Saturday, January 26, 2013

The way they should go*

Fifteen children, just a couple more boys than girls, white and black and Latino and Asian. The rifles were all different colors, too, including pink. The youngest child was five or so; the oldest 14. Likewise the rifles, some brand new, some much-loved heirlooms. Moms and dads at their shoulders, some children fired their first shots ever; others comfortably showed mom and dad a thing or two. From morning to afternoon – with time out for lunch and a raffle and the potty and probably too many sodas – these junior marksmen sent easily more than 1,200 rounds down range.

I cannot say the exercise passed entirely without incident; there was some trouble. Two young sisters had a brief but heated spat over which of them was next entitled to shoot the pink rifle. A stern range officer sorted it out, with a thumbs up from mom, and the day progressed. But even with all those guns firing all those bullets, no one got hurt.** No crime was committed. No one had violence done to them or was for even a moment afraid. (Unless you were a soda can or swinging steel target, in which case you had every reason to fear.) All this even though some of the rifles in use were black and looked “tactical,” even though magazines holding as many as 30 rounds were widely employed.

I’ll tell you what the “gun culture” looked like down at the .22 bay of my IDPA club’s  annual picnic. It looked like a lot of children getting along (we can’t be blamed for a sibling squabble). It looked like a bunch of smiling, slightly sunburned kids learning safety and patience and concentration and mastering a skill. It looked like goofy t-shirts, untied sneakers and hair ribbons. The sound was the sound of a lot of self-esteem resulting from actual accomplishment. It sounded like “Dad look at that!” and “Mom I did it!” – sprinkled liberally with “yes, sir” and “no ma’am.”

The numbers for the adults aren't too shabby, either. Last year, more than 1,300 shooters attended 34 pistol, carbine, shotgun or combined arms matches and events put on by my club, and fired well in excess of 100,000 rounds of ammunition while incurring zero injuries. These shooters, of every ethnicity, race and creed,  were  doctors and drivers; judges and journeymen; nurses and night clerks; students and senior citizens; teachers and technicians; lawyers and laborers; city cops, county sheriffs, state police, customs officers, and Secret Service agents. They regulated and supervised themselves with a cadre of safety officers raised from their own ranks. They trained and tested and challenged and encouraged one another. They raised money for charities. They regularly performed shooting feats that would daunt those would-be government overlords who consider themselves the only ones professional enough to be armedSome of them took home the occasional trophy. They teased each other in at least three languages and they laughed – they laughed a lot. 

The firearms with which all these people did all these harmless things – Glock and Sig and Colt pistols; AR-15s and AK clones; pump and semi-automatic shotguns – are precisely the firearms that are, in pronouncements of cynical and gratuitous slander, denounced from behind Washington DC podiums as being of "no sporting use," and having as their only purpose "to kill as many people as possible."  

You're invited, you know. We are one of the the first International Defensive Pistol Association clubs ever founded and we pride ourselves on being a teaching club. We've constituted ourselves especially to safely welcome, train, supervise, encourage and advance new shooters. So you're welcome to join us, any time. The picnic match is the third Saturday of January every year, and we'd love for you to bring your kids. 

Unless you'd rather not.

Unless you'd rather your child prepared for a pageant, or played baseball, or practiced her violin, or worked on his chess game, or watched some "Phineas and Ferb," or got his pinewood derby car ready for the Cub Scout races, or did her chores.*** Unless you'd rather have nothing whatsoever to do with firearms, ever. You're welcome to join us, but you certainly don't have to if you'd rather not. Here's the only thing, though. We promise to let you spend your Saturday with your kids any way you please and that you think is good for them. We promise not to interfere.

All we ask, if you don't want to join us, is that you promise the same.  

* Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. Prov. 22:6

** Alright, I confess it. The day was not entirely injury-free: One little boy did develop an ouchie red blister on his thumb from loading so many magazines.

