Friday, December 28, 2012

Talking Points in Response to the NRA

Last week Wayne LaPierre, vice president of the NRA, spoke out in response to the horrible shootings in Newtown, CT, and for the first time, the public has responded with a critical eye to some of the logic La Pierre  and his ilk have used in his response to the terrible tragedy. Let us be clear on a couple of things as we reflect on LaPierre’s words. First of all, we need to realize that he was not posturing; he truly believes what he said. Second, we need to realize that the NRA, the Gun Owners of the America and the gun industry will respond with all the resources at their disposal to confuse and distort the issues around guns; and those resources are sizable. Already they are hitting the airways with proposals designed to confuse rather than clarify the issue. So in this blog I want to provide a few talking points as we write our legislators and talk with our co-workers and friends about these important issues, and I will do so by taking the vary statements La Pierre used in his press conference.

First, La Pierre stated that there are already 20,000 gun laws on the books, so why do we need more. Now I am not sure where he came up with that number but there is no question there are a lot of laws because gun legislation is largely handled at the state level, and so there are 50 sets of laws. Congress and federal government have limited control of gun practices. What is needed is a comprehensive framework from the federal level to guide states. However, that is a long way off given the current polarity in the Congress . What Congress can do is ban assault weapons, coordinate a national database of people who should not be allowed to buy guns, and provide funding for enforcement through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Narcotics (commonly referred to as ATF). The Congress also can provide funding for the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to do research on the effects and causes of gun violence.  Now while there are many laws, the NRA has actually been actively and successfully working to weaken existing laws and to pass laws allowing for individuals to carry concealed weapons in public. (Think George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin). So some of these many laws have actually made guns more readily available rather than restricted. LaPierre conveniently forgot to mention that fact.

This leads to La Pierre next point that we just need to enforce existing laws, not pass new ones. That would be great place to start except the NRA has strongly pushed that the ATF be given reduced resources so that ATF does not have the people power to adequately monitor gun shops and other sources providing guns. The NRA have also sought to undermine the national database by having supporters in positions of influence at the state level not send in the information the database requires and because ATF is underfunded they can’t go after them. The NRA also pushed through legislation that de-funded gun-related studies of the CDC because those studies showed that the presence of a gun in a home actually increased the likelihood of gun-related injuries or deaths rather than decrease them. These goes against the bumper sticker logic of the NRA that guns somehow make us safer. The research just does not back that up claim.

La Pierre’s most outrageous proposal was to put arm guards in every school. Yesterday the NRA president David Keene  altered that proposal by saying school personnel should be able to have a range of options for protecting themselves – arming teachers, principals, having police officers, private security, etc. The logic of this proposal expressed by La Pierre is that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun. This is the “wild west “ logic that the NRA has used for years, and is reflected endlessly in our movies, television, video games and media. This logic is like trying to plug the dam after the water has broken through. The goal should be to reduce the overall presence of guns, keep them away from children, felons, people with emotional problems and so on.  Just yesterday three Clementon, NJ police officers were shot in the police station by an assailant. Trained guards do not prevent violence, that logic is too late. As the CDC study referenced above pointed out the presence of guns themselves present a threat; do we want these sorts of readily available in a school? I don’t think so.

La Pierre also criticized the entertainment and video game industry for promoting violence. For LaPierre, a representative of the firearms industry, to make such a statement would be laughable if it were not so tragically hypocritical. Like many other manufacturers and retailers, the firearms industry uses product placement in movies and games as a way of advertising their product. Just this week the NY Times reported that the website for video game Medal of Honor Warfighter was directly linked to the gun manufacturers whose weapons are featured in thegame. This is not an anomaly but standard practice for gun manufacturers to get their product out there.

