Wednesday, January 30, 2013


If you listen to or read the statements of the NRA, you will understand their strategy to kill (oops) any meaningful gun control legislation. The NRA has two major "solutions" to the problem of gun deaths in this country: 1) put armed guards at every school in the country, and 2) swiftly prosecute and punish criminals. This is a red herring, and I will explain why.

1. Put armed guards at every school.  The death toll at Sandyhook School in Newtown was 20 children and 8 adults. This was a tragic event, and a national trauma. But these were not the only people, or children, killed by guns in the USA. In the 1 1/2 months since the killings in Newtown on December 14, 2012, at least 1,440 people have been killed by guns, including at least 23 children and 81 teenagers. This killing by gun will continue day after day, week after week, month after month until somewhere around 15,000 to 30,000 people are dead within 1 year of the Newtown killings. Putting armed guards at schools will not save any of these people; the only possibility that they would be saved under this NRA plan is if every person in the United States has an armed bodyguard with them at all times.

Putting armed guards at every school might possibly and partially address a very specific type of incident, but this "solution" ignores the larger problem of the gun death epidemic.

2. Prosecute and punish criminals.  The NRA would have us believe that only criminals are responsible for deaths by gun. Well, in most cases, this is correct - BUT only in the sense that once someone has pulled the trigger and killed another person, they are then a criminal. The vast majority of gun deaths in the USA are not committed by criminals; these deaths are the result of an argument, a fight, a domestic dispute, a suicide, or "just playing around." Yes, there are many gun deaths perpetrated by criminals, but if you study the available data, these are not the majority.

Most gun deaths are caused by the NRA's "law abiding gun owner." The problem is that human emotion and guns don't mix well. Neither do alcohol and guns, nor depression and guns. Most gun deaths are a result of a gun being conveniently located when something goes wrong, not the deliberate acts of criminals.

There is at least one other fish on the NRA plate of red herrings; mental illness. The NRA would also have us believe that if we did something with all the mentally ill people, gun deaths wouldn't happen. One problem with this is the fact that the NRA also is fighting to keep people's medical and mental health records out of the hands of the authorities. Yes, we need to do a much better job serving the needs of the mentally ill, but that is not the problem behind the gun death epidemic.

So let's not be fooled by the Red Herring Strategy of the National Rifle Association. They want us all to ignore the real problem in this country - there are already way too many guns in the hands of civilians. This includes all kinds of guns. And the data clearly show us that handguns are the leading weapon of gun death in the USA, not assault rifles.

Sunday, January 27, 2013


[Spoiler alert: I reveal some of the plot.]

This post is about a movie based on a novel based on some historic happenings. But it is also about life today.

We recently saw the movie Les Miserables. Once I got past the fact that people are singing instead of always talking, I settled in and enjoyed the film. The story line, acting, production and costumes were excellent. The story of conditions in France in the early 1800's evoked a lot of empathy for the poor, downtroden underclass of the time. The hero, Jean Valjean, was imprisoned for a minor crime - stealing a loaf of bread for his sister's hungry children - and served many years at hard labor in a prison camp. After 19 years as a prisoner (5 for the crime of stealing bread, 14 for an escape attempt) he was releaased with nothing in his pocket and a prison record. As a released convict, Jean Valjean had no rights, lived on the streets in abject poverty, and was required to report frequently to the authorities. He is caught after stealing silver objects from a bishop who takes him in and feeds him; however, the bishop tells the police that he gave the silver to Jean. In an act of defience, he tears up his prison papers and starts a secret life, using the stolen silver to start a new life as a business man. He becomes a wealthy factory owner, but has a social conscience and treats his employees with kindness and respect, always looking out for their welfare. His true identity is finally discovered by the bad-ass policeman who had tormented him in the prison camp. However, in a few twists of plot, Jean Valjean helps the cop escape from the revolutionaries who had captured him, and then declines to kill the cop when Jean is once again captured. The cop, his mind blown by this extreme act of kindness, takes his own life.

Ultimately for Jean Valjean and his family there is a happy ending.

