Good News on Guns and Criminal Justice Reform

The Washington Monument and United States Capitol seen from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC
The Washington Monument and United States Capitol seen from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC (Shutterstock/Orhan Cam)

Few good things come out of Washington DC anymore, but today is an exception.

  • The Trump Administration is banning bump-fire stocks, which effectively turn semiautomatic weapons into machine guns. Owners will have three months to turn in or destroy their devices.
  • The Senate has voted 87-12 in favor of criminal justice reforms. Prison sentences for drug crimes will be lowered, judges will be given more discretion in sentencing low-level offenders and inmates will be allowed to serve more time in halfway homes or under house arrest.

Le Pen Unveils New Name, Trump Toes NRA Line

Marine Le Pen, the leader of France's National Front, makes a speech in the European Parliament in Brussels, February 24, 2016
Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s National Front, makes a speech in the European Parliament in Brussels, February 24, 2016 (European Parliament)

Marine Le Pen has proposed to change the name of her far-right party from Front National to Rassemblement National (National Rally).

The rebranding follows a disappointing performance in last year’s presidential election, when Le Pen placed a distant second with 34 percent support to Emmanuel Macron’s 66 percent.

“Originally, we were a protest party,” Le Pen told delegates in the northern French town of Lille on Sunday. ”There must be no doubt in the eyes of all that we are now a governing party.”

To accomplish that, the Front must change more than its name; it must change its beliefs.

I argued after the 2017 election that the Front stood most to gain from becoming a socially, as opposed to a national, conservative party. With the defection of center-right, pro-market Republicans to Macron, there is even more of a vacuum on what in American terms could be called the “Christian right”.

But Republicans know it. They have made Laurent Wauquiez their leader, a social conservative and hardliner on immigration, in order to woo those same voters. If the Republicans turn into Front-lite, does is still make sense for the Front to become Republicans+?

Somebody who is definitively not helping: Steve Bannon, the far-right American firebrand who this weekend urged the Front to wear accusations of racism and xenophobia as a “badge of honor”. Read more “Le Pen Unveils New Name, Trump Toes NRA Line”

America’s Inexplicable Failure to Stop Gun Violence

Flags of the United States in Washington DC, February 17, 2015
Flags of the United States in Washington DC, February 17, 2015 (Matt Popovich)

Nothing confounds foreigners more about America than its relationship with guns.

I’ve been writing about American politics for almost a decade now and even I don’t get it.

In that time, the problem has only got worse. The five worst shootings in American history occurred since 2007. 1,806 Americans have been killed with guns this year alone.

I’ve heard all the arguments. I’ve read the studies. I’ve seen the figures. This much is clear: The widespread availability of guns makes the United States more vulnerable to gun violence.

This shouldn’t be a controversial thing to say. But even on a day like this, after seventeen students and teachers were shot and killed at a high school in South Florida, it is. Read more “America’s Inexplicable Failure to Stop Gun Violence”

Dallas Police Chief States the Obvious About Open Carry

Dallas police chief David Brown stated the obvious on Monday when he said open-carry laws make it harder for law enforcement to do its job.

“It is increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over and shootings occur in a crowd,” Brown said, referring to a type of rifle that is commonly used in mass shootings.

And they begin running and we don’t know if they are a shooter or not. We don’t know who the ‘good guy’ versus who the ‘bad guy’ is if everybody starts shooting.

No doubt conservatives and gun owners, who only days ago praised Brown and his department for the way they ended a mass shooting of police officers in the Texan city, will take issue with his statement.

They argue that the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

But that is only true when the good guy is a cop. Read more “Dallas Police Chief States the Obvious About Open Carry”

Looking for Solutions After the Orlando Shooting

Fifty people were killed this weekend at a gay club in Orlando, Florida. Fifty people, who were partying and socializing in a place that is supposed to be safe for LGBTs. Who were no threat to anyone. Who were targeted because of who and where they were.

We don’t need to speculate about the killer’s motives to understand what this was. Whether Omar Mateen was motivated by religious fanaticism or anti-gay bigotry; this was a hate crime.

