Bump Stock Paddock

There’s a lot to talk about since the Sunday when a 64 year old man with no prior criminal record or apparent axe to grind killed 58 people and injured over 500 more by shooting at a large crowd attending a country music festival. Let me start by again offering my condolences to all those affected. This incident becomes more visceral for me each time I am acquainted with the victims, their families and friends.

In my first post on this topic I said I was interested in the shooter’s motive. As of today none has been discovered, or if one has been discovered, it has not yet been reported. I will not be surprised if it turns out that this nut, a guy named Stephen Paddock, turns out to be a terrorist of some stripe. In other words, that his motivation to kill was to further some political goal. That’s the difference, at least in Federal law, between an act of terrorism and other violent acts not associated with a political goal.

The reason I think that the shooter was motivated by politics is that there doesn’t seem to be any other motive, and the extreme nature of his actions are inconsistent with his background. For example, he had no criminal record and according to news reports he is somewhat wealthy. Add to that his age at the time of the shooting and the whole thing doesn’t add up. I mean, who, at the age of 64, just up and decides one day to murder and injure a bunch of random people?

I used to assess workplace violence threats as part of my job and the way you do the assessment is to use a matrix of indicia. Does the employee have a grievance against the employer? Does the employee have a history of violent behavior? Are they in the middle of a personal crisis involving, for example, finances or relationships? Have they verbalized threats to co-workers or others? This list of indicia is not comprehensive but you get the idea. The only indicia in this guy’s case is that he had access to weapons. Other than that you get a giant goose egg.

Now let’s talk about gun control. And no, it’s not “too early” to talk about that, because gun control is an overarching issue that doesn’t relate to this mass shooting in particular, but to the arc of increase in mass shootings in the United States generally. One encouraging sign that has emerged in the aftermath of this shooting is that, for once, the National Rifle Association and both major political parties seem to be in agreement that so-called “bump stocks” should be outlawed. For those who haven’t been following the news reports, a “bump stock” is a device that modifies a semi-automatic weapon such that it acts like a fully automatic weapon, or machine gun. The Vegas shooter had modified several semi-automatic weapons using the bump stock device, such that he had several fully automatic weapons at his disposal for use during the massacre.

Beyond agreement on that one measure, the parties have backed into their usual corners, with Democrats in using the opportunity to advocate in favor of stricter gun control and Republicans (and the NRA) trotting out the usual talking points about how this particular shooting would not have been prevented by, for example, universal background checks. It’s true that the Vegas shooter passed all of the required background checks for purchasing the weapons used in the massacre. But the problem with that argument is that it is anecdotal and, moreover, doesn’t hold up from a common sense perspective. I mean, background checks are already required for most gun purchases, so presumably the government thinks they are a good idea. Common sense tells you background checks are a good idea. So then why would it make sense to have loopholes for gun shows?

Another measure that, at least to me, makes sense is to question why a gun purchaser needs to have several of the same type of weapon. The Vegas shooter had several high powered rifles that he had purchased in the months leading up to the massacre. Some might argue that gun enthusiasts (e.g., collectors) should have a right to own as many weapons as they want, but it doesn’t make sense that a collector would, for example, buy several weapons of the same make and model. At the very least authorities should be able to know when such purchases are occurring and have an opportunity to question the purchaser as to the reason why they want multiples of the same type of gun. In the case of the Vegas shooter, he apparently wanted multiple high powered rifles with the bump stock modification because if he only had one of them the gun barrel would melt down at a certain point due to the heat generated. With multiples of the same gun he could simply swap out for a new one and continue the massacre.

Of course, one way to know if someone is purchasing multiples of the same type of weapon is through a national gun registry, which would be a very controversial move, at least from the perspective of the National Rifle Association and other gun rights advocates. Why would that be so controversial? In my opinion, it has to do with the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which conveys the right to bear arms. The Second Amendment reads as follows: “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.”

Now read that carefully. The stated reason for the right to bear arms is because it is “necessary to the security of a free State.” This is consistent with something that occurred to me when I was on vacation in New England and took a tour that went from Boston to Concord, or what is referred to as the revolutionary “battle trail.” Many Americans know the famous story of Paul Revere alerting the colonists in the middle of the night that the British army was coming. What many don’t know is why they were coming.

