Friday, March 22, 2013

Teens and Guns

"It ain't so much the things you don't know that get you in trouble. It's the things you know that just ain't so."
Artimus Ward

I'm a strong supporter of gun-rights initiatives, and adamantly opposed to restrictions. Imposing background checks on private sales, for instance, is a step toward enforced registration, which is a step toward confiscation.* Even if the current administration were trustworthy (a big stretch of the imagination) there's no guarantee a future one would be. 
I also favor nationwide recognition of carry permits, just as there is nationwide recognition of state-issued driver's licenses. I support concealed carry on all school campuses. You get the picture.

There's one pro-carry initiative I can't support, though: extending carry permits to 18-20 year olds. Proposed by Georgia State Senator Judson Hill, who says it was inspired by young people's military service, it would give the right to carry to kids who've taken a day's worth of training and passed an unspecified test.

This is another of those "If they're old enough to risk their lives in combat they're old enough to..." arguments.  The "old enough" criterion has been applied to voting, drinking, making contracts, and it's as foolish in those cases as it is in this one. Adolescents as a group simply do not have the intellectual or emotional maturity to make sound judgements, even when those involve deliberation (e.g. in voting) let alone in the daily handling and possible use of deadly weapons.

Let's get the military argument out of the way first. Adolescent soldiers may well be capable of high-level physical competence and astonishing courage, but they don't act alone. In the military they're told when to go to bed and when to wake up; what to wear and how to wear it;
how their hair should be worn; when and what to eat; what to do each day, and precisely how, when and where to do it.  In combat they act on someone's command, operating under strict rules of engagement. Their weapons training is designed first and foremost to avoid training accidents; they're forbidden loaded weapons under most circumstances except actual combat.  In short, even combat experience doesn't teach these kids how to carry a concealed, loaded weapon among unarmed people and be prepared to make sudden, life-or-death decisions on their own responsibility.

The large majority of 18-20 year olds will not have even this level of training, nor will they have been taught by competent parents. They'll get their concepts and their habits from movies and video games, or maybe from paintball. Does it seem even remotely possible that four hours of lecture and four hours of range instruction followed by a DMV-level test can create the necessary level of personal responsibility, skill and knowledge?

In fact, it's questionable whether adolescents as a group are capable of learning the judgement and self-control skills necessary to be a responsible armed citizen. A good many of these skills aren't even cognitive. Yes, kids can reason. They often have better information about risks than their elders, or overestimate risk. They do stupid, risky things regardless. What research shows they lack is the emotional development necessary to avoid doing those stupid things. They don't get the queasy feeling that tells an adult some action is foolish or wrong, and that's what gets them in trouble.

Even worse, adolescents don't know they're handicapped. It's not only that since the 60's they've been pandered to by marketers and politicians. It's not only that they've been victimized by a moronic "self-esteem" ideology that neither allows the self-discipline that comes from failure nor the satisfaction of real accomplishment.  It's simply a result of ignorance. If one is ignorant of some area of knowledge or skill, one has no basis for judging competence. Add to that the common motive to think well of oneself and you get a case of "unconscious incompetence", or even an illusion of high competence, that's very hard to overcome.

It's because I care about both the right to keep and bear arms and the welfare of innocent people that I oppose Hill's initiative. I believe bad things will happen to people if it's implemented, and these will be used by totalitarians as yet another excuse to deny the right of self-defense to everyone. 

We don't need to give them another excuse.

* Read history, or just take the word of someone who knows:
"A system of licensing and registration is the perfect device to deny gun ownership to the bourgeoisie."   -- Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, "The Beginning of the Revolution in Russia", Selected Works, Vol. I

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Droning on....

It was terribly dangerous to let your thoughts wander when you were in any public place or within range of a telescreen. The smallest thing could give you away. A nervous tic, an unconscious look of anxiety, a habit of muttering to yourself—anything that carried with it the suggestion of abnormality, of having something to hide. In any case, to wear an improper expression on your face ... was itself a punishable offense. There was even a word for it in Newspeak: facecrime ...

George Orwell, 1984

So Rand Paul stayed on his feet for half a day and talked about the Constitution. What the filibuster came down to, minus the eloquence, was the statement that the President can't order an American citizen killed on American soil on a whim, or even a well-founded suspicion of terrorism or other homicidal crime. Failing an immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm to some innocent person, due process is obligatory. That Paul was talking about death by drone is irrelevant. Killing is killing, whether by drones, snipers, ninjas or CIA button-men. That's part of the Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

So why are drones an issue? We've been finessing the Fifth Amendment for years, seizing property via civil forfeiture or eminent domain, always with some flimsy excuse about the "War on Drugs" or "urban renewal." In both cases it comes down to money and power, just like it always does. Eric Holder's shucking and jiving is just the latest in a long history of rationalizations, and they're all manure. Whether the source is a donkey or an elephant, the stink is the same. Oh, perhaps it's because we're now talking about killing people rather than just taking away their living. Way to stand on principle, Rand. Could it be that if someone had defended the rest of the Amendment we wouldn't now be debating assassination by remote-control airplane?

Another question: Why is getting a letter from Holder saying "Oh, no, of course we're not going to kill any Americans in America!" considered a victory? It's just a letter, dummy. It means nothing, just like Obama's promises about guns, health insurance, transparency and the rest meant nothing. They're all lies. Why do you think this is any different?
You'll notice that Brennan, like Hagel, was confirmed and they're both now free to ravage our intelligence and military services, respectively. So what did Rand Paul achieve? Some notoriety for himself and a little morale boost for Limbaugh, Hannity and other conservative pundits. (For another, less sanguine, conservative opinion, see here.)