*** Of course, our kids all do that stuff, too. The two sisters, for example, appeared agreeably disposed by the time they had to leave with their parents to dress up for the cheerleading awards banquet.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The law is a ass*

Maryland legislators are considering a new "assault weapon" ban. There's little indication they've given any real consideration to what might constitute an "assault weapon" much less any thought to how their confiscatory exercise in draconian overreaching might survive the inevitable judicial challenge. But that doesn't mean they aren't good for a laugh.

As the official description of the law explains, one of its effects will be to ". . . mak[e] it a misdemeanor to use an assault long gun or a copycat weapon or a magazine that exceeds a certain maximum capacity of rounds of ammunition in the commission of a felony or a crime of violence. . . "

Now, I'm no criminal law pactitioner, but I did moderately well in law school. So I know that in Florida a misdemeanor is, among other things, a crime for which the sentence must be less than one year and which sentence is served in the county jail, not the state penitentiary. Let's assume the same is so in "The Free State."

Then let us for a moment see if we can get inside a the mind of a Maryland legislator. I know: It's dark and cramped and scary in there, but come along with me and try. We know that this legislation must have as its aim the prevention of "another Sandy Hook." Like the PATRIOT Act before them, the odious crop of gun laws now aborning do not rise from of any cosnideration of policy, nor any understanding of causes and effects, nor certainly out of any deference to liberty. No, they spring -- and I do mean spring -- out of nothing more than the spasmodic, irrepressible reflex to to do something.

So I can only suppose that its proponents imagine that the something this bit of the legislation is meant to do would look, in practice, like this:

A mass murdering maniac, having finished his coffee, tidied up the kitchen and printed out a fresh copy of his 348-page manifesto, gathers up his murder tools, including an "assault long gun" and sets off to do mass murder.

On the way, while stopped at a crosswalk, patiently waiting for the pedestrian to clear the intersection, he contemplates his imminent crime and impending fame. In his mind's eye, all is glory and immortality, cloaked in a cloud of gun smoke. He drives the speed limit to the library so that he can timely return his copies of Dostoevsky and Kafka at the convenient drop box outside, thus avoiding a fine for the books' tardy return. As he does so, the distinctive Maryland state flag atop the pole in front of the library flutters gently in the breeze. The killer-to-be is put in mind of the majesty and power of the Maryland General Assembly, an impressive bicameral body of 47 senators in the upper house and 141 representatives in the lower House of Delegates, all selected as much for their Solomonic wisdom as for their selfless devotion to Maryland's citizenry.

But just as the shadow of that flag falls upon him, so does a shadow of doubt dim the brightness of his deranged resolve:

"Wait a minute," thinks our contemporary Kehoe. "If I use this 'assault long gun' to kill the folks in that gun free zone, that will be a misdemeanor. Sure, my plan to silence at last the chorus of angry voices in my head with an offering of the blood of innocents is undeterred by the prospect a couple dozen consecutive life prison terms, or by lethal injection, or by the likelihood I'll be put down by a late-arriving policeman's bullet before any of that.

"No indeed. I am quite mad, after all. And yet, . . ." ponders this suburban Starkweather, this would-be Whitman, " . . .and yet, if I use this 'assault long gun,' I'll be committing a misdemeanor. For that offense I could face as much as 364 days in the Baltimore County Jail."

Whereupon, with a shudder of moral conviction, our fiend pulls into the left lane, waits for the arrow, makes a legal U-turn and heads home at a speed safe for the road conditions, maintaining an assured clear distance from the car in front of him.

Mr. Bumble really is not to be argued with, is he?

*Yes, a ass:

 ". . . What then?"

"Nothing," replied Mr. Brownlow, "except that it remains for us to take care that neither of you is employed in a situation of trust again. You may leave the room."

"I hope," said Mr. Bumble, looking about him with great ruefulness, as Mr. Grimwig disappeared with the two old women: I hope that this unfortunate little circumstance will not deprive me of my parochial office?"

"Indeed it will," replied Mr. Brownlow. "You may make up your mind to that, and think yourself well off besides."

