Tag Archives: law

MANY AMERICANS DON’T UNDERSTAND ATHEISTS

And here’s where you act surprised.

I was stumbling around the internet today and I came across this article from the New York Daily News, which asserts that an atheist group’s pending lawsuit in opposition to the prominent display of a cross at the site of the 9/11 museum and future memorial (which operates on donations and has actively sought federal funding) is entirely baseless. The “cross” is a piece of the steel superstructure of the towers that was left over after their collapse, and was specifically chosen for inclusion in the museum because of its remarkable similarity to the Christian symbol. It’s like Jesus on toast, but much less of a coincidence (the building would have had thousands of such steel “crosses” in its framework).


I take no issue with the notion that the suit is unlikely to prevail, since at this point the property on which the museum sits appears to be privately owned. I also take no issue with the shamelessly pejorative light in which nonbelievers are cast throughout the article- frankly, I’ve gotten used to such unwarranted judgement. What I do take issue with is the suggestion that atheists are completely unjustified in resisting such blatant religious affiliation with what should arguably be considered a national memorial.

What follows are some comments on the article, just a sampling from the first 3 pages of comments (at the time I read the article). I think they make it clear what kind of readership the New York Daily News garners… Comments are quoted in their entirety, without alteration (even where my editorial tendencies tugged hard at my heartstrings). I encourage you to check out the most recent comments by following this link to the article to see how things have “evolved.”
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“I’ll tell you what…if an equal number of atheists can get past that group of construction workers and firefighters, then they can take it down. However, since most atheists look like pencil-necked geeks, I sincerely doubt they’d be able to do it.”

“People will do anything for attention.”

“Cross = NO!! Mosque = OK!!”

“I bet on 9/11 when all hell was breaking loose, you couldn’t find an athiest anywhere. Let it go people. If it offends you that much let me be the first to say just don’t go and see it.”

“like it or not, NY and America is a Christian Nation. In God We Trust.”

“Jesus is everywhere. Even at 9/11.”

“My GOD what’s wrong with people? If you don’t believe in God then you should see this as two scraps of metal and nothing more. Go away you little trolls! this is why everyone hates Atheists because they spend more time trying to take God away form others than anything else. God Stll Loves You Dirt bag :@}”

“The Constitution guarantees freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion. Thus, it is Constitutionally protected “speech” to display the artifact that is in the shape some view as the religious symbol called a cross.”
*I must point out that the above evaluation of the 1st Amendment is entirely WRONG*

“Do not let the devil steal our joy , only the fool said in his or her heart there is no God . The Atheist will come to their knee soon and ask for forgiveness , give them time they willsee that therte s only one God and it is not money/.,”

“Ummmm, if it were REALLY a cross that had been hanging in a church then the group might have a point albeit an appalling and distasteful one in my opinion. BUT this is not a church cross…it is basically a piece of the rubble from the WTC and yes Christians will see it as a cross but that’s how they see it. Like the letter “T” on a page. Maybe the atheists out there want us to remove the letter “T” from our alphabet?? What a bunch of a***holes.”

“I also believe it is kinda funny and contradicting that “atheists” believe an actual Crucifix was formed by the devastation …..If they didn’t believe it , it wouldn’t bother them !”

“What next, removing “In G..o.d We Trust” from all of our currency? Hey atheists, do what I do when I see something that offends me… look away or change the freakin channel. No impingement of freedoms with that approach.”

“whats the point of separation of church and state?”

“I hate atheists and have absolutely no respect for them. They are the scourge of the Earth.”

“I would like to offer an invitation to those who filed or agree with this lawsuit. I would llike to invte you to go FK YOURSELF!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

“all of these misguided fools will be true believers when they are on their deathbed!”

“It’s amazing to realize that a certain percentage of fundamentalist atheists apparently believe that the “separation of church & state” means they never have to gaze upon a religious symbol while out in public. It’s also amazing that 99% of their lawsuits are against Christian symbols. It might suggest that this small group of atheists are more interested in destroying others’ religious beliefs than in offering something positive of their own beliefs. Wait until Xmas & see how much $ they spend to attack the holiday, while not offering a cent to establish an atheist soup kitchen.”
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Most of these speak for themselves, but in response to that last one, I would direct you to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a massively influential charity. Mr. Gates and his wife are both atheists, and as one of the richest Americans Gates notoriously donates over half of his massive income to charity. The assumption that because atheists are not organized implies that they do not participate in charity is fundamentally a non-sequitur. Just because we don’t get together and sponsor a charity is irrelevant. Many atheists contribute to many non-denominational charities (and I have as well).

But to return to the issue, would New York citizens (perhaps I should really just say the New York Daily News) be so defensive of a different religious symbol being displayed at the museum? Say we found a piece of rubble that some might think looks like the Buddha, or say we were to frame a crescent moon and star that a Muslim had hanging on the wall of his office in one of the towers?  In regard to the former, it would likely be ignored as insignificant, in regard to the latter, we would likely hear yet more right-wing Christian rhetoric about how such a symbol cannot be allowed, and how it must be displayed at a minimum distance from the site of the attacks, and how America is a Christian nation, and how we need more legislation banning Sharia law.

The point is this- a cross at the site of the memorial, as the sole religious symbol, suggests that we have come to a consensus as a nation that it was Christian America, not America itself, that was attacked on 9/11. Nothing says otherwise and there is a gigantic cross standing in the museum. It’s not just a piece of rubble, it has been propped up to specifically resemble a cross. This is despite the fact that not all Americans, and not all of the people killed on 9/11, are Christian.It’s despite the fact that over 20% of Americans don’t identify with Christianity in any way.

