Families of Sandy Hook massacre victims can’t sue Bushmaster for making gun that killed 26 people at school

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

It shouldn’t have to be a longshot to prove in court that a company which makes semiautomatic rifles is recklessly endangering people’s lives, but it is.

On Friday, a judge in Connecticut dismissed a high-profile lawsuit against the manufacturer of the Bushmaster AR-15, which was used in the December 2012 shooting spree that took the lives of 26 children and adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Although most liability suits raised by gun-violence victims and their families have been thwarted by the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005 (PLCAA), which protects gun manufacturers from these types of suits, the plaintiffs cited the “negligent entrustment” clause, which extends to cases “when the seller knows, or reasonably should know, the person to whom the product is supplied is likely to, and does, use the product in a manner involving unreasonable risk of physical injury to the person or others.” Unfortunately for the Sandy Hook parents, Judge Barbara Bellis found that the “negligent entrustment” clause did not apply to their case.

“The present case seeks damages for harms, including the deaths of the plaintiffs’ decedents, that were caused solely by the criminal misuse of a weapon by Adam Lanza,” Judge Bellis wrote. “Accordingly, this action falls squarely within the broad immunity provided by PLCAA.”

This directly rebutted the argument made by the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, Josh Koskoff. “How did a weapon used in Vietnam and the streets of Fallujah end on the floor of Vicky Soto’s first grade classroom?” he asked. “It did not get there by accident and the shooter did not use it by accident. Remington made the choice to trust the most notorious killing weapon the military has ever seen to civilians. If they didn’t choose to sell the gun to civilians, we wouldn’t have had a Sandy Hook.”

Despite or perhaps because of its lethal reputation, sales of the AR-15 have skyrocketed since the Sandy Hook shooting. It was also used in the mass shootings at Aurora, Colorado; San Berardino, California, and Orlando, Florida.

Why Trump’s “Second Amendment” insinuation was an abhorrent stunt straight out of the NRA’s playbook

Published: Salon (August 11, 2016)

It was reprehensible for Donald Trump to insinuate that his pro-gun followers use violence to thwart Hillary Clinton. That said, was he really out of lockstep with what the NRA and other pro-gun groups have been saying for years?

Just to be clear, this is what Trump said:

“If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do folks. Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”

Considering that this is a man who has already called on a foreign superpower to hack his opponent’s email server, it’s hard to blame Trump’s critics for sensing that he would transgress the bounds of propriety yet again by threatening violence. Besides, he didn’t just call for the “Second Amendment people” to galvanize in opposition to Clinton’s judicial picks or donate money to his campaign. First he characterized the event of a Clinton election as a hopeless situation (“nothing you can do folks”) and then suggested that Americans who believe in gun rights could handle it by … Well, he trailed off right there for a reason.

The problem for Trump is that, while he may have thought he was being coy, the NRA and other radical pro-gun groups have been filling in the blanks for years. Ever since control of the NRA was seized by right-wing extremists in 1977, that organization has become notorious for peddling an anti-government ideology, one that holds as its core premise the idea that a few good guys with guns can overthrow America’s so-called tyrannical state. Although they usually tie this claim to the hysterical fear that even modest gun control legislation will lead to mass confiscation of firearms, it has often been used more generally to oppose left-wing politicians and their causes. In the narrative of the pro-gun movement, they are the sentinels of American liberty … a self-conception that is inextricably linked with the threat of violence against those you deem to be enemies of your cause (not surprisingly — and only perhaps coincidentally — the NRA launched a $3 million ad campaign against Clinton mere hours after Trump’s remarks).

Now that Trump’s gaffe has brought these assumptions to the surface, it’s necessary to identify their two glaring weaknesses.

First, it is self-evidently absurd to believe that owning firearms could actually allow ordinary citizens to overthrow the entire American government. Our armed forces have access to nuclear weapons, tanks, drone missiles, and some of the most sophisticated surveillance technology known to man. Even our police force has been militarized to an unprecedented degree. Consequently, when the pro-gun movement claims that arming all of the militant-minded will empower them to violently replace our government, they are propagating a fantasy.

That said, while you can’t realistically overthrow the entire government with a personal arsenal, you can blow away individual politicians that you dislike. Although the NRA and other pro-gun groups don’t actively encourage assassinations, they don’t hesitate to use the iconography. This is why Sarah Palin got into so much trouble back in 2011 when it came out that she had superimposed an image of crosshairs over a map of Gabby Giffords’ district before the assassination attempt against the Arizona congresswoman. While the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, wasn’t part of the pro-gun movement, that didn’t make the implied violence against her any less chilling. Even worse, individuals with guns are still capable of going on mass killing sprees for any number of reasons — be it allegiance to radical Islamist beliefs, misogyny, homophobia, or white supremacist ideology — because, while they may not be targeting politicians on those occasions, they still believe that what they do with a gun can make a political or social statement at someone else’s expense.

