With yet another mass shooting in our nation, it is with some trepidation that I venture once again into the conversation about what to do about gun violence.  Trepidation only because it is such an emotional issue on all sides.  However, I continue to come back to the fact that as the only major country in the world that has so many violent deaths by guns, we are clearly doing something wrong.  As I have written before, the usual explanations of mental illness, video games, movies, TV, etc. as the cause of such actions do not resonate with me.  I am sure that all or some of those factors are at play, but in those respects our country is not different from Canada, the UK, Japan, or other modern nations and yet it is rare for them to have an incident of gun violence and they certainly do not suffer them on the scale or with the frequency that we do here in the United States.  And let me make an even finer point.  Canada in particular has a culture and a heritage that is very similar to ours, including sport shooting and hunting, and yet they do not suffer from the same indignities and deprivations resulting from gun violence that we do in this country.

I am not advocating the repeal of the Second Amendment — although I think that it is wildly misinterpreted — and I am not advocating the removal of all guns in the country. I hunted as a boy, served a career in the military and enjoy the occasional outing to go skeet shooting.  My thought is simple.  If gun owners have a “right” to own their weapons, don’t all citizens have a “right” to walk down a street on a beautiful evening and not get gunned down?

And please, do not insult my intelligence by arguing that private citizens “need” to have their guns to keep the government in line.  How is that a factor?  And just who do those “patriots” think they are going to go up against?  The police?  The United States Army?  The United States Marine Corps?  “Obama/Democrats/liberals/communists/fascists (pick one) want to take your guns.”  Puhleeez.  Fantasy aside, there is little chance of gun-toting civilians over throwing the government.  And even if there is a chance, who elected them as the only individuals deciding what is right and good in this country?  The last time I looked it up, an armed insurrection was considered treason.  This was settled early in our history over several incidents starting with the Whiskey Rebellion (1791-1794) where President George Washington (yes that George Washington — aka “founding father”) rode as Commander-in-Chief at the head of a 13,000 man militia to end the armed uprising of farmers and distillers in western Pennsylvania protesting the imposition of a tax on whiskey.  This set the precedent that the national government has the right and ability to enforce the law and to suppress armed insurrections.  If that is not enough of a precedent, and there are others from our early years as a nation, it was put to rest permanently with the Civil War and the preservation of our country.

Of particular concern to me is the concerted effort by “pro-gun” advocates to suppress or prevent the sale of “smart guns.”   Smart guns are, at present, hand guns that have a computer chip in them that prevents their use without some other identifying presence.  From my understanding, the most reliable thus far are the smart guns where the shooter wears a wrist watch style device that communicates with the weapon and allows it to shoot.  No signal, no shooting.  While there may be legitimate arguments as to why this is or is not a good idea in certain scenarios, it seems to me that a large number of gun owners have their weapons for sport, either hunting or target shooting.  It seems to me that having such a gun would cut down on spur of the moment violence, suicides, and children coming across an adult’s gun and accidentally shooting themselves or someone else.  It’s a start, not a panacea.

Unfortunately, two gun dealers recently found themselves in the news when they offered smart guns for sale.  One was in California and one was in Maryland.  Both received personal threats to their own and their families’ well-being including death threats.  Additionally, there were threats to burn down their shops and other over the top reactions for merely offering them for sale along with the usual assortment of weapons in their stores.  They both decided not to sell them fearing for their safety.  So much for free market capitalism.  I have no idea whether they would be a good seller or not or whether there is a market for them.  I do know that the zealots that somehow equate guns with their own self-worth are preventing us from finding out. The ruckus comes primarily because of a New Jersey law passed and signed into law in December 2002.  The law requires that all guns sold in New Jersey be “smart guns” starting three years after the state approves a workable smart gun.  Law enforcement is exempt from the statute.  To date, New Jersey has not approved a smart gun, however, gun advocates and the National Rifle Association fear that the sale of such a weapon (see above) would cause New Jersey to implement the law.  As they see it, this is the first step in “taking our guns away.”  I disagree, but then what do I know?  Legislators in New Jersey have offered to repeal the law if the NRA will agree not to oppose their introduction into the market place.  So far, the NRA stands by their opposition to the guns.  Curious.

