Tuesday, April 17, 2007

How Many Deaths Will It Take?

As news of the horrific scene at Virginia Tech unfolded yesterday, some pundits said now was not the time to start talking about gun control, saying that it would be an exploitation of the tragedy for political purposes. President Bush said "now is not the time" for a debate, and he said it should wait until "we're actually certain about what happened." But only someone opposed to gun control would say such a thing. If now is not the time to discuss greater gun control, when is? It's only a political issue because lines have been drawn by the political parties.

Virginia has among the most lenient gun laws in the country. There are no requirements for licensing or training, and if one buys a weapon at gun show, there is no background check or waiting period. If a person completes a background check, Virginia law requires that a concealed carry permit be issued to anyone who applies. (Virginia does not allow guns to be carried on school campuses.)

Contrary to what most people are told, the U.S. Constitution doesn't give everyone the right to own a gun. The Second Amendment conveys the right "to keep and bear arms" for the purposes of maintaining a well-regulated militia. This was written in the days before there were federal armed forces, state police, local police and so forth. In the absence of a need for a militia made up of citizens, there is no right to own a gun.

That realization is anathema to gun owners and members of the National Rifle Association, the premier special interest group in the nation, which has fought all reasonable attempts at gun control. Nothing less than completely un-regulated gun ownership will satisfy the extremists at the NRA, which is among the richest and most powerful of all lobbying groups and which can strike fear in politicians seeking to win elections. During the news broadcasts of the events yesterday, Fox News host John Gibson gave the right-wing party line: If other students or faculty had been armed, they could have defended themselves and others. It seems, to gun advocates, that the answer to violence is more violence. Preventing violence has never occurred to them. Of course, the NRA is also supported by corporations that make and sell weapons, so there is an inherent conflict of interest and a self-serving nature of their position.

Not all politicians cower to the gun lobby: Barack Obama has gone on record before this latest incident, saying the sale or transfer of all forms of semi-automatic weapons should be banned, state restrictions on the purchase and possession of firearms should be increased, and manufacturers should be required to provide child-safety locks with firearms. He also supports lawsuits against gun manufacturers.

John Edwards has said in the past he supports closing the gun-show loophole and preventing convicted criminals of owning guns. Edwards has also said, however, that gun ownership is about "independence," and he supports the right to own them. He nevertheless said he supports lawsuits that would hold gun manufacturers accountable. Hillary Clinton has advocated registering and licensing all handgun sales, and has said "there are too many guns and too many children have access." In the Senate, Clinton voted against the bill that would have granted the gun industry immunity from lawsuits.

Rudy Giuliani has said that "just as a motorist must have a license, a gun owner should be required to have one as well. Anyone wanting to own a gun should have to pass a written exam that shows that they know how to use a gun, that they’re intelligent enough and responsible enough to handle a gun." John McCain, who has said in the past that he favors safety locks on guns, voted against gun control legislation in the Senate. McCain voted against the assault weapons ban of 1994 (which President Bush allowed to expire in 2004) and also voted against the Brady Bill, which would have required a five-day waiting period for gun buyers.

Meanwhile, Mitt Romney said in the past he supported the assault weapons ban and the Brady Bill, but lately - as he courts Republican voters - he has shied away from being a strong gun-control advocate and instead, his campaign describes him as someone who has worked to ease gun-control laws.

The NRA and people who support unrestricted gun laws foster a culture of violence. Indeed, the notion that everyone should be armed encourages it. There is another way, led by people who believe a more peaceful existence is possible. It starts with legitimate, strong gun control legislation, and with efforts like the one by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to hold gun manufacturers accountable.

But as long as the likes of the Bush Administration is in charge, none of this will come to pass. The Bush Administration, along with the gun lobby and its allies in Congress, suppressed crime gun trace data, exposing the complicity of gun dealers in supplying the illegal gun market in order to aid gun makers in civil court cases and shield the industry from negative public attention.