In short, the colonial leaders, including John Hancock and Samuel Adams, and the colonists in general, were angry because the British (i.e., the King) had instituted taxes on various imported goods, including tea, in order to fund England’s war with France. That anger came to a head when the colonists dumped tea into Boston harbor, in what is known as the Boston tea party. The King was worried that the anger would lead to insurrection and ordered that the colonists’ guns be confiscated. Word of the King’s intentions leaked to the colonists, who then gathered up all the guns in Boston and hid them in Concord. Then, word leaked to the British army that the colonists had hid the guns in Concord, and the footrace was on. The colonists (or Minutemen) and the British army regulars confronted each other about half way between Boston and Concord, at the town of Lexington, and a battle ensued in which several combatants were killed, and thus began the Revolutionary War that ultimately led to the creation of the United States.

Given this history, you can imagine why the drafters of the Constitution wanted an amendment that guaranteed the “right of the people to keep and bear arms.” But the right to keep and bear arms wasn’t so that people would have those weapons for personal protection. As stated in the Second Amendment, it was “necessary to the security of a free State.” In other words, having lived through the experience of having a government (the King of England) try to confiscate their weapons, they saw it necessary to prevent a government (of the United States) from doing so at some later time. To summarize, the right to bear arms is not so that you can use those arms for your personal protection; it is so that you aren’t living in a tyranny. So, you might forgive those who are suspicious of a national gun registry, it being the Federal government and all. Confiscation could be possible (however unlikely) if the Feds knew who had what.

Personally, I think that’s a paranoid reaction that should not inform public policy. But that’s just me, and I respect those who hold a different view. I think it’s important for all of us to be respectful of each other’s views in order for this discussion to bear fruit.

 

Mandalay Massacre

My condolences to all the victims of the horrific shooting incident in Las Vegas last night. In a time when people are so divided, at least we can all come together in our sadness.

I’ve attended outdoor concerts at a venue similar to, but much smaller than, the venue where the shooting took place. There is an outdoor concert facility in South Lake Tahoe next to a hotel tower. Sometimes people book rooms at that hotel so they can watch the show from their hotel room. In fact, the rock band Weezer is playing there on October 5th. I’ll be interested to see what, if any, changes are made to the security arrangements in light of what just happened, or whether the show might even be cancelled.

I wonder how the shooter came into possession of a machine gun, which you can hear clearly on the many videos they are showing on TV. That’s one of many questions that need to be answered in the coming days and weeks.

The main question I have is the shooter’s motivation.

That’s Entertainment?

I enjoy watching professional sports on television, except for hockey and soccer. But I definitely watch a fair amount of baseball, American football, and basketball. It is the primary reason I have not dropped my cable TV service in favor of streaming services such as Hulu and Netflix.

Of course, professional sports are not the only thing I watch on television. I watch a fair amount of cable news coverage, and I watch a lot of shows like Antiques Road Show, Ice Road Truckers, as well as the History Channel, cooking shows and stuff like that. But live action sports are, for me, the main attraction of cable TV service, because it is live television that let’s you get away from the day to day rumble tumble. I mean, really, the only other live television these days is hurricane coverage, which is not a get away from anything; it’s an immersion into something very bad. Even Saturday Night Live isn’t “live” if you’re watching from the west coast (though supposedly their going to try a live coast to coast broadcast this season; it’ll be interesting to see how many people stay home in prime time on a Saturday night to see that).

Which is why I am dismayed that in the past several months, professional sporting events have began to cross-pollinate with the sort of news coverage that I watch live sports to get away from. It started last season when a certain quarterback decided to sit during the singing of the National Anthem as a protest. Of course, said quarterback has a right under the First Amendment of the Constitution to engage in free speech, even in the context of his employment, because the matter he was protesting is a matter of broad public interest. Even I have written about it previously. So, I have no problem with him (or any other professional athlete) exercising their right to free speech. But you know what? When they engage in that free speech attendant to a professional sporting event, I don’t find that entertaining.