There are so many myths about the right to bear arms and what it means that a rationale discussion is hard to come by.   But I agree with Richard Martinez, the father of one of the students gunned down Friday night at the University of California Santa Barbara when he says that our motto concerning gun violence should be “Not one more!”  Not one more child in an elementary school, not one more college student sitting in class, not one more person minding their own business walking down the street. Not one more.

Ironically, in some perverse way, the continued senseless acts of violence may in the end radicalize a new generation of young Americans that decide enough is enough.  As more and more of our young people gain first hand experience through these tragedies it may actually spur them to action.  God help us, but perhaps we need more of these senseless killings in order for people to finally act to change our behavior and our attitudes towards guns.  I am especially tired of the macho baloney some of our politicians espouse in order to garner votes. It needs to change.

I see no reasonable argument against the requirement that gun owners take a certified course and get a license in order to own a gun.  I see no reasonable argument against universal background checks.  I see no reasonable argument against a national data base of gun owners to aid in the solving of gun crimes.  And there are many more steps that can be taken to allow reasonable people to own guns and to pursue their hobbies and/or give themselves a sense of security in their homes.  To do nothing other than offer our sympathies on the loss of loved ones accomplishes nothing.

I am not naive.  Nothing will change over night, or perhaps even in my lifetime.  I am encouraged however when I think of other cultural changes that did occur in my lifetime.  I am of an age where when I was growing up smokers were everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Efforts to curtail smoking were impugned as a threat to every American’s freedom to do what they want.  The term “nanny government” began in this era.  Over time, with education, thoughtful laws and an understanding of the health hazards, not only did the rules change, but people’s attitudes changed as well.  Non-smokers no longer have to put up with smoke-filled rooms in the name of “freedom” for smokers to do as they please.  Smoking is not outlawed, merely regulated to protect the health of non-smokers. Likewise, drinking and driving laws and attitudes have changed equally dramatically in my lifetime.  The danger to innocent people and consistent campaigns of education and enforcement have drastically reduced the number of people killing themselves and others through drunk driving.  Why not take the same approach to guns?  My family should not be in danger of a random shooting.  I do not want to take your guns away.

We have done it before when as a nation we came to realize that this was not the type of culture or threat to our well being we want to deal with anymore.  It is time that we move away from this culture of guns and violence.   Enough!

Time To Get On With It, Already

The controversy over the Keystone Pipeline System continues.  Adding to the controversy is the continued effort by President Obama’s administration to kick the can down the road.  Essentially, they keep moving a decision on the building of Phase IV (the “XL” or “eXport Limited” you see in the news as the source of so much contention between various factions) until after the next election. In a political sense this may be a good thing for those arguing on both sides of the issue as it gives them both continued fodder to use against the other in elections. Lots of people making lots of money to support their cause. In a real sense, however, it is at best ridiculous to continue to delay a decision and in a worse sense it could have an impact on the economy to continue to delay it. There is an old saying that “a bad decision is better than no decision” meaning that some action, which can be modified as the event unfolds, is better than dithering and having events unfold without direction.

I am hardly an expert on this subject, but in my opinion, it is time for the Obama administration to approve the new pipeline and to get on with it.  In truth, the arguments for and against it are exaggerated by all involved.  It will not significantly increase jobs in the United States and it will not significantly impact the environment in this country either given that our reliance on carbon based fuels will be a fact of life for years to come.  (This does not mean that we should give up on alternative methods of producing energy.  Quite the contrary.  To be viable into the future we need to learn to wean ourselves off fossil fuels.  However, the reality is that while those systems are being developed and coming on line, we will need to use what we have.)

In particular, since we now have to move fuel via train and truck tankers which, as has been proven dramatically in recent months, are prone to accidents that can have horrific results.  It seems to me that the use of a pipeline, while hardly fool-proof, is in any case safer than moving volatile liquids by rail or road.

For those that may not have followed this closely, I will try to summarize the issue.  (A more in-depth explanation of the issue may be found here.  A map of the current and proposed systems may be found here.)