Despite the fact that polls find gun control has strong support from Americans, there is unlikely to be any changes in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings. That's because Democrats - and Bill Clinton - believe the passage of the Brady Bill in 1993 and the assault weapons ban in 1994 led to the defeat of the Democrats in the 1994 Congressional elections, due to the intense lobbying of the NRA. Al Gore's failure to win states in the south in 2000 is also blamed on the NRA, to some degree, and their mischaracterization of his position. The NRA did the same thing to John Kerry in 2004. It matters little that gun control has broad public support, or that most law-enforcement agencies around the country support it, since the NRA's scare tactics have made the issue toxic for politicians.

As a general rule, however, no politician who takes money from the gun manufacturers or has support of the NRA can be taken seriously on gun control. Eight years after the shootings at Columbine, with all the other shootings since - including last year's incident at an Amish school in rural Pennsylvania - the country's lax gun legislation is the same. Families who have suffered losses from these senseless acts of violence deserve better than to see our national well-being held hostage by the likes of the NRA. Again, if now is not the time to talk about these issues, when? If this generation doesn't start to correct the epidemic of gun violence, who will?

Friday, April 13, 2007

What Took So Long?

Don Imus was fired, and it's about damn time.

As a radio personality, Imus was always more than a little obnoxious, but that was his "voice," and so be it. But for more than 25 years, he exhibited an attitude toward people of other colors and sexes that can only be classified as racist and sexist. Maybe it's the culture that finally became advanced enough in 2007 to say that his behavior isn't acceptable. Why wasn't he fired in the early 1980s when he dedicated the Queen song "Another One Bites The Dust" to the children of Atlanta, during the Atlanta child murders of that period? Thirty black children and young adults were killed in a two-year period, starting in 1979. Why did Imus never apologize to their families? Or to the Atlanta community? Why did the company that broadcast him never say "You went too far; we don't want to be the station that has that kind of misanthropy on the airwaves"?

Thirteen years ago, in 1994, Imus played a song that advised President Clinton on how to handle the Paula Jones situation: "Pimp slap the ho." Imus' sidekick and executive producer Bernard McGuirk recently said Hillary Clinton, after her speech in Selma, Alabama, would have "corn-rows and gold teeth" by the time her campaign against Barack Obama was finished. He also called her "a bitch." Back in the '90s, Imus referred to a black New York Times reporter as "the cleaning lady."

As New York Times columnist Bob Herbert pointed out this week, a 60 Minutes segment on Imus from 1998 confronts him with evidence that he said McGuirk was there "to do nigger jokes." Imus admitted using that word. And yet, his employers, his broadcasters did nothing. Imus regularly called Arabs "ragheads," called women "skanks," used many dismissive terms for Jewish people ("thieving Jews," "beanie-wearing little Jew boy"), and used several gay epithets, such as "lesbo" and "faggot."

What is it about talk radio that brings out the sort of people who routinely use this kind of demeaning language? Perhaps in their search for greater ratings, networks use the lowest common denominator to get the most listeners. That would be nothing new -- television networks have done it for years. (Fear Factor, anyone?) As the web site MediaMatters.org points out on a regular basis, the airwaves are full of personalities who spew bigotry on every day. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and Michael Savage are but a few of the "commentators" that remind us every day that racism and sexism are not old prejudices that have been conquered, but rather vibrant cancers that need constant vigilance. An excellent piece today by Harvey Fierstein shows how far the culture still has to go.

Imus' defenders have said that CBS and MSNBC acted hastily and that a national dialogue should have been started on these issues. Assuming that what we've heard for the last ten days wasn't a national dialogue, what is it they wanted to discuss? Whether racist comedy is okay? Whether we want to give it legitimacy by having it fester on the airwaves? Who is the dialogue with, Michael Richards? Perhaps the end result of the dialogue was that people convinced advertisers not to support public personalities who demean others based on race and sex.

