Saturday, 7 October 2017

Cold, Dead Hands

Image courtesy: @SteveHofstetter

Here we are again, folks. 

Look at the picture on the right and tell me what's wrong with it. Nothing? How about if I told you that this photograph was taken on 4th October. No? How about when I tell you that it was taken in Las Vegas?

I have no doubt that this topic is going to piss an awful lot of people off, and it will probably lose me some readership. That would be a shame, not least because nobody should wish to live in an echo chamber. I certainly don't. I welcome disagreement, because disagreement drives discourse, and it's only through discourse that we can reach agreement - where it's at all possible - and begin to address some of the intellectual and ethical follies of our species.

That said, it's incumbent upon me, in this venue in which how we think about things is the central theme, to talk about how we think about something that is causing genuine harm to our species' progress. I'm going to try to keep it as light as I can, but this is a serious topic, and it's going to be difficult to retain any degree of levity.

This past weekend, once again, there has been a mass shooting in the US. At this point, the number of mass shootings (defined as shootings with four or more casualties) seems to be staying in lock-step with the number of days at one per day, give or take. As the final reverberations of gunfire begin to fade in our minds, even while the actual reverberations have long ceased, the discussion turns, as it always does, to all sorts of things, but all studiously avoiding the elephant in the room. In fact, worse than that, unlike most such rhetorical pachyderms, this is one that's briefly acknowledged only to point out that it's 'not the time' to acknowledge it, or that 'we shouldn't politicise' such tragedies.

Well, in the all-too-mortal words of somebody or other, fuck that, and the equine quadruped that propelled it hence. This IS a political matter, and sweeping it under the carpet until the dust settles, given the average of 1 mass shooting per day, means that the dust remains airborne and the time to acknowledge and discuss it never comes. I'll come back to this point later.

Here, I'm going to talk about private gun ownership, the truth about the legal basis for it in the US, and the deep incongruence between how Americans view safety legislation in terms of guns and in terms of other products.

First, though, I want to talk about cold, dead hands. Specifically, I want to talk about the cold, dead hands of those whose voices are lost to the discussion, and who will forever remain voiceless on these issues, because these are the voices that should be given the loudest platform. My intention is to speak for them, even those who would disagree with me. This isn't because I think I'm genuinely in a position to speak on their behalf and voice their opinions, but because it's the only way I can think of that they can be given voice.

As with all such circumstances, it's hard to think of the victims in anything other than the abstract, even when they're named, unless you actually know them. This is of particular significance when we start to approach the gun control debate, because the discussion always revolves around abstract concepts like the holy scripture chapter 2A (which I'll be coming back to shortly). To make this real, I want to pick one person more or less at random and talk about them so that we can retain focus on the real issue here, which is people. As soon as we move away from people, we're missing the point. A quick interjection to thank @MichaelSkolnik, who compiled some information on the victims.

I chose this person for no particular reason other than that she was the first person in Michael's compilation who quickly turned up an article with some biographical information. I'm not going to give a name, because I really want to focus on the life.

This particular person was in her 30s. Having finished her masters in education in May this year, she was a teacher of kindergarten in California. That alone is sufficient to give some insight into her hopes and what sort of person she was. I've always had a special affinity with teachers, as regular readers of my ramblings will know, and I have some grasp of the kind of thing that motivates them. Any person who dedicates their life to education is a superstar, in my book. It's the most honourable of professions, criminally underpaid, for the most part, and attracts people who really love people, regardless of subject matter or age. One who gives their career to honing the minds of the youngest and preparing them to face the world deserves our utmost respect.

This particular educator is survived by her husband - who was also present and injured in the event, hit in the arm by the bullet that killed his wife, it's thought - and two children, on just entering high school and the other still in elementary school. She also leaves, among others, two brothers, both of whom live in Vegas and whom she and her husband were visiting as well as attending the concert.

Let's think about that for a moment. Think about the time and effort this woman put into making a life for herself and her family. Think about her children, whose lives have been derailed by this event. Think about the children in her class, with whom she's built trusting relationships.

