Saturday, October 10, 2015

Demonizing the Mentally Ill - a letter to the VoteVets organization

I was deeply disturbed by the email I got from your group today asking for my signature on a petition being circulated by Garrett Reppenhagen, asking to call on Congress for sensible gun laws to be enacted - requiring background checks on all purchases and to keep guns out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill. 

I cannot support such a petition.  In a United States where too many of our leaders view Mental Illness as an on or off condition for people - with anyone having any diagnosis of mental illness to be considered a danger for hair trigger explosions of temper and ill-judgement - without careful and specific definitions for what "Dangerously Mentally Ill" might mean, I am far too afraid that by the time Congress is done with such a proposal they will simultaneously shift the burden for self-defense to the mantle of the private gun-owner and then remove the ability to protect themselves from the one in four people in the United States who will suffer from some form of mental illness during their life times.  

This is not sound public policy.   It's also regressive in that it leaves at the most vulnerable those people who are poorest and can least afford to protect themselves with a privately owned firearm.  

I am going to ignore, for the sake of keeping this note to a readable length, the fact that without regular proficiency shooting I don't believe that anyone could use a gun for self defense in any sort of effective manner, anyways.  Similarly, I will simply mention that any massive increase in gun ownership in the US is going to increase the rate of death by firearms if only because the largest single risk-factor for suicide in this nation is the presence or absence of a gun in the home.  

Without specific, clear, and limited definitions for what constitutes dangerous mental illness, a petition such as the one Garrett Reppenhagen is circulating is going to do more harm than good.  

The thing that bothers me most is that while I abhor the fuzziness of this particular petition's language I agree with the intent of the petition - to make sure that people whom any reasonable, informed person might consider a poor risk for good judgment when holding a lethal weapon do not have easy access to firearms seems only sensible to me.  But in order for that discussion to happen, we've got to address just what is and isn't mental illness in the public conscioiusness.  As an example, in two of the three more public shooting incidents to have gotten the attention of the national media, the perpetrators have no history of mental illness in their records, and can be argued to have been acting in their right minds at the time that they committed their horrific crimes.  Darryl Roof is a racist who was too willing to buy into the necessity for race war to cleanse the nation, and protect it from inimical influences, this does not mean, however, that he was acting under the influence of any mental illness when he performed his horrific and insane actions.  No definition of dangerous mental illness would have kept a gun out of Mr. Roof's hands.  That the standard background check should have kept a gun out of his hands is no comfort, either - but it's not a sign that there is a loophole for the dangerously mentally ill to acquire firearms that needs to be closed with quickly enacted, and poorly thought out legislation.  

When you're representing an organization that is primarily consists of veterans of recent military service, it is particularly galling to me to see you lending yourselves to the demonization of the mentally ill without taking precautions to make sure that the service members coming back from service overseas with mental illnesses are not going to be lumped into whatever sacrificial group is going to be staked out for the next round of gun violence.  One in four Americans will suffer mental illness at some time in their lives, and the vast majority of them will never commit any crimes in that time.  I don't know what the incidence of mental illness is in recent veterans, but I can't help but think it's even higher than the current average for Americans as a whole.  

There are far too many in the Presidential field who view the best solution for gun violence in the US to be an extension of gun ownership, and more venues where it is considered normal to carry firearms.  This would merely be annoying if it weren't for the concurrent demand these same politicians are making to remove firearms from the mentally ill.  As far as I know, Garrett Repenhagen's petition is the only voice sharing this general call that even hints that there might be such a thing as someone suffering mental illness who isn't an immediate public hazard.  So the effect of these policy changes, if they go through, may be to improve the safety of those people trusted to carry firearms, and the people around them.  I take leave to doubt that, but again - that's beyond the scope of this discussion.  It will also leave a sizable population, who in many cases have never committed any crime, metaphorically staked out as sacrificial goats to anyone who wants to target them.

And when talking about the mentally ill, they're a group already so statistically more vulnerable than those around them, this is utterly unconscionable in my opinion - and would be so even if I weren't on a VA Disability Pension for my own depression.  

