they think, we are about to see how smart Obama is. Either he will do things that will help get us out of our economic mess, and address more long term issues of infrastructure, or he won’t. I think that he is bound to bet some things right, and some wrong, no matter what, but the mix will be the interesting thing.

Obama is going to let some supporters down, and the conservatives will seize on those people as examples of Obama’s failures (some have already branded Obama a failure for appointing Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State, pending Senate approval). It hardly, matters, by April 20th we will have some record to look at, and then it will make sense whether to be hopeful or disappointed. At that point, Mr. Zogby’s poll and Mr. Kelly’s sour grapes will be entirely meaningless.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Religion (maybe later Ruth Ann) ...

It’s hard not to think a bit about the election. There is a sense of the “everything’s different” vibe that followed 9/11, but at the same time there is that sense that we are headed into a recession. Chris Briem keeps mentioning that things here have already been much worse, and aren’t bad right now (and may not get worse). Never the less, it is difficult to know how to balance the competing feelings; something is likely to happen, but it is impossible to say what.

One of the things I think about, which is not one of the things we are likely to address any time soon, is religion. Colin Powell put it well when he talked about the Republican attack on Obama that insinuated Obama follows the religion of Islam. He doesn’t, of course, but so what if he did? Are we saying there is a religious test for the American President? Of course there is, just like the test that says that Barney Frank is not going to be President any time soon.

I have always had some difficulty with religion. The whole you must take the existence of God on faith thing is bad enough. I have to take the efficacy of penicillin on faith too, but there is this whole written record of the history of penicillin, and most every doctor will say similar things about it. But even among Christians there is disagreement about how to worship and what God wants us to do (or what is ok with him). Even what I think of as the big commandments, like not killing, have a questionable history (religious wars?).

But then I think, who am I even to say that my religion is the right one, to say the Jews, Muslims and Buddhists are wrong? If not me, then who is the Pope, or a Rabbi or an Imam to say other religions are wrong? The fact that other people experience God differently makes me wonder if religion is reduced to just being a social club. Although plenty of people take it deadly serious.

Obama is interesting in that, based on my reading of his wikipedia biography and other things he’s said, he didn’t really have a religion growing up. Most of us have our religions picked for us by our parents; even if you convert, you are always at least a former Catholic, Presbyterian or Jew. Our political views and affiliations seem to work in a similar way. But Obama appeared to grow up with out a strong religious or political view. When he joined the whatis church in Chicago, after undergraduate if not law school, I gather that was when he made a religious commitment. It’s interesting to me that he chose a church with relatively radical ideology, although one where the minister was relatively established and well known, even considered an intellectual.

I don’t know if Barack Obama heard Jeremiah Wright preach some fiery note about the injustice of racism. I don’t know if Obama heard Wright reject America at some point, besides the famous sermon we have all heard ad nauseum. I will say that I think no less of Obama for not walking out if he did hear such things (I am 99% sure he did). I can not reconcile the conflicting notions for myself of past slavery and segregation and current racism, and the idea that we should be blindly reverent of the United States. White intellectuals (of all stripes) criticize political figures all the time, but African Americans should never say God Damn the United States? No double standard there.

I think Obama handled the Jeremiah Wright issue very well. He didn’t reject the church where he had embraced religion (in a thoughtful or cold manner, depending on your viewpoint), when those tapes from the past were circulated. But when Wright came out and spoke disparagingly of Obama, then Obama rejected the man. I think that certain crucial parts of Obama’s audience, some who take religion very seriously, understood the distinction.

Obama is not a post-racial President, but he is not very black, having grown up away from the black experience. But he may be a post-religious President, though; at least not as thoughtlessly religious as George Bush. He is not our first Muslim President. But because of him, we may have one during his lifetime.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

And so ...

So Obama has won. Why do I still think about that Woody Allen quote, the one about the two roads we face (one to total calamity and horrible suffering, the other to total disaster, let us hope we have the wisdom to choose wisely yada yada). As of this writing, the Republicans have forty Senate seats, the Democrats have 56. Apparently four are too close to call.

Now, the Senate is crucial, because the Republicans had made the most of their 49 seats in last couple of years to block a lot of legislation. They may still do that if they have as little as one seat over forty. This could mean that a lot of Obama's proposals are DOA in Congress. Which may not be an absolutely bad thing, given the state of the economy. How we got so much in debt may not be as important as how we handle it from here on out. Obama’s proposal are ambitious, and will cost a lot of money.

On the other hand, we know from the great depression that investment in America yields good results. We know that too from the interstate highway system (which now needs reinvestment badly). Obama has said he wants to invest in the highway system, in American health care, in alternative energy (including working on the all important electric grid), and also make a general investment in America by improving secondary and making higher education more affordable and therefore more accessible. Down the line these kinds of investment could yield results that help us tackle our debt with a stronger economy. Trying to save money now, by contrast, might leave us weaker in the future.

But there is no guarantee that it is Obama’s proposals we would see moving through Congress, if the Democrats had 60 votes. Whether or not you think Obama is socialist, I strongly suspect there are more radical Congresspersons who might advance some problematic legislation, much higher taxes on capital gains than Obama has proposed, much higher spending on pet projects than Obama has proposed, an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, etc. I only vaguely remember 1993 politically, but I know we have been living through the fallout ever since.

It would be nice if one of the campaign promises both sides made, about ending partisan rancor and reaching across the aisle, could actually be kept. The Democrats did not filibuster much of any of President Bush’s legislation after 9/11. If the Democrats don’t reach 60 seats in the Senate, it would be nice if the Republicans could consider signing on to at least part of Obama’s agenda, and letting Obama know ahead of time. Then some legislation could be passed swiftly and then the rest could be debated nationally. If the Democrats reach that 60 seat number in the Senate, then it is possible the midterms will look like 1994

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The fallout from the choice ...

Since it seems more and more likely Obama will be elected, I wanted to look ahead a little. The fact that Obama refuses to admit that he will have to scale back his programs some in the face of the financial crisis tells me that a)Obama did not believe Jessica Lange when she told a disguised Dustin Hoffman that she just wanted to meet an honest man, and b)Obama has mastered the politician's trick of answering the question he wants to answer it, and in the way he wants to answer it. Which is to say Obama doesn't trust us enough to think we will still vote for him if he tells us the truth. And I can't blame him, it didn't work for Paul Tsongas.

But that leaves us with a question. Is Obama up to the tough job of saying no to Congress (or does he even recognize the coming need to do that). I vaguely remember a story (possibly from the West Wing) about a basketball player, possibly Wilt Chamberlin, who when he moved up to professional basketball was getting fouled left and right. His coach told him he would need to throw an elbow. Chamberlin, raised to be fair player, objected. The coach said, if you throw that one elbow, that will be enough.

Now, like I said, my memory of the story is vague and probably wrong, but I think the lesson could be valuable. Obama may need to veto an extravagant democratic initiative early. Maybe a spending bill with excessive pork, or that is just totally pork. The risk is the Democrats would punish Obama, but it might be worth it.

Now, there is another very related question in the up coming election, whether the Democrats will get 60 votes in the Senate or not. And I don’t know what to hope for. If the Democrats got 58 votes, they could lobby Olympia Snowe or Arlen Specter only on the important votes, for education and infrastructure, for Iraq and for the really important parts of the tax cuts, the increases in the EIC and tax increases on the rich. The rest of it they could let the Republicans threaten to filibuster and have some of the same problems as now. It would slow down government, which might make everybody publicly outraged and secretly happy.

Meanwhile, the biggest story here tomorrow may be the brown wrapper your Post-Gazette comes wrapped in.