She's not the only teacher in the list of victims, either. Indeed, the victims fit a fairly broad category, including teachers, emergency service personnel, musicians, medical professionals, students, LEOs, military personnel, of all ages. Essentially, no demographic is entirely untouched.

Is any 'right' worth this? This is what we should keep forefront in our minds as we continue. We could have chosen anybody from that list of victims. Indeed, we could have chosen any victim at random from any of the 276 mass shootings in 2017 alone, where a mass shooting is defined as one in which there are four or more casualties (worth noting that, when I started this entry, that number was 273, meaning that there have been three since, one in which four people were killed). Or we could choose any of the millions of people who've lost their lives prematurely at the hands of firearms in the US in modern times.

There are some other interesting stats knocking around on this. In August 2015, there was another incident that also made world news. Very few shootings do when the casualties are few, but this one was a bit different than most. A reporter and her cameraman for a CBS-affiliated local TV station in Virginia were shot and killed on air during a live outside broadcast. Also shot was the director of the local chamber of commerce who was being interviewed, though she survived. The gunman, a disgruntled former colleague of the two, then turned the gun on himself.

The reason for raising this is that, in the aftermath, a column appeared in the New York Times talking about what could be learned from it, and it cited some statistics concerning gun deaths. In particular, a comparison was cited that's really quite astonishing, namely that more people have died in the US by firearm than have died in all the wars in US history.

Politifact checked these figures. They state that, where possible, they've included all war-related deaths, and not just those as a direct result of combat. They also revised their figures from the civil war upward to the tune of some 225,000, though that figure does contain a degree of uncertainty due to the variables involved in including figures from disease. In short, they've been conservative in their estimates so as not to over-dramatise the figures. Even then, the numbers they have for all the wars the US has had involvement in since inception at 1,396,733. By comparison, using the original comparison date of Robert Kennedy's assassination in 1968, the number of gun deaths in the US is a staggering 1,516,863 up to 2015. That's a difference of 120,130 in favour of gun deaths.

Now, there are obviously some things to be taken into account. Many of those are suicides, and anybody in the position where they're going to take their life is pretty much going to find a way to do it. Still, this does raise a question. I don't want to wander too far down this road, but a study by the AJM in 2016[1] shows that there's a direct correlation to higher suicide rates in states with higher gun ownership (and especially youth suicide), and also that there's a direct correlation to homicide in those states. 

There's more from the same study. In particular:
US homicide rates were 7.0 times higher than in other high-income countries, driven by a gun homicide rate that was 25.2 times higher. For 15- to 24-year-olds, the gun homicide rate in the United States was 49.0 times higher. Firearm-related suicide rates were 8.0 times higher in the United States, but the overall suicide rates were average. Unintentional firearm deaths were 6.2 times higher in the United States. The overall firearm death rate in the United States from all causes was 10.0 times higher. Ninety percent of women, 91% of children aged 0 to 14 years, 92% of youth aged 15 to 24 years, and 82% of all people killed by firearms were from the United States.

Moving on, as there's still a fair bit of ground to cover. 

For those of us not in the US, there's much head-shaking going on every time we hear about one of these incidents. Here in the UK, for example, all it took was a single incident to trigger a significant tightening of gun laws, and another to tighten them even further. In Australia, the situation is similar.

Meanwhile, back in the 'greatest nation on Earth' (a ridiculously hyperbolic statement that grates on non-Americans every time they hear it; more on that later), it seems that no act of violence is sufficient to compel any serious thought on the subject. We're rapidly approaching 20 years since a couple of kids walked into a high school and killed 15 people, including themselves. In any nation on Earth this, if nothing before it had, would have garnered stiff legislative changes. Yet nothing. We're also coming up on five years since one man killed 28 people, including 20 children aged between 6 and 7 years old. That would, in any civilised country, have shut down all dissent and made restrictive legislation an absolute slam-dunk. Still nothing. I recall both of these events with some horror, but it measures nothing against the horror of seeing people make excuses for not tightening up legislation.