Though the article in the New York Daily News might attempt to lambast nonbelievers in general, labeling them as causeless, idiotic assholes with nothing better to do than pick on Christians, the fact remains that it is atheists, not Christians, who are defending the objective position. When we permit only one religious symbol to be displayed at the site, the one religion that it represents is inherently imposed upon all of those who are supposed to be memorialized. Call me wrong, but I think that’s pretty fucked up.

Those arguing on behalf of the cross aren’t arguing on behalf of Americans, they’re arguing on behalf of Christians. The atheists arguing against the cross are in fact arguing on behalf of not just nonbelievers, but people of every faith and creed that was represented in the twin towers, if not the entire nation. We should not forget that in maintaining our constitutionally guaranteed right to not have religion imposed on us, we ensure that future generations of Christians need not fear such a tyranny of the majority as they have so casually, passively affected on others for so long.

Ironically, it is just such a tyranny that caused our founding fathers to flee the monarchy of England, and it is also what led them to insist on the ratification of the First Amendment to our Constitution. This lawsuit isn’t about getting back at anyone, it’s about protecting the rights of everyone. The reason it is being brought is that it presents an interesting question of a conflict between national interest and private property, one that frankly needs to be addressed, if not to prevail then to set a precedent and draw the line. I suspect that private property rights will win out. That’s fine- we have to adhere to the careful doctrines of property law that we have established over the years. I think we all know, however, that just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t make it respectful to the dead.

Also, let’s be real here- this “cross” is an I-beam intersection, not a meaningful religious symbol. To treat it otherwise (like by picking it from the ruins and standing it on end in a museum) is to make an exception, and again, lets not kid ourselves that such an exception would be made for Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Pagan, or atheistic symbols. Our memorial shouldn’t be religiously affiliated post ex facto, just like the Mormon church shouldn’t be posthumously baptizing Albert Einstein. It’s not just ridiculous, it’s insulting.

I’m not arguing that all Christians are trying to push their religion on others. I’m not arguing that crosses should not be allowed to be publicly displayed on private property. All I’m arguing is that displaying a massive cross at the site of the 9/11 attacks is tasteless and should be disapproved not just by atheists, but by Americans of all creeds and callings. In defending a freedom from religion in places that clearly transcend faith, we defend the interests of each and every American, regardless of faith.

One day, I hope, we will come to realize and embrace the notion that we should be both mindful and respectful of all forms of belief, not just by allowing them where they are warranted, but by opposing them where they are not. Until then, we will continue to fight, despite little chance of success, for progress.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.

UPDATE 8/9/2011: I found an even better compilation of ridiculous comments on this issue here.

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TORT REFORM IS DESTROYING OUR JUDICIAL SYSTEM

I watched the HBO documentary “Hot Coffee” last night and it got me all fired up about  tort reform. For those of you who are less legally inclined- a tort is a wrongful act that results in some kind of injury, so a tort lawsuit can generally be considered to be an “injury” lawsuit.

I have a few major points to make on this issue, but for starters, I would like to provide some basic background facts on the most widely recognized (and widely misunderstood) tort suit in American history: the spilled McDonald’s coffee case (a full explanation is available here).

Stella Liebeck, at the time, was a 79 year-old New Mexico resident. She went to a McDonald’s drive through one morning, riding in the passenger seat of her Ford Probe, which at the time was a type of car that did not have cup-holders. Her grandson was driving the car. After purchasing some breakfast items, along with an extremely hot cup of coffee, her grandson pulled the car into a space in the McDonald’s parking lot and handed the coffee to his grandmother.

Liebeck, like many, takes her coffee with sugar and cream, and thus after the car was parked she went to remove the lid to put them in. Holding the cup between her knees, she went to remove the lid, and accidentally tipped the cup towards herself, spilling the entire cup of coffee between her legs. This was the result:

THESE IMAGES HAVE BEEN COMPRESSED TO LINKS DUE TO THEIR GRAPHIC AND UNSETTLING NATURE. THEY ARE NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

IMAGE 1/IMAGE 2/IMAGE 3

What you are seeing are full-thickness burns and the skin grafts that were required to treat them (real funny, right Seinfeld?). They were caused by the coffee that McDonald’s served to Liebeck. McDonald’s policy at the time was to keep their coffee at 180-190 degrees Fahrenheit. The machine that the coffee came from was in compliance with that policy.

People spill things, and accidents will inevitably happen. I’m sure you’ve spilled things on yourself before. This is the exact reason that McDonald’s should not be keeping its coffee at such high temperatures- it will eventually make contact with someone’s crotch. People can’t drink the coffee when it’s that hot, so there is no reasonable justification for keeping it at that temperature. This, my friends, is why McDonald’s was held liable for damages.

Now on the subject of legal damages, I have several points to make. Liebeck asked McDonald’s to settle with her for 20 thousand dollars, which would have been sufficient to cover her medical costs. All she wanted was to have her medical bills paid, and McDonald’s to consider using better lids on their cups (which they now have). McDonald’s refused, offering only $800. In response, Liebeck sought an attorney, and later settlements of 90 thousand and 300 thousand were requested on her behalf. No settlement was reached.