Events like these inspire fear and anger. We’re afraid it might happen to us next. We’re angry that it could happen in the first place. We are emotional and we all want to make sure it never happens again.

Some will argue now is not a time for politics. But what’s the point if we don’t learn from the massacre of fifty innocent people to reduce the chances of more people being killed? Read more “Looking for Solutions After the Orlando Shooting”

The Geopolitical Argument Against Gun Ownership

An honor guard at the United States Air Force Memorial in Washington DC, August 24, 2012
An honor guard at the United States Air Force Memorial in Washington DC, August 24, 2012 (USAF/Christina Brownlow)

It’s often dodgy to wade into the morass of America’s culture wars. For non-Americans, the back and forth of American pundits (and Facebook commentators) seems asinine at the best of times. It’s easy to view the whole exercise as pointless when you realize much of our culture wars revolve around what people like to do for fun, whether it’s shotgun blasting a rusty pick-up truck in the desert or having unprotected sex with people we would never marry.

That being said, there’s still an important discussion to be had here. Last week, a disgruntled (and possibly a bit racist) ex-employee of a local news network killed a journalist and her cameraman on live TV. That came on the heels a recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed nine people in a traditionally black church.

Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, a cycle asserts itself: Democrats and liberals point to gun ownership and, occasionally, racism, as the proximate causes, while Republicans and conservatives counter that a better-armed society would be more likely to prevent such tragedies. Few minds change; many arguments are peddled; eventually, everyone forgets until the next dramatic shooting.

Within the comments of many a Facebook article lie arguments for gun ownership that are disconnected from geopolitical reality. It was a brief exchange with one such commenter that inspired this article.

I won’t go into the criminology side of gun ownership which is better detailed by more authoritative sources. Rather, I’ll focus on guns in America from a geopolitical perspective.

So please, when you’re writing hate mail about how would I like it if some thugs broke in and raped my whole family as a direct result of being an unarmed society, do remember I’m not even remotely talking about that. I’m focusing, rather, on gun ownership as it affects the geopolitical power of the United States.

And that’s to say, straight off, that gun ownership doesn’t much help the United States be a stronger nation state. Here are the reasons why

  • The American Second Amendment was distinctly designed to help safeguard America when it was still too poor and weak to support a regular army but that condition has long since passed. America is more secure than any state has ever been in history.
  • That’s easy enough to accept but may will say that guns prevent the rise of an American dictatorship. That argument ignores the conditions that bring about dictatorships which range from a popular despotism as Nazism was or a revolutionary tyranny like many communist states. In either case, gun ownership is a nil factor in preserving freedom.
  • If anything, high levels of gun ownership increase the likelihood of geopolitically traumatic civil wars, unrest and assassinations while siphoning state resources and power into better supplying and arming local police forces to keep pace with a citizenry that has few limits on firepower.
  • Finally, and most directly, lax gun controls in the United States have directly contributed to a worsening drug war in Mexico, threatening America’s crucial southern flank.

So let’s begin with the easiest-to-dismiss argument: guns make us safer from foreign enemies

It’s absolutely unbelievably “can’t-think-of-enough-adverbs” untrue that a high level of gun ownership dissuades foreign nation states from invading the US.

Let’s just talk basic numbers.

America has ten aircraft carrier battlegroups that are more powerful than the rest of the world’s navies combined. It has just short of 14,000 aircraft in its air force. Combined, Russia and China have just half that. It has 2.5 million active and reserve troops backed by 8,800 tanks, 41,000 armored fighting vehicles and some 4,000 pieces of artillery of various classes.

That’s not to mention its 4,700 nuclear weapons. 1,900 of those are ready to go at the press of a button.

Even if an enemy could overcome the vast conventional superiority the United States enjoys, it would still have to stop America from ending humanity through nuclear war. Since America’s nuclear deterrent is spread out in silos, bombers and subs, that’s just about impossible.

When generals in Beijing and Moscow may daydream of occupying New York, they do so without thinking of some backwoods hunters with their AR-15s.

