The Problematic Nexus of Gun Control and Mass Incarceration

After yet another horrific mass shooting, this time in Sutherland, Texas, gun control is back in the news. Justice demands that we do more as a society to prevent gun violence. But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again until I’m hoarse: liberals/progressives/gun control advocates should be very careful that in passing new gun laws, we don’t inadvertently contribute to the problem of mass incarceration.

In our criminal justice system, it is all but guaranteed that any law which creates new frontiers of criminal behavior is going to be disproportionately enforced on poor and working class communities of color. We’ve seen this happen over nearly fifty years of a “War on Drugs”, but it applies to nearly every level of government punishment of individual behavior, from the severity of criminal sentencing to basic interactions with law enforcement to school discipline for children. You don’t need to be a Second Amendment firebrand to anticipate that any new law punishing individuals for, e.g. failing to register a firearm will bring the hammer down hardest on those who can least afford it.

To add a wrinkle to a common comparison, look at the havoc that vehicle registration laws have wrought on poor and working class Americans of color. More than 4 million Californians have a suspended driver’s license, and with it, hundreds if not thousands of dollars in court-ordered debt. Penalties are disproportionate to the offense to society because the money is used to fund the courts themselves and other programs. This creates a two-tiered system of justice where wealthy people can simply buy their way out of the system, whereas poor people accumulate massive financial liabilities they will never be able to pay off.

In addition, vehicle registration offenses are often used as an excuse to justify heavy-handed and often unconstitutional police conduct, such as illegal searches and seizures.  Philando Castile, the legal firearm owner who was shot and killed by Jeronimo Yanez of the Twin Cities Police Department for no reason whatsoever, had been pulled over 49 times in 13 years and was fighting a multitude of vehicle-related infractions.

The vehicle context differs in important ways from the firearm context, of course. For example, the economic impact of being unable to use a firearm is significantly less than the impact of being unable to drive a motor vehicle. And in many states which already heavily restrict open carry, such as California, the risk of opportunistic police behavior around firearm regulation is not nearly as perverse as it is for vehicles. However, the cost of noncompliance with firearms can be higher than it is for vehicle laws. While failing to register a motor vehicle in California is merely an infraction (and will not go on a criminal record), failing to register previously owned firearms within 60 days of becoming a resident of the state is a misdemeanor, which does create a criminal record and can interfere with eligibility for education, employment, military service and other benefits.

Regardless, even if a case is never brought against someone, it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which new firearm regulations could create a pretext for unlawful discrimination and harassment on the basis of race or class. And even if registration and/or licensure violations are treated as mere infractions, the associated fines and fees, if not implemented equitably, could be crippling – 47% of Americans lack the liquidity to cover an emergency expense of just $400. And at the end of the day, while we should certainly do our best as a society to prevent mass shootings, such heinous violence nevertheless makes up a tiny portion of total gun deaths (107,141 deaths and injuries in 2013), 60% of which are suicides and only a third of which are intentional homicides. We must push our government to create a more effective, just, and constitutional firearms regulation regime. However, in doing so, we must learn lessons from the War on Drugs and other well-intentioned but failed government projects, and make sure that we are not simply creating a new pit of criminal liability that only punishes the poor and disenfranchised.

This is who he is.

In the aftermath of the terrorist attack in Charlottesville which left 19 wounded and 1 dead, condemnation of the attack was swift and bipartisan. Democratic and Republican politicians alike spoke with precision and force to reaffirm that white supremacy is evil, and its violence in action and ideology is intolerable in 21st century America. Partisans as disparate as Ted Cruz and Elizabeth Warren were seemingly on the same page – indeed, Cruz, more often seen playing the “settle down you overemotional lefties” card, was perhaps the most forceful of any politician in condemning the attack, not only identifying white supremacy by name, but also labeling the attack an act of domestic terrorism and demanding a federal investigation.

Under such circumstances, when people who can’t seem to work together or agree on hardly anything share a common message, one wonders who would bother to disagree. After all, we’re talking about actual latter-day KKK and Neo-Nazi acolytes. Surely, only 72 years after V-E day and amid a resurgence in American white nationalism, our politicians could agree that the tenets of National Socialism and White Supremacy are a Very Bad Thing. At a bare minimum, you’d think they’d be PR-savvy enough to publicly denounce such things, even if they rode into office on their coattails.

