The Ties That Bind

By the time you read this, Unity Day 2018, celebrated on the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King will be in the past. As I contemplate the meaning of “unity” in this time of strident discord, a few thoughts emerge. Here is what Unity Day means to me.

 

A friend of mine who is a biologist has a t-shirt that reads “99% Chimp.” While the number is somewhat dated and the reality more complex than what can fit on a shirt, the point remains valid. We certainly share a great deal of similar DNA with our distant cousins. If that’s the case, imagine what the percentage must be if we compare two humans. 99.999%?

Which two humans? Any two of the 7.5 billion on Earth. Regardless of “race” or “ethnicity” or virtually any other variable. In fact, Scientific American argues that there is so much commonality across all humans that, for example, two people of European ancestry (where my ancestors come from) may be more genetically similar to an Asian person that they are to each other. “Race” is pretty much meaningless, at least to biologists.

This certainly isn’t a new idea. Scientific American also writes that “more than 100 years ago, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois was concerned that race was being used as a biological explanation for what he understood to be social and cultural differences between different populations of people. He spoke out against the idea of “white” and “black” as discrete groups, claiming that these distinctions ignored the scope of human diversity.”

Modern science clearly leans toward Du Bois, with the mainstream scientific belief being that race is a social construct without biological meaning. In other words, it has less to do with biology and more to do with perception. But historically, we have certainly made a big deal about the 0.001% that separates us.

It is no wonder why. Politicians constantly highlight and exaggerate our differences for political gain. Differences then become a cause for concern, fear, and even anger. Look at what we’ve managed to politicize at one point or another: race, religion, gender, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, where you live, and so on. The politics of “the other” is a constant refrain in our political history. Our leaders should unite us, not divide us. But divide us they do.

I, and those like me, certainly am not without blame. My columns can sometimes be polarizing. While they come from the heart, and promote an agenda I honestly believe is worth considering, my critiques of the beliefs and actions of others certainly do not serve to unite. They certainly do not highlight our areas of agreement. Certainly, it is a legitimate use of the power of the pen to point out strengths and weaknesses of various political proposals. It is certainly within the realm of responsible action to advocate for the betterment of society. But it is not acceptable or responsible to write or speak with the sole purpose to divide us for the sake of political expediency or electoral gain. We should step up to the line, but not over it.

All this is to say that it seems to me that politicians, columnists and many others exaggerate our differences and tend to minimize our similarities. So, to me Unity Day serves as a reminder to not do that. After all, it was Dr, King who said we must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.

As we move into yet another election season, I certainly hope we can all take to heart the message of Unity Day: Pay more attention to the 99.999% and less to the 0.001%. We tend to forget we are all brothers and sisters. Our differences are trivial, our similarities great. Let’s not forget that either.

What’s Reasonable About the Gun Debate?

Guns. This is a tough one. Or so they say.

My personal history with firearms is fairly long. I grew up with an interest in classic military weapons such as the M1 Garand rife my dad carried in Korea.  (General George Patton called it “the greatest battle implement ever devised”.)  Over time, my interest expanded, I earned my carry permit, and I built up a small collection of firearms. I even became a state-certified handgun carry permit instructor and earned various NRA certifications.  I’ve shot everything from a tiny .22 you can fit in the palm of your hand to a 20-something pound sniper rifle that fires a 50 caliber slug a distance of miles.  While I am not a hunter, I think I have more than a passing familiarity with firearms – and I think everyone who might encounter one should. Knowledge beats ignorance and fear every time.  However, there is more to this story than my experience. There is our national experience.

The statistics regarding firearms injuries and deaths paint an alarming picture. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 33,000 people die from gunfire each year in this country.  That’s a rate of about 11.5-12 per 100,000 people.  Americans make up about 4.4 percent of the global population but own 42% of the world’s guns. From 1966 to 2012, 31 percent of the gunmen in mass shootings worldwide were American, according to a 2015 study conducted at the University of Alabama and reported in the New York Times.

This would seem to be a problem that is crying out for a solution.  And most Americans want one. According to Gallup,  there is a multi-decades history of a majority of Americans favoring stricter gun control. For example, large majorities of Americans -both Republican and Democrat- favor strong criminal background checks for firearms purchases.  Even 72% of NRA members support background checks!

The Supreme Court is even on the side of this majority. In the landmark “District of Columbia v Heller” decision, the court ruled that Americans have the right of self defense, but like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon any time for any reason. For example, concealed weapons prohibitions are legal, as are various prohibitions on who may carry arms, where they may be carried and what type of arms the right applies to.  Pp. 54–56.

In sum, guns are clearly a problem. The majority of Americans agree, want something done, and legal precedent clearly allows some regulation of firearms, even for self-defense.  (In fact the Tennessee Constitution specifically allows the regulation of arms for the prevention of crime.)

So, what’s the problem? Why can’t we fix this? What about the United States forces us to have one of the highest firearm-related death and crime rates in the developed world?  There are many causes, but our politicians and our system of election financing are two big ones.

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is a very strong lobbying organization boasting millions of members and millions of dollars in campaign contributions. The NRA spent between $55 and $70 million in campaign expenditures in 2016, with the overwhelming majority of funds supporting Republicans or attacking Democrats. An “F” rating by the NRA, seen as a badge of honor in liberal circles, can be a death knell to many politicians as the NRA will fund attack ads and opposition candidates to anyone who does not toe the line.  Many elected officials are scared of the NRA’s money, even if the NRA advocates positions many of its own members do not support.

In addition, the NRA has turned from its historical mission of gun safety and marksmanship to one of dismantling gun laws. This benefits the firearms manufacturing industry, who want to sell more guns. The relationship between the NRA and the industry is simply harmful to the health of Americans.

Where do we stand? We stand for reason. We believe the Supreme Court is correct when they say the 2nd Amendment is a not a free-for-all. We stand with the majority of Americans in favor of common-sense gun laws. We want background checks on 100% of firearms purchases. We want “bump-stocks’ outlawed. We want possession of military assault-style weapons and ammunition out of civilian hands as they are not designed for self-defense or hunting. We want stricter limits on who can own firearms.  We want firearms regulated like any other consumer product. We want the government to not be prohibited as it is now to conduct academic research on firearms issues. We want better training for carry permit holders.

In other words, we want what you likely want.