At trial, a theory of comparative negligence was argued. What that means in layman’s terms is that the jury was asked to assign percentages of fault to both the plaintiff (Liebeck) and the defendant (McDonald’s). Whatever the total compensatory damages are determined to be (as decided by a jury based on the evidence/arguments presented by counsel) would be adjusted and awarded accordingly. Thus if the total damages were $10, and each party was 50% at fault, the defendant pays $5 and the plaintiff is left to cover the remaining $5. This is the court’s way of acknowledging that multiple parties can be at fault and that it is not always fair to expect a defendant to cover the resultant damages in their entirety.

In the Liebeck case, the jury found that Liebeck was 20% at fault, while McDonald’s was 80% at fault. One of the reasons that the jury felt that McDonald’s was at fault to such a large extent is that evidence showed that over 700 reports of coffee burns had been made to McDonald’s, and no efforts were made to prevent them. This means that McDonald’s was well aware that their coffee could seriously burn people, they just didn’t want to expend the time or resources to replace or modify their equipment. They didn’t care how many people were harmed, because several claims for coffee burns that had been pursued in the past had been dismissed on the theory that coffee constituted an “open and obvious danger” that the customer was solely responsible for avoiding.

A jury found 200 thousand dollars in damages in the Liebeck case, which was reduced by 20% (because Liebeck was found to be 20% at fault) to 160 thousand dollars. In addition, the jury awarded Liebeck 2.7 million dollars in punitive damages, a number arrived at by reasoning that a couple of days worth of McDonald’s’ coffee revenues would not be an overly burdensome penalty to impose. The judge reduced the punitive amount to 480 thousand dollars (3x the compensatory amount), bringing the total with the compensatory damages to 640,000 dollars. Afterwards, Liebeck chose to settle out of court for an undisclosed amount that was less than 600 thousand dollars. Her overall expenses are unknown, but several years of paying an attorney to fight a legal battle against McDonald’s can’t run cheap.

Now I know what some of you may be thinking- why give so much money to this woman? Her damages are supposed to be covered by the compensatory damages. Why should she receive three times that amount in punitive damages? She’s just getting rich! I would argue that this is a narrow perspective, mainly because having to experience something like that is surely deserving of less-tangible compensation, and even then that is not the real purpose of punitive damages.

Punitive damages are not imposed so as to allow plaintiffs to get rich quick. Punitive damages are imposed in order to punish the defendant, and thus incentivize them to do whatever they can to prevent such harm from occurring again. Knowing that coffee burn claims might now be upheld in court, McDonald’s has the option to just pay people’s medical bills when somebody reports a burn to them. If you remember, Liebeck initially asked for only 20 thousand dollars. McDonald’s generates over a million dollars a day in coffee revenues alone. This is, to McDonald’s, chump change. What might not be considered chump change, is the amount of money it would take to replace all of the coffee machines (which have only an on/off switch) in the thousands upon thousands of McDonald’s establishments around the world. Thus McDonald’s might simply choose to “pay as they go”, and just compensate people out of court whenever burns do in fact occur. This does nothing to prevent more burns, it means they’ll just pay for them when they happen.

20 Thousand? Sorry, all we have are hundreds, hope that's alright.

What punitive damages effectively do is send the message to McDonald’s that if they continue to neglect to address the issue of their coffee being so hot and burning customers, then they will be held accountable for the fact that they knew the risk existed. This is a valuable tool for our justice system, because it allows the system to not only make people whole, but prevent them from being harmed in the first place. It makes for a safer society, and it incentivizes large corporations with deep pockets to consider the safety of their customers to be important to their bottom line. Thus, though punitive damages may result in an individual plaintiff “profiting”, they actually serve a higher purpose.

It should be noted that punitive damages are the hardest damages to prove, and that once corporations are aware of them, they have the incentive to do everything they can do behave in ways that are undeserving of punishment. That’s a nice little system in my opinion.

Now, more broadly- tort reform. Tort reform is a phrase that has found wide usage among conservatives. In reality, tort reform seeks to limit the circumstances (which are based on well-established and reasoned case law precedents) in which a suit can be brought, limit the circumstances where a jury can serve as the decision-maker, and limit the maximum damages that a defendant can be held liable for (I will discuss capping damages in more detail later on). All of these are limitations on plaintiffs, and protections for defendants. Plaintiffs already bear the burden of proof. Thus a more fitting term might be tort deform, but that’s neither here nor there.  Most of the people who talk about tort reform ignorantly and erroneously cite the Liebeck case as an example of abuse.

In fact, shortly after the case hit the media, corporate PR operations have done everything they can to spread the word in a psuedo-grassroots way. You might think of such false activism “astroturf”, if it pleases you. Shameless efforts to make frivolous lawsuits a hot-button issue have gone on unabated for years now, with memberless front-groups and PR “activist” websites being funded by large corporations that want to do everything they can to convince the population that altering the tort system to disfavor individual complainants is not just common sense, but in the people’s interest. It is absolutely not.

Proponents of tort reform deceptively suggest that our judicial system is incredibly inept in terms of tort law. I, along with many tort attorneys and law professors across the country, can assure you that such is not the case. Our judicial system is based upon precedent, and when a precedent is set it may be overturned or modified by higher courts. The end result is a system that self-corrects and dynamically evolves when it is faced with new fact-patterns. This is a good system, and more importantly it is a system that is significantly more resistant to monetary incentives than the legislative and executive branches, whose relationships to campaign contributions have proven a major source of corruption and conflicts of interest.

