Finally, a united stand against guns

At first, it looked like the same old story. A crazy person with a gun walks into a crowded, public place. Unleashes mayhem and tragedy. Mass casualties. The nation mourns, hopes and prays.

Congress does nothing.

Rinse, repeat.

But this time it was different. This time, the nation cares too much. This time, everybody is watching.

It began with a filibuster. Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy, who once represented a district in Connecticut not far from Sandy Hook, stood on the house floor last Wednesday, June 16, for 15 hours to urge Congress to vote on two gun control measures. He was joined by more than two dozen of his fellow Democratic representatives.

His bill included measures that appeared to be common sense — ban anyone on the FBI’s terrorist watch list from being able to purchase guns; and close the “gun show loophole,” which would mandate background checks on private gun sales, both of which have the support of some 90 percent of Americans.

Democratic sit-in

As Murphy stated during his marathon speech, one restriction does not work without the other.

Five days later, Murphy’s bill, along with one other Democratic proposal and two Republican bills tackling similar issues, were all voted down.

But again, the tide was changing. It was palpable. I even texted a friend later that day — “it’s only the beginning.” But even I didn’t know what was coming next.

It culminated yesterday when members of the House Democratic Caucus staged an unprecedented sit-in on the floor of the House of Representatives. It began at 11:30 a.m. EST, and lasted until about 3 a.m. after Speaker of the House Paul Ryan abruptly adjourned the session despite Democratic protests.

A sit-in. As in, the thing we read about in history textbooks in middle school but didn’t Democratic sit in2know they still existed. Seeing it happen before my eyes was as surreal as if I saw a real-life dinosaur. The Democrats might as well have played the theme from Jurassic Park for dramatic effect while they sat .

Technically, what happened was illegal. If the House is not in session — which it wasn’t since Republicans left — then the proceedings are not supposed to be televised. But Democrats filmed their protest on the social media site Periscope, and CSPAN picked up the live feed.

That’s right folks, for one night CSPAN was the network to watch. I care about politics and I still couldn’t even tell you what channel it is. I still can’t, even though I put it on last night.

The sit-in was led by civil rights hero John Lewis. Democratic leaders gave interviews throughout the day. Many held signs in protest, including photos of the victims of the Orlando shooting. Some sang. Many supporters flocked outside Capitol Hill as a sign of solidarity.

And on Twitter, #NoBillNoBreak was trending nationwide. It was truly a historic occasion.

This is powerful stuff, and I just hope the momentum continues.

Furthermore, we have a watershed election cycle rapidly approaching, and now’s the time when we, the people, have the ability to replace those who did nothing.

I’m the laziest person in the world. My ideal day is one where I sit on a couch and do nothing. I’m the biggest advocate of doing nothing.

But when it comes to passing common sense gun control laws and saving American lives, doing nothing is absolutely not an option.

This time it’s different.

A few things about guns

At some point we need to come to the realization that our nation is not divided into two groups of people — gun owners and gun control advocates — no matter how much the media, interest groups and just the regular person on Facebook tries to portray it that way.

Because, quite simply, we can’t be that way. Neither from either side want to hear the other speak. Each assume certain things about the other, and it obstructs productive dialogue from ever taking place.

If we really want progress to occur, then we need to understand where we all come from. Only then can it lead to an understanding that there are some things that everybody wants. There is a middle ground.

But that will never come to the forefront if we choose to only see this issue as black and white.

San Bernardino3The eradication of guns will never happen. Nor should it. It’s not only a constitutional right, but the majority of gun owners are honest, law abiding people.

But there are too many loopholes in America’s gun control laws that can be fixed to prevent a certain amount of people from obtaining guns, while not causing too much of an inconvenience for responsible gun owners.

I’ve already opined on this topic, having done a significant amount of research following the mass shooting in Oregon last October, the results of which can be found here, here and here. 

But from all I’ve read in the aftermath of Wednesday’s San Bernardino shootings, what struck me most were three alarming details, which I will present to you and let speak for itself.

People who buy a gun from a licensed seller are required by federal law to undergo a background check. That check occurs instantly, using a system that cross-references various state and federal databases. For the most part, it prevents criminals, drug abusers and the mentally ill from buying guns.

The problem is those who buy guns privately from unlicensed sellers, typically at gun shows, do not go through such checks. And that amount to four of every 10 gun owners.

Indeed, between 2004 and 2014, more than 2,000 terror suspects purchased guns legally in the United States.

Senators have attempted to close this loophole, but the powerful NationalGun laws Rifle Association and its Republican allies have blocked it from ever coming to fruition. Although, there was a bill introduced this year that is trying to address it.