This is why, while it’s tempting to chalk up Trump’s “Second Amendment people” comment as just another entry in a long series of faux pas, it really is something much more sinister. Instead of injecting violence into a conversation where it had been absent, Trump has merely been explicit in voicing a sentiment that is usually articulated implicitly. If we’re going to direct our outrage constructively, we need to recognize the political culture from which Trump was drawing and demand that it be held accountable long after yesterday’s comments have been forgotten. Otherwise a day will soon come when people who think like Trump will do something far worse than merely say terrible things.

A First Amendment Pioneer’s Take on the Second Amendment (republished after the Orlando mass shooting)

Published: GirlieGirlArmy (June 12, 2016, July 3, 2014)

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Liskula Cohen and Matt Rozsa

co-author: Liskula Cohen

Editor’s Note: This was republished because, at a time when the media is fanning the flames of Islamophobia, we need to remember that if it wasn’t for our lax gun control laws and belligerent pro-gun culture, that mass shooter may have never had a firearm in the first place.

I have, shall we say, an interesting relationship with the Constitution. Back in 2009, I was involved in a lawsuit with Google over whether libelous speech (in this case that of a cyberbully against me) was protected by the First Amendment. When a Manhattan Supreme Court judge ruled in my favor, a precedent was established that protected victims of bullying against their attackers.

Now there is another constitutional question that has a direct effect on me – and, indeed, on every mother who fears for her children’s safety. That is the issue of gun control and the Second Amendment.

Over the last month, mass shootings have dominated our national headlines. On May 23rd, a violently misogynistic college student killed seven people and wounded thirteen at the University of California, Santa Barbara; on June 5th, a man who “wanted to feel the hate” killed one person and wounded three at Seattle Pacific University; on June 8th, two right-wing extremists killed three people at a Las Vegas shopping mall; and on June 10th, a high school freshman in Oregon killed two people and wounded another.

And those are simply the stories that make the headlines. Since the December 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, there have been 74 school shootings throughout the nation, to say nothing of the hundreds of additional shootings that took place in other locations. As Hillary Clinton put it in a recent live CNN town hall, “We cannot let a minority of people, and that’s what it is, it is a minority of people, hold a viewpoint that terrorizes the majority of people.”

Clinton knows what she’s talking about. When a CBS News/New York Times poll asked Americans whether they would support stricter gun control laws in a general sense, 54% wanted laws made more strict, 36% wanted them kept as they are, and only 9% wanted them weakened. In fact, every CBS News/New York Times poll taken on this subject since 2013 has shown 47-54% of Americans wanting stricter gun laws, with 33-39% wanting them kept as is and 9-12% wanting them weakened. More importantly, Americans who were asked how they felt about the specific gun control policy that President Obama and the Democrats tried to pass last year – one that would have required background checks on all potential gun buyers – a whopping 85-92% supported the regulation throughout 2013 (compared to 7-12% who opposed it), with 69% wanting Congress to pass Obama’s bill (including 58% of Republicans).

In short, Clinton was correct when she observed that the people who claimed Obama’s gun control was un-Constitutional are in the minority. But are they wrong?

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That depends on who you ask. While the pro-gun lobby acts like their interpretation of the Second Amendment is beyond question, the truth is that judges and legal scholars have been fiercely debating it almost since the Constitution was first ratified. In the 19th century there were cases like Bliss v. Commonwealth in Kentucky (which found that “the right of citizens to bear arms in defense of themselves and the State must be preserved entire”) and State v. Buzzard in Arkansas (which ruled that “the people, neither individually nor collectively, have the right to keep and bear arms”). The 20th century yielded cases like Salina v. Blaksley in Kansas, which determined that the Second Amendment “applies only to the right to bear arms as a member of the state militia, or some other military organization provided by law” (and was later overturned by an amendment to that state’s constitution) and United States v. Miller in the Supreme Court, which declared that unless a weapon “has some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia, we cannot say that the Second Amendment guarantees the right to keep and bear such an instrument.” Surprisingly, it wasn’t until District of Columbia v. Heller in 2008 and McDonald v. Chicago in 2010 that the Supreme Court officially recognized an individual “right to bear arms”… and even then pointed out that “the Second Amendment right is not unlimited.”

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As I see it, the Constitution is a wonderful piece of American history, one that should be defended when it is practical and in the best interest of the majority of the population. At the same time, it was written when the national population was less than 4 million (as opposed to more than 300 million today), when women had few legal rights and hundreds of thousands of African Americans were slaves. Even if you believe the Second Amendment was intended to protect an individual’s right to bear arms (which, as already established, is hardly a given), we will cripple ourselves in the eyes of the world if we can’t amend the Constitution as our society evolves. If women still couldn’t vote, and if slavery still existed, there would be no American Dream today.