In addition, this notion that there are an overwhelming number of claims that are, at their heart, groundless is fundamentally flawed. Why would someone who knew they had a baseless claim spend money on an attorney? I can assure you that I wouldn’t take a case that I knew to be frivolous. It wouldn’t be worth my time. Its chances of success would be negligible. I would feel ethically disgusted that I was putting another person’s money to waste while giving them false hopes of success. Those are the kinds of practices that malpractice suits are won over. It’s unsustainable on every side and thus it doesn’t happen often. The system disincentivizes frivolous suits, and thus there is no need for legislation.

Papercut? Who do I sue?

Now to get back to the specifics of what tort reform really means. You may wonder why limiting the amount of damages in tort cases might be considered a bad thing. Such a limit would mean that people with frivolous claims (that somehow manage to penetrate the heavy scrutiny of our courts) would not be able to get their multi-million dollar payday, and therefore caps on damages are a good thing, right?

Wrong, on two points. First, the number of multi-million dollar “paydays” that occur is extremely limited (and when they come, they are rarely paid out all at once, they are paid in annuities). Second, although caps theoretically prevent people from scamming the system, in reality they prevent justified claims from being fully compensated. It turns out that our system is actually pretty good at justifying damages. Say your kid chews on a toy and it happens to be coated in lead paint, and he ends up with brain damage as a result. Maybe he needs a wheelchair and will never be coherent enough to talk. How do you value damages?

The kid will need constant care for the rest of his life, and constant care means constant cost. Either a parent will have to permanently tend to the child, or more likely a professional nurse or caretaker will be required. Also, brain disorders require medical care. Frequent brain scans, developmental monitoring, and treatments may be necessary. Consultation with specialists will be inevitable. Speech, physical, and psychological therapies may be needed. The kid was going to go on to be a productive, wage-earning member of society, or maybe not. You have to use statistical averages to determine how much he could reasonably have been anticipated to have earned. Damages might also reasonably include loss of consortium (companionship, friendship, inability to meaningfully interact with parents, etc.). Serious injuries can decimate families in ways the average person can’t even imagine. People tend not to realize these things until it happens to them.

All of these factors and many, many more must be considered at the time the damages are awarded. There are no do-overs. The money you award to such a plaintiff has to anticipate how long the plaintiff will live, how inflation will effect the value of the judgement, along with all of the possible costs that are likely to be incurred over the course of a lifetime. Not all tort cases only involve spilled coffee and one-time costs, and those who support capping damages like to pretend that they do.

No matter where it's damaged, it's bad, bad news.

There are other problems with a cap. In states where there are caps in place, we have seen what the end result really is. If a person has 10 million in legitimate damages and the cap is 1 million, what do you think happens? The person gets their million, and they use it for the care or continuing care of their injury. Then when they require additional money they turn to medicare/medicaid/welfare to receive treatment and pay their bills (many injuries render the individual or their guardian unable to work and earn income), thus passing the cost along to the taxpayer. In effect, the corporation is abusing our safety net of entitlement programs by proxy. Does anyone else find it ironic that a conservative policy results in the abuse of entitlement programs?

Big corporations are money-making enterprises. The people who head them, and the markets they are bought and sold on, are driven primarily by the bottom line. This means that the true impetus at work in a large-scale corporation is profit. Profit is the lifeblood of a corporation, and I am willing to concede that a corporation is entitled to making a profit- they have to to survive and thrive to stay in business. On the other hand, paying people who are injured as the result of the negligence of the company, though it cuts into its profit, isn’t going to bankrupt billion-dollar entities like McDonald’s.

A corporation is (often) a very large, unresponsive, intimidating amalgamation. One of the most common tactics employed by large corporations is to play down their responsibility or ability to provide redress. Betting that people will be too intimidated or lack the financial means to pursue a drawn-out legal battle has been proven time and time again to be a winning bet. The odds are only improved when there is an attitude among the population that most suits against corporations are frivolous. Tort reform is the deception that has created that attitude.

Tort reform takes the power out of the hands of the jury (a power which you are constitutionally guaranteed access to, by the way) and puts it in the hands of legislators. This, in and of itself, makes a mockery of the separation of powers. We should be keeping our legislative powers in the legislature, and our judicial powers in the judiciary. Judges have the power to regulate jury verdicts that might be considered to unjustly enrich a plaintiff (as shown by the fact that the 2.7 mil in punitive damages from the Liebeck case was reduced to 480 thousand), but not even a judge has the discretion to permit damages to exceed a cap- that’s why it’s a cap. Apparently judges should be considered just as untrustworthy as juries. What a paranoid and self-defeating perspective to operate from…

The reason tort reform is championed by conservatives as a solution to our nation’s problem with frivolous suits (which remember, are not nearly as prevalent as they would have you believe) is that it isn’t really meant to be one. It’s meant to protect corporate interests, and unfortunately, today those interests are largely ensured through campaign contributions. That has been doubly guaranteed by the 2010 Citizens United SCOTUS decision that delimits corporations from contributing to political campaigns (not that they weren’t getting the money in the right pockets through PACs before, but now such techniques have been given the official stamp of approval and thus their use can only be expected to increase).

If corporations can’t get tort reform legislation passed in a certain state, they just throw tons of money at campaigns to elect pro-business judges (who will never uphold major decisions against corporations) to state supreme court positions. Thus, even if a jury finds on behalf of a plaintiff, when the corporation appeals they will eventually just arrive at a court that is biased in their favor. If their campaign fails, they’ll level bogus charges of tax fraud or corruption against the justice (regardless of if they’re evidenced), and thus remove them from the bench by forcing their suspension during the drawn-out proceedings.

