Law

Guns Are Different

Flickr/xomiele

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.

Taking the Broad View on Guns

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.

Ten Arguments Gun Advocates Make, and Why They're Wrong

Flickr/SpecialKRB

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.

Obama, Crying

White House

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.

Whether Scalia Likes It or Not

Flickr/U.S. Mission Geneva

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.

Will Defenders of DOMA and Prop. 8 Have a Leg to Stand On?

Wikimedia Commons

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.

The Courts: How Obama Dropped the Ball

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

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.

Election Officials Defend Their Partisan Status

Flickr/Steve Rhodes

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.

Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid: SCOTUS Takes on Same-Sex Marriage

Flickr/Jamison Weiser

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.

How Will SCOTUS Rule on Prop. 8 and DOMA?

WikiMedia Commons

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.

We Can't All Be Royals

AP Photo

I know you can hardly stand the excitement: Princess Kate is preggers! Finally, the QEII can step out of service, passing off the baton—er, scepter—in a way that skips right past her reprobate son. Finally, she has a new generation in line that understands the royal job: get married, reproduce, and stay honorably married.

Getting Away with Wage Theft

The 1938 Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which ushered in many of the worker protections we enjoy today, was a major progressive victory. But as the century that followed it shows, it was by no means the end of the struggle to get workers treated fairly. Employers, aided by conservatives in the executive and judicial branches, have often found ways of ensuring these laws are not fully enforced. Symczyk v. Genesis Healthcare Corp., which the Supreme Court considered yesterday at oral argument, presents another case in which conservatives on the Supreme Court might erect a barrier making FLSA harder to enforce.

Will the Contraception Mandate Survive Judicial Review?

Yesterday's court order blocking the Obama administration's ruling on health-care plans is by no means the end of the road.

Yesterday, the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay blocking the Obama administration's requirement that employer health-insurance plans cover contraception. The related suit was filed by Frank O'Brien, a Roman Catholic business owner who claimed that the mandate violated his rights under the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

Who's the Boss?

(Flickr/OzinOH)

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court looked into the question of who counts as a “supervisor” for the purpose of employment law. If you’re not an employment-law watcher, it sounds like the legal equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But the answer is going to have real-life consequences for hundreds of thousands of people. Let me illustrate. 

Why Obama Won't Be the One to End the War on Drugs

Not this guy.

In New York magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells has a long article about the failure of the War on Drugs, in which he says, "Without really acknowledging it, we are beginning to experiment with a negotiated surrender." This is in reference to the recently passed marijuana legalization initiatives in Colorado and Washington, which will likely be followed by other states in upcoming elections. Hanging over these policy changes is the still-to-be-determined reaction of the Obama administration, which hasn't yet said whether it plans to send DEA agents to crack down on the businesses these laws allow for, or the growing operations they'll produce. And I'm beginning to suspect that the administration will try to set some kind of policy course intended to be as low-key and neutral as possible, neither giving the two states the green light to proceed as their new laws envision, nor embarking on some kind of dramatic and visible crackdown.

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