If we, as a people, or VoteVets as an organization, wishes to advocate for more rational gun control laws - something I support - it seems to me that a very useful dual-pronged first step would be to remove the Congressional bars to simply gathering information about gun violence and crime in the US.  On the one hand, the BATF is barred, by statute, from collecting and analyzing data active gun sales - we require cars to be registered and in most states insured, becuase of the risk to the public good from such devices, isn't it time we consider doing the same for firearms?  More importantly, forbidding the CDC to commission studies that touch on gun violence or treat gun violence as a public health concern limits anyone approaching the issue with any kind of reliable data from which to make decisions.  

I do support other steps as well, and would support a petition for the improved background checks that Garrett Repenhagen suggests.  I'd love to support including some kind of check to try to keep firearms out of the hands of the dangerously mentally ill if I were sure that that provision weren't going to mutate quickly into a blanket condemnation of all the mentally ill.  

But I don't think that any of these steps, by themselves, are going to be sufficient or provide a cure-all for gun violence in this nation.  And the sooner we admit that these are only first steps, the better off we'll be.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

A question for the gun rights crowd: When would it become an issue of too easy access to guns?

This past Saturday an 8 year old girl was killed by a shotgun blast.  Allegedly fired by an 11 year old boy, over an argument about puppies.

According to the story going around, now, the boy was denied an opportunity to play with the girl's puppy - and so went into his house, got the loaded shotgun his father kept, and fired it out the window at her.

Now, clearly, there's a lot of things to point fingers at - not least being the boy's insane sense of entitlement.  We can also speak about his obvious control and anger issues, too.  But in my mind had the shotgun not been loaded, unlocked, in a known location, this would not have escalated to the point where the parents of an 8 year old girl are burying her this week.

Are we, as a society, so in love with guns that we're going to defend the right to have them without let, regulation, nor reason above the expectation of sound parenting?  While the 11 yo boy is obviously responsible for his own lethal action, there's also a good case to be made that his parents should also have some accountability.  The mother of the Sandy Hook shooter has been castigated in the press for allowing her son access to her weapons - and she'd kept them locked in a proper gun safe, that he got at only after he killed her.  Obviously there was no convenient straw-buyer to be put through the public trial in that case, to provide a scapegoat for the tragedy.  When William Spengler killed his sister, and several first responders from the West Webster Fire Department and several responding police officers, there was a straw buyer who could be punished with the full extent of the law.

Of course, she's the only person I'm aware of who has been punished by those laws.  There's a current murder case going on where Charlie Tan is accused of killing his father - with a shotgun purchased for the deed, by a friend.  There are no pending straw buyer charges for friend.

So, who will be held accountable for this boy's hair trigger temper and easy access to firearms?  Are we going to continue to vilify anyone labeled as being mentally ill, and blame the parents for not getting their son the counseling or treatment it seems like would have been appropriate?  Or are we going to finally recognize that lethal weapons in the home are lethal weapons and certain precautions are simply good practice that should be automatically taken by anyone who feels the need to have firearms in the house?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Some thoughts on the 2015 Papal Visit to the US, and why I think that the Pope has blundered badly

Welp,  It's done.  The great, historic Papal visit to the US of 2015 is over and done.  Popapalooza has finished its run and at the end of the run, the Pope's popularity had surged high, and his position had brought some interesting guns to the continuing fight in Congress and the nation as a whole over the role of government in the international global ecological fight.

In among the many personal and public pilgrimages the Pope took during this visit were many things that spoke towards his message of forgiveness and toleration.  His words at the Ground Zero site were far from the blanket condemnation that so many US hawks would have preferred to hear, for example.

To add to the impact of his visit, his alarmingly liberal positions, at least from the view of the US-based episcopal ranks, have forced into a the limelight that many US bishops are only happy talking about Papal Primacy when the views from the Vatican are marching in lock-step with their own prejudices, or can be twisted to be that when presented to their congregations.

