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July 28, 2008

Something Wicked This Way Comes

Something strange seems to come over far-right Republican Members of Congress during election season. A case in point is seven-term Congressman Mark Souder from the state of Indiana. He is by all accounts an opponent of “Big Government” and federal interference in local matters. But in an election year when he is facing a stiff challenge from Democrat Mike Montagano, Souder has decided to spend his time pushing a bill that seeks to usurp the powers of the mayor, city council and residents of the District of Columbia.

H.R. 1399 would pre-empt the Supreme Court’s recent decision in District of Columbia v. Heller and prevent the city from complying with the ruling by instituting a new registration system for handguns. Souder’s bill would allow individuals to possess unregistered firearms, repeal the District’s ban on assault weapons, and prohibit the city from taking any future action “to enact laws or regulations that discourage or eliminate the private ownership or use of firearms.” Federal lawmakers are essentially being asked to impose on the city of Washington something they would never tolerate for their own home districts.

Given the state of the economy and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one would think our Congress has far more important things to do than serve as the city council for the District of Columbia. However, the National Rifle Association (NRA) remains a lobbying power on Capitol Hill and it is eager to throw raw meat to its contributors as the November elections approach. According to The Hill newspaper, the NRA will be grading Members of Congress on whether they support a discharge petition to bring H.R. 1399 to the floor of the House. Conservatives looking for NRA money and support have been put on notice.

The District is vulnerable to such an attack, of course, because it continues to lack voting representation in Congress. Rep. Souder and many of the co-sponsors of H.R. 1399 are the same politicians that time and again have opposed the “District of Columbia House Voting Rights Act,” which would give the city a voting representative in their chamber for the first time ever. D.C.’s non-voting Delegate to Congress, Eleanor Holmes Norton, has been perfectly clear regarding her opinion of Rep. Souder’s legislation, stating, “I've seen some outrageous attempts to violate home-rule, but this nakedly political and unnecessary NRA-driven attempt is a new low because, by acting now, they deny the District the decency and respect due any American jurisdiction going through the prescribed process for complying with [a decision by the Supreme Court].”

In a time when our country is facing real and pressing issues domestically and abroad, it’s not only D.C. that should be feeling outrage. Voters who want their elected officials to deal with the problems that actually affect them and their families might also want to keep their eye on what Rep. Souder and the NRA are trying to pull off in Congress.

July 22, 2008

Bach to the Future?

This past Sunday, CBS' "Sixty Minutes" updated a fascinating segment titled "El Sistema: Changing Lives Through Music." Bob Simon reported on a groundbreaking musical education program in Venezuela. "The system" is all about saving hundreds of thousands of children—through music. In the words of its founder, Dr.José Antonio Abreu, "Essentially this is a social system that fights poverty. A child's physical poverty is overcome by the spiritual richness that music provides." In Simon's words, "music actually becomes the vehicle for social change."

The thousands of the kids in the program come from the poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods in Venezuela. They are given an early introduction to classical music and musicial instruments. Hundreds of youth orchestras are created as venues for them to learn and perform. "Music produces an irreversible transformation in a child. This doesn't mean he'll end up as a professional musician. He may become a doctor, or study law, or teach literature. What music gives him remains indelibly part of who he is forever," Dr. Abreu said.

Reporter Simon introduced, "Lennar Acosta, who '60 Minutes' first met eight years ago when he was serving time in a juvenile detention center in Caracas. He was 17, had a violent criminal background, and the scars to prove it. When the detention center started an orchestra, Lennar tried the clarinet.

"Ed Bradley asked him about it. 'Tell me what it was like the first time you picked it up to play it?' Bradley asked.

"'It's completely different than when you hold a gun,' Lennar replied.

"Asked if he thought his life was different because of the clarinet and the orchestra, Lennar told Bradley, 'Yeah, a lot. The music taught me how to treat people without violence.'"

At the end of the segment, Simon asked one of the organizers if he thinks the system could work in the United States. The response was, "Yeah, I mean, kids are kids. It doesn't matter where they come from. And if you can help a poor kid in here, you can help a poor kid everywhere. It doesn't matter the culture, it doesn't matter the race. I mean, it's music. Everybody loves music."

Can you envision a day when poor kids in the U.S. have easy access to clarinets and violins rather than Glocks and nines? Music, not murder or mayhem. What a wonderful use of our resources that would be.

July 14, 2008

"He's a nice guy, but..."

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used to deliver what came to be known as his "but speech" in which he would remind the audience that the word "but" was the one word that completely changes everything that goes before it. For example: “He's a nice guy, but…”

Recently, I read a couple of articles that made me recall that speech. The first appeared in the academic journal Psychological Science and detailed a study in which researchers from Knox College found that male college students who held a gun rather than a child's toy for 15 minutes had elevated levels of testosterone. These students would then add three times as much hot sauce to a glass of water that they knew another test student subsequently had to drink.

The same day, I read a story that appeared in both the Associated Press and the New York Times. It reported that a grand jury in Harris County, Texas, had concluded that a man who gunned down two illegal immigrants who were burglarizing his neighbor's house had used justifiable deadly force and should not be charged with murder.

The shooter, Joe Horn, a retired computer manager, called 911 during the incident and told the emergency operator he saw two men burglarizing his neighbor’s house who were “black.” The operator repeatedly told him to remain in his house and stay calm. Horn was informed that a unit was on the way in response and that there “ain't no property worth shooting somebody over.” Horn would not listen, however. He referred to Texas’ recently enacted Shoot First Law and told the operator “I’m not going to let them get away with this [EXPLETIVE DELETED] … I'm going to shoot. I’m going to shoot ... I’m going to kill them.” A detective had just arrived at the scene when Horn fired three blasts of buckshot from his 12-gauge shotgun into the backs of the unarmed Latino burglars, Hernando Torres and Diego Ortiz, killing them both.

I am sure there is no connection between these two stories, but...

July 7, 2008

Freedom vs. Responsibility

Now that we have properly celebrated the Declaration of Independence and the birth of our freedom as a nation, perhaps it is time to begin a reflection on the obverse side of the same coin. As German theologian and Nazi resister Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, "Responsibility and freedom are corresponding concepts. Factually, though not chronologically, responsibility presupposes freedom and freedom can consist only in responsibility. Responsibility is the freedom of men which is given only in the obligation to God and to our neighbour."

I have long believed that as an extension of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor, the U.S. needs to build a Statue of Responsibility in San Francisco harbor. Our nation must maintain a very delicate balance between these two poles. Too much freedom and you have anarchy; too much regulation and you lose freedom. We do not live in isolation—we live in a greater community and we have the responsibility to consider the impact of our actions on our neighbors and the country as a whole.

This dichotomy has always fascinated me in regards to the gun safety debate. On the one hand we have zealots who proclaim that there are no acceptable restraints on their freedom to possess firearms. On the other hand we have zealots who believe that no one should be able to own firearms in any circumstance.

The recent Supreme Court decision in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller has set the principle that there are legitimate restraints on the constitutional rights of individual citizens to own firearms. This is consistent with the view of our Founders that government regulation was an integral part of not only the Second Amendment, but ordered liberty in general. A tremendous opportunity is now open to us. We can enter into a genuine debate—unmarred by propaganda— over what legitimate restraints can and should be placed on firearm sales and ownership in order to keep America’s communities safe. It will be a delicate balance to attempt to achieve, but many of our country’s greatest accomplishments have involved this type of careful and thoughtful compromise.