Handguns, the second amendment and the public safety

One young man with a suitcase, one with a hand...
Image by State Library and Archives of Florida via Flickr

Two sides of the gun control debate squared off in San Francisco this week, focus of a mini-battle over the fully loaded question: Does your right to walk around with a loaded gun in public override my right to feel safe when I don’t know if you might go off your rocker? This writer discovered, thanks to a show of hands at the Commonwealth Club sponsored panel, that I was the only unarmed person within a back-of-the-house three-row section. This revelation guarantees discomfort but keeps you alert.

California is among the majority of U.S. states which allow anyone to carry unloaded guns in plain sight, or licensed individuals to carry loaded guns concealed. Variations of gun laws — can you have a few in the car? how about in a restaurant? suppose your taste is for machine guns? — are complex and mind-boggling. Gun proponents fall back on the second amendment; gun-control advocates tend to cite public safety and privacy rights. Reasoned debate is pretty much out of the question.

The tempest in the California teapot arose over gun folks’ dislike of the “may issue” state business. California is a “may issue” state, meaning a permit may be issued to a law-abiding applicant; as opposed to a “shall issue” state, meaning you (law-abiding citizen) will darned well get that permit once you apply. In protest over the “may issue” situation, California gun buffs recently took to the streets — or to the local Starbucks, as the case happened — with prominently displayed weaponry. Some latte drinkers were not amused. Gun buffs were defiant. Starbucks reportedly wishes they had picked Peets. Meanwhile, CA Assemblymember Lori Saldana introduced a bill, AB 1934, to ban “Open Carry,” and the battle was joined.

At the recent panel, Emeryville CA Police Chief Ken James, University of CA Berkeley law professor Franklin Zimring and Executive Director Sam Paredes of Gun Owners of California restated most of the familiar arguments. Throughout, James was expressionless, Zimring frowned, and Paredes wore an expression that can generously be described as a not-too-friendly smile. There were assertions (thousands of lives are saved every year by people armed and defending themselves or their neighbors; police don’t need to be stopping people all over the place asking if that gun is loaded; police can’t do their crime-stoppers job without the help of law-abiding, armed citizens; it’s not easy to know when an armed citizen will misuse his arms…) that all have elements of truth and elements of fantasy.

Two details are worth noting, though. Zimring pointed out that in the 2007  Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia v Heller), Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the 5-4 majority, took things a little farther than they had been by specifically mentioning handguns, which had not been invented when the second amendment was written. It’s handguns in public places that tend to rile up both sides. Therefore the hoopla over open carry, Zimring said, is not where the discussion should be. Eventually, the right to bear handgun v right to public safety will need to be settled. In other words, when does your right to pack a gun interfere with my right not to be around you when you do?

At the end of the discussion, moderator John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, asked a question about whether panelists were packing heat during this event. Off-duty Police Chief James was not, because he feels guns invite problems. Professor Zimring was not, because he said if he tried to hit a target everyone around would be in trouble. Citizen Paredes was. A concealed weapon, because you never know if another citizen might need you to leap into action. Was it loaded? Yes.

Somehow, this did not make me feel safer.

Gun buffs push 'Open Carry' agenda

Whatever those framers of the Constitution meant, their second amendment writing seems to have kept us all up in arms, so to speak, since about 1791. The latest battleground has gun buffs lining up in California to take aim at AB1934, a bill now pending in the state legislature which would make it illegal to carry an unloaded gun in plain view.

On one side are the “Open Carry” folks. They have taken offense at the fact that everyone who applies for a permit to carry a concealed weapon is not immediately granted that permit, even if he or she is a law-abiding citizen. You want to pack heat? The Open Carry folks think nothing should stop you. And since it is quite legal to carry an unloaded gun anywhere, any way you want, they have taken to strolling around with pistols tucked in their belts in protest. AB 1934 would interfere with this pleasant activity.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, is quoted as saying, “What I’m concerned about is people, who have no training, can carry a gun for no other purpose than to make a public statement.”

Ah, but according to Sam Paredes, Executive Director of Gun Owners of California, carrying an unloaded gun is just no problem at all.

Making public statements is an American activity. The “open carry movement” is driven by the inequities and unfair withholding of concealed-carry weapon permits.

The intimidation that the lawmaker, or others, may feel is no reason to make another law. Imagined fears are not justification for punishing laws that threaten innocent citizens. “Fears” were addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s when the court ruled that people’s “fears” were not justification to deny civil and constitutional rights.

