Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Arming Of America - Part 2

Part 1 of this essay ended by posing the question, “So in the face of this super-imposing Goliath, what can a young David do?” Let us consider ten possible answers to that question, a mix-‘n-match stew of potential actions an individual or group could take.

Build Alliances: Find and partner with anyone who shares your concerns. Emphasize linking with other survivors and families of victims. Along with the 3000 students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, it is estimated that since the Columbine school shooting in 1999, around 150,000 people have been directly involved in a shooting episode in their school. Many of those people are now voters; many are parents; some are nearing middle age and positions of leadership. Tell their stories. Keep the conversations personal; those are the most effective. And remember … not all NRA members support the extreme views of their leadership. There are many responsible hunters and recreational sportspersons, both NRA members and not, who support keeping inappropriate firearms out of the hands of the unqualified. Find them; connect with them; listen to them; find some common ground.

Raise a War Chest: If the NRA is going to spend $50M, then $100M in counter-fundraising is needed because they have a head start. The rich who say they side with this cause need to pool their money in one place – not spread it around – to become an even bigger Goliath. More Mike Bloombergs need to pony up, and those people are out there. The goal is to take away a politician’s financial incentive to be funded by the gun manufacturers / NRA, versus being funded by “the good guys.” Politicians’ loyalties run shallow, so a better offer can and needs to be made.

Non-billionaires can contribute what they can, and/or organize fundraisings, to support the existing organizations doing the best they can with woefully under-matched funds (e.g. Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence; Americans for Responsible Solutions [Gabby Giffords]).

Open Disclosure: PAC contributors like hiding in secret. Push for state-level legislation requiring PACs to disclose the principal donors paying for their advertising. This will never pass Congress, so follow California’s lead for new model legislation to shine the spotlight on these backers.

Fight From Within: The NRA claims “5M” members. If you are already a responsible gun owner and not a member, then consider joining them. Yes, this may sound counter-intuitive. But the NRA claims to represent “gun owners,” but in fact they represent only some gun owners. Join the organization, and then work to change it from the inside. Open the books, change the extreme leadership, engage conversations with other members to search for the middle ground. The downside is new short-term membership money for the NRA. The potential upside is long-term control and redirection of the organization away from its entrenched leadership. Be that insurgent “fly on the wall.”

Boycotts: History has shown that boycotts and public pressure campaigns towards business corporations on social issues can sometimes be successful. Dick’s Sporting Goods just announced a unilateral decision to stop selling assault rifles, and you can boycott those stores that include guns as part of their floor space. Also mount campaigns towards major corporations to disconnect any relationship they may have with the NRA, as the First Bank of Omaha (America’s biggest privately-held bank) and Enterprise Holdings Inc. (Enterprise, Alamo, and National car rentals) recently announced. Letters to big corporations can sometimes still be effective.

Marches: By all means, march. Public demonstrations make a difference by showing raw numbers. It keeps an issue visible and alive. Expect a lot of lip service in response, because no politician or business likes the optics of arguing with grieving parents and siblings and friends. Back in the office and the boardrooms, nothing will likely change. March anyway.

Disarm the Rhetoric: Expect the tired old “war horse” arguments (mentioned previously) to be rolled out at every opportunity. They are all refutable, for reasons that will be described in a subsequent essay. Just know that when you hear them, it tells you who the speaker truly is, and that s/he is not really in the conversation versus speaking someone else’s “talking points.” Nevertheless, have your responses refuting these excuses at the ready. Stop talking in the negative about “gun control,” etc. Replace these with positive messages (e.g. “stop the killing”; “gun safety”; “common sense gun ownership”).