Okay but what about terrorists? Haven’t they been stopped by well-armed private citizens?

No. Not once. In Garland, Texas, two Islamic State-inspired shooters attempted to attack a “Draw the Prophet” contest: they were shot by police, not cowboys.

The Washington DC sniper of 2002, an Al Qaeda-inspired terrorist, was captured by police.

Richard Reid, the 2002 so-called “shoe bomber,” was overcome by unarmed passengers on his flight as he attempted to set off explosives hidden in his shoes.

Even recently, in France, an armed gunman was taken down by unarmed American servicemen who just happened to be on the train.

But they could be stopped by a well-armed private citizen

This is possible but unlikely for reasons rooted in military doctrine. Should a terrorist decide to open fire in, say, a mall, this is the equivalent of an ambush. Having chosen both the time and the place of the attack, the initiative is with the gunman rather than with his targets, who are best off seeking cover.

A private citizen, even if well-armed, is automatically at a major disadvantage. That citizen is not part of a team; even if other random NRA members join forces, they aren’t trained to work together and are likely to make mistakes that get themselves or innocent people killed. Since they don’t know one another, they aren’t likely to operate well as a team; in the heat of the moment, they’re just as likely to spray bullets as dangerously as the gunman or gunmen.

Trained forces capable of operating in teams, like police, SWAT and platoons of soldiers, are much, much better at taking out such an enemy. Their organizational skills makes them far more lethal than their armaments, being capable of carrying out flanking maneuvers, efficiently using covering fire, and having standardized communication methods that cut down on mistakes.

That being said, even this extremely unlikely scenario might be worth it — if only there weren’t other, much worse geopolitical outcomes from high rates of gun ownership. But more on that later.

So if guns don’t make the United States safer from enemy armies or terrorists, what about the argument that it keeps the country politically free?

What about an American Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, etc.? Aren’t all societies capable of tyranny?

Very much so. But dictatorships are not stopped by well-armed private citizens. Here’s why.

Because authoritarian governments come about in one of two ways: they either are demanded by the people or they are able to take advantage of anarchy or unrest to reorganize society

If a government is unable to give enough people what they want, you get a revolution. Sometimes, people want a “strong: government in power: such governments are often dictatorial, because society has concluded that it’s better to have more security, whether economic, political, military or social, than liberty.

Case in point is modern Egypt. In 2013, Egypt was nominally democratic but its democratic president, Mohamed Morsi, had run the country quite badly. Rather than wait for elections, swarms of people demanded the army take charge and oust Morsi. Once in place, the army put one of its own, Abdul Fatah Sisi, who promptly, to a great deal of cheers, ended Egyptian democracy. Egyptians concluded they were better off under a strongman who could deliver them from instability.

In such a case, a well-armed citizenry doesn’t matter since the majority of people back the dictatorship. The few who don’t — and in Egypt’s case, there were plenty who didn’t like that turn of events — are politically and sometimes physically destroyed by the agents of the majority. In Egypt, this was the Rabaa Massacre where the Egyptian army butchered its way through Morsi’s supporters with nary a peep from the rest of the country.

But what if those protesters were armed? Couldn’t they have turned the tide?

In the case of a popular dictatorship, no, they wouldn’t have. For each soldier they killed, the more they’d be hated by the rest of the country who would be more willing to give up yet more power to the military regime to crush what would be painted as a terrorist threat. If anything, being armed and fighting back would empower a popular dictatorship rather than break it.

In the US, if enough voters demanded a military government, they would get it. The minority that might fight back violently would be crushed by a much more powerful army. Worse, from the perspective of political liberty, for every soldier the freedom-loving rebels killed, the more unpopular they and their ideas would become.

In other words, if tyranny took power because Americans wanted one, no amount of gun ownership could prevent it.

Then there’s the other way dictatorships take control of states, which is when the states are falling apart in civil wars, invasions or mass unrest

When a state has failed in a nation, like in Somalia, Congo and arguably Syria, gun ownership accelerates the chaos rather than stymies it. When every idiot and his brother has a gun, armed factions flourish; warlordism thrives; anarchy becomes the order of the day, and, rather than the NRA leading a column of disciplined hunters to restore the Constitution, you get Mad Max.