Once California becomes a “shall issue” state, and all those who apply who are capable and law abiding are permitted to carry concealed weapons, the concern over empty guns carried in open view will fade.

Does this make sense? Perhaps as much as Paredes’ argument that since: “(w)e all know that the police cannot be on the spot immediately with every crime,” so let’s just let everyone pack a gun and be ready to take matters into his own hand.

Emeryville (CA) Police Chief Ken James is not so sure that’s a good idea.

Law enforcement officers are taught that guns are a dangerous and deadly threat to their safety and the safety of the public they serve. They understand that any encounter involving a gun is grave.

“Open carry,” the practice of carrying an unloaded handgun exposed in a belt holster, unnecessarily subjects our officers and the public to tense encounters that have unforeseeable consequences. The police officer who approaches an “open carry” subject must rapidly assess the subject’s behavior without knowing if the individual has a permit to carry a gun or a gun license. The officer knows only that he or she must detain the subject only long enough to determine whether the gun is unloaded.

An officer has more authority to check on whether a driver is legally driving a car than to stop an individual to verify if the individual has the right to carry a gun.

The officer doesn’t know if the individual is a law-abiding citizen or an individual prohibited from owning or carrying a gun. The officer does know that an unloaded weapon can become a loaded weapon in less than 1.3 seconds.

Paredes and James will face off in the company of University of California, Berkeley law professor Franklin E. Zimring next week, on a panel moderated by San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz at the Commonwealth Club of California, a local public affairs organization with national reach.

In the meantime, there seem to be people carrying guns — hey, it’s legal, probably — in public places, and the public hopes they’re not loaded.

Medical marijuana: a boon & a challenge

When my sister Mimi found that marijuana could relieve her severe gastrointestinal distress, years ago, one joint after dinner was all it took. Unfortunately we couldn’t keep up the supply. After one foray into the rather scary realm of pot-dealing in a state (Georgia) where we could have wound up in jail very quickly, we decided that not even such clear relief was worth the risk.

Today, at least in California and 14 other states — with the District of Columbia possibly to be added soon — the risk is minimal but the dosage is fuzzy. The conundrum was outlined by writer Lena K. Sun in the San Francisco Chronicle:

On Tuesday, District of Columbia officials gave final approval to a bill establishing a legal medical marijuana program. If Congress signs off, D.C. doctors – like their counterparts in 14 states – will be allowed to add pot to therapies they can recommend to certain patients, who will then eat it, smoke it or vaporize it until they decide they are, well, high enough.

The exact dosage and means of delivery – as well as the sometimes perplexing process of obtaining a drug that remains illegal under federal law – will be left largely up to the patient. Doctors say that upends the way they are used to dispensing medication, giving the straitlaced medical establishment a whiff of the freewheeling world of weed.

Even in states where marijuana is allowed for medical use, doctors cannot write prescriptions because of the drug’s status as an illegal substance. Physicians can only recommend it, and have no control over the quality of the drug their patients acquire.

Because there are no uniform standards for medical marijuana, doctors have to rely on the experience of other doctors and their own judgment. That, they say, can lead to abuse.

California’s “quick-in, quick-out mills” that readily hand out recommendations have proliferated, worrying advocates. The state, the first to legalize medical marijuana 14 years ago, allows for a wider range of conditions, including anxiety.

To guard against abuse, some doctors say they recommend marijuana only after patients exhaust other remedies. Some doctors perform drug tests as part of pre-screenings.

Mimi died over a year ago. Her last decades, like almost all of her adult life, were spent in the State of Georgia, where medical marijuana is still against the law. I know what her required dosage was; legalization and proper oversight would allow doctors to learn dosages that work for their patients. It seems worse than cruel that thousands of other sick and dying citizens continue to be denied the potential relief that legalized medical marijuana could bring.

Dispensing medical pot a challenge for doctors.

The fears behind Arizona immigration law

If immigration reform has been on the back burner, despite President Obama’s campaign promises to tackle the issue, the May Day marchers hope to move it back to the front, and turn up the heat. They turned out in New York — 5,000+ in Manhattan’s Foley Square, in Los Angeles — fired up by singer Gloria Estefan and Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, and here in San Francisco — where the basic fears raised by Arizona’s new law were evident. SB 1070, signed by Governor Jan Brewer last week, makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally.