Legislative Priorities: Pick THREE, and only three, very specific priorities for action. In every communication with a legislator or candidate, ask them: a) whether they support each of them, and if not, what instead; b) what they are actually doing – concrete actions – to effect these priorities. Ignore the fuzzy non-answers and “we’re studying this” response. They are simply trying to distract us and get themselves off the hook in the moment, and do not deserve our support. Keep these priorities very simple (e.g. minimum age limit to purchase; eliminate bump stock accessory; background checks for ALL gun sales from ANY source). Too many priorities, and/or too difficult issues, will simply make it easy to bog the process down, ignore the proposals, and continue to do nothing. If a politician cannot clearly and publicly sign on to three simple and specific priorities without qualification, s/he will never do anything of real substance.

Contact Your Legislator: President Trump, should he try, will find out very quickly what President Obama learned: very little about gun regulation can be done by the Executive Branch alone. This is due to numerous laws preventing them from acting passed by prior Congresses that essentially neutered federal agencies from effective oversight. So efforts need to be focused on Congress and state legislators.  That is where the NRA and NSSF are focused.

Write your Congressperson (snail mail is often more effective than email); visit their offices; make phone calls; sign online or paper petitions. They may choose to not open their mail, or shut down their email account or voicemail. But keep trying. Their strategy will be to wait you out until you give up. Which of you will have the greater patience and perseverance?

Voting: Many battles will be lost. But this time some may actually be won. In the end, it will come down to employing the strongest of all tools in the kit: voting for candidates who truly support our interests. That means getting involved in the boring, tedious work of politics and campaigns. If eligible to vote, then do so in each upcoming election (primary and general). If not, volunteer to work on campaigns, organize discussion forums, hand out information, work voter registration tables. It is all about showing up. Gun violence has been and is a national concern, but it has never been a defining election issue. This year, it needs to be made a litmus test for one’s vote. Off-year elections – and 2018 is one – historically have a notoriously low turnout dominated by the extreme and passionate voters, while others sit home. If this current effort and momentum cannot be maintained until November 2018 – for nine more months – then this in fact is yet just another die-on-the-vine moment.

Pragmatically, it is unlikely that any real change in federal or state legislation will happen in 2018. Most politicians will elect to sit tight and wait until November to see whether this momentum is real or not. So a 3-step approach, using the action steps described above, needs to be employed. 1) Make guns an overriding priority issue for elections by showing visible strength in numbers; 2) Identify on which side of the fence each politician is; 3) Vote out the detractors, vote in the genuine supporters. If this happens in sufficient numbers, then the change we are awaiting for will come in 2019 with a new Congress and new state legislatures.

All that said, know that this is not really about fighting a logical argument. It is not about trying to change political opinion. It is not about trying to raise a collective conscience. It should be about those things. Instead, it is actually about trying to overwhelm cash, and political funding, and business economics that are against the cause for responsible gun ownership and a reduction in the current unrestrained arming of America. It will require a total commitment to reverse the benefits of the NRA/NSSF support and convert it to be a liability in the voting booth. But that is the only way things will change. Our idealism must motivate and energize us. Realism must guide us. God speed us in this critical endeavor.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Sunday, February 25, 2018

The Arming Of America - Part 1

“The gun lobby’s interpretation of the Second Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud … on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.  The real purpose of the Second Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the Second Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”
Warren Burger, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, 1969-1986,
appointed by Richard Nixon, conservative Republican, gun owner

It has been gut-wrenching once again to watch this latest episode of inexplicable mass violence: the shooting of high school students and their teachers in Parkland, Florida. We have heard the usual “hearts and prayers” messages – now so trite they have become virtually meaningless. The calls for new gun laws have also become a virtually meaningless exercise. And our new common foe – the mentally ill – are blamed even as we cut mental health budgets and loosen their ability to buy a firearm. Some are still willing to point to any culprit besides the real  one: the unrestrained arming of America.