Yet, for thirty-six hours, President Trump could bring himself to do no such thing. His initial statement placed blame for violence on “many sides”, seemed to draw a moral equivalence between the “Unite the Right” crowd and its counter-protestors, and failed to mention the car attack on protesters at all. Unsurprisingly, this sort of lukewarm false equivalence drew outrage from basically everyone without a Stormfront account. Thus, on Monday morning, after intense pressure from the public, Democrats, fellow Republicans such as Cory Gardner and Marco Rubio, as well as most of his own staff, Trump capitulated, saying in brief, scripted, unscheduled remarks before the press that “[the] KKK, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups are repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans” and that those who use violence in the name of bigotry “strike at the core of America.” Too little, too late, perhaps, but the President’s capitulation to common sense norms of decency earned praise on both sides of the aisle.

I’d argue that the second statement didn’t seem to be very deeply felt. We know how Donald Trump speaks when he truly believes monsters are afoot – he goes on extended anecdotes about their brutality and exhorts his crowds to near-vigilantism. We didn’t see that in the President’s Monday statement – what we saw was the dead-eyed, glaring resentment of the President being forced to read something against his will. Indeed, Politico reported that while advisers had initially prepared a statement explicitly condemning white supremacists, Trump made the decision to demur from those remarks in public. However, at least in form, the President finally made good on his responsibility as an American leader to denounce fascists.

Unfortunately, a day later, the President held another press conference and blew that facade of respectability into outer space.

Continue reading “This is who he is.”

Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

When I first heard that Disney and Lucasfilm were planning on doing a film about the raid to steal the Death Star plans (taking place immediately before the events of “A New Hope”), I was incredibly excited. In a series so overwhelmingly focused on the trials and tribulations of a single family, “Rogue One” as a concept had the potential to be a real breath of fresh air. In the original trilogy and prequels alike, the enlisted guys with blasters and goofy helmets were never more than poorly-trained cannon fodder for the protagonists to throw around – here was a golden opportunity for the Star Wars cinematic universe to expand in a way it never had before, by telling the story of the grit and determination of the ordinary soldiers who made the Rebel Alliance’s victories possible.

I’ve seen the movie twice now, and I can say with confidence that on the whole, it succeeds wonderfully. It’s far from a perfect film (it is Star Wars, after all), and on the second viewing the flaws were more pronounced, but at its core, “Rogue One” delivers a compelling story about the sacrifice of (relatively) everyday people in the face of brutal tyranny, unimaginable odds, and near-certain death – a heartfelt, thrilling film with real stakes and mortal peril, and just enough humor to lighten the mood and endear you to the characters.

Oh, and the last hour is devoted to the hands-down best action sequence in any Star Wars film, immediately followed by perhaps one of the best scenes in the entire franchise, hands down.

I should warn you that this review is going to be filled with spoilers – so if you haven’t seen the film, turn back now.

SPOILER LINE ————————————————————LAST WARNING SERIOUSLY————————————————-OKAY FINAL FINAL WARNING GUYS——————————————

Continue reading “Movie Review: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story””

The Ostrich, The Sand, and You: A Plea to My Republican Friends

Sometimes you have hope because you have a certain faith in other people. Like Han Solo had in Lando Calrissian, or James Bond had in Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye, or Sonny Corleone had in toll road attendants. When Donald J. Trump was elected  President of the United States of America, I had a certain faith in some Republicans I know. The ones I’m closest friends with are, perhaps not coincidentally, all true-blue NeverTrumpers, and so this little post is not directed to them whatsoever. You guys rock.

No, this post is directed to the Republicans who, in the aftermath of the election, appear to be trying as hard as emotion and logic will allow to papier-mâché a facade over Donald Trump’s words, actions, and hiring decisions. Having found themselves in complete control of the legislative and executive branches of government, these loyal partisans, almost all of whom were for Anyone But Trump in the primary, yearn for normalcy. Refusing to look a gift horse in the mouth, they strive to forge a new Republican unity, centered around small-government, socially conservative, own-bootstraps-pulling policies.

