We Want “Gun Reform”—So What Does That Mean?

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After a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida left 17 people dead, the call for “gun reform” is more than apparent. Without specificity in what that means and how to combat the gun violence epidemic, however, vague attempts to bring about positive change arguably won’t help the cause. (Photo Credit: Gerald Herbert/AP)

While those directly involved with the movement and others sympathetic to the cause may view it in a more redeeming light, Occupy Wall Street, for many, will remain little more than an historical footnote, or worse, an outright joke. For all the attention raised by OWS about corruption in government, economic and social injustice, and the greed of Wall Street—remember “we are the 99?”—there are any number of retrospective criticisms about Occupy Wall Street after the fact that, if they don’t explain why the movement has all but dissolved, they at least speak to its limitations. Among the major criticisms of the Occupy movement are that it was characterized by a lack of clear policy goals or message, a lack of minority representation, that it targeted the wrong audience (i.e. Wall Street, as opposed to Washington), that it was populated by privileged white “slack-tivists,” and perhaps biggest of them all, that it did not produce the kind of lasting legislative change needed to inspire participants and sustain its momentum. To this day, within progressive circles, some of which formed from its ashes, OWS remains a cautionary tale of sorts owing to how quickly it died out, as well as a reminder of the challenges that liberal-minded organizations still face today.

In the wake of the recent Parkland, Florida shooting that resulted in 17 deaths and has since captivated the thoughts of a nation, the calls have been widespread and loud for meaningful action on gun control/gun law reform. In truth, a response of this magnitude, the likes of which hearken back to initial reactions to the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, seems overdue. That mass shootings in schools can and likely will continue to happen, though, because they have continued after the massacre in Newtown, or even the Columbine High School shooting—which will see its 20th anniversary in April 2019—brings the same questions of sustainability and potency to bring about change of this activist energy that dogged the Occupy movement.

Back in October of last year, Liana Downey, an author, strategic advisor, and teacher, penned an op-ed about the inherent flaw in asking for “gun reform” wholesale. For all the finger-pointing done toward Republican lawmakers and the NRA for standing in the way of measures like expanded background checks and bans on assault rifles and various other semi-automatic or fully automatic firearms for civilians, Downey finds fault with activist groups that lack specificity in their goals and the language they use. She writes:

CBS News reported that the response of democratic legislators to the Orlando Massacre was to “shout down Speaker Paul Ryan and demand a gun control bill.” Was that helpful? It sounds like action, but what were they actually asking for? Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America told supporters on social media to “use this form to call your US senator and demand action on gun violence now, and pass it on.” What action? Terms like ‘gun control’ and ‘gun reform’ are notoriously vague. Do they mean tightening background checks or that the government is “coming to take your guns”?

This ambiguity is deliberate. Knowing full well that the pro-gun lobby is quick to raise the cry “they’re coming to take our guns”, most politicians and protesters — even those in support of reform — hide behind indirect terms, in the hope that they won’t ruffle feathers. Yet the opposite happens. Those who lobby on behalf of the gun industry, whose job it is to keep demand and supply of guns growing, seize on the lack of clarity and paint a doomsday scenario for gun owners.

The problem caused by the lack of a clearly-defined goal is two-fold. The first, as Downey explains, is that it galvanizes support amongst the “opposition,” as it were. In this instance, those who oppose gun control out of concern for what it means for their ability to own guns outright worry about greasing the slippery slope toward repeal of the Second Amendment, perhaps fueled by a general sense of distrust toward the federal government. The second, though, is that the lack of direction makes it hard to build and sustain a movement. Nearly 20 years removed from the Columbine tragedy, advocacy for gun control has been, as Liana Downey terms it point blank, a “failure,” because it has been unclear, because it hasn’t defined an end game or measurable goals, and because it hasn’t done enough to inspire. That is, on the last point, while our anger and sadness might naturally prompt us to want to take action, vague notions of effecting “gun reform” do not exactly tingle the spine, to borrow from Downey’s verbiage.