There are common sense regulations that could effectively address this problem. I don’t have a problem with people wanting to have a gun at home to protect their families… but that should be regulated with background checks similar to those proposed by President Obama last year. Our society needs to view the responsibility of owning a gun in the same way that we treat owning a car: If you loan a car to your friend and he hits someone, you are held responsible. The person who left his machine gun in a Target, or the parents whose children find their weapons and kill themselves or other people, should be held liable. Similarly, just like you can’t buy a car if you don’t have a government-issued driver’s license and insurance, so too should you be unable to buy a gun without some form of regulation. It all comes down to personal accountability – a premise with which conservatives, ostensibly at least, agree.

We should also demand that our media change the way it cover these mass and school shootings. Instead of focusing on the victims, the media sensationalizes the stories of the killers. Their reasoning is obvious: The more salacious they make the story, the more you watch and the higher their ratings will be. While that makes sense from a business standpoint, it is wrong for news stations to glamorize these killers to put money in their own pockets. Young people who are lost and confused, who feel like giving up, can see these stories and believe that a mass shooting offers them a chance to go out with a bang and be famous.

Finally, we need to acknowledge the role of race in this issue. According to a study published last year on the open-access peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One, there is a link between gun ownership, opposition to gun control, and what they referred to as “symbolic racism” – or racist attitudes that, though not apparent, influence how they view the world. People who agreed with the prejudiced attitudes posed in the eight questions on the Symbolic Racism Scale (which you can see here) were far more likely to own a gun, support concealed handgun laws, and oppose gun control measures. Not coincidentally, this explains why many minorities feel the “right to bear arms” slogan is explicitly not intended for them (when I told an African American friend of mine about this article, he remarked that “there is no way blacks are allowed to walk around openly with firearms without an immediate challenge from those in authority. We would be labeled and perceived as thieves and dealt with by extreme force… While the Constitution is an amazing document, it has no relevance to the black experience in America as it was originally structured, with blacks being 3/5ths of a human being at the time of the signing and many of the writers being slave owners.”)

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Just as anyone who has been bullied can understand why I acted as I did during the Google lawsuit, so too can anyone who is a mother understand why I feel the way I do about guns. As a mother, I am afraid to send my child to school. It disturbs me that I have to ask the parents of my child’s friends if they locked up their guns – a question my mother never had to ask when she raised me – and that every week brings the story of another school shooting. Nothing matters more to me than protecting my child, and to paraphrase Clinton, I am tired of being terrorized by the small minority of people who value their guns more than my child’s life.

What Bernie Sanders doesn’t understand about gun control

Published: Salon (October 16, 2015)The Daily Dot (October 14, 2015)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) waffled during last night’s debate when he was asked about his gun control record, and despite the candidate’s widespread online popularity—especially on Reddit—the Internet definitely took note.

Although Sanders wasn’t the only Democrat on that stage with a record of opposing gun control legislation, the other candidate with a similar background—former Senator Jim Webb—openly embraced his past positions on the subject. Sanders, by contrast, tried to find common ground with gun control advocates—even as he defended his spotty record as the product of a desire to build a consensus between both sides of the issue.

When criticized by Hillary Clinton for voting against the Brady Bill, Sanders replied that “when we develop that consensus, we can finally, finally do something to address this issue.” Shortly thereafter, when former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley talked about his success in passing gun control legislation—despite facing a large contingency of conservative Democrats in his own state—Sanders argued that “the views on gun control in rural states are different than in urban states.” In his opinion, a president’s job must be “to bring people together around strong, common sense gun legislation.”

While Sanders is correct about the need for strong gun control legislation, he fails to understand the nature of firearm politics in America today. The problem isn’t that gun control advocates aren’t willing to accept that their views on guns are different from those in rural communities. The biggest issue facing the gun control movement today is that the National Rifle Association is unwilling to compromise whatsoever when it comes to necessary reforms.

“The NRA had once been a sportsman and safety organization, which took a turn toward the political back in the ’70s, just as the conservative movement was gaining steam,” explains Heather Digby Parton of Salon. “By the ’90s it had transformed itself into a potent political institution which perversely thrived when it was attacked, and built its clout by never giving an inch. Ever.”

The biggest issue facing the gun control movement today is that the National Rifle Association is unwilling to compromise whatsoever when it comes to necessary reforms.

Beyond the NRA, however, there is a large contingent of conservative Americans who are convinced that any effort to regulate firearms is the first step toward government tyranny.

“Focusing exclusively on the lobbying angle overlooks the very real fear and distrust with which many gun owners regard the government that drives much of the opposition to gun laws,” points out David A. Graham of The Atlantic. “Many of them simply don’t believe that enhanced background checks—or whatever other modest changes are proposed—are what they appear to be.”

As a result of this political paranoia, it has become impossible for anyone who takes a centrist stance on gun control—that is, someone who falls between the extremes of either wanting to confiscate all guns or have virtually no regulations at all—to dispel the suspicions of the pro-gun community. Indeed, as Sanders correctly noted, he has a D- record from the NRA despite the number of occasions he has sided with them—all because, every now and then, he doesn’t.