It should be noted, though, that there are some 700,000 people on the FBI list, many of whom are just family members of people suspected to be involved in terrorist activity.

If you think people are being turned off from guns by these repeated mass shootings, think again.

The FBI processed more than 185,000 background checks for gun sales on Nov. 27, more than any other day on record. And that number doesn’t include all those who purchased guns from unlicensed sellers.

If anything, when talk of gun control laws come into the spotlight, people appear to rush out to buy guns out of fear that it will soon become harder to do so. Also, some people respond to mass shootings with the belief that possessing a gun is the best way to protect themselves.

But again, nothing will be accomplished by pointing fingers, placing blame or lumping people into two broad categories.

I think if everyone, gun owners and gun control advocates, Republicans and Democrats, sat down at the table together and had a proactive discussion, we’d realize that there is some common interests that we can agree to act on in order to keep people safe.

At least, we have to hope for that.

We owe Mark Zuckerberg a Social Network Part 2

How many mass shootings will it take for a nation to explore stricter gun control laws?

Sadly, we may one day discover the answer to that question. According to Think Progress, the rampage that occurred in San Bernardino, California at about 11 a.m. local time on Wednesday that left at least 14 people dead was the 352nd mass shooting in America this year.

It means we have about four weeks to squeeze in 13 more so we can match the amount of shootings to calendar days. It’s with the utmost somberness that I say that while simultaneously realizing it may actually happen.

San BernardinoBut plenty remains unknown about the motivation of this deadly incident. So while we wait for that information to matriculate, let’s reserve further judgment and move onto cheerier topics. It is, after all, the night of the Rockefeller Christmas tree lighting, or as I like to call it, the night where Al Roker is just there, on my TV screen, and there isn’t anything I can do to stop it.

So what else is going on?

Oh yeah, Mark Zuckerberg is a dick.

Well, at least that’s the takeaway everyone got from the 2010 film The Social Network, which was a really good movie. Let’s be honest. It was dramatic and entertaining with a great musical score. And it also ended up being Jesse Eisenberg’s peak rather than a launching pad to future accolades, as many people thought. What happened, Jesse?

But any ill notion you still may have had about Zuckerberg’s character probably disappeared completely on Tuesday, when he announced he was going to give away 99 percent of his Facebook shares to charity — which total about $45 billion — at some point in his life.

He revealed this in an open letter on Facebook to his newborn daughter, Max, which was probably too long for people to actually read. Including myself.

I don’t care what personality flaws you have, if you’re going to donate yourJesse Eisenberg.jpg entire fortune to charity, then that automatically puts you in the same breath as Mother Theresa. Unless you have asthma. Then it might be two quick, successive breaths, separated by a small wheeze.

But The Social Network, which was based on a book by author Ben Mezrich published in 2009, portrayed Zuckerberg as a cold, selfish, conniving, ambitious, borderline sociopathic back-stabber.

And since it was a movie that most people saw, that ended up becoming the Mark Zuckerberg we all know.

Which is totally unfair. Movies adaptations inspired by real life events are just that: adaptations. It’s not a perfect retelling or a documentary. It’s simply an interpretation that picks and chooses its plot points to fit the desired narrative while amping up the drama to maximize entertainment value.

Zuckerberg-Baby-2Who knows, maybe it is accurate. Maybe he used to be a dick.

But he clearly isn’t one now.

Aside from this ultimate act of philanthropy, it’s also his goal to bring Internet access to the two-thirds of the world that does not have it.

So let’s bring the next chapter of Zuckerberg’s life to the big screen. One that focuses on his humanitarian side. I think we owe it to him. Future generations will rely on movies, and not actual biographical information, to learn about their forebears.

Someone call David Fincher. It’s time to make a sequel.

Although, if we’re going down that road, let’s make a Fight Club 2 first. Then another Se7en.

Followed by a Benjamin Button spinoff.

And then Social Network Part 2. If there’s time.

Why is the National Rifle Association so powerful?

Whenever a mass shooting occurs, and talks of gun control dominate water coolers, Internet message boards and political talk shows across America, one group that always seems to enter the conversation is the National Rifle Association.

As I mentioned yesterday, they’re the group that lobbied for the 1996 law that prevents major government research wings from studying gun violence.

But what makes them so powerful? How are they, a group with just five million members, singlehandedly able to sway politicians and affect policy?

The answer seems to be their fierce and unrelenting dedication, the loyalty of their members, and their focused goal of advocating for a single issue — protecting the Second Amendment.

NRA

NRA headquarters in Fairfax, Virginia

A look at the organization’s website will tell you that it was first chartered in New York in 1871, founded by Union soldiers William Conant Church and Gen. George Wingate.

