Guns, Criminals, Constitution & Policy

Seung-Hui Cho, the student who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech University, in 2007, had no criminal history. Adam Lanza, killed 27 people in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012, and was not, prior to this act, a criminal. James Holmes, killed 12 people in Aurora, CO, wasn’t a criminal. Jared Loughner, Tucson, AZ, killed 6, not a criminal. Robert Stewart, Carthage, NC, killed 8, not a criminal. Jeffrey Weise, Red Lake Reservation, MN, killed 9, not a criminal. James Huberty, San Ysidro, CA, 21 killed, not a criminal. This list is but a small segment of the larger list of people who have been found guilty of murdering multiple persons in what we refer to as “mass shootings“. It is also a list of individuals who, prior to their crime, had never been convicted of a criminal offense. “No prior criminal history” is a common refrain found in many of the news reports discussing these and other (not all) mass murder events. It is for this reason that I am not worried about criminals getting their hands on guns.

The NRA and some of its supporters try to persuade us that it is not the average Joe who is committing these crimes, it is the work of criminals. We are reminded daily that if there are new gun restrictions, they will limit non-criminals (your average citizen) from obtaining guns; the criminals, however, will “always be able to get guns”. The problem with that narrative is that it doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. When many of the mass shooters have never been found guilty of anything more than a misdemeanor (if that) by the criminal justice system, how can we call them criminals? The fact that their criminal history begins, and ends, with one act, should be a wake-up call to lawmakers; preventing criminals from committing these types of acts may not be their number one concern.

The next group to be blamed is rather difficult to pin down because of the varied behaviors that can be seen as normal or not normal depending on whose doing the assessing. Those individuals who are experiencing mental illness, hard to manage stress (post-traumatic, chronic, acute, et al.), or depression, are often singled out as “more likely” to engage in these kinds of acts. This provides another convenient excuse for the gun extremists (which are few in number compared to the millions of gun owners nationwide); when the shooter is found to be mentally unstable (which may or may not include those who are religiously intolerant, or affiliated with extremist views), they lay blame somewhere other than the weapons. But here too, these actions are not, in and of themselves, criminal. In the majority of these cases, criminal activity has occurred only after the shooting commences. So why does the vocal minority insist on talking to us about criminals getting guns and people who are mentally unstable, and armed, as a great danger to society? These folks aren’t the biggest concern, not even close.

Our society already watches out for those with criminal records. We “know” who commits crimes and we know some of the reasons why. We know about recidivism rates (and some programs that are working to decrease recidivism), and we keep our collective eyes peeled for the known “bad guys” who might try to do additional harm after serving their time (or they might not harm anyone). But we don’t have heightened senses for those who have never been charged with, nor found guilty of, a crime. They are the people we interact with every day.

Sure, most of us have talked about someone behind their back, with our spouses/partners, co-workers, pew-mates, bar buddies, and the like, about “his crazy rants“, reckless ways, violent vocal outbursts—concerning their wives, girlfriends, kids, neighbors, boss, local police, F.B.I., the President, et al. Yet, we assume that they, like so many others who have stated their disgust concerning the most recent “nuisance” in their life, are all talk and no action; because, really, who would act on these kinds of threats, especially after spouting off in front of numerous people—in public places.

Even Omar Mateen, who had some fairly normal teenage difficulties in his youth, was accused of domestic abuse, and is now known for perpetrating the worst mass shooting in our history, was not a criminal, in the eyes of the law. He was investigated and found to be a bit more of a threat than our friends Steve, or Ron, or Earl, or Pete, who like to talk big about what they’re gonna do to this, that, or the next person that “pisses them off”; but at the end of the day, everyone assumes it’s inane loud-mouthing, woofing, acting the fool, and all other manner of ludicrousness. So I ask you to think about the “criminal” and “mental illness” arguments that are made by some of our fellow citizens. Does it really make sense to concern ourselves with the known criminals when law enforcement is already paying closer attention to them? Should we really be watching our back constantly, because who knows when a person suffering from a malady of the brain is nearby? Or would we be better served to focus on what’s happening with the amount of gun violence in our culture; like, someone with a gun making a snap judgement, or maybe shooting up a street, or planning a massacre at a church, schoolrestaurant, club, workplace, or not planning it.

Most people don’t want to “get rid of the 2nd Amendment“; they just want some common sense measures to decrease the number of atrocities occurring in our nation. Policies that make it more difficult for anyone to obtain certain types of weapons or weapon accessories (high-capacity magazines, etc.) would be a good starting point. No, that won’t prevent all non-criminals (or criminals) from getting their hands on a weapon but it would likely prevent some of them—and that is better than none.