"It was all Mrs. Bumble. She would do it," urged Mr. Bumble; first looking round to ascertain that his partner had left the room.

"That is no excuse," replied Mr. Brownlow. "You were present on the occasion of the destruction of these trinkets, and indeed are the more guilty of the two, in the eye of the law; for the law supposes that your wife acts under your direction."

"If the law supposes that," said Mr. Bumble, squeezing his hat emphatically in both hands, "the law is a ass- a idiot. If that's the eye of the law, the law is a bachelor; and the worst I wish the law is, that his eye may be opened by experience- by experience."

Oliver Twist, Chapter 51, Charles Dickens.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Can we talk?

We can be assured that it won’t be forgotten, when America’s first black president takes the oath to begin his second term, that not quite 50 years will have passed since Martin Luther King Jr. stood not far away and described a dream world in which a man might be judged by the content of his character and not the color of his skin. Every television talking head with a minute of airtime to fill can be counted on to relate one man and moment to the other.

For me, those 50 years are more or less all my life. I was three when King gave his speech, and accordingly unaware of it. But I was old enough by the time he was gunned down five years later to perceive not only the shocking crime, but to have an inkling of what King’s death might mean. I was old enough, a month later, to try to reconcile some context when Bobby Kennedy fell to another assassin’s hand. Not yet nine years old, it seemed to me that chaos reigned, that our nation was in jeopardy, that social studies class had it all terribly wrong. That was an impression only reinforced by what I saw at home.

At 14, my sister was radicalized beyond anything sensible for her age. She was enraptured and enthralled by what seemed to be the romance and thrill of a counter-culture offering not only the promise of a world to change but – vastly more important – the opportunity to shock and anger our parents. Every evening newscast, every muddy image of helicopter gunships, every campus conflagration had its echo in our home: in my sister’s angry denunciations, in my parents’ comminatory pronouncements, and in doors slammed by all parties. Two years later, when national guardsmen killed four Americans and wounded nine others on a college campus not 30 minutes from our house, those shots ricocheted around our kitchen table, leaving casualties of our own. Those wounds never healed.

There could be no resolution because my parents and my sister had no common language in which to reach one, no means to discuss the seething national conflicts that reflected and recapitulated their own. Every angry exchange about Nixon or Vietnam or hippies or civil rights was really a proxy for something else, something more prosaic, personal and small, and therefore infinitely more powerful. I came eventually to understand that it was a conflict they never wished to resolve. They had no common cause. At bottom, their mutual disdain was the only understanding they had, or wanted to have, of one another.

As for the nation, it is true that we find ourselves, 50 years on, having twice made president a man who, the summer King shared his dream, could not have shared a water fountain or a lunch counter with many of his countrymen. That would seem to be progress, and so I suppose it is. But if the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners now play together, no one can claim this is a nation unified. Our divisions are as deep as they ever were. What is worse, division has become our default, our reflex, the entire contour of our relationship with one another.

Our discourse no longer comprises intercourse, because our different opinions never get close enough even to contest with one another. Instead we pick our side of an issue, then plow broadening swathes of parallel rhetoric across from each other, like ever-expanding twin superhighways highways on either bank of a deeply run river, with never a single lane of bridge to link them. Should a fact inconveniently interpose itself, and by any means threaten to detour one course of conviction even a few degrees toward the opposing course, that fact is hastily dynamited or buried so that there will be no turning. One is not judged by the content of one's character, rather one is condemned by the color of one's beliefs or, indeed, by any single belief

That sound you hear? That din? It's not the debate of men of good will. It’s all slamming doors. Or maybe it’s thunder. But no matter. Because no one’s listening anyway.

Friday, January 11, 2013

In the ghetto

In an age where degeneracy is a television programming strategy, and the gifts of God – things like life and liberty – are largely considered disposable, it doesn't pay to be easily shocked. Shock clouds the thinking, slows the hand, blunts the will. But every now and then, however callused or inured to the base state of the world one may imagine oneself to be, one finds that shock is still possible.