I WANT YOU to hang tight while we deal with the irony of these allegations.

But wait! It gets better. In a preemptive effort to cut this entire judicial process out of the picture, hundreds of large corporations now include binding arbitration clauses in contracts, almost always hidden away in fine print. You have probably signed one. Many industries, such as cell phone or credit card industries, have these clauses no matter what company you choose to do business with.

What arbitration agreements do is either bar you entirely from pursuing a claim, or require that you pursue your claim through a company-employed mediator. Arbitration agreements that are signed by employees have been known to effectively waive the right to sue if, for instance, a person is raped on the job because the company failed to perform proper background checks on its employees and hired a convicted rapist. Rape is not the only type of injury that cannot be addressed in the courts as a result of such binding agreements.

The argument for this is that it will reduce the burden on the court system and save companies from having to spend money and time in court. However, if you think that a mediator that works for one of the parties (the corporation) is objective and acting in the interest of justice, you need to wake up. These arbitrations are secret, they’re non-transparent, and you have no route of appeal. They often require the person to keep silent about every aspect of the situation. In the example of a rape case, this means that if rape is in fact a common occurrence among female employees, women who have been raped are legally forbidden to inform their fellow female coworkers of the risk and the fact that it is going unaddressed.

There is no requirement that an arbitrator explain their decision, they simply say that one side wins (which do you think tends to win?) and the deed is done. Arbitrators are hired and fired at will by the corporation, and thus they will always rule in favor of the corporation because their job is on the line. Because binding arbitration agreements have saturated so many industries, most injuries that occur to consumers or employees where a signed contract is involved stand no chance of even making it to court these days.

Our system is corrupted. It is currently controlled by money and heavily influenced by corporate interests, rather than the interests for which it was designed- the people’s. Realize that corporations have shown themselves to act primarily in one interest- their own.

Vote. Vote! It’s the only thing we can do to resist these aggressors to our democracy. Reject candidates who support tort reform and the privatization of public services, because whether they know it or not, they are supporting corruption and the avoidance of justice. Such policies have led to some of the most agregious injustices ever to have occurred in American history.

Tort law is what keeps things fair. In a fair court, a 79 year-old woman has the same chance of winning as a massive, multi-billion dollar corporation. The tort law system is what keeps businesses from lying and cheating and stealing and making dangerous products. One of its major purposes is to force them to take their customers’ safety seriously, and thus a strong tort system is essential to the protection of the American people. Imposing caps and limitations will only result in the abridgment of that protection. Not only is tort reform unjust, it’s morally indefensible, and only through raising awareness (sharing this article will serve that purpose) do we stand a chance of abolishing such misdirected policies from our great American society. In doing so, we will make progress.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.


YOU NO LONGER HAVE THE RIGHT TO DEFEND YOURSELF WITH A GUN!

Except no, that isn’t true. I came across a comic portrayal of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting today that seemed to suggest that it was true, among several other things. Here’s the comic, I know it would make ME feel smug and justified in gun ownership:

Does anyone else find it disturbing that in this guy's ideal world, Giffords still gets shot in the head? Who's the crazy person again?

There is this notion out there among many conservative gun-nuts that if everyone is allowed to own a gun, then nobody will successfully go on a shooting spree because the majority of upstanding citizens will carry guns around and when something goes down they will just pull out their guns and show the shooter what’s what. That argument assumes two things: 1) that the majority of upstanding citizens will actually choose to carry their firearm around with them in a paranoid and largely unnecessary manner, and 2) that your average citizen would be both willing and able to take down the shooter. One of the most ridiculous things about the “comic” that is the subject of this article is that the people in the crowd have every right and opportunity to buy a gun and carry it with them, just like on the day of the Giffords shooting. Also, cartoon illustrations are one thing, but what happens when the would-be rescuer misses and hits somebody else? Hell, police are specially trained to pick their targets and be aware of their line of fire and they still end up shooting two-year olds. But I digress.

The cartoon above is obviously a reference to the recent shooting of Gabrielle Giffords. It seems to suggest that were the Second Amendment to function unimpeded in America today, a whole crowd of men women and children would not have been sprayed with a Glock, because somebody could have just taken Loughner down. I won’t even bother confronting the assumption that somebody would have been able to retrieve their weapon and take aim before Loughner unloaded most of the bullets in his extended mag semi-automatic pistol (which, for those of you who don’t know, fires as fast as he can pull the trigger). What I will confront is the commonly held, commonly conservative belief that Americans’ constitutional right to own a firearm is being somehow infringed upon by the government or the Obama administration or by the Democratic party.

This guy wants your wallet? Better shoot his ass. Yeah, that's justice.

The Second Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which was adopted along with the rest of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, reads as follows:

A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

First of all, the date. This amendment to the Constitution was added at a time in American history when magazine-loading firearms did not exist. There was no such thing as a shooting spree. People fired and then reloaded. Had our forefathers known the types of weapons that would be available in the future, I would wager that they would save us the trouble of imposing regulations by specifying the exact type of weapons to which they referred. Alas, hindsight is indeed 20/20.

Second of all, the purpose of this amendment as it reads is to preserve the security of the state through a well-regulated militia. Given that militias at the time were comprised of any and all American citizens who wished to join, this has been, and for good or bad will continue to be interpreted to mean that every member of society has a right to gun ownership by default.