In the United States of America today, the early 21st century, there are millions of people who live in a situation analogous to that of the ex-convict Jean Valjean. Convicted felons in this country often have fewer civil rights than the general population; this varies by state. Voter disenfranchisement is one result of a felony conviction. Approximately 5.85 million eligible voters were barred from voting in the 2012 election because of a felony conviction. In four states, people with a felony conviction are barred from voting for the rest of their lives. In the remaining 46 states the laws vary, some states allow released felons on parole or probation to vote; some states allow felons to vote once they have completed their sentence. Only 2 states allow felons to vote while in prison.

Persons with a felony conviction face numerous other challenges in the USA. Many cannot get public housing. Most have difficulty getting employment because they have to indicate on employment applications if they have ever been convicted of a felony, and many employers will not hire them. In some states persons with a felony conviction cannot get food stamps. And in some states, released felons have to pay back the cost of their imprisonment, a difficult task if one cannot find employment. As a result, large numbers of people are forced to live  in a Catch-22 world, as if they are playing the role of the ex-con Jean Valjean when he is released from prison. These people, released from prison once they complete their sentence, are still imprisoned economically and socially by cruel laws.

Unfortunately for the people trapped in this prison with virtual bars, the establishment does not kill itself and allow a happy ending. Instead millions of people, many with families, who think they have paid their debt to society, are actually burdened with a debt they can never repay unless the laws of the land are reformed.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. - The Other America

I am sitting on a cold, sunny, blue sky morning in America. Today is a day of celebration of two great African Americans: the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the inauguration of President Barak Hussein Obama for a second term of office. America has made tremendous strides in civil rights since it's founding, and in particular over the past 50 years.

On this day of celebration of the birthday of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., many people will read or listen to Rev. King's "I Have a Dream" speech. That was a brilliant and inspiring speech given on August 28, 1963 during the March on Washington.

Last week I attended a lecture by Michelle Alexander, the author of the book "The New Jim Crow." I'll post about that topic soon. In her excellent presentation, Ms. Alexander talked often about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of these references prodded me to learn more about Dr. King during the years between 1963 and his death in 1968, a period in which his views changed in very specific ways.

Between 1963 and his murder in 1968, a number of major changes took place in the United States, and Dr. King's views and public statements also changed direction. He spoke out against the US war in Viet Nam, a stance that resulted in many people in the civil rights movement criticizing and moving away from him. He also spoke out about worsening unemployment and poverty in the Black communities across the country, and the riots that broke out in desperate communities.

On April 14, 1967, Dr. King gave a lecture at Stanford titled "The Other America" in which he addressed these issues. There is a video of that speech here. However, while researching for this post I found a version of the same speech given almost a year later, on March 14, 1968, less than 3 weeks before his assassination.  Dr. King was invited to speak by the Grosse Pointe Human Rights Committee of Grosse Pointe, Michigan. Dr. King spoke at Grosse Pointe High School while about 200 people belonging to a right wing group picketed outside. Dr. King was interrupted a few times by hecklers, but he pushed on, at one point even inviting a young man to the podium to have his say.

I find the transcript of this speech more compelling than the earlier, shorter speech at Stanford. I think it is very important to read the transcript of this speech, and consider it within the context of the turbulent late 1960's. We also need to contemplate the issues highlighted in the speech in the context of the present. I have copied a few excerpts from the speech and pasted them below (in italics), with some of my comments. But I really encourage you, dear reader, to go to the transcript and read the entire speech. It is well worth your time, and it will provoke a lot of thought.

"The Other America" 
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Grosse Pointe High School - March 14, 1968 

Dr. King wanted to talk about racism, and his views on how to eliminate it in the US.

I want to discuss the race problem tonight and I want to discuss it very honestly.  I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth.

Early in the speech, Dr. King presented the foundation of the basic issue he saw as the unequal divisions in our society, the "two Americas" that existed, one white, one black.

I want to use as a title for my lecture tonight, "The Other America."  And I use this title because there are literally two Americas.  Every city in our country has this kind of dualism, this schizophrenia, split at so many parts, and so every city ends up being two cities rather than one. 