Unfortunately, the man who won the election is a yuuge-government, socially maladjusted, silver-spoon-sucking rent-seeker. Oh, and he stoked the base, tribal fears of poor and desperate people to do it. This, understandably, presents a Problem for these dutiful GOPers. It is an irreconcible tension, and so, exultant in the crispy orange glow of victory, these Republicans have engaged diligently in the sort of short-term historical revisionism that would make Stalin blush. Trump is Just Fine, these people say. Really, he’s just a normal garden-variety Republican: white picket fence, large calloused hands, etc. Everyone calm down please! Please?

The most easily pilloried version of this rationalization that I’ve found was published a few days ago in the newspaper of my most recent alma mater, the Virginia Law Weekly. That article, titled “Control Restored to Republicans: A Raging Red November”, can be found here. While I have never met the author personally (maybe once in passing?), I know that she was (is?) dating a friend of mine who I like a lot, so I won’t be as mean as I would like to be.

What a woefully vacuous piece of writing. The argument, such as it is, tortures itself through the following reasoning:

  • America is dissatisfied with President Obama, who has a 55% approval rating.
  • And man, liberals suck you guys. They have no interest in honest dialogue.
  • I know this because they described my candidate based on things he said and did.
  • Trump won because he represented the will of the silent majority, aka normal people.
  • Trump is also a normal person interested in honest dialogue. Like us.
  • I know this because he directly contradicted things he said for months in an interview this one time.
  • The things he wants are just Republican boilerplate, anyway.
  • Yes, even the ones that expand government and constrict the free market.
  • Anyway, your fear and outrage offends me – this is just a normal election cycle.
  • Oh, except for the abnormal scary fascist things. Well Republicans will stop that.
  • Why? Well because only SOME of us are hateful bigots.
  • [general platitudes on civic duty]

It’s like the GOP was given a really ugly sweater by their grandma for Christmas that they hate so much they want to die, but then the girl they liked complimented the sweater one day, so now they have to try and convince themselves that they really do like poorly stitched images of Jesus with a party hat and balloon, a t-shirt that says “Birthday Boy”, and an expression suggestive of both disappointment and rage.

I think the saddest thing about this article isn’t the rhetorical knots it ties itself into to try to normalize Trump – rather, it’s the painful obviousness of the bubble in which the author resides. For the author, this election must be rationalized to be “just like any other” because by and large their life, and their friends’ lives, and their families, will continue to live on almost exactly the same way for the next four years and they have for the last eight. Perhaps they might pay less taxes.

But when Medicare is privatized, it won’t be their grandparents’ health on the line. When DACA is rescinded, it won’t be their boyfriend who’s arrested, detained, and shipped out of the country he loves to one where he doesn’t even speak the language. When Muslim immigrants are required to register on a special database, it won’t be their father who’s treated like a second-class citizen.

When funding for the investigation of discrimination against LGBT persons is cut off, it won’t be their sister, a trans woman, whose EEOC claim languishes for years. When HUD funding is cut off, it won’t be their housing voucher (Republican idea!) or permanent supportive housing or substance abuse counseling or legal clinic or emergency shelter that has to shutter its doors. It will not be their children who are profiled, arrested, and sent to juvenile prisons. It will not be their sacred lands and drinking water that are poisoned by a leaking pipeline.

When the standard-bearer for the proto-Nazi Alt-Right is made Senior Counsel to the President, they won’t feel fear because they have no reason to – they belong to the Original Protected Class. Since Trump won the election I’ve thought about Vincent Chin every damn day. Why? Because the next big bad for Mr. Trump after 1) Muslims and 2) Mexicans is 3) China (Ghy-na). Specifically, the way China allegedly steals American jobs. For the unfamiliar, Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American raised in Metro Detroit who was beaten to death with a baseball bat a week before his wedding, June 19, 1982, by two autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, who blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s troubles.

So Republican friends, I beg of you – please don’t try and normalize Donald Trump. He campaigned on a platform of fear and hatred and misinformation. You know this is true. Not only did he say these things – his first steps as President-elect have been to appoint to his inner circle a white nationalist (Bannon), a virulent Islamophobe (Gen. Michael Flynn), and a guy who was denied a seat on a federal bench by a Republican Senate due to his racism (Sen. Jeff Sessions). This is real and it is happening now.