It is also better if the next mass shooting (because there will be more) takes the lives of 5, rather than 10, or 30, instead of 50. The families of those who are killed will be no less upset knowing that there were fewer victims of the violent act; the benefit, however, would be in knowing that fewer friends and family members were grieving the loss of a loved one. The cost of doing nothing is so much greater than any benefit inaction would generate.

Liberty Bell - Philadelphia, PA
Liberty Bell – Philadelphia, PA

If you’re reading this and thinking, the cost of any restriction on my rights to fully take advantage of the 2nd Amendment for my benefit is a cost I cannot bear. I would say, you might be kind of selfish, and furthermore, you’re never going to legally get your hands on the type of weaponry you would need to engage with a real military unit (you can’t afford an F-16), so why make such a fuss about restrictions aimed at saving lives. The idea of a militia (as referred to in the 2nd Amendment (Amendment II: 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.)), acting as a military force against a standing army,  no longer exists. We aren’t fighting the Red Coats anymore, technological advances (and having the most lethal military forces in the world) have rendered local militias mute, for this particular cause. The Constitution, to include the Bill of Rights, must adopt to the changes in our society while meeting the challenges of upholding the intent of the Framers.

What we need right now is lawmakers who are willing to look at current policies and make adjustments to outdated laws in addition to instituting new ideas. This applies not only to assault style weapons but to mental health counseling services and policies aimed at moving our civilization towards a more open and accepting society; we are, at best, a cautious and private society (especially to anyone who appears different from us) and at our worst, we are angry and hateful, particularly when we feel our social mores, our “way of life”, is threatened.

Hate is the primary driver of violence. This is not a theory, or some notion that a wise philosopher came up with while sitting atop a mountain, it’s a fact. People don’t generally kill, or maim, or injure other people because they love them or find them funny; they perpetrate these actions because of hate. In all it’s forms, hatred makes us want to lash out at someone/something. Maybe the person who caused us to feel “this way” or maybe the person that happens to be close at hand. The recipient of our rage is not as important as our inability to control it. Hate is the emotion that feeds the desire to do harm, and it’s become a bit too rampant in the present day. It must be addressed; and the laws that tackle it must have teeth.

Legislating anti-hate policy is never easy, but Americans are not ones to shy away from a challenge. We have football (American Style) and Hockey, Baltimore and NOLA, Lumberjacks and Miners,  and of course, we have Marines. We aren’t short on tough. But some of our lawmakers are short on courage. They lack the fortitude necessary to do what is right because it is unpopular with certain constituents and supporters. They are neither valiant, nor virtuous. They think first about themselves (i.e. re-election) and then about everything else. I don’t think of that as particularly American in character.

This may sound like a pie in the sky scenario, legislating acceptance and tolerance, but I’m not convinced that it can’t work. Sometimes, in order to create change, it is necessary to try the unthinkable. Maybe it could start with making civics and civility a more relevant piece of our educational curriculum. And communities could spend more time and money on making their members feel like they are part of the same gang (might even be an opportunity for some job creation here). Celebrate the uniqueness (the differences) that each group within the community contributes (just don’t get stuck on those differences, move forward to find similarities that are shared). Pretend, if necessary, that you like meeting new people; and in time, you might actually start to enjoy it.

Ducky and Junior, meeting for the 1st time and admiring each others qualities
Ducky and Junior, meeting for the 1st time and admiring each others qualities

The Art of Failure

Minneapolis trainspotting
Minneapolis trainspotting

failure. a small word, relatively speaking. a word that evokes images of “losers“, “has-beens“, “never-will-be’s“, and their ilk. a term that reminds us of what we do not want to be, do not want to be associated with; that thing we wish to never experience. it is what drives us to, if not greatness, mediocrity, because mediocrity is not failure, for most. But the truth is, we all fail, daily. Some of us more than others. And that is not ok…

Failing is as much a part of our lives as sleeping, eating, and interacting with our surroundings. As surely as one gets out of bed in the morning, one fails. These failures can be related to money (made or spent), time (wasted or just lost), status (at work, in school, amongst family, friends, the Jones’ (notice the failed attempt at spelling “you’re”)), or anything else that consumes your thoughts for more than a few minutes a day. Don’t fret, you’re not alone, you’re part of a club with over 7 billion members. And, with each failure, a new opportunity to learn is presented.