All too often when there is mass unemployment in the black community, it's referred to as a social problem and when there is mass unemployment in the white community, it's referred to as a depression. 

The first thing I would like to mention is that there must be a recognition on the part of everybody in this nation that America is still a racist country. Now however unpleasant that sounds, it is the truth.  And we will never solve the problem of racism until there is a recognition of the fact that racism still stands at the center of so 
much of our nation and we must see racism for what it is. 

Dr. King talked at some length about three myths often repeated by well-meaning people, that obviously bothered him, and with which he did not agree. The first was the myth of time; ending racism and solving such major social problems would take time, many generations, and we should be patient. The second myth was that these problems could not be solved by legislation, they had to be solved by changes in human behavior. And third, the myth that Negroes had to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, just like every other immigrant to America did. It is worth reading the speech to understand his replies to these myths.

And then Dr. King launched into his views against the war in Viet Nam.

I want to say that if we're to move ahead and solve this problem we must re-order our national priorities.  Today we're spending almost thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight what I consider an unjust, ill-considered, evil, costly, unwinable war at Viet Nam. I wish I had time to go into the dimensions of this. But I must say that the war in Viet Nam is playing havoc with our Domestic destinies. That war has torn up the Geneva accord, it has strengthened, it has substituted.. .(at this point Dr. King was interrupted by an outburst from a young Viet Nam war veteran in the audience).

In explaining his stand against the war, Dr. King refused to draw a line through his moral convictions for political or financial reasons.

The other thing is, that I have been working too long and too hard now against segregated public accommodations to end up at this stage of my life segregating my moral concern. I must make it clear. For me justice is indivisible.  Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.  

And finally, Dr. King talked about the ties between black and white America, and the necessity for people to work together to improve life for everyone.

Now let me finally say something in the realm of the spirit and then I'm going to take my seat. Let me say finally, that in the midst of the hollering and in the midst of the discourtesy tonight, we got to come to see that however much we dislike it, the destinies of white and black America are tied together. Now the races don't 
understand this apparently. But our destinies are tied together. And somehow, we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we're all going to perish together as fools. 

Somehow we must come to see that in this pluralistic, interrelated society we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.

So however difficult it is during this period, however difficult it is to continue to live with the agony and the continued existence of racism, however difficult it is to live amidst the constant hurt, the constant insult and the constant disrespect, I can still sing we shall overcome. We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.
It is January 21, 2013, and President Obama has just given his inaugural speech. The topics of our President's speech not only echo many of the topics in Dr. King's speech 45 years ago, but remind us that our work is not complete. Our President spoke about slavery, unity, economic freedom and liberation from hardship, poverty and equality, the promise of our nation that "rewards every single American," that freedom is not reserved for the lucky. He spoke about human dignity and justice, repeatedly using the phrases "We, the People," and  "all of us are created equal." He reminded us that our journey is not complete, speaking about the struggles of women and gays, the on-going issues concerning voting rights, the hopes of immigrants, and that all of our children should know that they are cared for, cherished and kept safe from harm. These are, in his words, our generation's tasks, just as they were the tasks of Dr. King's generation.

We have come a long way in America towards the dreams of equality and justice. Today we witnessed the inauguration of an African-American President, the Vice-President's oath of office administered by the first Latino Supreme Court Justice, the Inaugural poem written and recited by the first Latino and LGBT poet. The diversity of the inauguration and of the crowd of thousands gathered to bear witness is inspiring, and we should be proud of the distance we've traveled as a society. 

We are not at the end of the journey to freedom and justice. There are many issues remaining that need our attention - the attention of all of us, not just the victims of injustice. Working together, as a community of Americans, we can continue to make important strides on this road, and progress towards the true promise of America. 


Monday, January 14, 2013


Every day now, when I check the database of gun deaths in the USA since the December 14, 2012 Newtown killings, I am both amazed and saddened by the growing number (today it is more than 800). Shortly after looking at these statistics, I began to wonder who the victims were. We are used to seeing news stories and numbers that are not very personal; in other words, we know little to nothing about the people being killed.