This was particularly evident during President Obama’s second term, when he proposed a gun control bill that focused on requiring criminal background checks before gun purchases, spending more on mental health care treatment, banning armor piercing ammunition, and reinstating and strengthening the assault weapons ban.

All of those measures were supported by a clear majority of the American public—and in the case of mandating criminal background checks, more than 90 percent—but it sadly didn’t matter. Thanks to the NRA and pro-gun grassroots’ ironclad grip over Congressional Republicans and conservative Democrats, even this moderate measure wasn’t able to make it to the floor.

This is precisely why recent reports are circulating that Obama plans to use his executive powers to issue an order that would bypass the legislature altogether. In order to get anything done, you can’t do it through Congress.

In addition to flubbing the origins of America’s current impasse on gun control, Sanders also failed to fully account for his own record on the issue. As both moderator Anderson Cooper and Hillary Clinton pointed out, Sanders voted against the Brady Bill of 1993, which would have established background checks on firearms and supported legislation that would have made it illegal to sue gun manufacturers and sellers when their firearms were misused. Although Sanders now supports background checks, he never explained why he opposed the Brady Bill at the time or how he has arrived at his current position.

As Sanders correctly noted, he has a D- record from the NRA despite the number of occasions he has sided with them—all because, every now and then, he doesn’t.

Sanders was more forthcoming when it came to prohibiting lawsuits against gun manufacturers and sellers, saying that he doesn’t think gun shop owners who commit legal transactions should be held responsible if “somebody goes out and does something crazy.” At the same time, he then conceded, “Where you have manufacturers and where you have gun shops knowingly giving guns to criminals or aiding and abetting that, of course we should take action.”

This statement conflicts with the facts on the issue: Leading legal scholars agree that the bill Sanders supported, Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, makes it impossible for even those manufacturers and shops to be held accountable. A product of the George W. Bush administration, Media Matters’ Sergio Munoz explains that the 2005 act “immunized gun makers and dealers from civil lawsuits for the crimes committed with the products they sell, a significant barrier to a comprehensive gun violence prevention strategy.” Munoz argues that the bill essentially “shields the firearm industry.”

Perhaps the worst part of all this is that Sanders’ rural background isn’t as an excuse for his poor record on gun legislation. In fact, that history is what puts Sanders in a unique position to take a stand against pro-gun hardliners.

As historian Rick Perlstein recently wrote in an op-ed for Salon, Sanders’ message of economic populism is starting to resonate in many of the Red States that would otherwise never vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. When combined with the passionate support he commands among progressives, Sanders could conceivably break through the impenetrable wall of mistrust that has been built up by right-wing lobbies like the NRA.

Indeed, one of his opponents on that stage managed to do exactly that. When Sanders tried his “rural state” defense on O’Malley, the ex-governor reminded Sanders that the Eastern Shore and Western Maryland are very conservative on gun-related issues, yet “we were able to pass this and still respect the hunting traditions of people who live in our rural areas.”

Bernie Sanders is dead set on reaching across the aisle on this issue, but in order to do so, he might want to start by listening to the people around him. Otherwise, his heart might be in the right place, but his politics will continue to miss the mark.

 

Not all lives matter: The perverse hypocrisy of “pro-life” gun enthusiasts

Published: Salon (October 10, 2015), The Daily Dot (October 7, 2015)

In a recent episode of The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah jokingly compared Republican politicians’ pro-life stance on abortion with their blasé attitude toward the increasing number of American deaths caused by gun violence: “They just need to have a superhero’s dedication to life. Because right now, they’re more like comic book collectors: Human life only matters until you take it out of the package, and then there’s nothing left.”

Here, Noah actually raised a valid point about why conservative opposition to gun control is so hypocritical. At a time when being pro-life is associated with opposing a woman’s right to control her own body, why is it so hard to convince many of those same people that the lives of gun victims matter just as much?

We can start with the most prominent recent shooting—namely, the killing spree at Umpqua Community College in Oregon that left nine dead and more than 20 injured. The fatalities included:

  • Lucero Alcaraz, a 19-year-old aspiring pediatric nurse
  • Treven Taylor Anspach, a 20-year-old athlete who was described as being “part of the fire and EMS family”
  • Rebecka Ann Carnes, an 18-year-old studying to become a dental assistant
  • Quinn Glen Cooper, an 18-year-old who loved martial arts and was shot during his fourth day of college
  • Kim Dietz, a 59-year-old who worked with her husband at a local vineyard and whose daughter attended the college
  • Lucas Eibel, an 18-year-old who was studying chemistry
  • Jason Dale Johnson, a 34-year-old whose family described him as “proud to be a Christian”
  • Lawrence Levine, a 67-year-old assistant professor of English who was teaching in the classroom that was attacked
  • Sarena Dawn Moore, a 44-year-old business student

Aside from the Oregon shooting, there have been other gun-related incidents this week that deserve attention. Take McKayla Dyer, an 8-year-old girl in Tennessee who was shot to death by an 11-year-old bully when she refused to let him pet her dog. Her neighbor, Chastity Arwood, when interviewed later, noted that “guns should be under lock and key if you have a child, nowhere in arms reach of a child.” There is also Jordan Schott, who was shot by an unidentified suspect on the campus of Texas Southern University, and Ethan Schmidt, a professor at Delta State University who was the victim of a shooting that occurred there less than four weeks ago.