So I was, I confess, shocked when I read Alex Seitz-Wald’s piece in today’s Salon Magazine. Purporting to take on the historical inaccuracy of those who would compare modern gun control efforts to those in the middle of the last century in Germany, Seitz-Wald sets out an analysis in which he submits that Adolf Hitler’s regime actually loosened gun laws for most Germans – excepting only those who were also objects of the Final Solution. Thus, Seitz-Wald argues Hitler's targeted gun ban just isn't an apposite argument for  gun rights advocates.

"The law did prohibit Jews and other persecuted classes from owning guns, but this should not be an indictment of gun control in general. Does the fact that Nazis forced Jews into horrendous ghettos indict urban planning?*"

If that were all Seitz-Wald had said, I’d just have considered him a sarcastic, silly, intellectually dishonest hack. Nothing shocking in that. But that’s not all he said. It’s what followed that left me gasping, angry, sad. Seitz-Wald went on to argue that, as it happened, guns wouldn't have done Jews much good anyway, what with the efficiency of the German war machine and the depth of the Nazi’s commitment to genocide, so what matter if Jews were -- or, presumably, you are -- prohibited from having them.  In support, he suggests we consider the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where some Jews did manage to get a hold of firearms and used them to contend for their lives. The math there was pretty simple, Seitz-Wald points out:

"In reality, only about 20 Germans were killed, while some 13,000 Jews were massacred. The remaining 50,000 who survived were promptly sent off to concentration camps."

Thus Seitz-Wald’s core premise is that there is no difference between, on the one hand, passively and helplessly submitting to the extermination of yourself and your entire people, and, on the other, dying while resisting that extermination. I cannot recall reading a more degenerate, dehumanizing and tragic statement anywhere, ever. 

That it should come to this, that an American who rises and sleeps under the veil of liberty** for which millions have sacrificed their lives, could entertain such a sentiment – or could put it in writing – or could see it published – inclines me toward despair for this nation and its people.

Many of Robert’s Rules shouldn't really need stating at all. I’d have thought that “Morals Matter More Than Math,” would have been among those.

One moral choice a human being is sometimes afforded, one moment that matters a lot, is how one dies. Not that we all are given the opportunity to die well: circumstances or evil men can render our death humiliating, or irrelevant, or random, or ironic, or even comic. Not that all those given such an opportunity do the best with it: courage fails, will weakens; we disgrace ourselves. But man is the only animal who knows that he will die, who can grasp at all what dying means. Thus every man who wishes to hold himself even a bit above the animals knows that it matters how he dies.

Or so I would have thought.

A Prime Minister of Israel once told me: "Do you know what it means that there is an Israel? It means this: It means that if there had been an Israel in 1942, and if Israel had an air force, and if the air force of the state of Israel consisted of one rickety biplane, the pilot of that biplane would have died bombing the railroad track to Auschwitz. That's what the state of Israel means -- and end to powerlessness."

I don't think this man suffered from an inability to figure arithmetic, or was ignorant of effective military tactics. I would have liked for Seitz-Wald to have spoken to that man.

But I have a feeling it wouldn't have done much good.

* The italics are Seitz-Wald's. I tend to read that sentence as "[Well OK-- sure  -- whatever -- if you want to be technical about it -- yeah] the law did prohibit to Jews. . . "

** Due credit to Col. Nathan R. Jessup.


Wednesday, January 9, 2013

There she is

I’m no expert when it comes to beauty pageants, so I might have this wrong. But it appears that the title of "Miss Alabama" – and perhaps those of the supreme unmarried females of other states – is conferred in secret upon unwitting young women, without their knowledge, participation or consent. I think this stealthy distinction must be awarded entirely on grounds of intellect . . . or perhaps the ability to weld different metals . . .  or maybe to lift very heavy things . . . or randomly. Honestly, I don’t know. But, whatever the standards, this honor is meant to be a very private one and is clearly not bestowed with any regard whatsoever to the recipient's physical appearance.