For her part, Downey suggests establishing a concrete goal of cutting the lives lost each year due to gun violence in the United States in half—roughly 15,000, according to available statistics from the last five years—and in doing so, echo the strategy of similar campaigns that have proven successful, such as the reduction of deaths due to drunk driving by some 12,000 fatalities per year due to the advent of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Not only does this goal provide guidance for activists, but as Downey argues, it allows one to be scientific. Downey goes into length about hypothesis testing with respect to reducing opportunities for fatal gun violence to occur, and I’ll let you parse through the diagrams and such if you feel inclined. Suffice it to say, though, that having a clearly-defined mission makes tracking deaths and compiling statistics on gun violence easier. Which is especially helpful when the Center for Disease Control has its funding to research effectiveness to reduce gun violence cut or blocked by Congress. Thanks a f**king lot, NRA.

Of course, this still leaves the matter of the political power that gun manufacturers and the gun lobby possess. Where there are laws or proposed bills to protect firearms and ammunition makers on either the supply or demand side, there is usually the influence of lobbyists to be found. As Liana Downey views the relationship between proponents of gun control and those more resistant to reform, there are two options for the former: 1) diminishing the influence of gun manufacturers, or 2) inviting them to the table to help achieve the goal of reducing gun-related deaths. Re #1, while this is possible, with the NRA so entrenched in the realm of congressional politics, and so organized and capable of mobilizing its base, to boot, this is agreeably tough sledding. Re #2, however, with the goal of reducing and tracking gun violence firmly established, any refusal of the gun lobby or sponsored members of Congress to act becomes political fodder for those who want to advance legislation which will bring about meaningful, positive “gun reform.” Or, as Downey puts it, it becomes clear that those who stand in the way of change “value money, not Americans.” Indeed, if we can’t agree to this end, we seemingly never will.


Much of the focus on the Parkland massacre, as it invariably does with any mass shooting, has been on whether or not this tragedy was preventable. From the various profiles I have seen online of the shooter (I refuse to name him because I believe this attention should be devoted to the victims, not the perpetrator of such violence), he would seem to fit the stereotype of the would-be school shooter. A sufferer of various mental health disorders. A loner. His mother recently died. He was upset after a break-up with a girl. Expelled from the very school he shot up. And, of course, he seemed to really, really like guns, as evidenced by disturbing social media posts attributed to him. It also appears the FBI was made aware of his potential for violence as recently as last month, but indicated that it failed to follow established protocols that would’ve resulted in the shooter being assessed as a “potential threat to life.” Aside from the obviously regrettable notion that the Florida shooting may have been averted, that this gives, ahem, ammunition to the likes of Donald Trump, who has decried the U.S. intelligence community as a matter of self-preservation and because he is a wannabe dictator, as well as Gov. Rick Scott, a man with an A+ rating from the NRA, is unfortunate in its own right.

Whether we want to play psychologist and figure out what went wrong with the shooter, or take on the role of internal affairs and wag our fingers at the school district or the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or even take on gun and ammunition manufacturers for their supposed culpability in these events—personally, I favor only holding manufacturers responsible in cases where they knowingly or negligently sell to the wrong people or a defective product, or for deliberately misleading the public and investigators—the above concerns shouldn’t take us away from the central discussion we need to be having about what steps we can take going forward to reduce gun-related violence and deaths in America. This is where Liana Downey’s concept of hypothesis testing with respect to variables which may lead to a decline in the fatality rate comes in, whether regarding a change in the sheer number of guns in our country, legal restrictions on access for certain individuals, technological improvements designed for safer use, or some other modification to existing laws and policies. Whatever is likely to have the biggest impact and can feasibly be put into place, that should be the focus.