Finally, the media keeps reporting that the public is evenly divided on the issue of gun control. That assertion is based on an ongoing Pew Research Study that asks the following question: What do you think is more important – to protect the right of Americans to own guns, OR to control gun ownership? In answer to this question the public is evenly divided. However, anyone who does research knows, the question you ask skews the results you get. The question asked by PEW set up a false dichotomy between allowing Americans to own guns and gun control. In Pennsylvania, a heavily pro-gun state, when more specific questions were asked a widely different result was received. When asked if that state ought to limit the sale of handguns to one gun per month per person, nearly 70% of people voted in the affirmative.  When asked if persons should be required to report a gun that was lost or stolen there was a similar result. These laws are focused on straw purchasing, the major source of most guns used in crime. So in many ways the public is overwhelmingly in favor of common sense legislation which addresses parts of the problem without restricting others’ right to legally own a gun.

Hopefully these talking points can help you in talking with others about the tragic events in Newtown and elsewhere. For the first time our nation’s leaders are at least talking about the issue. We need to seize this moment to bring pressure to bear for legislators at all levels of government to take action that will make the likelihood of another Newtown, Columbine, Aurora or (fill in the blank) happening again. Groups like Mayors Against Illegal Guns, the Violence Policy Center and Ceasefire PA are great sources of the latest actions and information available. We can’t just sit on this one; we need to let our voices be heard.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

We Are Adam Lanza

The feedback to my earlier blog “Making Sense of the Senseless” has challenged me to say a word about the mental illness dimension of the horrible tragedy in Connecticut. While the citizens of Newtown mourn, many folks in the media and beyond are trying to make sense of the tragic events of December 14 at the Sandy Hook Elementary School; they are seeking to understand why Adam Lanza acted as he did in such a devastating and destructive way. While the all-too-ready-availability of guns is a major contributing factor that is now finally getting some national attention at the highest levels, the other issue is the untreated and in some cases undiagnosed mental illness of the shooters in the high profile murders such as occurred at Virginia Tech, Tucson, Aurora and now Newtown.  To that end a great deal has been made of Lanza’s supposed mental illness and the need for services that can better detect, treat and support those who suffer as he apparently did.  Liz Long’s article “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother," the testimony of a mother caring for her son whose diagnosis has been everything from autism to ADHD to oppositional disorder. has gone viral on the Internet.

I am neither a mental health professional nor one who has studied the issue, so I can only speak from my limited personal experience. My window into the world of mental illness came over 30 years ago when I was a student chaplain in a psychiatric hospital in Danvers, MA. Danvers State was a facility for the severely mentally ill, particularly those suffering from various psychosis such as paranoia, schizophrenia and the like. My job consisted of providing spiritual support to people who often moved in and out of lucidity, and who could be speaking rationally one moment and be living in a world that existed only in their mind in the next. In order to relate to these folks I had to try and follow wherever their minds were taking them and meet them there, while trying to offer some sense of God’s presence in their often troubled, confusing lives. While I do not know how much help I actually gave them, I learned a great deal about the human psyche.

The enduring insight I gained from that summer was that all people are crazy, it’s just that some of us hide it better than others. I came to realize that some of the more bizarre conversations I had with patients were similar to fantasies and dreams I had. The difference was that the patients thought those fantasies were real and acted on them, whereas I was able to recognize they were just in my mind, and not something I should act on. I saw that the anger, the hurt, the frustration and even the exuberance that my  patients expressed were similar to feelings I had; I just was able to control my emotions and express them in socially appropriate ways. Moreover, whereas my patients often could not discern the real from the unreal when they acted irrationality, I was adept at supplying “logical” or “rational” explanations for my sometimes irrational reactions and behaviors.

At the time I wondered why my training for pastoral ministry required a summer spent on the psych wards, but once I got into the pastoral role I saw how valuable that experience was. Religion often draws on the emotional and imaginative side of people’s psyches and religious people often explain their strange behavior with Biblical or theological language. In my time as a pastor I had numerous opportunities to minister to people who were suffering various forms of mental stress and illness, which often got complicated when they inserted God into their rationalization for how and why they acted as they did. All too often actions that otherwise “normal” and “healthy” people took in their lives did not make any rational sense, and so I developed a working principle for dealing with folks: if it looks, sounds, and feels crazy, it probably is crazy – no matter how people sought to package it. Moreover, while I saw such tendencies in other people, I could not deny that I also saw such tendencies in myself.  I came to realize we all are a bit crazy at times; some of us just cover it better than others.

