No Time for Gun Reform

From The Progressive Populist]

Is it ever OK to talk about the politics of gun control? It seems like after every mass murder we are told that it’s not right to take advantage of the tragedy to bring up the need for some controls on America’s most popular killing devices, but with the constant incidents of multiple-casualty shootings, there are few openings to take up the matter. 

The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence at has a list of more than 400 mass shootings in the United States since 2005. By the Brady Campaign’s count, the July 20 massacre at the Batman movie premiere in Aurora, Colo., was the 61st mass shooting that has occurred in the US since a gunman opened fire Jan. 8, 2011, at a town meeting called by US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz. In that incident, a mentally disturbed young man wielding a pistol with an extra-large-capacity magazine is alleged to have fired 32 rounds in 16 seconds before being subdued while trying to reload. Six people, including a federal judge, were killed and 13 were wounded, including Giffords. 

President Obama came in for criticism after that tragedy because he did not take the lead in calling for stricter gun laws, but the National Rifle Association already was speading paranoia on the right and promoting gun sales with irresponsible claims that Obama was coming after your guns.

The NRA is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which is tax-exempt, but it is opposed to letting the public — or its membership — know who bankrolls its lobbying operation. It also operates a foundation as a 501(c)(3) tax exempt organization to fund gun safety and educational projects for the general public. But the NRA opposed the DISCLOSE Act of 2012, which would let citizens know what corporations and individuals contribute more than $10,000 to political action committees that engage in the sort of independent political expenditures that the NRA makes. The disclosure law was written to allow such groups to keep their ordinary members secret. But NRA lobbyist Chris W. Cox in a letter warned senators that their vote will count on the NRA’s legislative scorecard for this Congress, and Republicans obliged by blocking the bill with a filibuster. 

We agree with the US Supreme Court’s decisions in District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), which held that the Second Amendment gives American citizens an individual right to own guns, and McDonald v. Chicago (2010), which clarified that the right to own handguns for personal protection extends to the states. However, the court allowed the states to regulate the sale and carrying of firearms outside the home and it left open the possibility of prohibiting assault rifles and other weapons that are “not typically possessed by law-abiding citizens for lawful purposes.” 

The ban on assault rifles and magazines carrying more than 10 rounds, which was enacted in 1994 and expired in 2004, seemed to be a reasonable move. A semiautomatic assault rifle is not much use for a deer hunter and it isn’t the best weapon for home defense — a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun is a better choice when you hear a disturbance after dark, and there is no mistaking the “ka-chunk” when you rack up a round to persuade a home invader to retreat.

The main use for an assault weapon, on the other hand, is to overpower someone or a group. That is unlikely to be a legitimate use. And no honest civilian needs more than 10 shots to get out of trouble. If they are carrying more rounds than that, they likely are looking for trouble.

After the Democratic Congress, at the prompting of President Bill Clinton, included a ban on the sale of military-style semi-automatic assault rifle and magazines holding more than 10 bullets as part of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act in 1994, the NRA lowered the boom, closely coordinating its election strategy with Republican officials, Robert Dreyfus wrote in The American Prospect in December 2001. “Republicans provided the NRA with polling data and lists of vulnerable Democrats in order to coordinate campaigns ... In addition to strategizing with the Republicans, the NRA — ostensibly a single-issue organization — was throwing its lot in with other conservative groups, many of whom had little interest in guns but shared the NRA’s desire to unseat Democrats. Together, these groups pursued lower taxes, free market economics, a smaller federal government, and a cutback in safety and health regulations.” 

The NRA claims 4.3 million members, but it no longer represents the interests of ordinary hunters and gun enthusiasts. It mainly represents the interests of gun manufacturers, it enables mass murderers, and it has increasingly cast its weight behind the Republican Party and corporate interests. The Center for Responsive Politics at reported that between 2001 and 2010, the NRA spent between $1.5 million and $2.7 million on federal lobbying efforts. But during the 2010 election cycle, after the Citizens United decision, the NRA spent more than $7.2 million on independent expenditures at the federal level — messages that primarily supported Republican candidates or opposed Democratic candidates.

There is mixed evidence that the assault weapons ban was effective. National Institute of Justice researchers in 2004 found that assault weapons were used in only a small fraction of crimes before the ban. Large-capacity magazines were used more often than assault weapons, but the researchers noted that assault weapons with large-capacity magazines tend to be used in murders of police and mass public shootings. Following implementation of the ban, a drop in the share of gun crimes involving assault weapons was offset by a rise in use of guns equipped with large-capacity magazines, due to the large stock of pre-ban magazines that were still available in stores.