This is not to say, it should be stressed, that the subjects of mental health and of accountability for law enforcement related to school shootings like this aren’t meritorious and shouldn’t be pursued. As someone diagnosed with depression and anxiety, I support increased attention to mental illness and removing the stigma that too often accompanies people who deal with associated disorders. I also believe in accountability at all levels of government, though I am wary of assigning blame when it is recognizably difficult, if not impossible, to keep track of the movements of all people within a given area or to respond in a timely manner to an imminent threat of violence. As I understand, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the shooting, had recently conducted drills designed to bolster preparedness in the case of violence such as this. This may have prevented additional loss of life, but 17 lives were still ended on the day of the shooting, and a community is still coming to grips with its devastation. There’s only so much that can be done in these circumstances. The point, before you or I fail to be able to see the proverbial forest for the trees, is that these are worthy conservations to be having, but separate from or in addition to the gun control issue. Besides, it’s not as if mental health issues are a prerequisite for mass murder. In fact, numerous doctors have responded critically to President Trump’s insistence on talking about the mental health of the shooter in the aftermath of the tragedy.

That the national consciousness is as devoted as it is to bringing about political change is commendable. However, as Occupy Wall Street or perhaps even the #MeToo movement would teach us, we need to be clear and specific in what we’re asking for, and we need to make sure we follow through in measuring and tracking the variables that will have the greatest impact in reducing deaths related to gun violence. To put this another way, “gun reform” is an admirable pursuit, but as Liana Downey and others would insist, it won’t get us anywhere.

 

Everybody Loves Hillary, Or, You Spoiled Brats, Stop Ruining Our Narrative!

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Hillary Clinton has a lot of balloons and confetti at her disposal, as well as the admiration of Hollywood and women across the country. But the first-woman narrative belies the notion that she and Donald Trump are too close to call in the polls, and that there are a number of unhappy campers and warning signs right within her own party. (Photo retrieved from chron.com.)

It’s official: Hillary Rodham Clinton is the Democratic Party nominee for President of the United States. As I saw numerous people opine on Twitter, “Well, love her or hate her, you gotta admit this moment is historic.” Yes, sure, but if we’re taking the term very broadly, if I eat a sandwich and write an article about it, that too is historic.

I get what they mean, though, and what this moment means to so many Americans, especially women and girls, young and old. Truth be told, the U.S. is long overdue for a woman to be a major-party nominee for POTUS. CNN recently put together a list of 60+ countries who have elected female leaders (either presidents or prime ministers) before America. I’m sure you’re familiar, even slightly, with a number of the names on their tally. Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Isabel Perón, Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel, Julia Gillard, Dilma Rousseff—and these are just a sampling of the notables. What’s more, it’s not like these nations with women as heads of state are all major players on the international scene. For crying out loud, Mauritius beat us to the punch! Mauritius, I say!

Now that we’ve established Hillary’s place in history—or herstory, as some would have it—and having surveyed the indelible crack which has been made in that proverbial but all-too-real glass ceiling, it’s time to talk turkey regarding the polls and whether or not the would-be Madam President can seal the deal come November. As much as some of us would insist it just has to happen, the reality is that the race for the top office in the country is pretty much a dead heat. In the latest Reuters/Ipsos poll, Donald Trump actually leads by two points, though as the accompanying article indicates, the so-called “credibility interval” for this data is 4%, meaning Clinton and Trump are essentially tied. A coin-flip over whether or not Hillary Clinton becomes President, and perhaps over the fate of the country itself? Democrats, do you feel lucky?

Bearing in mind that Hillary’s standing in the polls may yet see a bump owing to a “convention effect” of sorts after making her closing speech from Philadelphia, but regardless, the margin is too close for either the Democrats or the Republicans to take for granted. And this is where Bernie Sanders and his stupid supporters come into play. Wait—I’m a Bernie Sanders supporter. Does that mean I’m stupid? I guess so. Because the bulk of the reaction to Sanders delegates and supporters/Democratic National Convention protestors, at least within the Democratic Party, seems to be one of exasperation and irritation. “Guys, you lost—get over it!” “We need to unify—move on!” “Kids, it’s time for the adults to take over. We’re going to need you to fall in line already.”

