Friday, December 21, 2012

Guns versus mutter

Two beacons for radical change crossed this week, one gone cold, the other burning hot.
Robert Bork died. He's why Supreme Court nominees don't say much more than "We gotta play 'em one game at a time" and "I'm just happy to be here" and equivalent clichés during Senate confirmation hearings.

Because when Bork opened his mouth during his hearing, out spilled arrogance and contempt for all of us. Supposedly charming in social settings, Bork might have made it onto the court were it not for his public demeanor — he somehow had popular support — and would have died on the bench trying to put all women back in skirts with minimum hem, and everyone back to before civil rights.

Bork was one of the original "originalists" who argued that we must follow the Constitution as its creators intended. By the looks of his Shaker beard and wild ringletted hair, he could have been one of those creators.

President Nixon's hatchet man in firing Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox (when attorney General Elliot Richardson refused and resigned in protest), Bork was a Harvard professor specializing in antitrust law — which he opposed.

He also opposed your right to privacy, because it's not explicit in the Constitution. Nor is civil rights, he said, though a poll tax, designed to prohibit blacks from voting, wouldn't OK; it wasn't in the original Constitution, just the 24th Amendment, I suppose.

"In the subsequent quarter-century," after most of the Senate voted against his confirmation in 1987, The New Yorker said, "Bork devoted himself to proving that his critics were right about him all along."
Ahhh, Bork and Ollie … key players in the Reagan administration, second
only to the Nixon administration for its dark melodrama …
To paying choirs, he was a libertarian who preached against individualism, and railed against our social sins ruining the country — sins sent forth by the free market he loved, even if it wasn't free enough. He tried to turn back time and tide rather than deal with the inexorable change.

"Bork" became a verb in his time, meaning to vilify publicly. Better to bork than be borked, I guess.
In sincerity and silliness, debate over what the country does next after Sandy Hook still burns hot.

California's retired teachers' investment program plans to divest itself of a company that owns a gun maker (noble and immediate, though why didn't it do so long before?). Gun owner advocates, led now by the National Rifle Association, continue to urge we arm teachers, or at least post an armed guard at every school. Armored children's backpacks are selling briskly at $200 per.

NRA director Wayne LaPierre blamed violent video games and movies and said today the next Adam Lanza is planning an attack on a school. (Buy more guns, by the way! Become a member, before it's too late!) As much as I hate the video games — what's fun about shooting people, even for pretend? — I doubt they're the cause. How many millions play? Are we going to enforce ideas now?

News reports this week remind me that Patrick Purdy's Stockton schoolyard shooting in 1989 prompted a ban on assault weapons — that wasn't enacted until 1994, and not without guarantees to lift the ban in 2004, nor without loopholes that guaranteed assault weapons could still be sold legally.

The Bushmaster assault weapon — one was used at Sandy Hook — is popular, I learned, because the makers stripped it clean of all the features that would have banned it under that 1994 law. It's sleek and cool and fun, I've heard gun advocates say more than once.

Of mental health, President Obama said access to it should be at least as easy as access to guns. California's Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg urges early mental health treatment.

That's it so far.

Talk should shift almost entirely to mental health, not just in money to provide it but in the way we all think about it. And certainly not just for people who would shoot up a school.

Suicides in the U.S. military run almost one a day now, and most who kill themselves never deployed, never saw battle, as we expect. Many face isolation in the military, and try to survive in a culture that frames mental issues as weaknesses.

But as far as we know — and we don't know what we don't know — the Adam Lanza got his weapons from his mom, who would likely have gone through meetings and training to procure them. They were legal; the shooter got them by some means, and police say he shot his mom before driving to the school. His mental health was known, his troubles known, as far as we can tell. His mother was trying to do something about it.

That's where the talk should focus.

Some of the reaction this week is … reactionary. In what is shaping up to be an Internet meme, dads of elementary school children are donning their military or police uniforms and standing guard outside their children's schools. It's a sincere Hands-Across-America gesture that poses troubling questions:
  • How long are you planning to stand guard?
  • Are you armed? Please say no.
  • If you aren't armed, how are you planning to stop an attack?
  • Who are you? How do we know?
Already, at least one self-appointed guard may not be the Marine he claimed, and the gesture suddenly becomes absurd.
    At the school where I teach a weekly art lesson, nothing had changed, to my surprise. The office staff sits far back from the front counter. Most of the time they don't ask who I am with my cart full of papers. I fill out my adhesive nametag, sign in on the visitor log, and sign out while I'm at it, since it's easier to go straight back to my car after the lesson.

    It's no different now, a week after the Sandy Hook shooting. In fact, I forgot to peel off my nametag yesterday; it was still sitting there on the label sheet when I thought twice and went back to the office, just to see if anyone noticed. No, still there. No, no one looked up to see me pass.

    Maybe that's as it should be. Horrible as it is, statistics show school shootings are rare, the danger extremely low. That's small to no comfort.

    The real epidemic, requiring radical change, remains our mental health.

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