The growing consensus around the 2nd Amendment

In the Navy, I was trained to safely use handguns like this one.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision in McDonald v. City of Chicago, ruled that the 2nd Amendment applies to state and local laws, as well as federal laws.  Their decision will likely end the handgun ban in Chicago, two years after a similar law was struck down in the District of Columbia.  The ruling is likely the final blow to gun prohibition in this country as a principle.  However, the ruling was not a free for all for gun rights.  In fact, the decision supported reasonable restrictions on gun rights, enough to make the Brady Campaign President Paul Helmke happy:

‘”The crucial part of the ruling today is that it really is fairly narrow,” noting that the court acknowledged gun-control restrictions that fall short of bans. “The one extreme of handgun bans, total gun bans, that’s off the table now. But they’ve also taken the extreme any gun, anywhere, anybody, anytime–that’s off the table too,” Helmke said.’

Now, advocates of strict gun control point out that 258 Chicago public school students were shot last year.  However, those guns were introduced into the city in the midst of the handgun ban, which begs the question of whether prohibition really works. Certainly, a close look at the ‘War on Drugs’ would show you that the war is being lost.  Looking at guns, what level of restriction is reasonable?  A consensus has grown supporting the 2nd Amendment in this country, so much so that both Sarah Palin and Harry Reid applauded yesterday’s ruling.  In fact, Democrats look to benefit politically from this ruling in November.

However, what about the gun show loophole?  Should potential gun owners be required to undergo a background check before purchasing a weapon?  The loophole, where buyers can get guns from private dealers at gun shows, exists.  The NRA argues that the loophole is a ‘myth:’

“Though Congress specifically has applied the background check requirement to dealers only, and specifically exempted from the dealer licensing requirement persons who occasionally sell guns from their personal collections, gun prohibition activists call this a “loophole.” Gun prohibitionists also falsely claim that many criminals get guns from gun shows; the most recent federal study puts the figure at only 0.7 percent.”

Obviously, there is a conflict between the report from ABC and the NRA legislative wing.  There is no doubt that the NRA would be tickled pink if all gun laws were struck down.  However, the consensus around the 2nd Amendment does not go as far as the NRA fantasizes.  Most people would support reasonable restrictions.

Anyone who has watched the Wire has no illusions about gun restrictions keeping guns away from criminals.  In fact, gun laws are often used as valid charges to arrest criminals by police.  Any gun regulation should make it a sensible process to buy and sell weapons.   However, there should also be enforceable restrictions, requiring background checks, that are reasonable.  Education on gun safety should be part of that restriction.

I grew up in Northwest Pennsylvania, and underwent hunter safety training in middle school.  Guns were very common in that rural community, but it was clear to me at a young age that they were dangerous and needed to be handled the right way.  Later, in the Navy, I was responsible for many weapons, and their safe use.  We conducted lots and lots of training for the folks who had to bear those weapons on watch.  In the Navy, when weapons were taken for granted, the conditions for misuse were created.  That is why training and education are so crucial.

At the end of the day, while some will look at yesterday’s Supreme Court decision as a victory for gun owners and the NRA, I look at it as a reflection of the growing consensus around reasonable restriction.  Like abortion and other emotional issues, there will always be zealots on both sides.  However, as Politico observes, the decision removes those zealots from the decision making process in November.

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Your land, my land, Gasland.

Before I begin to tell you what brought me to tears this morning, I want to ask you what exactly you would be willing to sacrifice for cheap energy.  Think about all the material goods that you buy with cheap energy, all of the disposable and replaceable goods.  Think about all of the devices in your home that consume electricity, and all of the functions they provide for you.   Now, consider what you would be willing to give up in order to ensure that the supply of cheap energy is unending.  What if you learned that the water from your tap was no longer drinkable?  What if you learned that you might have irreversible brain damage?  What if you learned that you might lose your sense of taste and smell?  Would that be worth it?

Gasland Director Josh Fox lighting some polluted tap water on fire.

Well, this morning I watched the new documentary Gasland, which premiered on HBO last night.  Immediately, my connection to the subject matter was visceral, because like the filmmaker, Josh Fox, I am a Pennsylvanian by birth.  Fox owns a home on 19 acres of pristine forest that is part of the Marcellus Shale, a formation of sedimentary rock that stretches throughout the Appalachian Basin from New York, south to Virginia.  Energy companies targeted the Marcellus Shale for its natural gas resources, along with other shale formations across the country.  The Marcellus Shale alone was estimated in April 2009 by the Department of Energy to contain 262 Trillion Cubic Feet of Natural Gas.  However, industry estimates exceed this amount.  To extract natural gas from shale formations, energy companies use Halliburton-proprietary technology.

How is the natural gas extracted?   A technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking is used.  A well is drilled deep (typically about 8,000 feet) into the shale formation, and millions of gallons of water, sand, and proprietary chemicals are injected at high pressure into the well.  The pressure fractures the shale and opens fissures, which allow the natural gas to flow freely out of the well.  Sounds simple, right?  Well, 596 chemicals are used in the fracking process.  In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill (known officially as the Energy Policy Act of 2005) exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act?  Why was that legislation necessary?  It exempted the energy companies from disclosing the chemicals used in the fracking process.  For each frack, 80-300 tons of chemicals may be used. Scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene.  Fracking produces wastewater, and the VOCs in the wastewater are evaporated into the air, where they produce ground level ozone, which can travel up to 250 miles.

Shale formations in the United States.