In sum, the Keystone Pipeline System is designed to carry oil from Alberta Canada to the Gulf Coast of the United States and will run through the middle of the country.  The economic viability of the project is based on the relatively new technology that makes it possible to recover oil from shale and sand.  It is owned by the TransCanada Corporation.  Since that is a foreign company, and the pipeline crosses an international boundary, it was left to the State Department to study its impact and to recommend to the president whether it should or should not be approved.  Among the factors that impact the decision, and the primary source of much of the emotional debate, is the impact on the environment.  Arguments from both side of the aisle in Congress tends to be divided by which states perceive that they will benefit from the project, and those that use the project as a symbol of the fight to reverse the impact of fossil fuels on climate change. Besides the policy implications, I never forget that large amounts of money are involved on both sides of the issue and that they are playing for high stakes.

Those that politically support the expanded pipeline — parts of it are already in operation — primarily argue that it will lessen the need for the United States to import oil from outside North America, with Canada as a reliable and stable trading partner, and that it will create jobs for the economy.  Those that politically oppose its construction primarily argue that it will impact the environment in several ways: the possibility of oil spills in environmentally sensitive areas it crosses; the method used to extract the oil is not really akin to drilling but rather is closer to strip mining; and the biggest factor, they argue, is that it will add to climate change by adding more greenhouse gases to the environment, both by the burning of the oil, and because of the process used to extract it from the ground.

Lost in the argument, of course, is the fact that oil is a fungible commodity.  The price and availability is dependent on market forces and when converted to fuel it does not matter where it came from in the first place. While piping is cheaper than shipping it overseas (TransCanada has threatened to ship it to China if the United States does not build the pipeline), in the end the impact on the worldwide oil market is not significantly affected — it is driven mostly by availability rather than source.

Studies delineating the economic impact of the pipeline and the promised number of jobs created vary greatly with the groups presenting the information.  Most of the numbers have been grossly inflated by the proponents. The official State Department study indicates that somewhere around 2,000 jobs would be created while the pipeline was being built (about a two year process) with less than a hundred permanent new jobs.  The effect on the gross domestic product (GDP) would be almost nothing — a few billion dollars or a fraction of one percent.

Currently, the Senate is considering legislation requiring that the pipeline by built.  This would be a binding resolution, expected to pass easily in the House of Representatives. This follows in the wake of a non-binding resolution from last year that passed with 62 votes in favor.  There is some question as to whether the proposed legislation is Constitutionally legal as the Executive Branch is tasked with decisions relating to foreign powers.  Unknown is whether such legislation could survive a presidential veto which might be likely be it for environmental reasons or to prevent the Constitutional issues from setting a precedent. No one knows for sure if the president would veto it, but it is thought that a Senate override would fall short of the needed 67 votes to do so.

The Obama Administration has been reviewing the issue for approximately five years.  The State Department initially rejected the project in 2011 because the pipeline crossed aquifers in Nebraska that were a significant source of water in the Mid-West.  Since then the route was changed to avoid the most environmentally vulnerable locations.  The State Department deferred another decision in April of this year in order to continue to study its impact as expressed in what was considered an “unprecedented” number of inputs from the public.  However, the study is complete and seems to indicate that the environmental impact of building it or not building it will be nearly the same.

It is an emotional issue and is believed by those concerned to have ramifications beyond the actual facts of the case. I understand that.  However, it is time for the president to make a decision and get on with it.  The reality is that whatever his official decision, the issue will not die and is surely going to result in more lawsuits in addition to those that are already in the courts. It is time to resolve the issue and to stop trying to delay it again until after the next set of elections.  That in my mind, is poor leadership.  The issue has been studied to death.  It is time to act.  I consider myself to be an advocate of setting standards to limit or reverse climate change (whether or not you believe in climate change, how can one be for pollution?).  However, in this case, I see little reason to delay the completion of a pipeline that is already partially built and results in ever-increasing numbers of truck and train tankers on our roads and rail lines, especially when predictions are that those numbers will quadruple in 2014.

Just do it Mr. President.