While many describe the NRA as the nation’s foremost defender of gun rights, the group characterizes itself as the premier firearms education organization in the world. They arrange competitions, train hunters, publish magazines and organize youth programs.

The NRA didn’t really start dabbling in politics until 1934, when it began mailing out legislative facts and analyses to its members. In 1975, it formed the Institute for Legislative Action, its main lobbying and campaign operation. And this is where you really start to grasp the expansiveness and complexity of the NRA, and why it is so influential.

The website for the ILA is surprisingly informative. It provides a description of every major issue regarding guns, an overview of every piece of gun-related state and federal legislation, and a state-by-state fact sheet of gun laws.

What other subdivisions exist within the NRA?

There’s the Civil Rights Defense Fund, which has provided 10 million dollars since 2001 in support of cases that defend the right to bear arms. Essentially, if the CRDF discovers a case that could jeopardize or reinterpret the Second Amendment, they step in.

And then there’s the NRA Foundation, a tax-exempt organization that donates to all types of causes. Since 1990, it’s raised more than $267 million in funding.

The NRA invests in elections, too. In the 2012 general election, its political action committee spent $11 million, in which all but $2 million was used specifically against Democrats. This should come as no surprise, as it’s generally Republicans who support gun rights and Democrats who advocate for tighter gun control laws.

The committee, called the Political Victory Fund, ranks candidates based on their views on gun control, and endorses every race, making it nice and easy for their members to know who to vote for.

In short, the group is dedicated. If you get on their bad side, they have the resources to propagandize against you and damage your reputation.

And while most advocacy organizations lobby for several issues relating to their cause, forcing them to delegate their resources, the NRA can focus their attention around the clock towards just one — guns, guns and more guns.

Basically, there are three groups of people in life you don’t ever want to piss off: The NRA, the mafia and Star Trek fanboys.

But if you do cross one of them, may you live long and prosper.

The sad truth why Congress cannot address gun violence

For many, the answer to America’s gun problem is simple. Stop allowing them to be so accessible. Institute broader background checks, ban assault weapons, create expiration dates for gun licenses.

Will those work? Who knows. But they are actions that can be done to try to solve this problem.

However, Congress is not trying. And to many, that’s unacceptable. How many mass shootings is it going to take to change the law, they ask? Republican presidential candidates are deflecting the issue, blaming a flawed mental health system rather than poor gun control laws, and then proposing zero plans for either, as noted by John Oliver on the most recent Last Week Tonight.

GunsTo create effective policy, it must be backed by fact-based evidence. And therein lies the problem, and the main reason why Congress cannot do anything.

It’s because, for the last two decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — the agency that spearheads most research on public health on behalf of the government — is restricted from doing so by federal law.

That’s right — our government is encouraged not to conduct research on guns by our own lawmakers.

It dates back to 1993, when the New England Journal of Medicine published a paper which determined that keeping a gun inside a home increases the risk of homicide.

The National Rifle Association, the nation’s most powerful pro-gun organization, was outraged, and called for the elimination of the National Center for Injury Prevention, an arm of the CDC that funded the study. The center survived, but Congress passed an appropriations bill in 1996 with the language, “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.”

And there you have it. As an added measure, Congress stripped $2.6 million in funding from the CDC, the exact same amount the agency had used to study gun research the previous year.

While the law doesn’t explicitly ban gun research, it essentially killed the field because researchers are afraid of political backlash. According to a group that advocates for gun control, major public research funding for gun violence prevention is estimated at $2 million annually. Meanwhile, in 2011, the National Institutes of Health devoted $21 million to the study of headaches.

That’s 20 years of research that our country has lost out on. Republican lawmakers defend the law by saying that guns are not a disease. Meanwhile, the CDC studies pool safety and car crashes.

After the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings, President Obama prompted the CDC to interpret that law literally. As in, conduct gun CDCresearch, not to advocate for gun control, but to study it objectively. Nothing changed. 

Even the man who drafted the 1996 law, Jay Dickey, a Republican former U.S. Representative for Arkansas, told the Huffington Post this week that the law was never meant to be so suffocating. “I wish we had started the proper research and kept it going all this time,” Dickey said. “I have regrets.”

Democratic presidential candidates, at least, have targeted the issue. Hillary Clinton said she’d consider Executive Action to enforce background checks for guns purchased at gun shows or through a private seller online, which they are not now.

Martin O’Malley, the former governor of Virginia, said he wants to ban assault rifles.

Bernie Sanders, meanwhile, is surprisingly moderate on this issue, which has drawn a bit of scrutiny. His stance is more aligned with the state he represents (Vermont), the home of many hunters, rather than his usual liberal ways.