Don't anyone cry for Imus. He's going to retire with hundreds of millions of dollars and live very well the rest of his life. But his 30 years on the radio, unfortunately, left many people with the notion that making fun of someone's color is okay and demeaning someone because of their gender or religion or sexual orientation is too. Despite the money he made, that's a pretty shameful way to have lived your life.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Obama Shows There's Money In Politics Without Lobbyists

Barack Obama's impressive first-quarter fund-raising says a lot about how this presidential race is shaping up. The $25 million his campaign has reported for the first three months of 2007 nearly matches Hillary Clinton's tally, and Obama lists 100,000 donors, more than twice the number Clinton lists. Obama's appeal could be broader, and a large donor base such as that could give him an advantage in the months ahead, when contributors get tired of writing checks every quarter.

The larger point that Obama's fund-raising illustrates is the strong support Democratic candidates have over their Republican counterparts. Democrats have raised about $80 million, while Republicans have raised about $50 million. The difference is striking because Republicans - long the party of the very wealthy and of corporate favor - have always held a financial advantage in fund-raising contests. Among the top three Democratic candidates, they list nearly 200,000 contributors. Republicans John McCain and Mitt Romney list 60,000 and 33,000 contributors, respectively. (Rudy Guiliani's campaign did not disclose the number of donors.)

Republican candidate McCain was thought to be the favorite for his party's nomination, but yet his funds lagged Guiliani and Romney. McCain raised $12.5 million to Guiliani's nearly $15 million and Romney's $20 million. That news couldn't have come at a worse time for McCain, who has been severely criticized for his claims that the Baghdad streets are getting safer. Both western journalists and Baghdad merchants have said McCain is dead wrong for claiming that Americans can walk around without protection and that segments of the city are secure. That McCain walked around Baghdad wearing a bullet-proof vest with dozens of soldiers in tow and helicopters overhead seemed almost an admission of his mistake. Hardly what the people expect from the "straight talk" candidate.

Before the announcement of his first-quarter totals, Obama was quoted as saying he raised "obscene" amounts of money. He's right, of course, but for right now, that's how the game is played. Candidates who want to be competitive need very large sums of money. The influence of money in politics assures that those with large amounts of it can participate, while those who can't afford it must sit on the sidelines and watch. Money has been declared to be protected speech, which begs the question: What does no money mean? No speech? Once upon a time, citizens had to own property to be able to vote. We've now reached a point where people have to have large amounts of money to participate in elections, and since only the very wealthy have that kind of money to spread around, most people are left out and apathetic about a process that doesn't include them.

But that, too, is a notion that is being challenged in this election. John Edwards - whose campaign raised more than $14 million - said that 80% of all contributions were $100 or less.Thousands of Obama's supporters contributed only $25 or less - some as little as $5. What this says is that anyone with enough money for a pack of cigarettes or popcorn at the movies can participate. Internet fundraising is also leveling the field and allowing people of modest means to have a say in the election. Both Obama and Edwards have made use of Internet techniques to their advantage. Both candidates maintain their connection to their supporters over the web, as does Clinton. Any campaign that isn't sending e-mails to supporters on a virtually daily basis - keeping people informed of their policies and the status of their campaigns, and just letting them know they're still alive - isn't using the Internet effectively. Every e-mail doesn't have to be a request for money (and shouldn't be), but constant communication, along with alerts to public and television appearances, is a great alternative to reliance on the media.

Ultimately, what is really needed is public financing of all elections, along with a requirement that all broadcasters - as part of the public interest requirement for their broadcast license - provide free air time to the candidates. (After all, most money in elections goes to fund expensive television ad time.) That will really be a huge step to stopping the poisonous influence of corporate money on political contests. To get to that point, though, leaders like Obama and Edwards are needed, because the George W. Bushes of the political world are never going to limit the influence of money, since that's what got them there in the first place.

Edwards and Obama have each said in statements that none of the money they raised in the first quarter came from political action committees or federal lobbyists, and that their campaigns are not accepting such funds. If that had been the rule rather than the exception, how much would the other candidates have raised? If all politicians had done the same years ago, there's no way someone like George Bush would have become president. Think of all the lives that could have been saved. That's what's at stake with money in politics, and why such change is necessary.