Uh-oh. You didn’t just say fall in line to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd, did you? Yeah, um, they tend not to respond well to that, especially considering that a number of them may be voting for the first time or may simply be new to the Democratic Party (and therefore don’t remember how Hillary threw her support behind Barack Obama in 2008). So, asking people you’re trying to win over to stop being “sore losers” and to “get with the program” may be a bit of a self-defeating proposition when they haven’t been part of the Party or the political process itself for very long. Especially just a few hours after their idol finally was mathematically eliminated from competition, if you will, and mere days after leaked DNC E-mails proved that key Committee figures essentially worked for the Clinton campaign and against Sanders, and with the help of members of the mainstream media, no less. Sheesh, give them time to mourn!

Instead, those Hillary Clinton supporters and others looking forward to the general election treated the lead-up to the deciding roll call vote at the Democratic National Convention like a coronation for Hillary rather than the democratic process that is meant to occur at party conventions. Accordingly, that Bernie or Busters and other Clinton protestors would voice their displeasure was met with contempt. Sarah Silverman, who supported Bernie in the primaries but now is #WithHer, scored big points among audiences in the arena and at home by calling the Bernie or Bust contingent “ridiculous.” Now, after the fact of Hillary Clinton securing the party nomination outright, other social critics have taken to chastising the #NeverHillary stance. Seth Meyers, for one, though his point about the danger of electing a “racist demagogue” is well noted, reflecting a sense of impatient annoyance, addressed the #HillNo movement by insisting “we don’t have time” for their shenanigans, and suggesting that Sanders supporters must have skipped History class to attend a Bernie rally in their failure to recognize the dangers of a Trump presidency based on similar examples. When comedians and other personalities aren’t “taking down” Sanders’ more vocal supporters, the news is picking up the slack. Philip Bump of The Washington Post points to Pew research which finds that nine out of 10 “unwavering” Bernie backers support Clinton in the general election, thus delegitimizing the Bernie or Bust position. You can’t argue with that survey! It’s scientific!

The quick and widespread antipathy to Bernie Sanders’ die-hard supporters, I believe, stems from conceptions held by these outsiders about Bernie backers’ identity, which may, after all, be misconceptions and/or subject to the tendency of Clinton and other leaders within the Democratic Party to treat blocs of people as wholly homogeneous groups (remember Hillary’s Southern “firewall” among blacks?). Throughout the campaign season, Hillary supporters and the media alike have evidently tried to characterize Bernie Sanders’ faithful as one or more of the following:

  • Impractical, imprudent idealists
  • Mindless Bernie followers
  • People who really, really don’t like Hillary Clinton and other “establishment” candidates
  • Spoiled brats who only want “free stuff”
  • White undergraduate students

OK, let me address each of these points/characterizations on their own merit:

1) When exactly did it become a bad thing to be an idealist? Have eight years of Barack Obama’s platform of “hope and change” and failures on some aspects of that platform hardened us to the extent we must categorically dismiss optimism in favor of cold pragmatism, or worse, cynicism? Joe Biden somewhat chided critics of Bernie Sanders’ a while back when going after his (Bernie’s) “unrealistic” policy goals, inferring that the Democrats and we as a country need to think big in terms of we aim to accomplish, and only then work backwards or down from there. That is to say that touting one’s identity as a “progressive who gets things done” might be judged as preemptive capitulation toward moderates for the sake of merely incremental progress, not to mention that with a Republican-controlled Congress, any Democrat would be likely to have difficulty passing his or her intended initiatives, regardless of how “left-leaning” he or she is.

I think Sanders’ political movement, perhaps unfairly, gets conflated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, which was too unfocused to be very durable. If his stump speeches have hammered one thing home, it’s that Bernie’s agenda has definite direction with respect to getting money out of politics, shrinking the widening income and wealth gap between top earners and low- to middle-class earners, and bringing workers and young people into the fold.