You are good and you are smart – you are better than this. Trump is not a useful conduit for your clumsily circumscribed political soapbox. He is a dangerous man surrounding himself with other dangerous men, a true strongman in the political, not literal, sense. There are many Republicans who, recognizing this danger, reject and resist Trump. If you value freedom, you will also reject and resist him. If not, you will have shown yourself to be nothing but a feckless partisan who lacked the principle and backbone to stand up when your country needed you to stand up.

Where do we go from here?

Preliminary thoughts:
1. Left-leaning folks, we’ve got a lot of work to do. OH, IA, MI, WI? All blue in 2012 by solid margins. Obama’s approval on the eve of his lame duck period? 52.1% – higher than Reagan’s was. Trumpism can be overcome.
But there are a lot of folks in forgotten parts of this country who have been sneered at and condescended to by our elites for a very long time. If we want to claim to be a party that stands against hate and discrimination, then we should also erase the word “redneck” from our vocabulary. Highly recommend you all pick up a copy of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy” and read it carefully. I may not agree with his policy prescriptions, but Vance’s testimony of why people feel left behind is powerful and moving and deserves your attention.
The result of their marginalization is President Trump. If Democrats want to be the party of working people, then they should represent working people. It will take hard work and humility and education and actually listening to what people have to say, but I believe it must be done.
2. At the same time, blame must also fall on a GOP that sanctioned the growth of racist and xenophobic rhetoric in conservative media and conservative candidates for the sake of political expediency. If Democrats left working-class white folks in a ditch, the GOP has turned a blind eye while agitators of hate poisoned it.
Shame on the GOP leaders who put political gain above the integrity of our institutions, their own conservative principles, and basic human decency. Shame on a party which has arrogantly incubated this alt-right movement, believing its rhetoric useful but its effects harmless. But now the cat is out of the bag – the GOP is now undeniably the vehicle for a resurgent white power movement.
3. Seguing off (2), a Trump presidency lends unavoidable legitimacy to the worst of America. Just a few days ago, a black church was set aflame and Trump slogans were graffiti-ed on the side. A Muslim student in Wisconsin was beaten to death in a college town. LGBT and especially trans persons continue to be murdered at a disproportionate rate. The election of Donald Trump, who has been endorsed by David Duke and has retweeted and stumped on white supremacist messaging, will embolden these domestic terrorists. Be vigilant. Exercise your right to protect yourselves. And those of us on the outside who see it coming need to help however we can.
4. Seguing off (3), we must be careful to identify the right enemy. The enemy is authoritarianism, the politics of fear, and the white nationalism that fuels it. Whatever policy differences we have pale in comparison to the threat of a President (empowered by an office which has expanded itself drastically under the color of law for decades essentially unchecked) who has no knowledge or respect for our civic values or the integrity of our institutions. Americans of goodwill, liberal and conservative, can and should work together to create a coalition of principle that in two years, and four years, and in every election after that must put this ideology in the dirt where it belongs.
This is the beginning of a new chapter in a fight that’s been raging since the founding of this country, folks. If you love America like I do, it’s time to get off the sidelines. We live in a world which encourages us to exist in a hermetically sealed bubble of material consumption and politico-cultural echo chambers. Make your life about something bigger than yourself – not in a casual way, but as a central pillar of your decision-making. That’s the kind of action we’re going to need, and I intend to do everything I can to see it through.

(One Reason) Why I’m Voting for Hillary Clinton

Headed to Nevada later today to Get Out the Vote for Hillary Clinton (obligatory #imwithher).

Someone pointed out that I’d yet to make a strong affirmative case for her candidacy. Giving you all the reasons I’m voting for Hillary (and against Trump) would be long and likely unreadable in a blog format, so instead I want to focus on one reason that very important to me as a Christian and attorney for the public interest.

One of the most important qualities of leadership is to have a servant’s heart: to be oriented in a fundamental, selfless way around the needs of the people you represent. When it comes to politicians, this is, sadly, a rare thing – and even if a candidate has one, it is often obscured by petty partisanship, political cronyism, and the ruthlessness of their own ambition.

While it has been often so obscured, I believe at her core that Secretary Clinton has the heart of a truly dedicated public servant. Not because of her rhetoric, which has been pockmarked by the hypocrisies of political expediency, but by her long record of service.There are a lot of lawyers in politics, but few have the track record of legal service to the poor that Hillary does, including but not limited to:

1. Her commitment to public interest advocacy in law school, and later work at the Children’s Defense Fund
2. Her pro bono work and scholarly research in private practice
3. Her co-founding of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families and policy advocacy as Arkansas’ First Lady
4. Her expertise and influence in the White House as our nation’s First Lady pushing for (ill-fated) health reform and (successfully and with bipartisan support) the Children’s Health Insurance Program.