Too often when we try and explain the tragic behavior of a person like Adam Lanza, our purpose is to put some social and psychic distance between us and him, to be able to say “well he acted that way because of A,B, & C” and therefore I am not like him. However, none of us are that far from where Adam Lanza was mentally and emotionally. We all have thoughts of exerting power thru violence whether in our silent thoughts or our night dreams. Violent movies and video games are the external evidence that is so. I confess there have been times in my life where the stress and confusion got so great that I literally thought I was “losing my mind.” I am not alone in that experience; at some level we are all potentially Adam Lanza.

In no way do I want to explain away or condone the tragedy of Newtown, CT. Rather my point is simply to say that we, the mentally ill and the mentally stable (relatively speaking) are all in this together. We may never know what possessed Adam Lanza to kill his mother and then go on a rampage in the school where she worked. What we can know is that as a human community, we are responsible for and to one another. We are responsible for and to the families, the caregivers, the teachers, and mental health professionals who seek to help those who struggle with mental illness. One day our psyches might break on the stresses of life, and just like Adam Lanza we will need someone to support us and save us from ourselves and the horrific impulses of our worst nightmares.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Making Sense of the Senseless

Today in Newtown, CT 28 people are dead, 20 of them children who attended the Sandy Hook Elementary School. If the murder rate in Philadelphia stays on pace, there will 3-4 more young people in Philadelphia dead before the end of the weekend due to gun violence. The same will be true for communities all over the country. As the newscasters were reporting the Connecticut tragedy, one reporter asked rhetorically: how do we make sense of the senseless?

Whenever I hear of another gun-related killing, and especially when there is a high profile shooting like we have had recently in Oregon and now in Connecticut, I think of the line from Bob Dylan’s classic, “Blowin’ in the Wind” – how many deaths will it take ‘til he knows that too many people have died? The pattern is the same: a horrible shooting occurs, the reporters swarm on the scene, tears are shed, incredulity is expressed, and yet nothing is said about the all-too-ready–availability of guns. President Obama sheds a tear and hugs his beautiful daughters, but will he and the Congress take up the issue of America’s fanatical addiction to guns. Whether it’s Trayvon Martin or holiday shoppers in Oregon or twenty elementary children, there is one thing that could have prevented all the senseless deaths: gun laws that make it difficult for the average person to buy guns and then carry them in public. It is not that complicated to figure out, but extremely complicated to get that simple idea into the political discussion.

No doubt there will be those in the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and other pro-gun groups who will make the argument that this incident shows that we need more guns, that if there had been teachers in that school with guns, maybe Adam Lanza would not have killed the children. They will make that argument even though it does not stand up to the evidence. Gabby Giffords had trained guards around her and there were armed guards in the Portland shopping mall. They did not stop the killers in those situations. This is the false and dangerous logic that the gun lobby continues to sell to the public and our leaders, and IT IS A LIE.

James Atwood, author of American and its Guns, says that we as a nation worship the idol of the gun. He says:

“… America’s idolatry with guns [is] a confrontational belief system based on acquiring power over others. The system is buttressed by a fascination for and devotion to the violence guns provide. Those who believe need guns to prove themselves and others they are in control, to protect them from harm, and to give them a sense of security.”(emphasis original, p. 22)

Former NRA executive Warren Cassidy said that the best way to understand the NRA is “approaching [members of the NRA] as if they were a religion.” His words not mine. To suggest that guns themselves might be part of the problem is heresy in the holy temple of the gun. However, if we want to make sense of the senseless, this is where we must start.

I ask that you join me in contacting legislators at local, state and federal levels and demanding that the issue of gun ownership and the carrying of guns be put up for serious discussion.  I did just that after the Aurora, CO shooting and got NRA sponsored clich├ęs from both Democrats and Republicans  except for my Republican state representative who agreed with the need to pass more restrictive legislation. We dare not give up. We are approaching the “tipping point”; change will begin to come when enough of us raise our voices enough times to finally drown out the senseless voices that continue to protect the “right to bear arms” at any cost, even the cost of innocent children.