Nevertheless, it is refreshing to hear a few exceptions this time. A small number of Republican politicians saying “enough” and breaking with their party line. Or the major Florida Republican donor saying “no more donations” until something – anything – is done. Or the voter who mailed a check to her Congressman in the amount of “hearts and prayers” written on her check to illustrate the tone deaf hypocrisy of their words. And then there are “the kids” themselves, the Parkland survivors and their compatriots.  Young people are the disproportionate share of the victims of these shootings, predominantly perpetrated by other young people who are not always mentally ill. (To the extent that any killing, and any other forms of violence, are not inherently mentally ill.)

These articulate young people are promising to make their own run at Change. Maybe they can succeed where Newtown and Las Vegas and other parents could not. I wish them well in their efforts. I am not one who seeks to stomp on people’s enthusiasm and idealism. But I do believe in knowing one’s opponent well before you go into a debate with them. So students and others taking up this cause, be aware of what the landscape for your venture truly looks like. We need to steel ourselves for the long hard road to be traveled. Examine closely the playing field and the numbers; we need to know what we are up against. Remember that this is not just about school shootings – as horrific as those are. Aurora was a movie theater; Orlando a night club; Las Vegas an open-air concert. All Americans have a reasonable right to live in a safe environment.

The backbone of resistance to any gun legislation of any kind comes from two principal sources. The first is the National Rifle Association (NRA), the high-profile public face of “gun rights” ostensibly made up of everyday gun owners. The second is the National Shooting Sport Foundation (NSSF), a low-profile gun industry trade group (based in Newtown, CT!) made up of: businesses who manufacture firearms; sellers and dealers of firearms and accessories; recreational sporting facilities.

The NRA is notoriously secretive about its actual financial and membership numbers. As of 2016, they claimed that over 20% of American adults own a gun, and that “5M” of those are NRA members (unverified). They raised approximately $350M in revenue across all of its various sub-entities, including an estimated $130M from member dues. It is estimated that they spent around $3.6M in direct lobbying fees, and almost $600K in direct donations to political candidates (amounts being limited due to federal campaign contribution restrictions). But indirectly (primarily through their secretive PAC operation), they spent around $50M in advertising and support for their preferred candidates, including $30M to support Donald Trump and $20M to GOP Senate candidates – including $6M to Senator Burr (NC) and $2-$3M each to Senators Rubio (FL), Blunt (MO), Young (IN) and Portman (OH). Those outsized donations do not come without expectations for services in return. If those services are not delivered, the NRA keeps their politicians in line by threatening to support another candidate in their GOP primary that will be dominated by voters further to the right. So far, they have gotten a good return on their investments based upon the votes and speeches of those politicians.

The NRA’s gameplan is simple and consistent. First and foremost, fight EVERY restriction or limitation that is proposed; allow no crack in the armor, no matter how seemingly trivial. When a shooting tragedy occurs: a) express concern; b) blame the shooter; c) offer token support for some action step (e.g. “arm the teachers”); d) work behind the scenes to kill any really substantive proposal; e) generally lay low, and wait for the public outcry to subside and move on to other issues. On an ongoing basis, keep flooding the airwaves, public discussions and advertising with a fixed stable of old warhorse slogans and code phrases: “The 2nd Amendment”; “Our Constitutional Right to Bear Arms”; “guns don’t kill people, people do”; “they are coming for your guns”; “it’s a mental health problem”; “laws won’t stop criminals from getting guns”; “arm yourself to protect yourself  (teachers, homeowners, businesspeople).” These and other knee-jerk fear words and excuses are long-practiced and deeply embedded in the political conversations. But their simplicity, and constant unanswered drumbeat, is effective.

The NSSF claims 12K member organizations, raised $36M in income, and spent $3.5M in political lobbying, and gave grants totaling $236K to local gun organizations and projects. It claims that the firearms industry collectively has a $51B impact on the American economy and supports over 300K jobs. Those numbers are a definition of “big business”; the NSSF will fiercely protect that business, and the jobs they represent, however they need to.