I decided to dig into the data a little bit, and I chose New Years Day 2013, January 1, as my focus. I will say up front that the New Years Day data are skewed because people are out celebrating the new year, which means a lot of alcohol is being consumed. Sure enough, the total number of gun deaths for that day was 45; most days have somewhere between 20 and 30 gun deaths.

I downloaded the web data base the other day; it's a spreadsheet file. For each victim there is information for the city, state, gender and age. On the interactive database, there is a web link for each victim that goes to a news story about the death. I went to every link for the January 1, 2013 deaths and added information to the spreadsheet in a Comments column.

Below is the resulting spreadsheet. Take a few minutes to look through it, then continue reading below it.

If we stick to the numbers, we see that these deaths were in 19 states across the country (CA, CO, FL, GA, IL, LA, MI, NE, NJ, NM, NY, NC, OH, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, WI). The graph below shows the victims by age group. The largest age group (the most deaths) is from 15 to 30 years old; in fact, it's mostly 15 to 24 year olds if you parse the data a bit more (most shooters are also in this age range). If you read my previous post, this matches the federal DOJ statistics.

Some of the deaths had known causes: suicide (3); killed by police (4, at least 1 of which was "suicide by police"), domestic violence (3), drug-related (2), drive-by (1), robbery (1), and "just playing around" (1). The majority of the deaths were related to arguments or fights, many at clubs or bars. Some were the result of criminal activity, like robbery or drug deals. Of the 45 deaths, 41 were men, 4 were women.

But this is still just numbers - statistics. Who were these people?

Unfortunately, the links in the database are mostly the first news reports following each killing, and many of them have very little information because the details of the killings were not yet known. I could dig more, using an internet search engine, but that would take all of my time for many, many days. And so I am left with only a few hints, brief glimpses into lives ended by bullets.

Elzina Brown was a 59 year old school crossing guard, mother and grandmother. She came home for lunch to find her daughter, Diamond Dunn, and the daughter's boyfriend arguing about their 4-year old daughter. When the boyfriend pulled out a gun, Elzina got between him and her daughter and was shot in the chest; she died at the scene. Before running from the home, the boyfriend shot Diamond in the face; she is expected to survive, but a friend said that her face "is basically gone." Two shots from a handgun ended the life of one woman, and permanently changed the life of a family.

Aaron "ZEGOR" Zigorski was an 18-year old high school senior who took his own life using a handgun. Aaron was a star athlete, very well liked in the community, and had a bright future ahead of him. His death was a shock and surprise to family, friends and the entire community.

Belinda Espinoza, 29, shot and killed her partner, 24-year old Ana Flores, and then killed herself following a domestic argument. Based on their Facebook pages, the women were in love and engaged. Just before the argument, Belinda posted a photo of the couple kissing.

Benjamin Sky McDaniel, 19-years old, was shot and killed during an apparent drug deal. He was an avid basketball fan, was going to junior college, and wanted to be a basketball coach. A friend was also wounded at the scene.

I just checked the site; as of January 12, 2013, 833 people have died from gunshots since December 14, 2012 (these are deaths reported in the news media). That's 833 lives ended in less than one month. Each of these people had families, dreams, ambitions, and their own story. Many of them had a Facebook page. I didn't know any of them, but their families, friends and communities did.

The argument about gun control in this country is meaningless until we come to grips with a single fact: most of the 15,000+ deaths per year by gun would not happen if guns were not so easily available. From the data compiled above, it is very apparent that most of the people shot to death are victims of anger, drunkeness or depression combined with the possession of a handgun. There are just too many guns, and it is too easy to get one.

Our national debate right now is focused on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines because of the 28 deaths related to the Newtown school shootings. But 2 days later, the same number of people were killed in America by guns, including a 3-year old who found a loaded gun and accidentally shot himself in the head. The day after that another 28 people were killed by guns in America. And so on and so on and so on.........

When will the madness end?