This is where The Art piece comes into play (I’ll leave the science part to the neurologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, et al.). Life, like art, provides us with extraordinary opportunities to try something, repeatedly, until we get it right, or give up; the choice is ours. Each new attempt is practice, something Mr. Iverson broke down for us in 2002 (and A.I. was talking about so much more than just “practice”). Anyway, the idea of trying repeatedly should not be viewed with an eye on how many times we fail, rather we should see each new attempt as being that much closer to success.

And what about those who never achieve the goal they’ve set? Aren’t they failures? No, it doesn’t work that way. The person who tries to quit using tobacco 10 times and starts back 10 times hasn’t failed, they’ve simply made it more likely that they will succeed the 11th time, or 12th, whatever. And maybe they’ll never quit, maybe smoking is the one thing they have in life that is comforting in their extremely high stress job/life. Maybe having a cigarette keeps them sane when what they’d really like to do is take a baseball bat to their boss’s car. In this case, success is represented in the form of a Beamer without 30 dents and missing windows. We don’t know what people are going through, how their individual experiences have shaped them and how those events have affected their current state of mind.

The failures we experience are lessons to be studied. They offer advice on how to do better the next time—which is not to say that the next time will be any more successful; but the next failure may occur due to some other unforeseen circumstance, if you learned from the previous attempt. If  not, then the next failing will likely exhibit, not-so-surprisingly, familiar events and outcomes. This is true in any type of policy formulation and/or implementation as well, failures occur everywhere and on a continuous basis (we also see massive failures in the problem definitionagenda setting and evaluation stages). What is rare, and therefore celebrated, is success, in any arena.

Fairly successful paella (the failures were minimal)
Fairly successful paella (the failures were minimal)

Success, the opposite of failure, is almost never captured on the first attempt. “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, again” is good for kids to hear but it might be better to tell them, “At first, you will fail; fail well, learn, and try again“. The failings are the very phenomena we need in order to figure out how to be successful. Success comes over time; the getting there part is not easy, quick, nor a particularly glamorous undertaking. And that is what makes It so much more satisfying when It is finally achieved.

Celebrate the tenacity of the Roses that grow from concrete. - Like Tupac did.
Celebrate the tenacity of the Roses that grow from concrete. – Like Tupac did.

Malcolm Gladwell studied people who had become masters of their professions and found that what many had in common (aside from greater access and opportunity (from birth)) than the average individual) was the number of hours they were able to dedicate to mastering a particular concept/field. As others have found, however, this theory rests, at least in part, on the stability of the particular profession, i.e. rules, regulations, static conditions, as well as the individual’s penchant for the work. Taken together, this leads me to believe that life, in it’s simplest form, is all about failure. The countless hours spent learning, enjoying the process of learning, which is to say learning from the failing, is what ultimately makes one successful. And so those rare moments, when we aren’t failing, are so out of sync with the rest of our routine that we have to stop and take notice, celebrate, dance, hoot-n-holler, and partake in all form of Tomfoolery. That is, if you are of this world. There are those who, practice aside, make their job look too easy, they mock us mere mortals by their very existence.

Back to The Art of Failing. Find new and unusual ways to fail (meaning try things in new ways). The more you are able to learn from each failure, the more quickly you are able to find A successful way, which is different from THE successful way. Very few activities have just one way that they can be accomplished. That’s the beauty of art and failure, we can each produce our own “works” that make sense to us (if nobody else), and which we can learn from because we understand our own methodologies, our own thought processes, better than we understand someone else’s.

Intentional misspelling to make a point?
Intentional misspelling to make a point? Plural of the obvious? Reference to the beach where the opium was burned?

In policy making, this idea becomes more difficult, some would say an exercise in futility. When multiple sects/groups (extreme or otherwise) are attempting to craft any policy, they should consider the effects said policy will have on the larger community (school district, city, state, nation, etc.), not just the intended recipients. Policy failures are not bad if the failure occurs prior to the implementation stage, where they can still be reworked. But once you’ve gotten to the point of execution, it means the policy has become law; and if mistakes/bad ideas are uncovered by those affected by the policy, the enactment will likely still go forward while people look for loopholes, end-arounds, and other ways to mitigate the bad policy that passed through the system (which is to say lots of meetings that are unlikely to produce much in the way of good ideas).