Liberty grows for a handful of new elites but vanishes for everyone else who must scurry within the new, violent political landscape to survive.

In order to rebuild a state from such chaos, a strong state must emerge and strong states do not much love liberty. Case in point is Syria where the most effective factions are also the most ruthless. The Bashar Assad regime still exists because it’s been willing to trample every freedom it can while the Islamic State has come to the fore by annihilating an entire social contract.

If anything, high levels of gun ownership accelerate such a collapse: when the state is outgunned by its citizens, it has a hard time managing them. To upset one faction can cause a death spiral of violence best exemplified by Somalia. Once foreign aid ended with the Cold War, the state was no longer able to bribe all the tribes and factions it needed in the country to stay intact. Instead, the state evaporated and everyone grabbed as many guns as possible from state arsenals.

So once more, having guns in the hands of private citizens will not preserve a society’s liberty

And this leads us to the geopolitical pitfalls of gun ownership: when citizens are better armed than the police, the police cannot do their job. The state must expend more resources to ensure it has an edge: witness the militarization of police across the United States which has coincided with the spread of assault weapons across the US.

Compare that to the mostly unarmed police of the United Kingdom who nevertheless police a much denser population.

High levels of guns also make geopolitically traumatic events like violent unrest, assassinations and civil wars more, not less, likely. While civil wars are not caused by gun ownership, they are accelerated by them when elites decide to take their interests to the battlefield. This is what’s happened in Yemen, one of the best-armed countries on Earth. Its instability in rooted in geography and demography but its violence is accelerated by the level of armaments its people have.

While relatively unarmed countries like the United Kingdom and Canada rarely suffer assassinations, the United States has lost numerous politicians and leaders to the bullets of lone wolves, including Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and, most probably, John F. Kennedy. These events were all rooted in deeply held political disagreements between the shooters and their victims. What made the assassinations easier was America’s gun ownership society.

And finally, there’s the very real security threat gun ownership poses to the critical American southern flank in Mexico

Mexico has relatively stringent gun laws: cartels find it much easier to traffic guns across the border rather than risk the black market in Mexico itself. Since the United States allow the sale of heavy armaments, it takes only a few unethical gun dealers to flood Mexico’s cartels with enough firepower and ammunition to go toe-to-toe with the Mexican state itself.

Such chaos threatens the viability of Mexico as a nation state; should it collapse, it would be the greatest security threat to the United States since the Soviet Union with a Somalia-like scenario along its massive border filled with warlords, terrorists and criminal gangs. The United States would be obligated to intervene to ensure such chaos didn’t spill into the Southwest; that intervention would be expensive, long and, unlike Iraq, absolutely critical. To lose Mexico to anarchy would be intolerable for the superpower since its many foes would rush into the power vacuum to establish bases to strike the American mainland.

From a geopolitical perspective, there’s not much reason to value gun ownership for any society

Armed private citizens don’t stop invading armies, nor do they stop terrorists. They can’t stop dictatorships from coming to power; only strong, democratic institutions and middle-class economies can. Finally, they allow politics to go violent much, much faster: civil wars are easier to start, assassinations are simpler to carry out and police forces must militarize to keep pace with what’s on the street.

For the United States, lax gun controls are contributing to the weakening of a critical ally. Without Mexico, America no longer dominates its own backyard, the precursor to superpower status. Without a lone superpower, the planet becomes decidedly more violent.

From the perspective of individual freedom, there’s an argument to be had. From the perspective of the law, there’s a debate worth carrying out. Even cultural discussions have merit. But nobody should pretends guns make America stronger or geopolitically more secure.

That security is something far beyond the power of a few mere guns.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 2, 2015.

Banning Symbols Won’t Ban Hate

Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday sadly seems to be generating less commentary on the pervasiveness of gun crime in America or the perilous state of race relations than it does on the flying of the Confederate colors in the South. Read more “Banning Symbols Won’t Ban Hate”

Violence is Not Part of American Democracy

In response to the suggestion of a Russian reporter that political violence is inherent to America’s democracy, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on Thursday strongly condemned the shooting that occurred in Tucson, Arizona as well as politically motivated violence in general. “That is not American,” he declared.