The key word here is default. We are also afforded the right to vote by default. That right can be revoked if, for instance, we commit a felony. In addition, we have a right to vote in certain forums– believe it or not you can’t walk into Congress and throw your ballot in the hat. There are different types of voting just like there are different types of arms. Wouldn’t you agree that you don’t want a liberal commie/fascist/socialist like me having access to a nuclear bomb launcher? I mean it’s a form of armament. Do I have to be able to hold it or something? Slippery slope fellas.

Which brings me to my third point- the 2nd Amendment means that everyone has the right to own a gun. This provision has been reasonably interpreted to have certain limitations, much in the way we impose limits on freedom of speech by not allowing people to shout “FIRE” in a movie theater- it only makes sense. It also only makes sense that we put some kind of cap on the amount of power that we’re going to put into a single persons hand. Some of the weapons out there today won’t just kill a single person, they can kill a shopping mall/highschool classroom/college dorm/office building full of people. Hoping someone else is there with a gun does not make sense- it’s reckless and irrational.

It is only reasonable that we don’t put guns in the hands of the mentally disturbed, or those who are demonstrably prone to initiations of violence. We want people with such power to be able to exercise self-control and only use that power when it is absolutely necessary. Nonetheless, mentally disturbed persons are still able to obtain weapons in our current system. How do you think Loughner got his? He walked into a store and he bought it. And he bought a bunch of bullets for it. And he bought an extended magazine for it. At no point was the person who sold him the gun aware of his long, long history of mental illness and paranoid schizophrenia.

None of you have the urge to kill a bunch of people, right? Cool.

And who can read that poster? Anyone who knows how to read, like this cheery fellow:

"Maybe if I smile he'll throw in an extra box of bullets."

The argument that removing all restrictions on firearms will result in the majority of people suddenly locking and loading and thus balancing the equation is a massive oversimplification, one which is unsurprisingly made by those ignorant many who believe that the guv-ment is trying to disarm the entire population. They aren’t and it’s not going to happen. Would you be surprised to learn that most of the people that make these kinds of arguments support the conservative party? They sure are serving the kool-aid up strong these days.

Nobody is trying to take your guns away. A concealed carry permit is not a difficult thing to obtain. Depending on the state, firearm regulations may seek to require psychological and criminal record screenings in order to obtain them. Such screenings are meant to detect people who show major red flags, such as a history of violence, psychotic episodes, etc. I think we can agree these are the people who should not have guns. Regulations also seek to reduce the potential for destruction that can rest in the hands of a would-be mass murderer, so that should they succeed in evading the screening process (which at this point is clearly not very difficult), the harm they cause will at least have a limit. Imagine if Loughner was allowed to purchase an even larger magazine, or a fully automatic version of the same handgun he used in the shooting– how many more children would have been shot before he had to reload and was taken down? No state has put in place a law or regulation that removes the right to own a firearm from innocent, upstanding citizens. It just isn’t the case. It would be flatly unconstitutional and would be overturned in a heartbeat.

Strawman argument, anyone?

I’ve fired a gun before. I know the rush that you feel with such a precise, powerful instrument in your hands. I understand the confidence and security that comes along with knowing that you can defend yourself against whatever comes your way. All I’m suggesting is that we slow down for a moment and try to look at the issue objectively. Undeserving people are killed every year by guns. That isn’t an accusation, it’s just an acknowledgement of reality. The more conscious people are of the dangers of firearms, and the responsibilities that need to be imposed upon those who wield them,  the better off society will be. I cannot make it clear enough: I do not argue for stronger gun regulations because I think the American public should be disarmed, I argue for stronger gun regulations because I perceive our current level of gun regulation to be pathetically inadequate. Innocent men, women and children die every year because of that inadequacy. I, like every other red-blooded American, want to avoid as many tragedies as possible on American soil. Don’t you?

If you haven’t figured it out already, I happen to support strong regulation of firearms. I think our system for screening and mandatory reporting is severely lacking. I think that there is absolutely no reason that civilians need to have access to assault rifles or fully automatic weapons. These types of weapons transcend self-defense and enter the realm of excessive danger and force. If somebody wants to argue about appropriate levels and types of regulation with me then I welcome them to do so (hit the comments section below, it it pleases you). I am more than willing to acknowledge first of all that this is a grey area and second of all that it can and should be argued by both sides. That is how meaningful compromises are reached- adversary and detail-oriented debate. We do not create a valuable discourse with oversimplified and ignorant comics such as the ones featured above. We create ideological stalemates and disinformation. We’re better than that America. We must make progress.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.


The Nanny State is Evil! And Then We Woke Up.

It’s your own damned fault that you’re poor! You haven’t worked hard enough! You should reap what you sow! The Nanny State is destroying America’s economy! I shouldn’t have to pay for my neighbor’s well-being! It’s socialism! All of these arguments and more will be knocked down in today’s edition of… The Nanny State is Evil! And Then We Woke Up.

Many of those who deplore U.S. entitlement programs maintain the perspective that because they worked hard and were able to succeed, everyone else is able to so long as they work hard enough. Hell, who can blame them, that’s the God-damned American Dream. Unfortunately, it’s also a logical fallacy. Just because you went out and worked hard and were able to get and keep a job, get medical benefits, save for retirement, etc., doesn’t mean that hard work was the only reason that things worked out. There are many Americans out there who are extremely driven individuals, some of whom likely work much harder than you or I on a daily basis, and yet because of a slew of other major factors (including sheer luck) they will never manage to breach the poverty line.