Since the ban expired in September 2004, gun enthusiasts, at the urging of the NRA, have been stocking up on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines. There are now more than 300 million guns in private hands in the US as sales have surged since 2008, when gun owners were told that President Obama meant to confiscate their firearms, though neither he nor other Democratic leaders have suggested any such thing. But that hasn’t stopped NRA leader Wayne LaPierre, who in February told the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington that the president’s strategy was “crystal clear: Get re-elected and, with no more elections to worry about, get busy dismantling and destroying our firearms freedom, erase the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights and excise it from the US Constitution.”

With many moderate Democrats in the House and Senate intimidated by the threat from the NRA’s millions, and no real monied interests promoting gun control, it would take a dozen Republican senators and 40 representatives to reverse their positions to put a new assault weapons and large-capacity magazine ban in play — and even then the gun-control Republicans would have to put pressure on House Republican leadership to allow a vote on the bill — and neither Speaker John Boehner nor Majority Leader Eric Cantor are inclined to let that happen. 

With so many guns and large-capacity magazines already out there, it might seem like the damage is done. But we might prevent another deranged young man from assembling an armory.

So if you want Congress to pass a sensible gun bill, you are going to have to elect a Democratic House, keep the Senate in Democratic hands and pad that Senate majority by a few seats, as well as re-elect President Obama. Sure, Mitt Romney signed a state assault weapons ban when he was governor of Massachusetts in 2004, but he has repented every moderate view he held in those days, and there is no telling what he might do if he actually made it to the White House. But if Romney is in the Oval Office, chances are that Eric Cantor will be the new Speaker and Mitch McConnell will be the new Senate Majority Leader, and that won’t do the rest of us any good.

Editorial from The Progressive Populist. Reprinted with permission. Cross posted at

Regime Change at Home

From The Progressive Populist

Popular revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt have some on the left wondering why we can’t accomplish regime change in the United States.

But a big difference between restive North Africans and Americans is that Americans, by and large, have the right to vote and we can change the regime if we can muster the will and overcome the corporate noise machine. 

Many of us thought we were accomplishing regime change in 2010, with the election of Barack Obama and large Democratic majorities in Congress, but even after the switch of Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.) from Republican to Democrat and Al Franken (DFL-Minn.)’s election finally was certified seven months after he won at the polls, giving the Democratic caucus the 60 votes needed to overcome procedural roadblocks, we found that a cabal of Republicans and corporatist Democrats in the Senate were still able to block progressive initiatives from becoming law. 

Even after a compromised health-care reform bill made it through Congress, it still faces a review from the politically divided Supreme Court, where opponents are believed to have lined up at least four votes to overturn the law, including one justice, Clarence Thomas, who is untroubled by conflicts of interest with his wife, Ginni, who has been a conservative fundraiser and is now a lobbyist who boasts of her “connections” to help clients with “government affairs efforts.”

However, a coalition of House Progressives and Teabaggers Feb. 8 at least delayed the plans of congressional leaders to renew several key provisions of the Bush-era PATRIOT Act without giving them serious review. George Zornick of noted that key provisions expire at the end of February, including language that gives the FBI authority to use roving wiretaps; a “lone wolf” provision that allows the government to monitor targets who are not connected to an identifiable terrorist group; and, most troublingly, a provision allowing the FBI access, without judicial review, “any tangible items” such as library records that it deems relevant to an ongoing terrorism investigation. 

Reforms to the PATRIOT Act have been debated every year but never enacted. The new Republican House leadership put the one-year extension on a fast track for passage without any reforms — or even hearings.

The ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) opposed the extension and urged his colleagues to vote no, calling the act “one of the worst laws” Congress had ever passed. Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) challenged Tea Party conservatives to stand up for the First and Fourth Amendments when the bill came up for debate in the House and 26 Republicans voted with 122 Democrats against the measure, while 67 Dems and 210 Republicans supported it. That left supporters short of the two-thirds needed for immediate passage.

That means the bill will get a committee hearing and come back under regular rules, when a simple majority can pass it.

In the meantime, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has put forth a bill that would extend the provisions, but with some important safeguards. For example, “when library or bookseller records are sought via a Section 215 order for business records, a statement of specific and articulable facts showing relevance to an authorized investigation must be produced.” The Department of Justice has already agreed to enact most of these reforms voluntarily, but Leahy’s bill would also sunset use of National Security Letters, a dangerous practice that gave the FBI authority to demand personal customer records from Internet service providers, financial institutions and credit companies without court review.