What's the real issue with drones?  Why are we more afraid of them than other killing or spying machines? I think it's because they're easy. Very easy. Military snipers, for instance, are enormously skilled marksmen and have many other roles besides shooting. Only a small fraction of people can do the job, and they need extensive training. To kill they have to deploy within range and sight of the quarry. It's hard enough on a battlefield, let alone in the US, especially when you're trying to keep the whole thing secret. Too many people have to know. It's hard to argue that you're responding to "imminent danger." Drones are operated by anyone capable of playing a video game, sitting comfortably in an air-conditioned room*. They can patrol constantly; using satellite surveillance the operator, maybe a continent away, can locate the target and spit a missile before you can say "due process." Afterwards there's plenty of time for excuses and coverups.

"So what?" somebody might think. The drone strike took out a terrorist and his or her accomplices, right? Let's consider that. When you see "terrorist" most people think of a wild-eyed Muslim fanatic.  The DHS has a longer list, though, and while I wouldn't mind seeing a lot of the people on it take a Hellfire proctological exam I also know that in a just society the worst people are treated by the law exactly as are the most admired. Then, too, there's definition creep. The domestic terrorists have lots of guns and practice shooting, right? So if you have guns and practice shooting you must be one, too. There are pro-life fanatics who murder people and blow up buildings, so if you're pro-life, you're suspect.  Any veteran might be the next Timothy McVeigh. See? Sixty-odd years ago there were Communist witch-hunts. History repeats but the sides have switched and we haven't learned anything. Joe McCarthy and J. Edgar Hoover didn't have satellites or drones, though, nor a compliant media.

The whole drone issue is just one more piece of evidence that the entire population of the United States is on double secret probation and has been for years. It didn't start with Obama, in all fairness, but his people are refining and escalating it. Governments always seize more power unless they're checked, but our checks and balances have been askew for generations. It's going to take more than thirteen hours of legislative theater to reset them.

* And Hegel proposed giving these twinks medals. What for? Carpal tunnel? Going without a Grande Latte?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Oy! Wilderness!!

"A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!"

The Rubaiyat of Omar Kayyam,
Quatrain XII: FitzGerald, 5th Edition

Sometimes ideas for these essays come from unexpected places. For instance, in the April Cycle World there is a paragraph in the "Roundup" section about the 1964 Wilderness Act. This law allows certain areas to be designated "Wilderness" and prohibits resource development (e.g. oil drilling, mining, logging) within them, as well as road construction and the use of any motor vehicles. There are now 759 of these areas totalling almost 110 million acres and located in all but five states. The topic of the Cycle World note is a study out of Utah State University showing that wilderness designation has a negative economic impact on local communities, including loss of tourism. Apparently people aren't flocking to enjoy the wonders of nature, especially if they have to walk to them.

I have to admit some internal conflict about the whole wilderness issue. On one hand there are real long-term benefits to preserving wild lands and subsequent biodiversity. This includes benefits we know nothing about because we don't know how to ask the questions yet. Anyone who thinks we understand ecosystems is simply foolish; there's a lot to learn from the forests, deserts and plains. We may not be able to imagine the benefits today, but that's been true in every era.What's also true is that there will be some benefit, because there has always been. Besides, on a purely emotional level, even a city boy like me appreciates the natural world for its own sake.

But there's another hand.

It's equally foolish to ignore the very real long and short term costs of wilderness preservation. Not only is there an immediate local cost--selling t-shirts and freeze-dried camping food to hikers doesn't pay what mining, logging and oil drilling do---there are long term costs as well. These include resource dependence on other countries not nearly so careful of their ecology nor the welfare of their native people as we are.

It doesn't help that wilderness preservation and expansion is promoted by people from the dark side of the environmental movement. "Earth First!", according to their website, wants to increase wilderness areas to seven times their present size. These are the people who, along with outfits like the Earth Liberation Front, promote eco-terrorism and sabotage. Agreeing with these sons (and daughters) of bitches about anything feels like saying "Well, yeah, but Hitler did get the trains running on time." 

So how can we maintain some of the benefits of wilderness preservation without giving more power to genuinely bad people? One clue comes from looking at their websites: the pictures they post of themselves reveal a bunch of white college and college-dropout types and their academic enablers. They're dressed in outdoor-chic products from companies like REI. I'm betting that few if any understand anything about real wilderness living despite their constant railing against modern industrial society. In fact their clothing, bicycles, tents and outdoor equipment couldn't exist without the industries and capitalist economy they love to hate. And that's the key.

What I'd like is not easier access to wilderness, but stricter regulation. Here's the rule: Anyone can enter a wilderness area at any time and stay there as long as they like. They can hunt, fish, forage, build dwellings, raise crops and so forth just as they please---but they can only use technology and materials that were available to the native people of that specific area prior to the year 1490. That means nothing after 1490: no medicine, eyeglasses, clothes made from fibers not grown locally, metal tools, magnesium fire starters, nylon rope, monofilament fishing line, compasses, GPS... Nothing. No horses, either. And once they're in the wilderness, they're on their own. No rescue helicopters, no EMTs, nothing.

How do they get clothes and equipment? They're bought or traded for locally from people who make them as they were in the 1400s, or they make them themselves the same way. No steel needles or factory made thread, no chemically-tanned leather, no timber cut by chainsaws. All natural and Neolithic. You can do pretty well with that technology if you work at it. Nevertheless, it'll be interesting to see how much more wilderness the Earth Firsters and other eco-bullies want under those conditions.

We shouldn't forget the eco-terrorists. Some at least will be caught, and when they are the appropriate punishment is to give them what they said they wanted: a natural life. Dress them in season-appropriate 1490-era clothes and shoes and drop them off by helicopter as close to the geographic center of a wilderness area as possible. That's it. They're free to live their lives in a state of nature. We know how that will turn out, too: poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short.