The really disturbing part of this process is the contamination of drinking water.  Fox travels across the country to Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Texas, where this technology has been deployed, and goes into homes where the tap water is now flammable.  The scale of the development is extensive.

I urge you to watch this film, and spread the word about this ongoing environmental catastrophe.  This technology raises the question of what lengths we as Americans will go to for cheap energy.  Is our standard of living sustainable?  What are the consequences of that cheap energy?  Economists consider consequences that are not reflected in the cost of a product externalities.  Right now the costs of our energy are not transparent, but purposely opaque.  The 2005 Bush/Cheney exemption is a prime example of this.  Clean natural gas is just as much of a misnomer as clean coal.  There is no free lunch.  Americans need to reconsider the sustainability of our economy, of our lifestyles.  Permanent damage is occuring daily.

However, there is one thing that you can do now to help the communities affected, and help to increase the safety requirements in natural gas extraction: call your Senators and Representatives, and demand that the Frac Act be passed.

The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act (H.R. 2766), (S. 1215)—was introduced to both houses of the United States Congress on June 9, 2009, and aims to repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing in the Safe Drinking Water Act. It would require the energy industry to disclose the chemicals it mixes with the water and sand it pumps underground in the hydraulic fracturing process, information that has largely been protected as trade secrets. The House bill was introduced by representatives Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Maurice Hinchey D-N.Y., and Jared Polis, D-Colo. The Senate version was introduced by senators Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.  Needless to say, the energy industry opposes this act.  Gasland breaks my heart, because the Pennsylvania that I grew up in is at risk.  So is the water supply of New York City and Philadelphia.  Please see this important film, and take action.


Good riddence Arlen: lessons from Tuesday

If there is one thing that both Democrats and Republicans can agree on, many were happy on Tuesday to see Republican turned Democrat ousted by former Navy Admiral Joe Sestak in the Pennsylvania Senate Primary.  Folks of Generation Y vintage may be too young to remember Specter’s grilling of Anita Hill during the Confirmation Hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Well, the video above only gets more disgusting with age.  Good riddance, Arlen.

However, that was not the only surprise during the Tuesday elections.  In PA-12, the Democrats surprisingly held on to the seat of stalwart John Murtha, who died earlier this year.  The race between (D) Rep. Mark Critz and Tim Burns was a precursor to a rematch this fall.  The Democrats showed here that they are tactically superior to Republicans, and that they are the big tent party, as Critz opposed health care reform.

In Kentucky, Tea Party darling Rand Paul defeated Secretary of State Tim Grayson, the candidate selected by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell to replace Jim Bunning.  McConnell favored Grayson, a former Bill Clinton staffer and supporter, because he fit within the box that the GOP would like to paint its candidates to appeal to the great center.  Rand Paul, the libertarian financed by supporters of his father, Ron Paul, is beholden to no political hack (at least not a GOP one).  His views definitely fit outside the box, however.  He favors the elimination of the Department of Education and farm subsidies, for starters.  He thinks businesses should be allowed to discriminate those who they serve, and that Medicare’s eligibility and benefits should be diminished.  Those positions all appeal to certain segments of society, but more importantly they do not appeal to the constituencies and interests that decide national elections.  While he hopes to pull Democrats onto his side in the fall, Joshua Green points out that the Tea Party support was overblown by FOX News, and may not have registered as much to actual Kentucky voters:

“There was certainly activity geared toward the GOP primary. But the Rand Paul rallies I attended in mid-sized cities like Paducah and Bowling Green drew crowds of only a hundred so, and they were far more subdued than the angry Tea Party masses portrayed on cable television. Grayson’s crowds were even smaller. What was most notable about a race that was captivating the national media was how little it seemed to penetrate the consciousness of most Kentuckians. It was a big a deal only to a small group of energized Republicans. But more Democrats voted (about 500,000) than Republicans (350,000).”

Looking closer to home, where I live in the Ocean State, local Tea Party leaders are now at odds with would be-environmentalist Republican Governor Don Carcieri.  They oppose the wind farms planned for the coastal waters off of Rhode Island, despite a personal plea in a private meeting.   Apparently, they prefer the daily deployment of the fleet of diesel trucks that now light up the generator on Block Island.  This conflict is symbolic of the inability of the GOP to harness the wild energy of the Tea Party movement, and the inability of Tea Party members to appeal to moderates.

UPDATE (5/24): Michael Steele, embattered head of the RNC, came out on Sunday against Rand Paul’s libertarian views on Civil Rights:

“I think his philosophy is misplaced in these times,” said Steele during an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.” “I don’t think it’s where the country is right now. The country litigated the issue of separate but equal, the country litigated the rights of minority people in this country to access the enterprise, free enterprise system, and accommodation and all of that. And that was crystallized in the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act of ’64. And I think that the party stands very firmly behind its efforts then as we do now, to press forward on new civil rights issues… But I think in this case, Rand Paul’s philosophy got in the way of reality.”

In a separate appearance on ABC’s “This Week,” Steele said: “I think it’s important to understand that Rand Paul has clarified his statement and reiterated his support for…pushing civil rights forward, as opposed to going backwards. Any attempt to look backwards is not in the best interest of our country certainly, and certainly not in the best interest of the party.”

At the same time, Sarah Palin made the point that Rachael Maddow was prejudiced for asking the question of Rand Paul in the first place.  I suppose, in Palin’s world, if only pre-scripted FOX News journalists existed, then she would be Vice-President.