“So what?” You may ask. “I got mine and they can get theirs.” And to some extent this is true, there are many people out there who will. Every now and then though, things go wrong. Companies go under and renig on pensions. There are thousands of instances of financial abuse (especially of the elderly) in our country, and such cases often go unresolved because the people no longer have any money to hire a lawyer. Some people are born with mental or physical handicaps. Some people are not intelligent enough to learn to read. People who can’t afford a kid get pregnant (and remember, most conservatives are against abortion). Some people will never be able to afford to go to college, and will only be able to get jobs that hire high school diplomas and pay accordingly. Some people get involved in gangs as a means for survival, and end up on the wrong side of a prison wall, later emerging into a society that significantly stigmatizes any kind of criminal record.  There are hundreds of different cancers, most of which your insurance probably won’t pay to treat long-term, and none of them are cheap to treat. That’s not to mention that with the current state of our health care system, we are all just one major accident away from having to declare bankruptcy.

America’s entitlement programs are in place to address these kinds of injustices. One of the failings of capitalism is that at its core it is a socially Darwinistic enterprise. Our society’s way of acknowledging and addressing that failing is through democratically socialist entitlement programs (not to be confused with socialism). A sufficient percentage of red-blooded Americans did in fact vote to put those programs into play. The people who voted for those programs were acknowledging the ailments of a capitalistic society with no safety nets, and were reacting to the innate human desire to address them (see: The Golden Rule).

It is our modern disconnection with the practical realities of the world, combined with the self-centered perspectives that are the result of our evolutionary nature, that have driven a large percentage of the American population to take the opportunities that they have had in life for granted. The result is that there are people fervently advocating policy changes that will leave some of our country’s most vulnerable and needy in the lurch.

Yes, there will be fraud. Yes, there will be people who try to take advantage of the system. Yes, there will be people who spend their entitlement benefits on crack cocaine. But we have ways of addressing these issues. We can improve these systems to more carefully monitor their beneficiaries. We can (and do) impose drug testing and provide treatment for addictions. We can and do fight back against fraud and prosecute fraudsters. Fraud will always exist, as in any similar system, but it is not an excuse for cutting funding to the program as a whole. Cutting funding results in the punishment of all beneficiaries, rather than those who have defrauded the system. Additionally, it reduces the resources that are needed to police and prosecute violators. It’s a clumsy and broad stroke for but a few pencil-thin problems, and I’m sick of that kind of bullheaded thinking. I’m especially sick of the lazy thinking that says the solution is to get rid of entitlements altogether.

One of my fellow law students was telling me that he considers any form of taxation to constitute a confiscation of personal property (he’s a big libertarian, so this was rather unsurprising). He went on to say that because he acknowledged that the state does collect taxes, it should only be justified in collecting taxes that result in a benefit being conferred upon him. What does that imply about his opinions on wheelchair ramps? Well one might reason that a wheelchair ramp is something that we can all get behind, because were we to one day be bound to a wheelchair, we would suddenly find them to be massively helpful.

The example of the wheelchair ramp is ripe for analogy. In this analogy, the wheelchair ramp is our safety net of entitlement programs. The chance of becoming wheelchair bound is the chance that you may not have enough money to feed your kids, or the chance that your pension will go belly up, or etc. There comes a time where we must put aside shortsighted and irrational notions that we are invulnerable to the inevitable chaos of the world we live in and admit that in creating a safety net for others, we create one for ourselves. If you want to talk about taking responsibility for your future, and your children’s future, then I can see no sounder path.

One of the most common tactics being proposed by conservative representatives today is that in order to help the economy, we should cut spending on entitlement programs that millions currently rely on, such as Medicare. They offer this as a means to reduce the deficit and stave off our country’s growing national debt. While I would agree that we can and should “trim the fat” on government spending, I think the last place we need to do it is in the social services department. Conservatives know that the democrats in Congress will not go along with such a cold-hearted proposal, so that makes it clear that the true Republican intention is to create a stalemate so as to make Obama look like he can’t get anything done. Mission fucking accomplished.

A more practical and reasonable solution overall would be to raise taxes on the rich, particularly given that the top 1% of our population now possesses over 70% of the nation’s wealth. In addition, we should close tax loopholes being exploited by large corporations, and even just enforce the current corporate tax rates. It does not make sense that our Congress is considering cutting Medicare benefits while simultaneously GE paid no taxes whatsoever last year and in fact received a refund. It’s a travesty, and it’s morally indefensible.

Now I can understand where some of my libertarian and conservative colleagues come from when they advocate against socially democratic programs and policies. These attitudes stem from an ideological adhesion to the principles of personal property and an idolization of the free market economy. What I don’t understand is how they can ignore the results. Our country has been running that course for some time now, and where has it gotten us?

America is comprised of some of the most self-righteous people in the world. We constantly parade about claiming to be number 1 in every respect, despite the fact that we are rarely in the top ten in any regard (if you don’t believe me, go search for statistics on our world rankings in health care, education, teacher salaries, life expectancy, corruption, or democracy- they aren’t difficult to find). We’re overweight, we drive massive cars that produce massive amounts of pollution and CO2, and we endorse retributive systems of crime and punishment despite evidence that systems of crime and rehabilitation are not only less costly but more effective. I could go on, but I’ll save it for another day.