Saturday, January 12, 2013


I need to clarify something that is part of the continuing discussion about gun violence in the USA. I have heard some of the anti-regulation folks say that more people are killed with baseball bats in the USA than with guns. This is just not correct!

The following chart is from the Bureau of Justice Statistics of the US Department of Justice. They accumulate data from all the police departments in the country concerning homicides. Baseball bats would fall into the "blunt objects" category.


There is an even more important fact in this chart: handguns are a much greater problem than assault rifles (included in "Other guns"). Our national discussion at the moment is focused on assault rifles, but we really need to deal with handguns. Based on the above chart, total homicides by all guns combined ranges from about 10,000+ to almost 20,000 per year for the period of record (1975 - 2005).

And yes, people use knives, other weapons and blunt objects to kill, and these weapons combined have been as much as half the number of deaths by gun. But a gun allows someone to kill without having to be within arms length of the victim (I doubt that there are very many deaths caused by someone throwing a dagger).

As long as we're at it, let's look at 2 more graphs from the BJS.

The graph below shows homicides by the age of the killer ("offender") and the weapon used. As usual, guns are on top. What is also noticeable is the increase in gun deaths by 18 to 24 year olds starting in the late 1980's. The numbers decreased between the early '90's to the early '20's, but has since increased again (you can see the beginning of the increase in 2005).

Ready for one more? OK then; the graph below shows that teenagers are the largest group of gun killing victims. Combine this fact with info from the graphs above, and we know that teenagers with handguns are killing teenagers. Why do teenagers have guns? Where and how do they get them?

And by the way, don't assume that all of these teen-on-teen killings are gang related. As I go through gun death statistics (look for a post in the next couple of days), a significant number of teens killed by gun seem to be suicides, boyfriend-girlfriend breakup related, and accidents ("just playing around").

There is one clear fact here: guns are too accessible in our society, and handguns are by far the biggest problem. So as the government struggles with how to regulate assault rifles, we need to also pressure our government to regulate handguns even more.

And please, don't give me any of that Second Amendment crap!

Friday, January 04, 2013


The above graphic was very recently posted on Facebook by a Facebook friend of mine. I knew this person in high school, and I don't think I've seen her since (well, maybe at the 40th reunion?). From her Facebook posts, I know that she is a very proud grandmother. I also know that she has a handgun and has had some training on it's use. I assume that she is very careful with her handgun, and probably keeps it locked up. However, I am not one bit amused by the above sign; in fact, I find it very objectionable.

I said as much in a FB comment to her post. I had a debate with myself about commenting; should I ignore it, should I unfriend her, should I confront her? In the end, I decided to post my comment, based on my decision that what we really need in this country is a heart-to-heart conversation about guns, and not just between people of the same opinion.

Guns are a very major problem in this country (USA). We are by far Number One in gun ownership per capita with 90 guns per 100 people. "On a per-capita basis, Yemen had the second most heavily armed citizenry behind the United States, with 61 guns per 100 people, followed by Finland with 56, Switzerland with 46, Iraq with 39 and Serbia with 38. France, Canada, Sweden, Austria and Germany were next, each with about 30 guns per 100 people, while many poorer countries often associated with violence ranked much lower. Nigeria, for instance, had just one gun per 100 people." (1)

The USA is also Number One in deaths by guns compared to other affluent nations. Here is a graph (2) showing gun deaths for the 34 developed countries in the OECD:
The line above all the others is the United States; it is good to see that the trend is downward since about 1980 (although another source states that the trend is again upward since 2000). There are about 312,000,000 (312 million) people in the USA, so at 6 deaths per 100,000 people, the total is just under 19,000 gun deaths per year nationwide. However, different sources have different numbers, some in the 30,000 to 40,000 range (gun deaths per year). A Bloomberg article last month predicted that gun deaths nationwide will exceed traffic fatalities by the year 2015 (3).

 I have been posting on Facebook the tally of reported gun deaths in this country since the mass killings of children and staff at the school in Newtown. As I write this on January 4, there have been 427 gun deaths in the USA in the 19 days since the Newtown killings (4). 427 gun deaths in 19 days; an average of 22.5 deaths per day. Some of these were children. Many of these were teens. All of these were people who are no longer here.