Gibbs had praised the event in which Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded in last week’s assault, was participating earlier during his remarks, describing it as an “exercise of some very important, very foundational freedoms to this country: the freedom of speech; the freedom to assemble; the freedom to petition your government.”

Democracy and self government, “by and for the people,” are quintessential American values, Gibbs added, “that have been on display along with the tremendous courage and resilience of those in that community and throughout this country that have had to deal with this tragedy.”

Andrei Sitov of the ITAR-TASS news agency wondered though whether the freedom of a deranged mind to commit terrible crimes wasn’t just as quintessentially American. “No,” said Gibbs, “I would disagree vehemently with that.”

There is nothing in the values of our country, there’s nothing on the many laws on our books that would provide for somebody to impugn and impede on the very freedoms that you began with by exercising the actions that that individual took on that day.

“Violence is never, ever acceptable,” Gibbs added. Yet in different parts of Europe the news of the Arizona tragedy was followed by renewed reprehension about, if not outright denunciation of America’s gun laws.

The discussion has been revived in the United States as well but in a very different context. At times, Europeans may be quick to forget that America has a very different gun tradition and a very different gun culture. These elements should not be absent from a sensible debate.

In most of Europe, private gun ownership is either banned or subject to heavy government regulation and control. In America by contrast it is regarded as a fundamental right that is enshrined in the country’s constitution. It is part of many Americans’ sense of freedom and self-determination. To approach the issue from a European perspective would be ignorant and misguided. To suggest that gun related or politically motivated crime is somehow intrinsic to American democracy is simply preposterous.

Supreme Court Upholds Right to Bear Arms

Facade of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington DC
Facade of the Supreme Court of the United States in Washington DC (Shutterstock/Brandon Bourdages)

The Supreme Court ruled on Monday that the Second Amendment to the United States protects the right of all Americans to bear arms in a five to four vote. The decision is welcomed by gun rights advocates across the nation who, for years, have complained that state and local restrictions to gun ownership are unconstitutional.

The Court was considering a restrictive Chicago handgun law similar to a District of Colombia measure which it ruled against in 2008. The victory may be more symbolic than substantive because few cities have gun laws as restrictive as those in Chicago and Washington. Moreover, it does not strike any other gun control measures currently in place, but it does provide a legal basis for gun owners across America who believe that government has unlawfully deprived them of their right to keep and bear arms.

According to Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. who wrote for the conservatives on the Court, “It is clear that the Framers … counted the right to keep and bear arms among those fundamental rights necessary to our system of ordered liberty.” Government may restrict gun ownership under certain circumstances, as when it denies felons and mentally ill from possessing firearms or restricting the right to bear them in “sensitive places” as schools and public buildings. “We repeat those assurances here,” wrote Alito.

“Despite municipal respondents’ doomsday proclamations,” the decision “does not imperil every law regulating firearms,” according to Alito. He stressed at the same time that the Second Amendment “applies equally to the federal government and the states.”

Bloomberg’s Call for Repeal of Tiahrt

Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City has called for Congress to repeal the Tiahrt Amendment. A law passed in 2003 and made permanent in 2008 that Bloomberg claims is hampering the investigations of people such as Nidal Malik Hasan, the man who went on the shooting spree in Fort Hood, Texas.

The same Nidal Hasan was already under investigation for posting on the Internet that Muslims should rise up against America and was declared to be mostly harmless.

It seems Bloomberg’s real problem isn’t that the Tiahrt Amendment prevents the investigation of firearm related crimes. If it did, we wouldn’t know that Hasan had bought the pistol he used from a Gunshop in Keleem, Texas.

Bloomberg’s problem is that his group Mayors Against Illegal Guns have been trying to get their hands on confidential law enforcement data for their lawsuit against American firearms manufacturers. Read more “Bloomberg’s Call for Repeal of Tiahrt”