In fact, quite the opposite. It makes we want to change the channel, or turn off the TV. Which is not to say that I think the issues they are protesting are unimportant. I watch a lot of news coverage about those issues and follow the discussions with keen interest. It’s just that maybe I already spent a few hours during the week watching that coverage. Maybe I’ve also watched coverage about street protests in my region about those issues; perhaps I’ve even attended a protest or two. So when I try to watch a live sporting event, the last thing I want to think about at that particular time is protests or the underlying issues. I’m trying to take a break from that for a few dear hours. And it’s now to the point where I can’t listen to sports talk radio without 20% of the content being a meta-level discussion of the protests and the underlying issues.

Some might say that’s selfish on my part; that the protests are so much more important than the live sporting events. That’s true, of course. But then why should I watch the live sporting events at all? I could just watch the cable news coverage about the protests or read about them in articles online without sandwiching in a lot of sweaty guys engaged in various activities involving balls of different shapes and sizes.

I spent some time thinking about this and it occurred to me that the National Anthem is not played or sung at other events, like golf tournaments, for example (I’ve been to several tournaments, so I know first hand). Also, the National Anthem is not played prior to the beginning of most live music event, or when you go to a comedy club or some other type of live entertainment.

Why do the major professional sports leagues in this country play the National Anthem before the games? It isn’t required by law; it’s something the leagues have decided to do at some point and have done for a long time. Frankly, I don’t presume to know why they do it, exactly. If you take them at their word, via the stadium announcer, it is to “honor America.” The stadium announcer always says, “To honor America, please stand and remove your cap during the singing of our National Anthem.” So let’s assume there is no other reason than the stated one: to honor America. Except that some subset of the players have decided to not follow the request of the stadium announcer, which is their right. Well, it seems to me at that point it does not honor America. My suggestion would be to stop playing the National Anthem at professional sporting events until this entire issue is resolved.

In the meantime, I’m going to stop watching live action sports on television, not as a protest or boycott, but because I am not entertained.

Film Review: The Interview

The Interview

Well, Sony and independent theaters finally did the right thing and allowed Americans to watch the new Seth Rogen film, The Interview. The neat thing about seeing this film is that it exists in the unique context of an international incident involving the United States, North Korea, and shadowy computer hackers.

The story about why the film’s release was delayed has played out like some bizarre performance art piece that rivals the film itself in it’s sheer absurdity. The film combined with it’s context has become a separate piece of art. I have to review that separate piece of art, because that’s what I saw, and, at least for me, it was impossible to separate the film from it’s context.

A talk show host and his producer receive an invitation to interview the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong Un, and are recruited by the CIA to assassinate him. It’s a silly premise, but removing any hint of seriousness from the get go opens up the screenplay and let’s the writers roam free in an absurdist wonderland.

There’s also plenty of funny meta-level stuff about the entertainment industry, including a cameo performance by the rap superstar Eminem as a guest on the talk show. By the way, there has been speculation about Eminem’s health based on recent photographs of him. His physical appearance in the movie will do nothing to dispel that speculation. He didn’t look well, even while wearing theatrical makeup.

The Interview has not received glowing reviews from critics, but those reviews were of the film itself, absent the contextual wrap-around of the international incident. I really enjoyed the film and thought it was very funny. The funniest thing about it is that the jokes sort of get mixed up with the over-the-top propaganda coming out of North Korea about the film. For example, the film opens with a young North Korean girl singing a patriotic song in Korean. The lyrics are shown in English subtitles and could have come straight from the North Korean government. That part was hysterical.

Another funny thing about the film (in context) is that it’s primarily a typical Seth Rogen/James Franco buddy movie that doesn’t take the subject matter seriously. The fact that North Korea got so upset about it is farcical. I can only imagine that they didn’t see it, because it actually portrays Kim Jong Un in a fairly sympathetic way, more than would be due if the subject matter was treated seriously.

I bought The Interview rather than renting it. I did that because it’s not just a film; it’s a unique piece of history, and I want to keep it for repeated viewings and future pop-culture references. If you haven’t seen The Interview you should; not out of any sense of patriotic duty, though it is a pure manifestation of the state of American culture; but because it’s a very funny comedy that will have you exiting the theater with a spring in your step.

The independent theater owners who screened it, and Sony Pictures, should be applauded for doing the right thing, albeit belatedly.