There are several reasons given, and those are where we repair to next.

To a non-American like myself, there is something that's really attractive about the US. We looked at it briefly in Ich Dein. It's the central document that defines the power of the government and protects the people against usurpations by government. I'm speaking, of course, about the Constitution. This is a truly amazing document, and I know I'm not the only non-American who thinks so. There is, however, a problem.

Here's the second amendment:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
The intention here is unambiguous. Many will tell you that this means that people have a right to own any gun to protect themselves against attack. This is, of course, complete nonsense. It's right there, and more broadly it's there in the constitution of which this amendment forms a small part. What's being protected here is the freedom of individual states against overbearing government and potential despotism. The problem is that the language is just woolly enough that it can be taken much further.

Another important problem with it is that it lacks a certain amount of foresight. Despite the fact that one of the people responsible for this document was a prolific inventor, no thought was given to future arms development. More importantly, as firearms technology progressed, no attempt was made to place limitations on precisely what was allowed to be kept. Now, when there are weapons available that can fire ridiculous amounts of ammunition in very short spaces of time, that lack of foresight and the inertia of legislation is taking larger and larger chunks out of the population.

The other part of that constitution that is overlooked is the bit about a 'well regulated Militia'. That's a key bit of language there, because it gives the context in which the amendment is phrased, and should in fact drive the conditions under which the right to keep and bear arms is framed. Anybody reading that with a modicum of critical analysis would come away with the notion that one actually had to be a member of said militia, and that it actually be well regulated. 

In short, what that amendment is for is to ensure that states can protect themselves, and that central government cannot infringe on the rights of individual states to arm their citizens as part of a well-regulated militia. It's entirely unambiguous. Looked at from that perspective, even the most powerful of firearms available to the public, including the modified weapons employed in the Las Vegas shooting, do not fulfil the criteria laid out in the second amendment. No publicly available arms are actually in any danger of defending a state against the usurpations of government unless you think, as one commentator put it, that an AR-15 is going to protect you against a fully-armed Apache helicopter. These alone render the 2nd amendment an anachronism.

More importantly, anybody who suggests that repealing an amendment to the constitution is somehow an infringement of rights in and of itself is deficient in their understanding of history. The first clue is in that word, 'amendment'. The second is that there have been repeals of amendments in the past. I'm sure none of the down-home types who most vehemently support the 2nd amendment will feel that their rights are being infringed by their freedom to enjoy a Jack Daniel's at the hoedown.

There's another problem, of course, an organisation that's hand-in-glove with the gun manufacturers, and that spends millions upon millions in campaign contributions, lobbying, etc., and that seems to have large portions of the legislature in its pocket nation-wide. The National Rifle Association is one of the most influential bodies in the US. Among their activities, most of which many of us would find unconscionable, there's one particularly pernicious bit of fuckwittery they've engaged in, and this alone puts them well and truly in the sights in terms of responsibility. Through their lobbying activities, they effectively stymied any research into the impact of guns on public health by the Centres for Disease Control. 

The Dickey Amendment, as it's known, is a legislative sleight-of-hand. In essence, it limits what the CDC can say about gun safety. It states that "none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may be used to advocate or promote gun control." It doesn't explicitly ban research into gun safety, but it precludes any reporting that might be seen as advocating gun control or advising safety measures. This amendment was introduced as part of a spending bill in which the exact amount previously allocated for firearms research (a paltry $2.6 million) was earmarked for brain trauma research, with no increase in spending overall.

To this day, CDC are effectively hobbled in doing any research into this important area, one of the biggest causes of preventable death in the US. The wiki entry for preventable deaths brings firearms deaths in at 1.3% of all preventable deaths. A matter of some interest is the figure for deaths from drug abuse, which sits two places below gun death at 0.7%. The colossal amount of cash spent by government in the war on drugs makes fora stark comparison to that research figure given above. In 2010 alone, the US Federal Government spent $15 billion on the war on drugs. This year, with most of three months to go, that figure is already more than twice that, at almost $31.5 billion.