As I said, I’m no expert. I know even less about Miss Alabama and how she got to be that way than I know about how Justin Bieber got to be Justin Bieber.  But I’m able to conclude all the foregoing based on something I learned this week: pointing out the presence of Ms. Alabama at a University of Alabama football game, and then commenting that she is “lovely,” is an unspeakable invasion of her privacy and a profound affront to her dignity. If you can bear to watch so gross a violation of decent, there is video evidence of Brent Musberger's heinous assault. Be warned, though. It's pretty awful.

Now do not be fooled by the fact that the young woman in question claims not only not to have taken offense, but to have been both flattered and thrilled by the attention, from which she plans to profit. Clearly the young woman is suffering from some kind of post traumatic disruption of her faculties.* Those who know better than she what is good for her wasted no time in taking up her cause and defending her – whether she wished them to or not.

Perhaps the most fearless guardian of good was the one who pointed out that the offending sportscaster’s comment was not only “creepy,” but – gasp – heteronormative. I didn't know Mrs. Grundy had gone back to school for a post-graduate degree in gender liberation studies, but I, for one, am glad she did.

But even in so noble a cause as the crusade to protect beauty queens from public outrage, there must be limits. I understand that the offenderati have to keep their outrage at a simmer all the time, so they’re ready to boil over whenever there’s a buck to be made doing so.** I get that those championing Brent Musberger's public flogging, and debating whether the ESPN apology was sufficiently abject, just aren't wired in a way that would let them consider how their own age bias plays into their descriptions of Musberger as “creepy.”

But I have to draw the line at the comments of one particularly ringing condemnation from the moral carillon.

Sue Baker, a Michigan State journalism professor, impervious to the irony of her comments when made in reference to a young woman who has staked her fortune on a series of contests in which women are evaluated on their looks, said this:

It’s extraordinarily inappropriate to focus on an individual’s looks. In this instance, the appearance of the quarterback’s girlfriend had no bearing on the outcome of the game. It’s a major personal violation, and it’s so retrograde that it’s embarrassing. I think there’s a generational issue, but it’s incumbent on people practicing in these eras to keep up and this is not a norm.

Just so I’m clear, Susy, you’re suggesting Musberger should have spent every minute of four hours Monday night talking only about subjects that had a “bearing on the outcome" of that 42-14 simulation of a football game?  I know Michigan State finished unranked this year, but do you really think it's fair to take out your disappointment on all the rest of us football fans?

* Among other ill effects, Miss Alabama has hired a publicist and -- poor child -- her Twitter account has “blown up,” which I take to be a bad thing. 

** And yes. I am aware that I'm skirting perilously close to pot-and-kettle reciprocity with that comment. But I prefer to think of myself as less perpetually offended and more of an astute, sardonic and incisive social commentator and an enemy of hypocrisy. (And if there's a way to make any money from this thing, I'm damned if I've found it.)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Not for nothing

It turns out that zero is a relative newcomer to the land of numbers. Although the Sumerians got us started with counting a good six thousand years ago or so, zero didn't have a name and a function until much later, when it seems to have been discovered by an Indian religious philosopher in the early seventh eighth century. It was another five hundred years before those benighted Europeans started to make use of it -- which could, but probably does not, explain why, to this day, the "first floor" of an English building is on the second floor.

As I have clearly demonstrated, I'm no math whiz, but even I can see that trying to make numbers work without zero is a fool's game. Algebra, calculus, set theory and all sorts of nifty mathematical hi-jinks can't be undertaken without the useful little oval. So I have nothing at all against zero qua zero. Really I don't. My complaint arises when zero, as it so often does these days, makes itself the enemy of liberty and common sense (or any sense at all).

Zero is what leads to honor an student being suspended and labelled a terrorist, when she pointed "finger gun" during a discussion of detective fiction, even though assault finger bans never seem to work. Consider that even six-year-olds are evidently able to get hold of finger guns, even if they are themselves promptly suspended.