This is just a short list, of course. So far, the year 2015 has brought about 45 shootings on school grounds, 17 of which were on college campuses. Even more sobering, there have been 294 mass shootings this year, causing 380 deaths and more than 1,000 injuries. If you broaden this to include gun-related deaths, the number is 9,959 so far in 2015. As Linda Qiu of the Washington Post put it, “That’s a grand total of 301,797 firearm-related deaths in the past decade, compared to 71 deaths from domestic acts of terrorism.”

The question here, then, is why are the lives of the unborn weighed so much more heavily than the lives of shooting victims? Why are the same presidential candidates who have largely backed the defunding of Planned Parenthood willing to dismiss shootings by saying “Stuff happens,” like Jeb Bush? Ben Carson went even further: During a Facebook Q&A conducted on Monday, the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon claimed that he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.”

I suspect there is a twofold answer here. The first can be found in our political culture: For better or worse, abortion has been a hot-button political issue in America since Roe v. Wade declared that women had a constitutional right to make decisions about their own bodies back in 1973. Thanks to the disproportionate influence of the religious right in the Republican Party, any GOP presidential candidate who wishes to be nominated in the years since needs to take an outspoken stance against abortion in order to be considered politically viable.

At the same time, the equally disproportionate influence of pro-gun organizations like the NRA guarantees that any politician seeking the Republican nomination needs to avoid being perceived as too friendly with gun control advocates who want to strengthen regulations. While none of this is intended to pick on the Republican Party specifically (after all, Democrats are just as beholden to special interest groups), it does illustrate the formula that makes such hypocrisy possible: In American politics, the need to be consistent about valuing “life” matters less than the need to balance various ideological priorities within one’s own partisan organization.

The other problem, though, is that not enough attention is paid to the lives and stories of the victims lost during shooting tragedies. Occasionally there will be a viral campaign to honor a particularly conspicuous act of heroism (see: the $700,000 raised online to help pay for the medical bills of Chris Mintz, an Iraq war veteran who risked his life saving others during the Umpqua Community College shooting), but in general, the focus is placed on analyzing the shooter and picking apart their motives. Because the question of gun control is rightly brought up whenever these shootings occur (which is far too often), there is an understandably political tone to the debate surrounding these events.

That said, the debate can obscure the underlying human tragedy, making it easy to dismiss the lives lost as statistics or—if you oppose gun regulation—as even a nuisance, one to be shuffled away as part of the natural tragedy of human existence rather than as lives as worthy of protection as any other.

This poses something of a challenge to anyone who wants to explain to the anti-gun control crowd why this issue matters so much. Until you develop a visceral empathy for the victims of these shootings—whether they’re the nine fatalities at an Oregon community college or an 8-year-old girl in Tennessee being victimized by a local bully—it’s hard to appreciate why this issue is so frustrating for comedians like Trevor Noah or infuriating to activists on the ground.

If you truly believe that these lives matter, then you should want the government to do everything it can to protect people who are dying in fully preventable ways—and that has to include after they’re born.

 

Bernie Sanders has a troubled record on gun control (but the NRA still hates him)

Published: Salon (July 9, 2015)

Gun nuts go after Bernie Sanders: NRA just reveals its radical paranoia
Sanders’ Second Amendment position falls to the right of many liberals, but NRA types just assume the worst

Gun nuts go after Bernie Sanders: NRA just reveals its radical paranoia

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., may be a self-described “Independent Socialist,” but his surprisingly moderate views on gun control have definitely set the Internet ablaze of late; and, in the process, revealed a huge problem within the pro-gun movement.

It all started when Sanders appeared on CNN’s “State of the Union” with Jake Tapper on Sunday: “If somebody has a gun, and it falls into the hands of a murderer, and that murderer kills somebody with the gun, do you hold the gun manufacturer responsible?” Sanders asked. “Not any more than you would hold a hammer company responsible if somebody beats somebody over the head with a hammer. That is not what a lawsuit should be about.”

In theory, Sanders’ position provides pro-gun conservatives with the perfect opportunity to show that they are above partisanship. After all, while they may vehemently disagree with Sanders on a number of other issues, they should at least be able to give him credit where it’s due when there is overlap between his views and their own.

Instead, the trend among online conservatives is to assume the worst of Sanders, as this quick, unscientific review of Internet responses reveals:

“All you peeps hoping this guy will leave the 2nd Amendment alone think again,” writes Wadsworth34, the author of a popular Reddit thread on Sanders’ gun control position. “If he gets elected he will attack it like flys on your dogs yellow turd.” Another Reddit poster, drpetar, claimed that Sanders is “not pro-gun despite what people may claim,” citing his voting record on issues like the 1994 assault weapons ban (which he supported), a 2009 bill authorizing carrying concealed weapons across state lines (which he opposed), and the various gun control measures introduced by President Obama in 2013 (which he supported).