2) I don’t think Bernie’s supporters will do whatever they tell him to do, as evidenced by the boos Bernie Sanders himself received when telling convention-goers amendable to his cause that Hillary Clinton must be elected the next President of the United States so as to defeat Donald Trump. I also don’t believe he would’ve asked his delegates to walk out of the Convention, and yet many of them did, escaping—if only temporarily—the Hillary Clinton love-fest inside the venue. If the events of this past week have indicated one thing, it’s that it’s not as if Bernie cracks the whip and his supporters follow. Numerous pundits and writers have commented on this situation as Sanders “losing control” of his crowd, somewhat akin to Dr. Frankenstein losing control of his creation. This implies, however, that these voters are meant to be controlled or corralled, when really, they are free to have independent thoughts and viewpoints. For those of us hoping Donald Trump never ascends to the land’s highest office, we would hope they would choose anyone but him, but let’s respect that their vote counts just as much as anyone else’s.

3) Perhaps unfairly for Hillary Clinton’s sake, the woman of a thousand pantsuits is a symbol of a political establishment that represents what so many Americans dislike about politicians: the catering to moneyed interests (real or perceived), the pandering, the umpteen policy changes which manifest in the span of just a campaign cycle. As Clinton and her campaign have been keen to mention, too, the former Secretary of State has faced unique challenges in trying to ascend in an area traditionally dominated by men, within a deeply patriarchal society, no less.

These notions aside, people still really don’t like Hillary, for various reasons. Of course, Republicans have wanted to knock her down a peg for some time now, though this appears to be largely the byproduct of her relationship with Bill. On elements of policy and decision-making during her tenure at Secretary of State (Benghazi and her E-mails, at the top of the list), meanwhile, criticisms are more than fair, as are reservations about how Hillary has gotten her funding—personally and politically. For all the obstacles she has faced, Hillary Clinton is not above reproach or above the laws of our country—nor should she or anyone else in her position be.

4) “Why in my day, we paid to go to school! And we loved it! WE LOVED IT!” Except for the notion that it’s getting harder and harder to pay for college, owing to rising administrative costs and other factors. Economists refer to the national student debt as a “crisis” rather aptly, because even conservative estimates put the total upwards of $1 trillion. While we’re on the subject of “free stuff,” let’s discuss why universal healthcare is a vital topic of conversation. Tens of millions of Americans each year have difficulty paying for medical treatments, possess some level of medical debt, or simply forgo insurance/treatment to avoid the costs. Access to viable healthcare should be a right, not a privilege. At least that’s what Bernie Sanders, myself, and others in this country believe. And, famously, the entire country of Canada. But what do those happy, hockey-loving hosers know?

5) It’s no secret: Bernie Sanders, throughout the primary season, enjoyed a sizable advantage over Hillary Clinton among college graduates/students and other millennials, and tended to perform better in states with relatively low populations of minorities—his home state of Vermont, a prime example. That said, the diversity among Sanders’ surrogates and delegates demonstrated that it wasn’t just a bunch of white kids in Bernie’s corner. Ben Jealous, Cornel West, Killer Mike, Rosario Dawson, Nina Turner, Tulsi Gabbard—these are all counterexamples to the observed trend which resist the desire to put people narrowly into labeled boxes by their race, education level or other demographic characteristic. (Either way, still more inclusive than your average Trump rally.)

As to the “Bernie or Bust” crowd in particular, which perhaps in the severest of popular challenges is accused of suffering from a serious case of white privilege, let’s explore this charge. Shane Ryan, in a piece for Paste Magazine, pushes back against the assertion that progressives who don’t wish to vote for Hillary Clinton in the general election (and presumably are whiter than a Bichon Frise in a blizzard) necessarily don’t care about those Americans who stand to be primarily disadvantaged by a Donald Trump presidency. As he writes, for supporters of a “status quo” candidate like Hillary Clinton to accuse die-hard Bernie backers of not giving a shit about Americans who are increasingly disenfranchised by economic and political systems that reward the wealthy is “a dirty trick that would make Karl Rove proud.”

