What do you say when a public figure you find repellent dies? Do you hold your tongue, not speak ill of the dead, and wait some decent interval before saying what you really thought of them? After all, there's no time like their death. Robert Bork died today, and the truth is that in a few months nobody is going to be talking much about his legacy. So now's the time to weigh in, which Jeffrey Toobin does, in a rather unrestrained way:
Robert Bork, who died Wednesday, was an unrepentant reactionary who was on the wrong side of every major legal controversy of the twentieth century. The fifty-eight senators who voted against Bork for confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1987 honored themselves, and the Constitution. In the subsequent quarter-century, Bork devoted himself to proving that his critics were right about him all along.
Hard to disagree — Bork's philosophy was a particularly nasty one, and he spent much of his public life expressing his boundless contempt for modern America, particularly the ways it had become more humane than it once was...
Thanks to the tireless efforts of the NRA and the gun manufacturers, 49 states now issue concealed carry permits to people for whom merely owning guns is not enough. As we focus our attention on military-style rifles and high-capacity magazines, we need to remember that the most important change in recent years isn't in the equipment, but in the spread of a new kind of mentality among many gun owners, one that seeks to make fear the organizing principle of American society.
This has been the essential focus of gun advocates' work in recent years: changing laws so that as many people as possible can carry as many guns as possible into as many places as possible. Since the people who want to do so have driven the discussion and the laws on guns, it's important to understand where they're coming from. And frankly, it's an ugly place.
The horrific mass killing of elementary schoolchildren in Newtown, Connecticut has served as another reminded that the United States is an unusually violent country. And the evidence is overwhelming that lax regulations of private firearms plays a major role in this unnecessarily high rate of violent death. And yet, it is very unlikely that any federal legislation will be passed in response to the Newtown killings, let alone regulations comparable to those in other liberal democracies.
We're about to start the portion of this debate where we actually begin discussing specific actins the government might take to address gun violence. And as we do, particularly when it comes to those measures that concern the guns themselves (as opposed to measures focused on the people who can get them or the conditions of their purchase), it's likely that gun advocates will start complaining that there's a problem with all these effete urban northeastern liberals making laws governing guns they know nothing about. This isn't new; for instance, gun advocates have long hated the term "assault weapon," since it doesn't really mean anything in particular (after all, every gun is a weapon designed for assault).
We should be very wary of the argument that people who have a lot of experience with guns have some kind of greater moral claim to a voice in this debate (and we should also be wary, as Elsbeth Reeve writes, of coastal urbanite conservatives claiming to speak for "real America" about guns). Yes, having everyone get their facts straight is important. But every one of us is potentially affected by guns, whether we ever bother to pick one up or not. That's kind of the whole point. You don't have to know how to disassemble and clean a Glock to want your kid not to be shot by one.
AP Photo/St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Christian Gooden
Every mass shooting, there’s a brief flare-up of discussion about gun control, followed by an inevitable dropping of the subject as liberals give up hope that anything can be done about guns when conservatives control the discourse so thoroughly. It’s become so predictable that even lamenting the process has in itself become a cliché. The notion that owning semi-automatic assault rifles that can shoot off six rounds a second is a “right” has become so embedded that many people, including our president, have calculated that it’s fruitless to even try to start drafting legislation that would restrict the sale of such weapons.
It's safe to say that we've had more of a national discussion about guns in the last four days than we've had in the last fifteen years. The particular measures to address gun violence that are now in the offing run from those that are well-intended but likely to be ineffectual (renewing the assault weapons ban, for instance) to some that could have a more meaningful effect even if they're difficult to implement (universal background checks, licensing, and training). But the most useful change that may come out of this moment in our history is a change in the way we look at guns.
By that I don't mean that Americans will suddenly stop fetishizing guns, or that everyone will agree they're nothing but trouble. But if we're lucky, perhaps we could come to an agreement on something simple. Yes, our constitution guarantees that people can own guns, much as many of us wish it didn't. But even in the context of that freedom, we should be able to agree that guns are different. The freedom to own guns is different from other freedoms, and guns are different from other products. A sane society should be able to acknowledge that difference and use it to guide the choices it makes.
President Obama wipes away a tear as he discusses the shooting in Newtown.
Up until now, Barack Obama's record on guns has been one of the biggest disappointments for his liberal supporters. In his first term he signed two laws on guns, one allowing people to take their guns into national parks, and one allowing people to take their guns on Amtrak trains. But now there are some hints that the administration may be open to some modest measures to reduce the easy availability of some of the deadliest means of killing large numbers of people at one time. In particular, we could see a renewal of some version of the assault weapons ban that was in place from 1994 to 2004. That law used a somewhat complicated flow chart of features to define an assault weapon, and also banned magazines that held more than 10 rounds. A ban on high-capacity magazines may be the easiest thing to pass today, because it's not hard to define and they are almost impossible to justify for any purpose other than killing people.