The Politician, The Prophet and the The "Fiscal Cliff"

The news these days is filled with all the predictions and warnings about the so-called “fiscal cliff” that will befall the U.S. economy if the Democrats and Republicans in Washington cannot agree on a debt reduction package. Depending on what pundit you listen to, the failure to reach a deal could lead to a catastrophic recession, a slow decline, or a false alarm. Whatever the term “fiscal cliff” actually means, it is designed to shed fear and trepidation rather than true understanding of what is at stake, distract attention from the  the huge disparities that exist in wealth and power in this country, and will impact the poor far more than the banks or the wealthy. In the end the federal budget is not about money but priorities and people. The amount of money that special interests spent on both sides to sway the election could itself put a sizable dent in the federal deficit, so the underlying issue is not one of money but who gets to call the shots and direct those dollars.

The wealthy and powerful of the U.S. plutocracy have always positioned themselves to make out well no matter what. We forget that after Hurricane Katrina and oil prices shot up because the oil companies supposedly could not refine enough oil, Exxon-Mobil recorded the highest profit margins ever in its history. We forget that while banks were being bailed out during the recession, Goldman-Sachs and a small group of wealthy business types made a killing on that same recession. While the debate rages on about the Affordable Care Act (so called Obamacare), the health costs are not being contained and health insurance companies and drug companies will do just fine whatever way the political wind blows. While the Republicans say they want to balance the budget, they are fighting like hell to protect their wealthy backers, the 1-2% of the population with incomes over $250,000 that President Obama wants to tax at rates when Bill Clinton was president. So the issue is not about a balanced budget, but who calls the shots and who benefits, priorities and people.

The art of politics is compromise, so whatever comes out of these negotiations will be disappointing to anyone who has a strong opinion on the right or the left of this debate. No one group will get what they want, and so one must focus on what is most essential and most critical. This is why there need to be prophets to keep those principles before us.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Jewish philosopher and teacher of the mid-20th century wrote that “prophecy is the voice that God has lent to the silent agony, a voice of the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world.” He goes on, “The prophet hates the approximate; he shuns the middle of the road…The prophet's word is a scream in the night [and] …the purpose of prophecy is to conquer callousness, to change the inner [person] as well as revolutionize history.” [from his book The Prophets]. While Heschel was describing the prophets of the Old Testament, he was also referring to them as a paradigm for the prophets of today.

 Whether or not we see ourselves a prophets in the classic Old Testament sense, people of faith must honor and in some cases seek to speak with a prophetic voice that recognizes the  political necessity of compromise while at the same time “hating the approximate” and “shunning the middle of the road.” Franklin Delano Roosevelt was reported to have told an activist who supported him in the presidential election: “Now hold me to the promises I have made”. The prophets are the people who hold onto and press the promises.

President Obama was elected on the promise of developing a plan that provides health care coverage to all citizens. He said he would allow the Bush tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans. He said the federal government should support public education reform, especially in low income districts. He said we should create the conditions for green jobs, create alternatives to carbon-based energy and oppose the Keystone Pipeline project running down from Canada through the Midwest. With a prophetic voice we need to hold the president to these promises. They represent principles of equity, of a concern for the environment, and a curb on the wealthy powerbrokers. Moreover those principles should move us press President Obama on the places that he has not gone far enough, such as on immigration reform and regulations on Wall Street and financial institutions.

Parenthetically, I acknowledge that there are those on the other side of this debate who are as equally passionate about their issues. I find the America that many on the Right propose is not an America I want to support. And those who espouse a “Christian” position, support a Christianity I cannot endorse. So there are real divides and deep passions which I acknowledge. We as citizens need to have civil dialogue on these differences, not simply on the basis of the issues themselves, but the underlying principles and values that inform our positions.

My  commitments are to the principles of providing equal access to all, holding the powerful and wealthy in check, caring for the environment and providing basic rights for all citizens regardless of color, ethnicity or economic status. How we live out and implement these principles is a matter of practical, political strategy.
The debate over the so-called “fiscal cliff” is at its heart a debate about values and deep principles. While the politicians negotiate, in the prophetic tradition we must press the principles that can make life just and fair for all affected.