This is obviously an area close to my heart, but I believe firmly that people just don’t get into that kind of work unless they have a deep-seated belief in the value of service to the poor. There is no incentive or niche for the purely self-interested. The work can be heartbreaking, it doesn’t pay very well, and oftentimes the lawyer and their client is at the mercy of forces outside their control. The lawyer is sometimes simply doing everything in their power to make the best of a situation with no good outcomes.

To do this work, and to do it with zeal and success, requires grit and passion. It requires you to care deeply about achieving justice on behalf of society’s least. Hillary Clinton has shown me that she does care about these things.

I wish I’d gotten involved with the campaign earlier, but I’m going to do my tiny part this weekend, and I hope that some of you who may be on the fence or leaning toward the other candidate will consider what I’ve said. In the end, after drilling past conflicts on policy and scandals, looking for glimpses of a servant’s heart is critically important to me. And in this election, there is only one candidate who has committed to public service and laboring toward justice and the greater good: Hillary Clinton.

On Mass Shootings and Silver Bullets

In the wake of the horrific mass shooting in Orlando, I’ve been thinking about what I want to say. Until now, I’ve thought it better to simply support others’ speech – particularly my friends in the LGBT community, who have written with anger and grief and passion about this tragedy.

All the same, I feel compelled to talk about how disappointing it’s been to watch the debate play out more or less how it did with the San Bernadino shootings – with one side calling gun control advocacy a smokescreen for failures of national security, and the other side calling the focus on militant Islamism a distraction from failures of firearm policy.

Now, there are certainly folks who blame one cause or another out of (at least/at worst) a blind/nefarious desire to protect a pet political agenda or special interests. But when we reflexively assume this evil of everyone who disagrees with us, we choke progress and resign ourselves to future tragedy.

Working where the law hits the road in poor and working class communities, you see firsthand how no social issue operates in a vacuum – mental health affects housing affects employment affects parenting affects criminal justice affects systemic prejudice affects mental health, etc. etc. etc. – not as a chain, but as a massively complex web of causation and influence, at the heart of which rests a human soul.

As a result, tackling a problem like homelessness often feels like an “all-hands-on-deck” approach – thousands of people fighting on multiple fronts to help people in different ways. And at the end of the day, you’re not trying to control peoples’ choices, but rather to create an environment to both foster growth and mitigate harm. A community.

I submit that the problem of mass shootings in America is a similar knot of causes. Yes, mass shootings are a firearm regulation problem. They are also a mental health problem. They can also be a national security problem. The Orlando shooting was all of these – and it was also a hate problem. Untying this knot, stopping the number of mass killings in this country, if we want to do it right, will also require acts of thoughtful commitment. We will need to think hard about what freedoms we should sacrifice for security. We will need religious leaders to be vigilant against radicalization in their flock. We will need to work to fight homophobia through loud and fierce activism. We will need to fulfill the vision of the Community Mental Health Act through legislative wrangling and political horse-trading and incessant advocacy. We will need to find a way to place reasonable restrictions on the ownership of firearms. Above all, we must do all of this in a way which privileges people over ideology. Because when the welfare of people, not purity of thought, is the overriding motivation, you don’t walk away from the bargaining table – you’re willing to do whatever it takes to fix the problem.

I’m not naive – this isn’t going to be some kind of hand-holding kumbaya exercise. Some people will have the right ideas, and some will have the wrong ideas. We are absolutely allowed to have opinions on which of these is most important and which should be funded first – but none of us on any side should ever stoop to claiming out of hand that a mass shooting is a problem with X but not with Y – in other words, to put issues ahead of people. When we become enamored with our own self-righteousness we destroy the possibility of peace. We should be humble enough to recognize the complexity of these problems, and with the hearts of servants work diligently to fix them, with an unshakable focus on the human souls at their heart. This is what will lead to lasting change.Importantly, this humility requires our recognition of the dignity of those souls’ free will, and with it, the inevitability of evil. We cannot stop every mass shooting. But we can stop some of them – doing so will need everyone’s hands on deck.