The (San Francisco) march, part of the annual worldwide May Day workers’ rights demonstrations, stretched four to five blocks and ended at City Hall, where members of the conservative Tea Party and local Golden Gate Minutemen held a counter-protest.

Jim Homer, a business manager for Local 216 of the Laborers International Union of North America, whose 100-member group led the march, said many fellow construction laborers fear Arizona’s SB1070 will spread to California and create cultural hostility toward foreign-born workers.

“The immigration system is set up to blame the workers who come here,” Homer said. “There needs to be reform of the immigration laws that put more focus on the employers and their responsibilities, not just on the people who come to this country to make a living.”

The two primary sides to the immigration issue were in sharp focus on the west coast:

(W)orkers and immigrants at the San Francisco march – and others like it in Oakland and San Jose – said the law will give police the right to check for immigration papers of any brown-skinned citizens.

At the Civic Center counter-protest, Elizabeth Kelly, an Alameda resident who supports the Golden Gate Minutemen, said she also wants immigration reform. The Minutemen are a local branch of the controversial national group that voluntarily patrols the border, trying to stop undocumented immigrants from entering the country.

“Close the border,” she said. “I want to see them go back. That’d be my immigration reform.”

The Golden Gate Minutemen, whose Web site features some scary stuff (May Day! May Day! Invaders Coming!) is part of the fear factor for a number of recent immigrant — some legal, some not — friends of mine. “They’re not going to ask questions first, they’re going to send you to jail or out of the country, and ask questions later,” said one.

Most reports say Obama won’t do much beyond tightening border control in the near future. A lot more is needed. Until we get real reform, including some reasonable guest worker provisions and amnesty for those who have proved themselves good citizens already, we’re going to continue to be a nation not just of immigrants, but of fear. Not a very comfortable social system for anyone.

Big S.F. protest of Arizona immigration law.

One immigrant's plight v Arizona law

My friend Maria is among the fairly good-sized community of illegal immigrants living in San Francisco. She works hard, buys local, supports her church and her daughter’s school, adds a lot to the city and state economy and functions in every way as a model citizen except she doesn’t pay income taxes. She would like to pay those taxes, but over the years that she’s been here she has not found an opening to apply for citizenship.

Once I asked Maria about her car, a nice one on which she paid hefty sales taxes but which, of course, she drives without a license.”I just drive very, very carefully,” she said, “and keep everything perfect with the car. If you’re stopped, maybe for a turn light being out, it’s $1,000 minimum.”

“A thousand dollars?” I said; “you’re kidding.”

“They impound your car. You have to find someone with a valid license, get them to go get your car for you, plus paying the fine and all the fees.” Maria said this in a quiet voice while I exhaled.

Now, if Maria is stopped in Arizona she will simply be sent home. And this makes very little sense to me. President Obama said the Arizona law threatens “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

He also said that he is monitoring the Arizona bill for civil rights and other implications.

“If we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country,” Mr. Obama said.

In his remarks, the president didn’t offer a timetable for trying to pursue an overhaul of immigration laws in Congress.

Something seems not only unfair but un-American about making it legal for Maria to be summarily sent home after a traffic stop. Or some other kind of stop, no matter how vehemently everyone insists that racial profiling will never happen. We welcome Maria and her family in — after all, we need their labor if we’re going to eat strawberries — but once they’ve proven themselves solid citizen potential we throw them out.  Maria has cousins who were migrant workers although she herself has always been a small step up the ladder from that back-breaking job.

Admittedly, illegal immigrants come here for less than good-citizen motives. Certainly we must protect our boundaries. Arizona’s abuse-inviting law does not seem the right way to fix our immigration policies.

Obama Slams Arizona’s Immigration Bill – The Caucus Blog – NYTimes.com.

SCOTUS animal cruelty ruling draws human ire

Film producers Chris Palmer and Peter Kimball take issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of animal cruelty film seller Robert Stevens a few days ago. In an op ed piece appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the two decidedly more respected and respectable members of the human community (Palmer heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University; Kimball is writer/director of the wildlife film Badger Insurance: The Plight of the North American Badger) argue that “videos of dog-fighting and animal mutilation — created not to educate or inform but merely to titillate — have no constitutional protection.”

The Court, Palmer and Kimball say, “has gone too far in protecting the free speech of those who would profit from films depicting wanton and malicious cruelty to animals solely for customers’ entertainment. We believe that these types of videos deserve no legal protection whatsoever.”