The Frog Sings (Not)

MJF Not Singing

Just when I thought that some level of consensus had formed around the death of Eric Garner in New York, I got into quite a discussion while posting comments regarding an article someone forwarded to me.

If you don’t want to read the whole article, the author concludes that he “cannot in good conscience say there was insufficient probable cause to indict Officer Pantaleo for involuntary manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.” His conclusion is based on a standard of reasonableness as regards the use of force by the police.

So, I posted the following comment in response to the article:

“Thank you. I agree with your analysis. There was a point made on TV the other night, which is that he died as a result of the chokehold, but also chest compression from the weight of the other officers. But Pantaleo was the only one the grand jury looked at. That may be why they didn’t indict him, but it’s still a travesty. Forget, for a minute, about the reasonableness test for cops. I don’t see how anyone can watch that video, hear Garner saying repeatedly that he can’t breathe, and think that continuing the chokehold was OK. Did they think he was lying? If so, on what basis?”

Oh boy. Here’s the string of comments that ensued, along with my replies. The handles of the other posters have been changed.

Other Poster #1: “Did it occur to you that if he could talk he could breath?”

Me: “Yes, that does occur to me. I suppose he could have said “I’m having difficulty breathing.” But it wouldn’t have made any difference so far as the actions of the officer.”

Other Poster #1: “Their actions were the correct actions. He did not die as a result of any type of hold.”

Me: “Then why did the coroner’s report conclude that his death was a homicide? I don’t think the New York coroner’s office is engaging in some sort of subjective, conspiratorial scheme.”

Other Poster #1: “The coroner did not say it was due to a chokehold … And the Grand Jury found no wrongdoing on the part of police … So what would be your point?”

Me: “Homicide means he did not die of natural causes. So I guess my point is that he died as a result of the actions of the police. You can debate whether those actions were criminal, but can you at least acknowledge that their actions caused his death ( which would contradict your earlier post)?”

Other Poster #1: “I am not debating anything…if he complies he lives…he chose not to and was taken down in a very efficient manner…his bad health killed him…but it would have been so easy for him to live…the police are not the bad guys…”

Me: “Well, to me, the notion that it’s OK for the police to cause someone’s death trying to arrest them for selling loose cigarettes is debatable. I respectfully disagree with you, sir.”

Other Poster #2: “Are the police supposed to be psychic now? Were they supposed to just know that Mr. Garner was unarmed and going to have a heart-attack?”

Me: “They knew he was unarmed at the point when he was on the ground. The coroner ruled his death a homicide, which means he wouldn’t have had a heart attack at that particular moment but for the actions of the police.”

That’s the whole string. Is it just me or do these other posters seem completely out to lunch?

The Frog Sings

Michigan J Frog

When I was a kid, I saw a cartoon premised on a frog who lived in a cigar box. The frog would only sing and dance for the person who found the cigar box and opened it. The person unfortunate enough to find the frog would, inevitably, try to make money presenting the frog in theaters, but the frog would never perform in those conditions. The person who found the frog would thus be humiliated and take the frog home, at which point the frog would continue it’s act.

I imagine that people who claim they’ve been abused by the police might feel a bit like the person who found the frog, trying in vain to convince others of their experience. I remembered the cartoon when I saw the video of the police in New York trying to arrest the guy accused of selling loose cigarettes, who died of a heart attack due to his mistreatment.

For once, it seems, most everyone saw the same thing, regardless of race. There are protests going on and the protesters are a diverse group. Also, the protests have been peaceful, which lends added legitimacy.

This is progress. Let’s be happy that the frog is finally singing for a wider audience.

Conference Wrap Up

lemon-jelly

Last night was the big conference reception at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The reception was nice and I had a chance to visit old friends and make new ones. Alcohol can be a bad habit, but in a social setting it opens people up and sometimes you have good group conversations.

There were two primary topics of conversation: The rape allegations involving Bill Cosby, and President Obama’s executive action regarding those who have entered the United States in violation of immigration law.

With regard to Cosby, the only observation I have is the power of the media. His career has probably been destroyed by allegations several years old. I don’t know if any of the allegations are true, but he was never indicted or convicted of rape. Yet the media was easily able to turn the story of the allegations into a full blown controversy, to the point where two major deals Cosby had for new entertainment were broken.