There are many examples of policies that are failures—were bound to fail from the beginning, and for all the good intention of those involved, their lack of  prior learning (first-hand knowledge gained by failing in the setting/system) led to the failed policy being implemented. The field of education is ripe with this type of failure. Too often, in recent decades, we’ve seen well meaning (always assume best intentions) politicians, with the assistance of lawyers, business folk, PhDs armed with literature reviews and in-depth research, and lobbyists, come up with new ideas to address students and teachers “shortcomings”. The primary issue that is almost always immediately apparent upon the policy taking effect, is the lack of teacher and student input concerning the new rules. Sure, they probably interviewed a teacher or two, from the “best” school in the state, to get their thoughts, but never considered talking to the educators who work in the schools where 95% of students are experiencing poverty, trying to learn in severely crowded classrooms with textbooks that are 30-plus years old and kept together with duct-tape, masking-tape, glue, and pixie dust. In these settings, students and teachers first priority is not a test score improvement or the closing of an achievement gap, but ensuring the students are not hungry, not suffering any form of abuse, physical ailment, mental health condition, and if so, finding them the proper professionals to help. Additionally, teachers are trying to ensure that their classrooms are safe spaces for all students; preventing bullying behaviors of LGBTQ, smaller, weaker, “different”, and those students who have been singled out for any number of reasons (all non-sensical) has become a priority that many schools are no longer ignoring. Beyond that, most teachers know that a test score means virtually nothing when it comes to finding success beyond high school. Understanding social mores, developing soft skills, learning how to adapt to the culture of a new work/school environment, these are the concepts most important for the more than 50% of kids who never attend a four year institution (and, these concepts are important to the students who do attend 4-year schools, but these students are more likely to get away without mastery of or competence in the aforementioned areas because of a variety of other factors, to include the utterly ridiculous, appalling, & repugnant).

Failing is something that is done both with and without intention. Like the Potter who is creating a vessel for aesthetic and functional purposes, she intends to make a unique creation and therefore tries new ideas/methods. Rarely does the new technique work the first time, but she tries again, and again, learning, relearning, perfecting the imperfections until…Voilà! So too is life a series of failed attempts that over time enable us to accomplish daily tasks and grand achievements (this is similar to what I do on a daily basis, literally and figuratively). Don’t allow yourself to get caught up in the failure, use this new knowledge to reconfigure and move forward (the glass half full concept is good to remember, it means there’s room for more beer learning).

Ducky (The Dutchess) posing for her Glam-Dog photo-shoot. A real Princess. This is a non-sequitir.

I fail, to my wife’s chagrin, a lot. I’ve got well over the requisite 10,000 hours needed for mastery of this non-professional profession. Every day, upon waking, I know I have already failed. My lack of height (Vikings are supposed to be at least 6 feet tall), lack of six/seven/eight-figure salary, my messy office space, my inability to grasp the ridiculousness of trying to do it all, and that’s just in the first few minutes of being awake.  I failed to take the Dutchess on short walks (going around the block routinely turned into an hour of lollygagging around the neighbor’s (a pizza joint) garbage can, the smell of pizza crusts, sausage, and pasta remnants emanating from its interior proved too strong a temptation to resist. And the list goes on, and on, and… But, for all of my failings, I have gained knowledge, great volumes full of all manner of wisdom and scholarship. And I’m not done, I’ll continue failing until I go to that big Beach in the sky, the one where dogs and cats are welcome, the two best beers, Cold and Free, are served on tap, and the failures of the past are no longer relevant.

And so, the idea of failing not being ok is still true—it is better than ok, it is wonderful, and great, and stupendous…and, necessary; because repeated failures often lead to the greatest success. Without failure we don’t advance, we don’t learn, we don’t move civilization to new heights (some would say this has been the model of the GOP recently, I won’t go that far but I do wonder if the word “progress” is in their dictionary). We get stuck and sit around waiting for somebody else to do something, just waiting on the world to change. Each new failure means we aren’t waiting on anybody, we’re doing it, we’re taking the reins for our particular situation and doin’ the damn thing.

Alejandro I (yucca tree), aged 17 years, failed to survive the winter of 2010-11, but Alejandro Jr. (from the same roots) is alive & well.
Alejandro Sr. (yes, he is a yucca tree) failed to survive the winter of 2010-11, but Alejandro Jr. (same root system) is alive & well.
Alejandro Jr.
Alejandro Jr., proving success is possible after a great failure.

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career/ I’ve lost almost 300 games/ 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot/ and missed./ I’ve failed over, and over and over again in my life./ And that is why/ I succeed.

 Michael Jordan

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even.