The reaction hasn’t been much better elsewhere in cyberspace. “This Leftist attempt of justifying #BernieSanders stance on guns involves some true Jedi mind tricks,” tweeted one critic. Another Twitter user named went even further, tweeting that he “Can’t believe this is our last Independence Day before Bernie Sanders takes away our guns & makes us all speak Swedish.” When American Conservative tweeted that “unlike most Democrats, Bernie Sanders’ embrace of the working class includes their guns,” their corresponding article was replete with comments like that of “libertarian jerry,” who dismissed Sanders’ stance by declaring that “the whole issue of Bernie Sanders being right on the gun issue and wrong on most of the other issues only goes to prove that a stopped clock is always right twice a day.”

So what gives? Why is it so hard for so many online conservatives to give Sanders a modicum of credit for agreeing with them, especially when he has peeved liberals from Mark Joseph Stern of Slate to fellow 2016 presidential candidate Martin O’Malley in the process?

The main problem is that, for a large number of pro-gun advocates, support for their interpretation of the Second Amendment is an all-or-nothing deal. “For more than three decades, the NRA has consistently argued that pretty much any new regulation of firearms would move the country a step closer to more draconian regulations, like gun registration and confiscation,” writes Michael Scherer of Time magazine, adding that “in the longtime logic of the Second Amendment activist, all gun regulations are suspect because of what might happen next.”

As Alan Berlow explained here at Salon, the NRA is “an organization whose Web pages are replete with paranoid conspiracy theories” and “whose top leaders are quite literally predicting—based on not a scintilla of actual evidence—that all Americans will be disarmed by the end of President Obama’s second term and that the Second Amendment will be ‘excised from the Constitution.’”
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Hence, even though Sanders opposed the Brady Act of 1993 (one of the earliest gun control bills), supported prohibiting lawsuits against gunmakers and manufacturers, voted in favor of allowing firearms in checked baggage on Amtrak trains, and defended gun owners from liberal critics by asserting that “99.9 percent of [gun owners] obey the law,” he is distrusted because he hasn’t always toed the NRA line. As former NRA lobbyist Richard Feldman explained to the Trace, the organization views voting in favor of any kind of firearm ban or regulation as irredeemable “unless you vote the other way later on.”

Although the NRA was thus willing to fund a campaign against one of Sanders’ opponents (who supported an assault weapons ban) in a 1990 congressional race, it has subsequently fluctuated in grading him; he reached his peak in 2006 when they gave him a C-, but after his support for President Obama’s ultimately unsuccessful proposed gun control law in 2013, Sanders now sits at a D-minus.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with gun control, this type of thinking is dangerous because it oversimplifies a complex issue. Even though most polls find Americans closely divided on the broader issue of gun regulation (a CNN/ORC poll from June 2015 found Americans split 49/49 on whether we should have stricter gun control laws and believing by a 3-to-2 margin that stricter gun laws wouldn’t reduce the amount of violence or gun-related deaths), there are specific gun-related reforms that receive overwhelming support.

Take President Obama’s aforementioned gun-control proposal, which focused on mandatory background checks and reinstating the 1994 assault weapons ban: Although the NRA and militantly pro-gun Internet denizens have taken Sanders to task for supporting the doomed bill, a Quinnipiac University Poll from June 2014 found that 92 percent of Americans (including 86 percent of Republicans) supported requiring background checks for all gun buyers, a finding backed up by a CBS News poll taken throughout 2013 (it determined that 85-to-92 percent of Americans supported mandatory background checks, including 84-to-89 percent of Republicans). Similarly, a Pew Research Center survey also taken throughout 2013 found that 54-to-56 percent of Americans supported an assault weapons ban, even though 54 percent believed the NRA had either the “right amount” or “too little” influence over gun control laws.
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In short, although Americans may be split when it comes to potentially major changes in gun regulation, this doesn’t mean that they oppose smaller (and arguably common sense) reforms. By applying such a strict purity test to our political leaders, the NRA and the online pro-gun activists who share their views have made it impossible for people like Sanders to build a bridge between the two sides of this issue. Even worse, they have grossly distorted our nation’s gun control debate, creating a climate in which genuine supporters of the Second Amendment are lumped in with those radicals who actually do want to seize every citizen’s firearms. While most Americans are moderate enough to recognize that mild gun control measures won’t inevitably lead to mass firearm confiscation or the repeal of the Second Amendment, the vocal minority that refuses to admit this is currently playing a disproportionate role in influencing our debate … and, as the failure of Obama’s gun control bill demonstrated, our public policy.

One can only hope that the pro-gun zealots, both online and off of it, will eventually catch up with the rest of the country.