It is the reality of this economic / political juggernaut that America is up against. The battle to be fought for sanity tactically has to recognize the linked interconnection of: 1) the firearms industry’s sales revenues, combined with 2) that industry’s (and others’) political donations shepherded through the NRA to key federal and state politicians to obtain legislation that will shield their legal liabilities while maintaining / increasing their sales, with 3) the inherent priority of their funded politicians to be reelected and retain their (and their Party’s) base of power. It is not a battle over morality, common-sense, safety, constitutional rights, or rational debate. One still needs to debate on those points, but understand that they are not mind-changers. Rather, it is about cash, power, and winning elections. Like it or not, as nonsensical as it may seem, that is the ground on which one must fight the battle. It is this linkage that has to be broken, because if one link fails to hold, the whole structure collapses.

So in the face of this super-imposing Goliath, what can a young David do? That discussion will be the focus of the forthcoming Part 2 of this essay.

©   2018   Randy Bell   

Thursday, February 15, 2018

The Trump Supporter

In November 2016, to the surprise of many – including the candidate himself – Donald J. trump was elected President of the United States. His election and presidency have been called into question by many on numerous fronts. There are issues of personal character that would doom most politicians; issues of policy, to the extent that he has a consistent policy for more than a day; issues of leadership as he relies on bullying, insult and disrespect towards anyone who stands in his way. Nevertheless, his approval rating holds steady in the mid-30s% – albeit a record low contrasted with other previous presidents. But he holds a solid bedrock of support in spite of his moral / ethical / divisive shortcomings.

“Trump Supporters” gave Trump his 2016 victory, and he remains indebted to them. I said early in 2016 that to truly understand the Trump phenomena, the real meaningful American story was not Trump himself but his adherents. If one is opposed to Donald Trump, then one is obligated to find a proper understanding of the base that supports him. Yet who are they? To lump them together and call them simply “Republicans” is inaccurate. Rather, they are a community of diverse interests committed to their own separate agendas, loosely affiliated for expediency because there is no other place for them to go. Given an alternative, or a failure of Trump to deliver on their expectations, they would be gone. More precisely, Trump Supporters break down into roughly three groups.

Group 1 Trump Supporters include the despicable neo-Nazis, racists and fringe conspiracy believers who have been invited into “respectability” by Trump’s racial, anti-immigrant, anti-government and anti-media rhetoric. These neo-Nazis look to attack the judicial decisions of the past 70 years reaffirming America as a place where all citizens are treated equally and respectfully. They see America as a haven only for those of white Western European descent, that all others are the cause of America’s problems and their own personal failures. They are also ready to believe any imagined plot that comes along pitting the government against its citizens; outright destruction of the government is a prime objective. It is hard to imagine any common ground between this small but vocal and disruptive group and the rest of America. Ostracism is still the best response, but Trump still needs, and has a fairly safe lock on, their votes.

Group 2 Trump Supporters include those who see Trump as the opening for their individual social / political / religious / economic agendas. After years of government being the bulwark against these agendas, Trump promises to pull out such roadblocks, open the floodgates, and go down the road of unrestrained, selfishly myopic pursuits with minimal concern for “the greater good.” Legislative Republicans close their eyes and make the choice to “bargain with the devil,” despite risking long-term permanent damage to the Republican Party brand as 2016 voters drift away. Even though few have confidence, trust or respect in Trump, they suffer in silence for now and get done what they can while they can on their long-delayed political agendas. Further, many fear that crossing Trump will mean their defeat in the 2018 Republican primary elections by ultra-conservative Trump supporters who will likely determine Republican Party nominees without regard for their chances in the general election.

