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.

Who says you're poor?

The U.S. government thinks you’re doing okay if, in a family of four, you’re pulling in something over $22,000 a year. It might be a little tough to get by on that these days. But the way poverty is measured, and plans made around the measurements, are obtuse and arcane at best.

Exactly who qualifies for state and federal assistance varies. More important than today’s index though, unless you are someone missing out on help, is tomorrow: plans for adequate housing, food stamp and other assistance programs are all based on some very old data. When the current federal index was set, for example, some 3% of the family budget went for food; today’s actual food costs are more like 10%.

A group of California seniors converged on the state capitol a few days ago with an eye toward bringing that state’s poverty line and real-time poverty closer together. The group is enthusiastically supportive of a far more accurate index developed by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.  They were careful to be “advocating and educating” only in meetings with legislators — the Senior Leaders Program is funded by the nonprofit California Wellness Foundation and lobbying is a no-no. But they would like to see AB 324, a bill crafted by Assembly Member Jim Beall, finally pass. Beall has watched it pass the Legislature twice, only to meet a Schwarzenegger veto; he told the seniors he thinks this time around the governor’s objections have been addressed.

This particular senior fails to see any reason to stick with inaccurate data when accurate data is available. The main argument against adopting a better measurement has centered around the cost issue — If we update the index, we might find more poor people. Hello? A town builds housing for 10 people and 100 people knock on the door?

Whether or not there are any incipient seniors in your family (we seem to make up a substantial percentage of the poor, by any measurement) you might want to see what’s going on in your state. Maybe, some day, the U.S. Government will even go for poverty line fact over fiction.

Is your cell phone frying your brain?

OK, if you think it’s all just a lot of hysterical hooey about cell phones & radiation, you can click on to another page. But this op ed piece by public health expert Joel Moskowitz (with Diana McDonnell and Gene Kazinets) in the San Francisco Chronicle got my attention. Moskowitz is the Director of U.C. Berkeley’s Center for Family and Community Health.

A huge, 30-year study called COSMOS has been launched in Europe to determine whether cell phones cause cancer and other health problems. Meanwhile, policymakers in Sacramento are considering legislation to ensure people know how much radiation their cell phones emit. The wireless industry vigorously opposes such legislation. It argues that its phones comply with regulations, and there is no consensus about risks so people don’t need to know this. Our research review published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology found alarming results to the contrary.

We reviewed 23 case-control studies that examined tumor risk due to cell phone use. Although as a whole the data varied, among the 10 higher quality studies, we found a harmful association between phone use and tumor risk. The lower quality studies, which failed to meet scientific best practices, were primarily industry funded.

The 13 studies that investigated cell phone use for 10 or more years found a significant harmful association with tumor risk, especially for brain tumors, giving us ample reason for concern about long-term use.

Do federal regulations adequately protect the public? The 1996 Federal Communications Commission regulations are based upon the Specific Absorption Rate (SAR), a measure of heat generated by six minutes of cell phone exposure in an artificial model that represents a 200-pound man’s brain. Although every cell phone model has a SAR, the industry doesn’t make it easy to find it. Moreover, children, and adults who weigh less than 200 pounds, are exposed to more radiation than our government deems “safe.”

So just for fun, I got out the 107-page User Guide that came with my cell phone. Full disclosure: my cell phone is turned off unless I’m out walking or traveling; it takes pictures but it doesn’t do apps. Still, those 107 pages say it can do all the fancy Stuff.

On page 81 I found the SAR data. Even if I wanted to decipher the very small print, there is no way any of it would be meaningful to a lay reader. It does say that “Your wireless phone is a radio transmitter and receiver. It is designed and manufactured not to exceed limits for exposure to radio frequency (RF) energy set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) of the U.S. Government.”

I do try to trust the U.S. Government. But since they once sent my then-Marine husband double-timing out of a foxhole toward an A-bomb blast with a radiation tag hung around his neck in the ’50s, it would appear we have long been open to experimentation about radiation damage. (He survived. The animals positioned closer to the blast site did not. No one will ever be certain how much damage was sustained by those Marines wearing radiation tags… but then, who knew we’d keep right on storing bombs and fighting senseless wars anyway?)

Another what-can-you-believe? comes from CNN’s medical guru Sanjay Gupta in this line from a two-year-old commentary on potential cell phone radiation damage still up on his blog:

Over the last year, I have reviewed nearly a hundred studies on this topic, including the 19 large epidemiological studies. I urge you to do the same and read carefully to see what you think. Here is an example from a Swedish paper showing no increased risk of a brain tumor, known as acoustic neuroma. (see study) As you read the paper, you will find they defined a “regular” cell phone user as someone who uses a cell phone once per week during six months or more.

Once a week? Hello? Even in Sweden, even a decade ago, did anyone with a cell phone not use it at least once an hour? This very old study did have a timeless conclusion: “Our findings do not indicate an increased risk of acoustic neuroma related to short-term mobile phone use after a short latency period. However, our data suggest an increased risk of acoustic neuroma associated with mobile phone use of at least 10 years’ duration.”

Moskowitz argues that it’s time to revamp FCC regulations, pointing out that it is not just heat transfer but also variations in frequencies emitted that could cause damage.

Most of us know something about potential damage lurking in our Stuff. But we tend to be slow learners, and our regulatory agencies tend to be even slower. Having just lost a greatly loved sister, a long-time smoker, to pulmonary failure, Moskowitz’ concluding paragraphs hit home:

We should address this issue proactively even if we do not fully understand its magnitude. Our government has faced similar public health threats in the past. In 1965, although there was no scientific consensus about the harmful effects of cigarettes, Congress required a precautionary warning label on cigarette packages: “Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.” More specific warnings were not required until 1984: “Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.”

Should we have waited 19 years until absolutely certain before we informed the public about these risks?

Although more research on cell phone radiation is needed, we cannot afford to wait. There are 285 million cell phones in use in this country, and two-thirds of children over the age of seven use them. Manufacturers bury the SAR within their owner’s manuals, along with safety instructions to keep your phone up to an inch away from your body.

Nine nations have issued precautionary warnings. It is time for our government to require health warnings and publicize simple steps to reduce the health risks of cell phone use.

Why not?

Government must inform us of cell phone risk.