The case in question, United States vs. Stevens, centered on Robert Stevens, a purveyor of the video series “Dogs of Velvet and Steel.” Stevens produced and sold videos of pit bulls engaging in dogfights and viciously attacking other animals. These videos include graphic depictions of torture and brutality, including a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. In January 2005, Stevens was convicted of violating the Animal Cruelty Act (1999), which criminalized the trafficking of depictions of animal cruelty, except those with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” A federal appeals court overturned Stevens’ conviction and ruled that the animal cruelty law violated his First Amendment right to free speech. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The fundamental question is this: Does the Animal Cruelty Act violate the First Amendment right of freedom of speech? Certainly, the right to free speech is one of the paramount freedoms in our society. Our country was founded on the principle that people should not be persecuted for voicing unpopular opinions. Naturally, in order to be effective, this freedom protects disturbing and offensive speech.

However, there are very specific types of speech that we, as a society, have deemed so despicable and so lacking in merit that they do not deserve protection, among them child pornography, obscenity, threats and incitement of violence. Animal cruelty should be one of these unprotected categories. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote, “We wouldn’t allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts.” There is no reason to ignore depictions of animal cruelty while rightfully criminalizing parallel depictions of child abuse.

The Supreme Court is not in the habit of overturning itself, but in decisions such as Tuesday’s ruling one hopes for quick reversal of fortunes of the animal kingdom. As long as there are depraved people getting some sort of kicks out of the suffering of others, there will be shameless people like Robert Stevens ready to benefit.

True/Slant Contributor Rick Ungar makes a good point that First Amendment rights must be carefully protected. In a post immediately following the ruling he wrote:

While I am as disgusted by these videos as most, the majority does have a point. The law, as drafted, could result in unintended consequences – going so far as to ban the depiction of bullfights as graphically painted in Ernest Hemingway novels. When we’re talking about first amendment rights, Congress is obligated to be careful in constructing laws that can produce an unintended chilling effect on so important of a right.

Though I’m a Hemingway fan and occasional Spain-o-phile, I’d have as hard a time arguing for bullfights as for dog-fights. Went to one a few years back, had to leave before they dragged the bull out. Ungar and others suggest that the answer to this human rights v animal rights issue will lie in enactment of narrow laws banning specific cruelties such as the “crush videos” (women in high heels stomping small animals) cited by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion.

This space hopes for a fast track on such legislation. One way or another, barbaric acts need to be banned. For my part, a ban on Robert Stevens wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Supreme Court gets it wrong with animal cruelty ruling.

Who needs 'open carry' guns?

Guns in public view… guns loaded or unloaded… guns at the Starbucks counter… if you’re a supporter of the Brady Center, the current activism of the pro-gun folks is less than encouraging. And who exactly needs all this swagger?

Several interesting comments about gun-toters and gun stats appeared in the Letters section of today’s San Francisco Chronicle in response to goings-on of the “Open Carry” Movement:

In 2006, guns murdered 10,177 people in the United States, while 18 people were murdered in Austria, 27 in Australia, 59 in England and Wales, 60 in Spain, 190 in Canada, 194 in Germany, according to the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.

It is estimated that there are 283 million guns in America. We are the gun capital of the world.

It was George W. Bush who noted that an American teenager is more likely to die from a gunshot than from all natural causes of death combined.

Another reader suggested that

the “open carry” intentions of the gun-obsessed would surely lead to myriad examples of the law of unintended consequences: shootings and deaths as well as a sort of John Wayne psychology that belongs in movies, not our parks, streets and highways.

If Starbucks or any other business allows citizens with guns in their businesses, you and I should take our business elsewhere.

But perhaps the most on-target letter writer went straight to the main issue: what’s with the people who feel the need to stride around town showing off their hardware?

I searched in vain in the story about the “open carry” gun movement for the exact benefit of walking around in public with a gun on your belt – when everyone knows the guns are not loaded.

Since the guns are of no use in defending oneself or anyone else against, the “threat of violence” and the “desperate people” whom (advocate) Jeff Dunhill sees everywhere, I tried to imagine some other reasons:

a) It’s cheaper than a sports car; b) You can prove yours is bigger without risking arrest; c) It’s all that you can be.

I’ve never understood why, if guns are so central to their self-image, people like this don’t join the military or law enforcement. Unless it is because in those instances, the other side also has guns. It’s a lot safer to swagger up to the bar and demand a caramel frappuccino grande.

Letters to the editor