Zero, is bludgeon in the hands of censors who, like the fictional Matthew Harrison Brady, do not think about things they do not think about, and sanctimoniously punish any student who dares to do otherwise.

Zero is the portal through which meddlesome, officious do-gooders enter a private home and, upon finding there such dangerous and exotic precursors as batteries and household cleansers, do not merely suspend the student who dared to draw forbidden images. No, such academic punition, no longer new, is evidently insufficiently severe to satisfy zero, which now demands such a scribbler be arrested.

Zero turns out to have a complex, dramatic history. It seems the notion of nothing took a while for the human mind to codify and for human society to accept, so that in some times and places, the very idea of zero was considered dangerous.

Considering the use to which zero is routinely put these days, I cannot disagree.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Give me fever

So there’s this fellow, Justin Bieber, and evidently photos of him are exceedingly rare and highly prized, like those of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. Indeed, such photos are so rare that a paparazzo in California recently died trying to get one. 

I didn't know Chris Guerra, but I’m reasonably certain his death was counted a tragedy by many who did – his family, his friends, his editor. Certainly I haven’t any reason to suppose that the world wouldn't be a better, or at least a more-photographed place, with Guerra still in it. But I didn't know Guerra and, in any rational society, his death would have negligible impact on me.* And so it will. Unless, that is, this Bieber fellow has his way.

In response to his pursuer’s death, Bieber did what many Americans, most television pundits and all of our legislative overlords always do in response to events as mundane as the invention of the Big Gulp and as tragic as a school shooting. Bieber reflexively proposed new, sweeping, get-tough legislation:

Hopefully this tragedy will finally inspire meaningful legislation and whatever other necessary steps to protect the lives and safety of celebrities, police officers, innocent public bystanders, and the photographers themselves.

The mind reels at the possibilities. Perhaps, henceforth cameras will be sold with a hard hat bearing a revolving amber caution light, which headgear will be mandatory whenever the camera is in use. Perhaps motor vehicles will be electro-mechanically limited to speeds below 15 miles per hour, ensuring that even those laden with bulky camera gear have ample opportunity to leap – well, stroll – to safety. Perhaps teen pop stars will be restricted to fenced preserves in the desert southwest, where they can safely be observed from blinds constructed to look like Starbucks kiosks. After all, if we can save just one Bieber. . . 

But none of those laws could have kept Chris Guerra alive so long as he considered a grainy photo of Bieber’s car – since Bieber wasn't actually in the vehicle – more than his life was worth. Sadly for Guerra and paparazzi to come, even powerful pop stars and wanton statists cannot repeal or override the laws of nature, among which is Robert’s Rule that “The law is powerless before the fact” and its corollary that “You cannot outlaw stupid.”** 

I freely confess that my Bieber knowledge is scant.*** From the available evidence I conclude that he is a twelve-year-old (possibly a boy) with very large feet who is employed as an air traffic controller or a Time/Life operator. (How else to explain the ubiquitous headset?) So maybe I’m wrong to assume he is not a Constitutional scholar or a public policy expert. In fairness, he probably knows as much about the serpentine interplay of the First Amendment and traffic safety as Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer and Sheila Jackson Lee know about firearms. And if the weight of Twitter followers is any measure – and believe me, it is**** – I wouldn't be the least surprised if his call for “meaningful legislation” and “necessary steps” finds some traction.*****

* Except in a John Donne-ish sort of way.

** Which is not to say that stupidity – as a far wiser and older commentator than I has said (will say) –  doesn't carry a severe penalty

*** Once again, I have to thank my lovely bride for bearing sons.

**** Bieber has more than 32 million followers.  By comparison, Barack Obama has a paltry 25 million

***** Too soon for an automotive pun? Maybe we need meaningful legislation and to take necessary steps to ensure smart-aleck bloggers are forced to observe a waiting period before making such tasteless remarks.