(As an aside, that last paragraph certainly sounds like I'm getting my view of the Catholic heirarchy from Jack Chick tracts.  The reality is rather that it's my own interpretation of the events of my lifetime.  I was raised in the Catholic faith, in a household that subscribed towards the Jesuit tradition of education - i.e. that all knowledge was to be studied and evaluated, rather than having certain arguments or pieces of evidence locked away from the masses lest they be tempted into doubt or confusion.  My personal opinion is that the Catholic Church would be better served if that sort of attitude would spread further through the hierarchy. And while I can talk about the bishopric as if it were a unitary body, the truth is that there are many different views within that body.  There are individual bishops in the US whom I find very laudable.  And others whom I think would love to bring back the Inquisition.  But the current behavior of the mass of bishops in the US leaves me doubting both their adherence to the theory of Papal Primacy, and their ability to express Christian mercy.  For example, when the Bishop of Rochester, last year, banned all travel to Africa, and recommended quarantine for anyone returning from that continent in response to the ebola epidemic, he failed, in my opinion, the tests of both reason and faith.)

I am no longer a practicing Catholic and unlikely to return to any church.  So I have to admit my view of things is that of an outsider, but an outsider who does have a fair grounding in both history and the catechism of the faith.  In a world where the Catholic Church is still propagating such evil policies as not merely fighting the availability of condoms in Africa to fight the spread of HIV, but are often actively complicit in spreading mis-information about the efficacy of condoms in fighting the spread of disease, I welcomed any sign that the Throne of Peter would be filled by someone who would pay more attention to the realities that the poor of the world are facing, instead of simply trying to build an ivory tower of perfection for a few select Westerners.

So, this is the background for how I viewed the Papal visit.

I had been cautiously optimistic as the Papal visit focused on several of the great humanitarian trials facing the world at the moment - the exodus of refugees from Mesopotamia, and the climate crisis.  I am not so arrogant as to suggest I have the answers for either, but the current attitude of so many people to deny that either problem exists or could affect them personally is a huge bar to getting any kind of solution in place.

The Pope's statements on these issues were clear, concise, and most importantly without much nuance:  these problems exist, and people should address them - especially good Catholics and Christians of any stripe.

A simple, easily understood call to action.

Then on the last day of his visit, this so-called People's Pope visited with Kim Davis.

In the interests of full disclosure I think that Kim Davis is an idiot, and worse a tyrant, who wishes to see imposed a true theocracy in the US.  Furthermore I believe she is a tool of evil manipulators who are using her.  In short, if she cannot, in good conscience balance her oath to obey the law with her private views of what God demands of her, the proper and just decision for her is to resign her position.  That she finds this impossible to even consider says scary things to me about what she's willing to impose on other people on the basis of her faith.  It's not simply a matter of supporting gay marriage, but rather what other verses will she use, next, to impose her will upon her constituents?

With this background I think that having anyone giving her support is a BAD THING.

That the Pope and his handlers tried to visit her in secret is even worse.

It undermines any authority he has by suggesting that he's got positions he's not willing to make public, for fear of the political backlash.  Furthermore, since the Vatican is now having to scramble to put the best spin possible on this visit, I have the distinct impression that this was supposed to be a secret visit.  In which case, anyone who thought that Kim Davis or her handlers would agree to keep quiet anything that might strengthen their position in the current public debate was an idiot of the first water.

Whether it says good things about me, or not, my primary guide is intelligence.  I may deplore someone's actions, but it's only when those actions are stupid as well as evil that I really get exercised.   So, this one act not only burns up much of the goodwill the Pope had established with his visit, and by making it a private vs. a public visit he's left the question of to what degree he means to support Davis and her position.  The Vatican's current spin is so mealy-mouthed that it's going to have the inevitable effect of softening anything else the Pope cares to say for years to come.

And all this to support an idiot women, who isn't even of the Catholic faith, who is violating her oath of office egregiously, and riding high on a wave of hero-worship from other idiots who can't understand the rule of law when it hits them in their face?

What a fiasco.