And then there’s Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon, who essentially second-guessed Oregon victims in an interview on Tuesday when he said, “I would not just stand there and let him shoot me.” A day earlier, he wrote in a Facebook Q&A: “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

To sum up, our government, who we as citizens rely on to protect us, does not even allow its foremost research wing to study something that results in the death of tens of thousands of Americans per year.

Makes perfect sense to me.

So what are the gun control laws in America, anyway?

In the 12 months following the unfathomable Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, about 1,500 state gun bills were introduced. Of them, 109 became a law.

That all makes perfect sense. Unfortunately, it takes a tragedy of great magnitude to push people to act. But what’s the hardest part to believe? Of those bills, 70 of them loosened gun restriction laws.

Don’t believe me? Believe the New York Times, which did the research and reported on the issue.

If an elementary school shooting can’t tighten gun control laws, what can?

Thursday’s shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, OR that killed 10 people has brought out the familiar post-tragedy cries of greater gun control laws in America. Among the most prominent are the banning of
Oregon shooting2semiautomatic rifles, heightened background checks and the refusal of gun sales to those with a history of mental illness.

But that got me wondering: How many people actually know what gun control laws are in America?

The gunman, Christopher Mercer, who died in the shooting, used three handguns and one rifle, all purchased legally. He was allegedly targeting Christian students.

Let’s first start with semiautomatic weapons, which are generally defined as a gun, for civilian use, that requires a pull of the trigger for each shot (as opposed to military-style holding down the trigger to unleash the entire magazine.) The manufacture of such weapons for civilian use was outlawed in 1994 by the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, under Bill Clinton, legislation that had a built-in date expiration (or a “sunset”), unless Congress, under George W. Bush, renewed it. They didn’t, it expired in 2004, and efforts to renew it since have been futile.

The ban wouldn’t have included guns that already existed and were in ownership of civilians prior to the law, but had it survived, could very well have had a tangible long-term effect in preventing the widespread distribution of semiautomatic rifles.

After Sandy Hook, President Barack Obama called on Congress to ban them again. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, tried to, but failed — and that was with a Democratic majority senate.

America has a gun problem. There’s no doubt. Statistics show that there are 89 guns for every 100 people, meaning almostObama shooting 9 of every 10 American citizens owns a gun. This is obviously skewed by the number of people who own lots and lots of guns.

According to the Washington Post, there has not beencalendar week in Obama’s second term where there wasn’t a mass shooting, defined as an incident in which four or more people are shot. Even worse, gun production has doubled since Obama took office.

Thankfully, there are seven states that have their own laws banning assault weapons — California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York (woo-hoo!).

Our president on Thursday night challenged news organizations to quantify the number of people who are killed by gun violence versus terrorist attacks. They did, and the results are eye-opening.

But you can’t compare our country’s gun problem to anywhere else. Because we have a shit ton more people than most places. There are 319 million Americans. That’s a lot of people to legislate.

Obama likes to point to the United Kingdom and Australia as examples of nations that passed successful gun control laws following deadly shootings. Those two have a combined population of about 88 million.

Switzerland is another country that has a widespread prevalence of guns — about 45 per 100 people, fourth most in the world — but average around just .25 gun-related homicides per 100,000 people, compared with America’s three per 100,000. However, assault weaponsSwitzerland, with a population of about 8 million, has long imbued a culture revolving around gun safety, which starts with their youth. It’s a culture that can never exist in the U.S.

As for background checks, America does them. the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, instituted in 1998, immediately cross-checks purchasers of guns using a vast database network. It disallows anyone from buying a gun who is a convicted felon, drug addict, illegal immigrant, a dishonorably discharged veteran, those who have previously been committed into a mental institution, and those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence offenses, among others.

As of last year, the NICS processed a total of 202,536,522 transactions since its inception, 1,166,676 of which have been denied — a rate of about .57 percent.

But those background checks only apply if you’re buying a gun from a Federal Firearms Licensee. If you’re buying it from a private seller, or at a gun show, then no background check is required, with a few exceptions. Obama pushed to include background checks for private gun sales in his 2013 proposal, to no avail.

Terrified yet?

Let’s remember, though. It’s a minuscule minority of gun owners that go crazy and shoot up public places. The rest are responsible, and that’s what most gun owners, influential gun organizations like the National Rifle Association, and Republican lawmakers that represent constituents who live in gun-friendly areas argue in their defense whenever the issue of gun control is brought up.

To limit gun control, they say, is to limit their Constitutional freedom granted by the Second Amendment.

In hindsight, it’s amazing that the 1994 law even passed. Had it stuck, it might have created enough of a hindrance to prevent subsequent tragedies in Newtown, Aurora, Charleston, or even in Roseburg on Thursday.

There are plenty of gun control laws in America.

They’re just not very good.