Don’t blame atheists for the Chapel Hill shootings

Published: Daily Dot (February 12, 2015)

The Chapel Hill shootings are a wake-up call for American atheists.

Although there is still uncertainty about Craig Stephen Hicks’ motives for murdering three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina, much attention has been drawn to his outspoken atheism. “The man’s bigotry clearly had a role in this, and the source of that bigotry was ‘anti-theism,’ as he himself put it on Facebook,” wrote one commenter on Reddit’s r/atheism subreddit. “It wasn’t just anti-Islamic hate, but anti-religious hatred in this man’s heart.”

Another post on the same site insisted that atheists couldn’t disavow Hicks because “if we did, we’d also be giving a pass to abortion clinic bombers and terrorist suicide bombers.” The commenter continued, “Now we actually have to make the case for atheism, independent of what crazy people on all sides do. In the long run, that’s not a bad thing.”

A tweet from Yale Humanists director Chris Stedman summed up this line of reasoning rather succinctly: “Still sick over the #ChapelHillShooting. Whatever the killer’s motive, we atheists need to address anti-Muslim prejudice in our community.”

While it is valid to call for atheists to be mindful of their own possible prejudices against minority groups (religious and otherwise), the Chapel Hill shootings shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Just as it is bigoted to expect Muslims to denounce acts of terrorism, it is similarly irrational and socially irresponsible to assume atheists should be required to speak out against Hicks’ actions, regardless of whether his atheism actually motivated him.

After all, America has a long history of discriminating against atheists.

As recently as last year, a Pew Research Poll found that Americans have very cold feelings toward atheists, ranking them below every other religious group except Muslims. Another survey question found that half of all respondents reported that they wouldn’t want an atheist in-law, while an earlier poll revealed that Americans would be far more likely to support a philandering presidential candidate over one who is openly atheistic.

Finally, although studies have found that atheists are just as likely to be compassionate and moral in their conduct than religious individuals, Americans are still inclined to view atheists as less moral than men and women of faith.

This isn’t because atheists have never had one of their own in the White House. Thomas Jefferson was openly skeptical of all organized religions, even creating his own version of the New Testament that separated Jesus Christ’s moral philosophy from its theological elements.

During his first campaign for the House of Representatives, future president Abraham Lincoln was pressured into denying his own “infidelity” (lack of membership in a formal church and rumored holding of atheistic views) by issuing a public statement that he would not “support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.” This was on the grounds that “I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, or the community in which he may live.”

In a similar vein, Ulysses S. Grant—though never confirmed to be an atheist—fought off rumors to that effect even on his death bed, finally telling those who demanded he state his religious views before he die that, according to the Center for Inquiry, “he saw no use of devoting any special thought to theology at so late a day, and that he was prepared to take his chances with the millions of people who went before him.”

In short, even if America’s government hadn’t been founded on the premise from Samuel Adams’s “The Rights of the Colonists” that “mutual toleration in the different professions [in regard to religion] is what all good and candid minds in all ages have ever practiced,” some of the nation’s greatest leaders either openly criticized organized religion (like Jefferson) or allowed their skepticism to become an open secret (like Grant).

Unfortunately, this hasn’t prevented atheists from suffering intolerance. Americans were still being tried for blasphemy half a century after the ratification of the Constitution, with the last conviction for that crime occurring in the famous case of Abner Kneeland in the 1830s.

Another high-profile court case involving atheism, the Scopes Monkey Trial, still reverberates in our culture today, with atheists identifying with the Tennessee school-teacher fired for teaching evolution just as many religious conservatives continue to support creationism. To this day, seven states have laws on the books ostensibly barring atheists from holding public office.

The statutes prohibiting atheists from elected positions are all the more disturbing by the fact that they exist solely to send a message to non-believers (since they’re clearly unenforceable). This, in turn, speaks to one of the deeper issues at play in the aftermath of the Chapel Hill shootings—the idea that atheists still have explaining to do.

As with any other belief system—whether religious or philosophical—atheism isn’t inherently good or evil. Its adherents are nothing more or less than the aggregate of men and women who arrived at the conclusion that God doesn’t exist. Some of them, inevitably, will use their opinions to justify believing themselves superior to those who subscribe to a religious point of view, just as many Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and other theists use their faiths to do the same thing.

Similarly, just as religious intolerance of those with different faiths or no faith can lead to violence, so too can atheist intolerance toward the religious result in violence (a reality brought home to the world in the 20th century as practicing Christians experienced widespread persecution in Communist countries).

The Chapel Hill shootings are indeed a wake-up call for American atheists, but not because Hicks’ savage actions behoove them to reevaluate their opinions or perform some kind of public soul-searching. Because the Chapel Hill shootings are a tragic reminder that intolerance is the enemy of human progress, atheists need to be mindful of the dangerous implications of the backlash against their community prompted by those attacks.