The ridiculous disconnect there is indicative of just what's wrong with how some people think about these things. The government will throw all sorts of money at an issue that, in large part, only affects those involved (approximately half of all drug arrests are for cannabis, 89% of which are for possession only), but will run away from any spending that even looks askance at the notion of whether private gun ownership is a good idea. Nobody who's thinking clearly can think this is good.

I do note with interest that the NRA has issued a statement saying that they support additional regulation for 'bump stocks', as these devices were used by the shooter in Las Vegas to increase the firing rate. Some explanation is probably apposite here for those uninitiated.

A semi-automatic weapon is an automated gun that discharges once for each squeeze of the trigger, as opposed to a fully automatic weapon, which repeatedly discharges for as long as the trigger is depressed. A bump-stock is a modification that can be attached to any semi-automatic gun, and uses the natural recoil of the weapon to simulate multiple trigger-presses. In this way, the weapon can be repeatedly discharged far faster than a human finger can manage, simulating fully automatic fire.

I note that the NRA still makes the mistake of stating that ownership is a right.

I'm going to move on now, and circle back to the noisome drivel about when the right time to discuss such matters is. There was one commentor on twitter, a 'journalist' (wanted to say germalist) for that bastion of moral turpitude and perennial fuckwittery, Fox News, who had this to say:
There are several things to be said about this, not least Kurtz's adherence to this appropriateness clock. In the wake of the Pulse shooting in Florida, Kurtz published an article within 26 hours, which falls just within the confines of his standard. Now, the article isn't a long one and, unlike those of us who actually give a shit, he isn't bound to be truthful or accurate about anything. At the risk of committing the genetic fallacy, the rare occasions when Faux News gets anything right are a statistical anomaly, and certainly not the result of anybody caring about whether what's being reported has any basis in fact. Still, that article must have been all but ready to go to press well within his standard for what's an appropriate time to politicise an issue. In any event, I'd be willing to place a modest wager that, were I to look back over the instances of such tragedies in the past, I'd have no problem coming up with an instance in which Kurtz did exactly what he's criticising here. 

That aside, there's a real problem with the notion that we should pause for respect when such events occur before bringing them into the public sphere for discussion. I touched on it above, but I expressed it more completely in my own response to Kurtz.

There's been, on average, one mass shooting per day in 2017 in the US. As above, this is defined as any incident involving four or more casualties (not necessarily fatal). In that light, leaving it another day means nothing more than leaving it alone. What's really insidious about this notion is the way it's couched, as a matter of 'respect for the victims' or 'giving time to grieve'. This is little more than a fallacious appeal to emotion and, while this is indeed an emotive issue for many, this particular appeal belies the utter lack of emotion and respect for the victims displayed when the topic is broached in the public sphere.

My regular readers know that I'm a lover of films, and usually manage to wiggle them into the discussion somewhere, and this is no different, but I'm going to talk in more general terms here. Anybody who's watched a reasonably large number of films will have come across some crisis situation in which one of the central characters is killed, and somebody from the in-group freezes up in grief and shock. Another of the in-group always comes along and says 'we can grieve later but, if we stop to do it now, we're all going to die'.  This is an expression of something that's well understood in fields such as first-response and crisis management, military theatres, etc. If you take the time to grieve and mourn the fallen in such situations, the likelihood is that there'll be more mourning to be done. The time to give respect, mourn the fallen and grieve is after the crisis is over. Well, this is an ongoing crisis, renewed daily, and yet we seem to have a different standard for this crisis. 

If we're going to have any discussion about respecting the victims, it's high time we began to couch the discussion in terms of ensuring that their deaths weren't just empty statistics, in terms of ensuring that some action is taken to facilitate the protection of potential future victims. It's time we started to think about the children who've lost their parents and teachers, the parents who've lost their children, the husbands who've lost wives and vice versa. It's time we had the discussion as if we really cared about saving lives.