The easy argument against any new law, and one we'll certainly be hearing, is "That wouldn't have stopped Adam Lanza." And that's probably true. If someone is determined enough and takes enough time to plan, they can kill lots and lots of people. But the point of our policy shouldn't be solely to make sure that nobody ever shoots up a school again, it should be to reduce the appalling death toll that guns bring to our society. If the horror of 20 murdered children in Connecticut is the thing that leads us to finally attempt to do something about the 30,000 Americans who are killed with guns every year, then it will be fine if the next set of policies isn't focused on preventing precisely that kind of massacre.
We'll only do something meaningful if we think in the broadest of terms.
There has been yet another mass shooting, something that now seems to occur on a monthly basis. Every time another tragedy like this occurs, gun advocates make the same arguments about why we can't possibly do anything to restrict the weaponization of our culture. Here's a guide to what they'll be saying in the coming days:
1. Now isn't the time to talk about guns. We're going to hear this over and over, and not just from gun advocates; Jay Carney said it to White House reporters today. But if we're not going to talk about it now, when are we going to talk about it? After Sandy hit the east coast, no one said, "Now isn't the time to talk about disaster preparedness; best leave that until it doesn't seem so urgent." When there's a terrorist attack, no one says, "Now isn't the time to talk about terrorism." Now is exactly the time.
While plenty of people criticized President Barack Obama’s speech yesterday—“I react not as a President, but as anybody else would—as a parent"—I was less bothered by what he said than I was relieved by what he did: choke up, take a minute to gather himself and, through the rest of the press conference, wipe back tears. Of course, I thought. Crying is the appropriate response to have to a day like this.
Last week, when the Supreme Court decided to take both the Proposition 8 case, which challenges California's constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and a challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which barrs the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states, my inner Eeyore got a little carried away. I realized that when Brian Brown—head of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM), the chief opponent of marriage equality, started quoting me in his fundraising e-mails. While I’m honored he would notice, that made me recognize I should explain my thinking more clearly.
The most hotly-debated issue with respect to the Supreme Court's announcement that it will hear two major gay-rights cases is whether it will decide the cases at all. In addition to the crucial substantive issues relating to the constitutional status of sexual orientation, the Court has asked the parties in both the DOMA and Prop.
In his novel King of the Jews, Leslie Epstein sets his story in the wartime ghetto of Lodz, Poland, where the Gestapo ruled through an appointed council of Jewish elders. Epstein, researching the book, tracked down the gallows humor of the time. In one such joke, told by a character in the novel, two Jews are facing a firing squad. The commandant asks if they would like blindfolds. One of the condemned whispers to the other, “Don’t make trouble.”
“Don’t make trouble” could have been the credo of the first year of the Obama Administration. The White House calculated that if the president just extended the hand of conciliation to the Republicans, the opposition would reciprocate and together they would change the tone in Washington. This was the policy on everything from the stimulus to health reform to judicial nominations. It didn’t work out so well.
This campaign cycle, even election rules were grounds for partisan fighting. Republican Ken Detzner, Florida’s secretary of state, attempted a purge of the voter rolls, prompting accusations of discrimination. In Colorado, Secretary of State Scott Gessler, also a Republican, tinkered with a similar effort. Pennsylvania’s Secretary of the Commonwealth Carole Aichele, another Republican appointed by Governor Tom Corbett, openly supported the state’s voter-ID law. Most famously, there was Jon Husted, Ohio’s Republican secretary of state, whose decision to limit early-voting hours to keep them consistent across the state prompted cries of outrage.
Tonight, you’ll hear on the news that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear the "gay marriage cases.” Much of the mainstream (i.e., straight) media will be treating the two cases they’ve taken—a challenge to California's ban on same-sex marriage, Proposition 8, and a challenge to DOMA, the federal law that prohibits the government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states—as essentially the same. Don’t be fooled. The cases are very different. The fact that SCOTUS has taken both has a lot of us very worried.
The Supreme Court has announced that it will be hearing both of the major gay-rights cases it was considering this term. Facing constitutional scrutiny are key provisions of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriages performed in the states, and California's Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in the state. When combined with the major affirmative-action and voting-rights cases the court will also be handing down this term, this could be the most consequential Supreme Court term in decades.