After a long history of discriminatory attitudes toward atheists—one that persists to this day—American non-believers have no choice but to remind their countrymen of George Washington’s immortal declaration: “For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens.”

Finding Solace and Light After the Gabby Giffords Tragedy

Published: Good Men Project (December 17, 2014)

Matthew Rozsa meditates on what we lost when Gabby Giffords was shot … and what we can still hope for.

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It would be an understatement to say that I’m not an observant Jew. I don’t keep kosher, only periodically observe the High Holy Days, and didn’t even remember that it was Channukah until I saw this Facebook picture of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lighting a menorah with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly,

It’s strange how little things can remind you to pay respect to your roots, and when it happens, it’s usually worthwhile to reflect on why they manage to resonate so strongly. For me, the image of Giffords performing a Jewish ritual did the trick for a very simple reason:

For a brief time, it seemed possible that Gabrielle Giffords might become America’s first Jewish president.

As a Jewish Democrat—even one some would argue identifies more with the second half of that designation than the first—that possibility meant something to me. More importantly, in a country that George Washington once vowed would be a place where “the children of the stock of Abraham” would be able “to sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid,” it should mean something to every American. As we celebrate this festival of lights, it is thus appropriate to briefly explore the potential future we lost and—however heartbreaking it may be to contemplate—precisely why we lost it.

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We can start by observing that Giffords herself was the product of people from different backgrounds coming together. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords recalled how it wasn’t until she took a trip to Israel in 2001 that she developed a strong connection specifically with her Jewish heritage, one that eventually inspired her to become an active member of Tucson’s Jewish community. “I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” she later explained in an interview with Jewish Woman Magazine in 2007, “Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly.” When critics questioned her Judaic bona fides by pointing out that she was only Jewish on her father’s side, she was quick to observe that she went to a Reform congregation (which recognizes as Jewish individuals with parents from either side) and was married in a traditional Jewish ceremony.

Giffords first made Jewish history in 2006 by being the first woman of her faith ever elected to Congress from Arizona. It was at that time that she also began to attract the attention of political history nerds (like me) who noticed an intriguing parallel in this intersection between Arizona and Jewish history: Namely, how Arizona was the same state that produced America’s first presidential candidate of confirmed Jewish heritage (albeit not of Jewish faith), Senator Barry Goldwater. That said, whereas most Also Rans settle into historical obscurity after a couple decades, Goldwater is remembered today as an ideological trailblazer, one whose success in capturing the Republican nomination in 1964 is viewed by scholars as a turning point in the history of modern American conservatism.

In short, the man who acquired notoriety for declaring in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was not a paragon for bringing different sides together. Giffords, by contrast, showed the political world that she could do precisely that when she was reelected in a hotly contested race during a midterm election cycle that was overall disastrous for Democrats. By that time, she had also compiled an impressive record in the House of Representatives, developing a reputation as an effective legislator whose centrist philosophy (she had once been a Republican) allowed her to be ideologically flexible on hot button economic issues while taking brave stances on issues like SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law that encouraged racial profiling. Having now also proved that she could withstand a serious political challenge in a notoriously competitive swing district by garnering Republican as well as Democratic support, it appeared she may have had the raw material necessary to someday mount a successful bid for the White House. It was at that time that I began to seriously wonder if she was destined to be America’s first Jewish president (to say nothing of its first female president).

A little more than two months later, she was struggling for her life after having been shot in the head.

Despite initial suspicions to the contrary, there is no evidence that Jared Lee Loughner was motivated by anti-Semitism when he shot her. Nevertheless, I recall being deeply shaken by the political implications of that tragedy. Not only did it make me think about my own near-death experience—which actually had been motivated by anti-Semitism—but it forced me to question the unique civic obligations that befall American Jews in particular. In particular, it recalled a quote from the Austrian Jewish immigrant and acclaimed actor Theodore Bikel:

I firmly believe that Jewish life, indeed any communal life, can only be organized according to democratic principles.

It also brings to mind President Obama’s own words in his speech about the Tucson shooting:

At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.

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As American Jews celebrate Channukah, I think it would be wise to keep this lesson in our minds and hearts. Yes, the assassination attempt on Giffords was about more than simple partisan divisiveness—everything from the mental derangement of the would-be assassin to America’s shoddy gun regulations (which I’ve discussed in the past with pundit Liskula Cohen) can be legitimately broached here. At the same time, when I think of what it means to be an American Jew, I am reminded primarily of how my identity wouldn’t exist at all if I didn’t live in a country that bound people together from all types of backgrounds. We live at a time when many of those binds are being loosened—by racism among law enforcement officials, by obstructionism among political extremists in Congress, by the ongoing culture wars over everything from whether America should be defined as a “Christian nation” to how much control the state should have over our personal moral lives—and American Jews have an especially acute interest in remembering that our future depends on Americans being driven by a desire to unite, not divide.

We may have been robbed of seeing that lesson made manifest in a Gabby Giffords presidency, but hopefully the sight of her lighting a menorah can remind us of the message.