So far as the immigration reform, I think that the practical implications pale in comparison to the political implications. The people at issue are already here and have been here for many years. There will likely be some marginal difference for them, but if you think about it, they would have been deported already if that was an actual threat. And the fact that they have been here a long time says a lot about their situation; it must be a better life here as an undocumented migrant than if they were to return to their places of origin.

But the political implications are enormous. I’m not a constitutional scholar or anything, but it does seem to me that the President is at least stretching the envelope by not working on immigration reform with Congress. And yes, that’s a two way street, but the irony is that any hope of having immigration reform the old-fashioned way has now been dashed, at least in the short term. And that’s unfortunate, because it’s a real problem that must be dealt with somehow. Even the President acknowledged yesterday afternoon that the action he has taken doesn’t fix the problem.

Polls show that most Americans want immigration reform. Polls also show that they didn’t want the President to do what he did, so it’s a mystery to me why he chose to go it alone.

Anyway, the rest of the conference was a little dry, but it ended at noon. I had plenty of time to drive back to the bay area before the really bad traffic set in.

The Ballot Measures

Well, I’ve read all of the State-wide ballot measures, along with the arguments for and against. If you plan on voting, I encourage all to do the same.

I am going to share my thoughts about them, not with the intention of trying to sway people one way or the other, but simply to engage in a civics conversation.

I’m going to vote yes on ballot measures 1 and 2. My reasoning has less to do with the ballot measures themselves and more to do with the process by which they got on the ballot.

Measures 1 and 2 were placed on the ballot by the State legislature. Both measures were voted on by the legislature, with broad bi-partisan support. Both measures are also supported by the Governor. In a time when governance is defined by gridlock, it seems to me that measures that are voted on by the legislature, receive broad bi-partisan support, and are also supported by the Governor, deserve the support of the electorate as well. In that scenario, it’s nice that the electorate is being included in the decision.

All the other ballot measures are on the ballot through petition. As I said in my previous post, I think that is a flawed process that locks out the very people who have been elected to legislate, so I’m voting no on the rest.

Don’t forget to vote.

Poll-a-pism: An Election Lasting More Than Four Hours

The title is a riff from the commercial for the erectile dysfunction drug, Cialis. Obviously, all elections last more than four hours, but this particular one feels unnaturally lengthy.

I think part of it is specific to California and the sheer, soul-crushing drudgery that flows from the predictable nature of politics here. The coastal counties are dominated by Democrats who are, in turn, supported by public sector unions. The central valley is somewhat more diverse, with some Republicans sneaking into office because they are social conservatives.

The State legislature has a democrat super-majority, which tends to minimize any competition of ideas or policy prescriptions. About the only countervailing force is the democrat governor, Jerry Brown, who has been acting in a more centrist manner than he needs to, given the construct of the legislature. In any event, the current state of political affairs has created a drama-free zone.

Then there is the fact that many of the major policy issues manifest not through the legislature, but through measures placed on the ballot by interest groups. There are six of these state-wide measures on the ballot this year, which means that in addition to ads from candidates, the airwaves and your mail box are filled with ads about the ballot measures. The ads drone on, day after day, to the point where you want to turn off your TV and radio.

I used to think that such ballot measures were a good way to involve the public in setting policy, but have long since concluded that it is very problematic. For one thing, I doubt that most voters read the measures and accompanying analysis. For the most part, the voters’ opinions on the measures are a reaction to the cleverness of the ads, which are often simplistic and misleading.

For example, there’s a measure that would require doctors to be subject to drug and alcohol testing. The ad for the measure shows a doctor in a bar, downing a scotch as his pager vibrates in front of him. The ad does not say anything about the other part of the measure, which increases the cap on malpractice awards three-fold and adjusts it for inflation thereafter. Neat trick, huh? The ad against the measure does the exact opposite, warning voters of increased healthcare costs, but saying nothing about the testing provision.

The other problem with the ballot measure system is that it takes the elected legislature out of the process. They don’t vote as a body on these policy changes. If the elected legislature isn’t interested in making policies addressed by the ballot measures it is probably out of political cowardice, or recognition that the policies speak to a narrow set of interests, or both.

Fortunately, the election is on Tuesday, so our long national nightmare is almost over. Don’t forget to vote.