I want to talk about two important topics here: 1) the need, or lack of need, for the Second Amendment, and 2) the politics of gun ownership.

Do we need the Second Amendment? In my opinion, we do not. 

One of the basic arguments of the gun lobby and many gun owners in this country is the Second Amendment, which gives us the right to bear arms. This amendment needs to be repealed.The original intent of the amendment has always been a topic for debate because of the way the text was structured by the authors of the Constitution. It is very common, however, for gun lobbyists and die-hard gun owners to cite the amendment and quickly proclaim that we have the right to bear arms in order to protect ourselves from our government. Seriously? When in our nation's history have citizens had to protect themselves from our government?

Guns are consumer goods. They are sold at a variety of retail stores. What other consumer good has it's own amendment to the Constitution, even dangerous consumer goods? We know that many deaths are related to automobile, tobacco, alcohol and kitchen stove use (to name but a few); however, none of these has a constitutional amendment giving citizens the right to have them (to be fair, an amendment was passed repealing an amendment that prohibited alcohol - but that's a different story). Every potentially dangerous consumer item is regulated by the government, as it should be. Regulations cover the manufacture, sale and often the use of potentially dangerous consumer items. Why are guns treated differently? If we repeal the Second Amendment, people will still have the "right to bear arms," just as we all have the right to "bear" automobiles, tobacco, alcohol, stoves and other potentially dangerous items - if we comply with the appropriate regulations (showing proof of age to buy tobacco, for example; not driving if our blood alcohol level is above a certain standard, and etc.). The only major difference I can think of between guns and other consumer goods is that certain types of guns sold in this country were specifically designed to kill people; they are military weapons, and in my opinion, these should be banned from public ownership.

Why is gun ownership so political? 

The National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun organizations have an inordinate amount of political power in this country. The NRA is feared by many elected representatives because the organization can, and has, organize it's members and sympathizers to not re-elect representatives who have crossed them. Gun control is a discussion typically avoided in the halls of Congress for this reason. Attention is paid to gun control only when there is a tragic event, like the murder of school children in Newtown, that results in a public cry for something to be done. Typically, this topic fades away at some point after a mass shooting, and it is again "business as usual," i.e. we don't talk about gun control.

It is way, way past time to confront this topic head-on. The anger and despair once again brought to the surface by the massacre in Newtown must not settle down. We need to keep in mind that the 26 deaths by gun at the school in Newtown is not an unusual daily tally for the United States - it is the fact that these were small children in a school that makes the crime so heart breaking. What about the 3-year old who died a few days later when he shot himself in the head with a gun he found in his uncle's house? What about the 4-year old who died a few days later from a bullet to the head from a drive-by shooting as the child sat in his car seat in a driveway? We need to be outraged by every one of these deaths by gun because they can be prevented.

No other affluent nation on this planet has the kind of gun violence we have in the United States on a per capita basis. Gun regulations in many other developed countries are very strict, and the results are obvious. Studies have shown that more firearms result in more homicides, and that strict regulation prevents such deaths (5). In Israel for example, a country where terrorism is a very real danger, gun ownership is severely limited and considered a privilege, not a right. "Gun owners in Israel are limited to owning one pistol, and must undergo extensive mental and physical tests before they can receive a weapon, and gun owners are limited to 50 rounds of ammunition per year." (6).

In conclusion, I hope that the Newtown killings have struck a chord in the United States, a chord that will continue to reverberate until our elected officials make much needed and very meaningful changes to the laws of the United States. These changes should be in the form of very strict controls of gun ownership. If we do this correctly, if we have an honest and open conversation between people with different opinions, surely we can get to a better, more rational place.

Do everyone a favor; read up on this stuff (I've provided some good links below as a starting place). Talk to people, especially those who have an opinion about guns that is different from yours. Stay calm, use facts, talk about our children and grandchildren. Call or write to your elected representatives. We can do this if we really try - but it will not be easy - guaranteed.