Ryan goes on to address the notion of whether or not Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump would be worse as President, and his answer—which you likely will dismiss as crazy talk—is that Clinton is not automatically the better choice. Before you ready your tomatoes to hurl at the screen, hear Shane out. The argument is this: an awful Trump presidency has a good chance of spurring a wave of progressive influence in politics and helping lead back to a Democratic reclamation of Congress, while Clinton could not only invite a conservative backlash, but voting for her stands to reinforce the belief of establishment Dems that they can ignore the little guys and girls among us and get away with it. By this logic, Shane Ryan asks rhetorically, “Why should we make any decision that would simultaneously undercut our growing power and subject us to total Republican domination in four years’ time?” Then again, Donald Trump could just get us all blown to smithereens, so take all this for what it’s worth.


Of course, this line of thinking doesn’t make for a nice narrative.

“THE FIRST WOMAN NOMINEE! EVERYONE LOVES HILLARY!”

“But wait, what about all those protestors outside the gates, and all those boos on the first day, and all those delegates who walked out after the roll call vote?”

“THEY’RE A FRINGE GROUP! WE DIDN’T SEE THEM ON TV!”

“Right, because they didn’t show it on the television news shows. But it happened.”

“NO ONE CARES! HILLARY JUST SHATTERED THE GLASS CEILING! SHE IS POISED TO BECOME THE FIRST FEMALE AMERICAN PRESIDENT!”

“If she beats Trump. But that’s no guarantee. Especially after the revelations about the DNC as part of Wikileaks’ E-mail dump. She’s been the subject of numerous investigations lately, and now the IRS is reportedly looking into the workings of the Clinton Foundation.”

“REPUBLICAN BALDERDASH AND RUSSIAN TRICKERY! PUTIN IS TRYING TO HELP TRUMP WIN!”

“Maybe. Maybe not. It still doesn’t change what occurred in those E-mails, though. And there are other concerns some of us have about Clinton’s policies and allegiances.”

“OH YEAH? LIKE WHAT?”

Well, for one, rumor has it that Ms. Clinton will switch her preference to support the Trans-Pacific Partnership if elected president.”

“DON’T LISTEN TO THAT! TERRY MCAULIFFE IS A F**KING MORON!”

“Wow. OK. Moving right along,  this story in The New York Times—”

“LISTEN, IF IT’S ABOUT THE HILLARY VICTORY FUND AGAIN—”

“Would you let me finish, please? This story by Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick talks about how big-money Clinton donors are living it up at the Democratic National Convention. Drug companies. Health insurance companies. Lobbyists. Yes, even Wall Street. Gatherings at the Ritz-Carlton, made possible by people in suits and with expensive handbags, who arrived in fancy cars and limousines. How is this getting money out of politics? How does this evidence the notion Hillary Clinton’s values aren’t compromised by money and that she won’t turn her back on progressives if she wins? I mean, is she trying to lose the election?”

“SECURITY!”

As great as it is that a woman is (finally) a major-party nominee, and as infinitely more inspiring in tone the Democratic National Convention was compared with its Republican counterpart, through the excitement and pageantry, important questions remain about the Democratic Party nominee, and I think it’s wrong to pretend like the dissenters and dissent don’t exist, or otherwise try to badger, insult and shame them into voting submission. Whomever is the next President of the United States, he or she will preside over a nation that faces many challenges and problems; the list is a long one.

Thus, for all the warm fuzzies that abounded inside the Wells Fargo Center this past week, the raucous protests which unfolded inside and outside the arena tell a more nuanced tale. Accordingly, for as quick as pro-Clinton types are to deride Bernie’s supporters, and while they might be right that the unwavering Sanders faithful will “come around” or “get in line,” you better believe that Donald Trump, Gary Johnson and Jill Stein are lobbying hard for their votes, and what’s more, they are really listening to this frustrated group of people. If Hillary and the Democratic Party don’t change their tune fast, the first-woman narrative will likely lose its luster when Trump takes the general election.