In addition, Wall Street sees opportunities to roll back the restrictions placed on them after their 2008 financial implosion. Energy companies and western ranchers see public lands becoming available for exploitation. Real estate developers see a rollback of “impact statements” and other regulations to let them build what and where they want. Businesspeople seeking cost cutting, price-setting / market domination, trade protections, and further monopolistic efforts see avoidance of previous levels of oversight. Religious leaders ignore Trump’s irreligious and immoral words and actions to get favorable legislation and judges – turning to Caesar to give them what God apparently has not delivered. For these businesspeople, clergy, and politicians, it is all about holding your nose and blinding your eyes to achieve personal wins from a man you pray your son would never become. For this group, the only interest is self-interest – and Santa Claus lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Group 3 Trump supporters include those people who feel that the last two decades have decimated the Promise of the American Dream for them. They are not “despicable” or selfish people. They are angry people who feel their needs and views have been ignored, even ridiculed, certainly unresponded to during the past three presidencies. They feel that government has gotten too intrusive into their lives, has built too many limitations on their business and private affairs. They sense that providing opportunities to others, however well-intentioned, has come at the expense of limiting opportunities to them. They have seen the economy and GDP grow steadily for some while they sit stagnant at the margins. They have seen America – the dominant post-WWII world leader – seemingly slide from its preeminence. Their future, once assured, now seems a future in doubt.

All of this happened while they have struggled to feed, clothe, educate and raise their families, and hold on to a way of life that had once worked for them, their parents, and their grandparents. It is one thing to aspire for cleaner air from new kinds of energy sources; it is another to throw thousands of life-long coal workers out of the only job they know with no recourse – a job they took in good faith because America said it needed electricity. Change is the enemy, not a friend, and government / big business / society have been all about change. They cross demographic groups, though are concentrated in older, white, males with less formal education. Having previously felt powerless to stop these trends, they now see an opportunity to reverse that course and make their agenda the country’s agenda.

Donald Trump spoke for their anger; still speaks for their frustrations, however coarsely; and affirms the “global and national conspiracy” that seems determined to work against their interests. Willing to ignore his excesses, his disrespectful conduct and his untruths, in 2016 they saw an opportunity to speak up and be noticed by voting for a man who would speak for them. Given that he was expected to lose, such a protest vote seemed safe. Many were as surprised to wake up and find out that he had become their president. They are now slow to discard Trump, even as each day shows him to be the fraud that Mitt Romney once accused him of being, because there is still no other alternative voice.

Who is principally responsible for creating this block of Trump supporters? The recent Congresses of the United States who have accomplished little over these past years, and less as each year comes and goes. Today, politics override governance; the quest for power rolls over the need for governance and solutions. People of all stripes are hurting, even though for different if not conflicting reasons. From DACA kids to soccer moms to farm families, they see politicians strutting around just trying to save their own jobs; living lives of special privilege and exemptions versus everyday Americans; taking “back door” money representing special corporate and institutional interests; working part-time days; avoiding tough decisions; failing to fund and budget the country properly; listening only to voters on one side or the other of the political spectrum; avoiding speaking the truth to the citizenry; raising doomsday alarms while doing nothing to prevent it; supporting partisan causes and prioritizing Party loyalty over national good. In the past, some Trump Supporters voted Democratic, some Republican. Today they share an anger at the institutions that are failing them. In fact, many non-Trump voters feel the same frustration and anger at our non-performing government, but just do not see Trump as the answer.

The Group 1 Trump Supporters need to be called out and pointedly rejected by all Americans at every opportunity. They are the antithesis of what America is and aspires to be. The Group 2 Trump Supporters need to be fought at the ballot box, in the courts, in local government, and in the marketplace competition for our dollars to move them back to “common good” versus “personal good.” But the Group 3 Trump Supporters need attention, dialog, and support from non-Trump Supporters. They are neighbors, just another part of the American Story. People may not see eye to eye on everything; may live different lifestyles and have different beliefs about some things; may get in each other’s way at times. But we all want to be left alone to get on with living our lives in peace; at our core we are not all that different. None of us really wins if we cannot find ways to balance our beliefs, accommodate each other, and work together. It all starts with being of good character, acting from better intentions, while being considerate and helpful to others. It is the spirit of middle-ground compromise that has made our democracy work from its beginning. Is that really so impossible for us to do now?

©   2018   Randy Bell