Unfortunately, Senate “conservatives” are prepared to fast-track a bill by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that extends these provisions for two years without any reforms, under a rule that allows them to bypass the committee process.

There ought to be at least 41 senators who would stick together to block the fast-tracking of PATRIOT renewal, but don’t count on it. Tell your senators that the PATRIOT Act, if it should be renewed at all, should be extended only long enough to allow a sober hearing of Leahy’s bill. 

Regime change begins at home. But the White House is only the start. We also need better senators and representatives. Too many Democrats talk about protecting working people’s interests before the election but bow to corporate benefactors after the election. And plenty of Republicans are in favor of keeping the government out of your business before the election, but after the election are perfectly willing to let the FBI seize your files without giving you recourse to a court or even your own attorney. 

We don’t need to occupy the National Mall to restore democracy. We just need to pay attention to what’s going on, encourage good people to run for office and then vote for them in our neighborhood precincts. The Supreme Court has said that corporations can flood the airwaves with ads during election campaigns — and we should organize around reversing that infamous Citizens United court ruling — but first we need to do a better job of getting the truth out over the din.

(And Diane Feinstein needs a Democratic primary challenger. California really can and should do better.)

See the entire editorial at The Progressive Populist. Reprinted by permission.


Gas Pains

Higher fuel costs are vexing most of us, but John McCain's proposal to suspend the federal gas tax of 18.4 cents per gallon and diesel tax of 24.4 cents per gallon this summer (since endorsed by Hillary Clinton) is irresponsible and probably ineffectual. The "tax holiday" would cost the federal government $9 billion--and McCain hasn't said how he would replace that revenue. It also wouldn't give drivers much relief unless oil companies also were banned from raising pump prices to swallow the difference. Oil companies have shown time and again that they have neither conscience nor national loyalty. Since the market has established that people will pay upwards of $3.50 a gallon--the average price for gasoline in mid-April--there is nothing to stop Exxon from treating McCain's "tax holiday" as just another windfall for petroleum retailers.

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Mandate Single-Payer

The Clinton and Obama campaigns have been tossing brickbats at each other over the details of their attempts to make health insurance affordable for the 47 million Americans -- mainly the working poor -- who do not have coverage. In brief, Hillary Clinton would mandate individuals and employers to buy insurance while Barack Obama would mandate employers to contribute to insurance coverage.

Both Democrats are better than John McCain, who only recently put up a health policy page on his Web site that basically parroted the Bush administration's proposal of tax credits to help individuals buy insurance with high deductibles, which would cover catastrophic illness but would discourage people from seeing a doctor for routine ailments.

The US spends about twice as much for health care as the average among industrialized nations, said Dr. Steffi Woolhandler, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School. But those other developed countries provide comprehensive coverage for their entire populations, while the US leaves more than 47 million uninsured and millions more inadequately covered. The US performs poorly on major health indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and immunization rates, in comparison.

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Making Change

The verdict from the first two states in the Democratic nominating process is in: Barack Obama is for real; Hillary Clinton is not inevitable but won't give up; and John Edwards is the progressive populist in the race.

Now that the Democratic presidential race has practically narrowed to those three candidates, Edwards remains the progressive populist choice for change. Many progressive voters would be proud to vote for a black candidate or a female candidate with a solid chance to occupy the Oval Office, but while Obama and Clinton have been occupying the middle of the road, Edwards, a former North Carolina senator who comes from a working-class background and made his bones as a trial lawyer challenging reckless and abusive corporations, has been challenging the status quo. Although he has been derided by some for his wealth, he made his fortune by winning verdicts for his working-class clients who were injured by those corporations that are unregulated by the Republicans and lightly regulated by the D.C. Dems.

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Texas Gerrymandering is still before the Supreme Court

With the announcement of Tom DeLay's pending resignation from Congress, it is worth considering what might happen if the US Supreme Court overturns all or part of the 2003 Republican gerrymandering that turned the Texas congressional delegation from 17-15 Democratic after the 2002 election to 21-11 Republican currently.
    Renea Hicks, a prominent Austin attorney on redistricting matters who represents the city of Austin, Travis County and former Austin mayor Gus Garcia, argued the case before the Supreme Court on March 1 and expects a decision by June. At a briefing for Austin Democrats on March 8, he said if the court finds the Texas Legislature engaged in an unconstitutional partisan gerrymandering of one or more congressional districts, it could order a new open primary to be held on the general election day, and a runoff in December, as it did in 1996.
    DeLay is charged in Travis County (Austin) state district court with illegally funneling corporate money to state House races in 2002 to clear the way for his partisan gerrymandering plan in 2003, which resulted in the loss of six Democratic seats.

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