When faced with all of these realities, we, as a nation, simply shake our heads and cling to our previously held beliefs. As with religion, these beliefs are not based on logic or evidence, they are based on what we have been told by similarly deluded individuals as well as how we already believe the world to be. What we believe frequently has little or no bearing on reality. If we can comprehend this simple lesson, perhaps one day we can leave behind our nation’s propaganda and self-denial, and begin to truly progress.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.


Want to Vote? Pay Up.

Ohio House Bill 194 (HB 194/SB 148) contains provisions that require voters to produce state-issued identification in order to vote. State-issued IDs cost money. The bill contains no provisions that change that. Courts across the United States (including the Supreme Court in Harper v. Virginia Board of Elections) have ruled time and time again that it is unlawful to require people to have to pay any kind of fee whatsoever in order to gain access to the polls. Although many of us consider the cost of obtaining an ID to be trivial, there are people out there who do not. This means that this bill has the potential to offhandedly disenfranchise an unknown number of U.S. citizens. In my opinion, one is too many.

The provisions in question were amended into HB 194 on June 21st, and no comment period was allowed. When a piece of legislation is proposed, it is normally considered appropriate that those who will be affected by its provisions be given an opportunity to present their concerns to the legislature in some way. The reason this is considered appropriate is that it allows the legislature to at least have the opportunity to understand the full implications of the laws that it is putting into effect. This makes perfect sense- perspectives vary, and full disclosure can only lead to more well-informed decisions.

The Ohio legislature’s justification for adding the provisions is that requiring state-issued ID will serve to resist voter fraud. On its face, this seems reasonable. The only problem is that absolutely no evidence has been offered that might suggest that voter fraud is even an issue in Ohio. Generally speaking, if the legislature is going to put something into law, shouldn’t there be a well-supported reason, instead of a vague and conclusory one? Shouldn’t this especially be the case when provisions have the potential to result in disenfranchisement? Apparently the Ohio legislature doesn’t think so.

Why might the Republican-controlled Ohio legislature support a bill that disenfranchises the poor? Well, the poor tend to vote for people on the left because they tend to support social programs that benefit or protect the poor. If people on the right can stop people on the left from voting, then that’s that many fewer votes conservative candidates will have to generate in order to win elections. How very democratic of Ohio Republicans. Just as an observation, I haven’t heard of any voter disenfranchisement schemes coming from the left.

Be that as it may, we’ll find out what the Ohio judiciary thinks about the situation soon enough, because the ACLU is filing suit on behalf of Ohio voters. What a bunch of liberal-commie scum.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.


Anti-Illegal Immigration is Killing America

We all know someone who is anti- illegal immigration. Their attitudes range from those who want illegal immigrants out because they’re stealing American jobs, to those who want illegal immigrants out simply because they’re illegal. On their face, these arguments seem reasonable. In practice, these arguments are not at all reasonable.

Take, for instance, Georgia’s new immigration law that goes into effect on July 1st. This law will require that all employers verify that their employees have legal statuses in order to continue to employ them. If an illegal is discovered, the law gives police the authority to turn illegals over to federal authorities, who will undoubtedly deport them. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. Illegal immigrants, upon learning of the new legislation, have begun to flee Georgia in the thousands. Farmers in Georgia, who have come to rely on illegals as the bulk of their workforce, have been left holding the shit end of the stick. They are left with hardly anyone willing to take the place of the fleeing workers, and even those who are willing to perform the menial, backbreaking labor that illegals were responsible for are unwilling to do so at the pitiful wages that the farmers are offering. That’s not to mention that if you employ American citizens, they’re subject to American employment law, like minimum wage. Farmers have gotten used to avoiding these laws by hiring illegals (that includes food giants like Monsanto).

Now we have already pushed a huge percentage of our food production off of American soil and South of the border. It turns out people in South America will work for a lot less, and private corporations (who, believe me, have much more interest in making money than they do in the good of the American people) have already started taking advantage of that.  This means that even if we assume that every state in the U.S. were to some how miraculously follow suit and pass anti-immigration laws like Georgia’s, we would only be pushing the work further away from home, and putting even more money into corporate coffers instead of America’s stifled economy.

Maybe instead of treating the symptom we should treat the cause. If the American legislature were to make a law that required that all persons, regardless of proof of citizen ship, be subject to American wage and working condition regulations, and have access to legal recourse in the even that those rights are violated, then we could see some change. If farmers had to pay these workers a fair wage, and basically treat them like they would treat an American worker or even a legal immigrant, farmers would have no incentive to continue to hire illegals. Their incentive would be to hire the best workers, and if the American workforce is so capable and motivated that it wants those jobs, they can go and get them.

Now some of you may be thinking that by guaranteeing a better wage to illegals, we would be encouraging more and more illegals to come across the border from Mexico. That is in fact incorrect. The reason that illegals are currently flooding across the border is that we have an abundance of low-level jobs available, and although the pay is a pittance it is a fortune compared to what they could earn at home. They come knowing that these jobs are going to be available, because Americans are unwilling to work for such low wages. If the wages are made equal, like I suggest they should be, then that labor vacuum will be sealed and the practically guaranteed availability of work for illegals will disappear. Immigration problem solved.

It is these kind of well-thought out strategies that treat the real cause of our problems. Those Americans who think that we can solve the problem by treating the symptom are just wrong. It seems counter-intuitive, but it is in fact logically sound. This is why our forefathers put so much value on equality and the maintenance of a free market. Right now, well, the free market is a FARCE, and I think deep down we all know it.

Painfully. Slow. Progress.