Here's a medical professional, paediatrician Jeannie Moorjani MD talking about it not being time (with thanks):
It's not too soon.
When I take care of a hospitalized child who almost drowned, we talk about water safety, supervision, and swim lessons. When I take care of a hospitalized child who is ejected during a motor vehicle crash & survives, we talk about car seats & seat belt safety. When I take care of a hospitalized child who had an accidental ingestion or overdose of meds, we talk about keeping meds out of reach. When an infant is hospitalized after being almost smothered during sleep, we talk about SIDS, back to sleep, and safe sleep practices. When we take care of a baby who has been coughing and apneic and diagnosed with pertussis, we talk about life-saving vaccines. When we care for a child who survives a gunshot wound, we talk about gun safety and keeping guns and ammunition locked up separately.
I am a pediatric hospitalist at the only Level 1 trauma center in my city. This is my lane, and I'm staying in it. If not now, then when? A mass shooting happened in my backyard, it happened in Vegas, and it will happen in your town if we don't act to produce meaningful change.
So you know what to do. Donate money. Donate blood. Support gun violence research and its impact on public health. Vote ✅
Here's another group of voices that needs to be heard, speaking to theNew York Times in the last couple of days:
So feel free to tell us that it isn't time, but don't dare try to couch it in terms of respect for the victims and their families. 

In my last outing, I talked a fair bit about what constitutes service and, although I didn't make it explicit, there was a fair bit in there about patriotism. It's always been a matter of some interest to me that the way patriotism is viewed in some places. For myself, patriotism is a complete mystery, especially when cast in terms of unswerving pride in and loyalty to mere geography, but I recognise that I'm something of an outlier in this. 

One thing that does spring to mind that's vaguely relevant here is an incident some years ago when I worked in the local library service. The local authority decided to have a staff day, in which an exorbitant amount of money was spent bringing staff into a large conference hall in a hotel (not even the council's own conference facility), and at which the leader of the council asked the question 'who's proud of our city?' After receiving a somewhat tepid response, the leader of the council suggested that anybody present who wasn't proud should probably be looking for another job. You might think that he was right in this, but this misses the point, and falls squarely in the camp of misplaced pride such as often manifests itself in patriotism. His response, and that of those denigrating, for example, those taking a knee during the national anthem, overlook the simple notion that not feeling pride in something one is involved in doesn't preclude wanting to make it something that one can feel pride in.

The thing that should make most Americans proud is that document we talked about earlier, a document that enshrines the government's responsibility to the people of America. What the current interpretations of the second amendment are actually doing is working hard and fast against those responsibilities. It's giving every American the means to take lives, often without thinking. 

Now, I'm perfectly aware that there are many, many responsible gun owners in the US. I know quite a lot of them myself. I also know that even the most responsible of us can be incredibly irresponsible in the heat of the moment. More importantly, though, no gun owner can, in my humble, really consider themselves responsible if they truly think that their ownership of lethal firearms is worth the life of even one child, let alone the lives of those killed at Sandy Hook or Columbine. Here in the UK, we've lived without the death penalty for several decades. This penalty was repealed on the simple basis that even a single instance of getting it wrong is too many. In the wake of one gun-related incident, our gun laws were tightened to what a 2A proponent would probably refer to as draconian, and another led to tightening them almost into zero private ownership. In that light, let's look at what another medical professional has to say on this:
So here it is, America. If you really want to believe that your nation is the greatest on Earth, here's the first step to living up to your blurb. I'm under no illusion that there's much chance of actually dealing with this problem in the complete manner required, but until you at least regulate ownership sensibly, and reduce the kinds of weapons that are legally available to private owners, the old adage being a 'nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to live there' will be the nicest thing others can say about it, and the only cold, dead hands anybody else will be talking about are the cold, dead hands of yet more cold, dead children.

[1] Grinshteyn et al The American Journal of Medicine Volume 129, Issue 3, March 2016