Parkland – part three

As part of my continuing reflection on the Parkland shooting, I wanted to share this moving video of a Parkland student speaking in a listening session with the president, who was holding notes to help him respond with seeming empathy. I continue to react with awe to the voices and activism of the Parkland students and the other teens who have mobilized to demand that lawmakers and other authorities take steps to help protect students and the general public from gun violence.

While many people are advancing serious strategies, others have responded with suggestions that are problematic. The president and some others are promoting the idea of arming teachers, which is opposed by teachers’ organizations and many individual teachers, parents, school board and community members. There was an armed police officer on duty at the high school in Parkland, but he, despite his training and experience, did not intervene in the shooting and has since resigned. How could teachers, with much lower levels of training and experience, ever hope to wound or kill an armed intruder without shooting bystanders? How many accidental discharges or mistakes would there be if 20% of all teachers were armed? In other countries that have suffered a mass shooting and taken effective action, the solution has always been to reduce the firepower in civilian hands, not increase it.

I am also appalled to report that the member of the House of Representatives from my district, Claudia Tenney, has made a number of reprehensible remarks after Parkland, most notably that “so many of these people that commit the mass murders wind up being Democrats.” (There is no data to back up this claim.)

I find this particularly offensive to those of us who live in the Binghamton area. When the mass shooting at the American Civic Association here occurred in 2009, it did not matter whether the shooter was a Republican, Democrat, independent, or not a voter at all. What mattered was that people were killed and wounded, families and communities shattered, and a beloved civic institution damaged. That Representative Tenney could be so dismissive of those of us in the southern part of her district as she vociferously supports a gun manufacturer nearer to where she lives is ye another reason that many of us have already mobilized to hold her to account for her views and votes and to back strong candidates to oppose her in the November election. We deserve a representative who is thoughtful, honest, and committed to the common good.

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continued response to Parkland

Since my first post touching on the mass shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, I have continued to be impressed by the response of the students at the school and other teens. They have been speaking out strongly in traditional and social media, at rallies and public gatherings, calling on local, state, and national authorities and elected officials to protect them and the rest of the public by banning assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, strengthening background checks and licensing, and improving mental health services.

They are making plans for a march in Washington, DC and other cities on March 24. There are also plans for a nationwide student walkout on April 20th, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine massacre, the first mass shooting at a high school that sent shockwaves across the country.

There are some early indications that their message is having an impact on politicians. While long-time gun-control advocates are adding their voices to those of the students, some additional people are speaking out. Just this morning, I saw an interview with a wealthy long-time donor to Republican candidates, stating that he will no longer give to politicians who oppose common-sense gun control measures, such as an assault weapon ban. During a previous time when the United States did have an assault weapons ban, the rate of mass shootings was significantly lower.

The United States also has the examples of many other nations who protect their citizens from gun violence with stricter gun regulations. These countries also have better health care access, which means that fewer people in their communities have the sorts of untreated mental health problems that lead them to harm themselves and others. (I realize that most mental health diagnoses do not involve violence, but society is also served when each member has access to the full range of health and preventive services.)

Yesterday at church, we had a minute of silent prayer for the victims of the Parkland shooting. While my mind went first to those who were killed or wounded, it also went to the teen-aged gunman. Our society failed him as well. Despite numerous encounters with school authorities, police, and social services, he was left to fend for himself after the death of his adoptive mother without access to continuing mental health services. Proper treatment and enhanced background checks might have prevented him from killing and wounding so many people.

Mass shootings should not be the price the United States has to pay because of the Second Amendment. Contrary to the interpretation that some now hold, the intent of the Second Amendment was to protect the public from attack. There was no standing army at that time, so the “well-regulated militia” of which the amendment speaks was the defense against foreign invasion. Guns in more rural areas would also have been needed for hunting and for protection from bears, cougars, etc., but the right to bear arms was not intended as a blanket right for any kind of weaponry to be owned by anyone anytime. The United States already does restrict many kinds of military weapons from civilian ownership; it would not be unconstitutional to add more types of guns and ammunition to this list.

After other mass shootings, particularly Sandy Hook, it seemed that the country might have reached a tipping point where public opinion was strong enough to overcome the National Rifle Association and other anti-gun control groups.  Sadly, while there were some changes in some states, such as New York, the overall policies in the country either remained the same or became even more lax regarding gun access.

Will Parkland, with the strong voices of the teens ringing out, finally lead to societal change, the passage of gun control legislation, and better mental health care?

There is hope.

 

Handel, the ACA, and Parkland

On Saturday, my daughters E and T and I, with Baby ABC in tow, attended a choral sing of Handel’s Messiah Part I plus Hallelujah Chorus. The Madrigal Choir of Binghamton and their director Bruce Borton, choral director/professor emeritus at Binghamton University, organized the sing, with Bruce directing and Madrigal Choir members serving as soloists and section leaders. Volunteers from the Binghamton Community Orchestra provided a twenty-piece orchestra to accompany us. It was so much fun!

I had a number of friends among the choral attendees from my long-time affiliation with University Chorus. It was nice before we began to introduce ABC to friends. Her smile and wide eyes added to the already high spirits in the room. I also love every opportunity to sing with my daughters. We are all sopranos, so we get to sit together and sing.

The event featured a free-will offering for the American Civic Association, which, since 1939, has served the Binghamton area with immigration services, refugee resettlement, citizenship classes, and cultural and ethnic preservation and education.  In these days when some in the United States, including the President, are not supportive of immigration, the ACA and their work in our community are more important than ever.

Anything involving the ACA has a special poignancy because, in 2009, a mentally ill gunman opened fire there, killing fourteen and wounding four. Most of those killed were immigrants or foreign nationals affiliated with Binghamton University. There is a beautiful memorial featuring sculptures of doves in flight a short distance from the ACA building, which reopened a few months after the shooting.

When news broke of the Parkland, Florida school shooting on Valentine’s Day, I had the familiar thought of “not again” coupled with the thought that this atrocity too would probably result in “thoughts and prayers” from those in power, but no action to curb gun violence.

In 2013, in the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, New York State passed the SAFE Act, which has a number of provisions on assault weapons, high-capacity magazines and ammunition, background checks, and mental health. It doesn’t mean that there will never be another mass shooting in New York, but violent crime rates have fallen. New York is also proactive in making mental health treatment more available, which is important not only in preventing the small number of people with mental illness who are also violent from using firearms but also in keeping the much larger number of people who become suicidal from shooting themselves.

It seem unlikely that Florida Governor Rick Scott and the Florida legislature will enact similar policies despite the Parkland school shooting and the Orlando Pulse Nightclub massacre. It would also be possible for the United States Congress to finally listen to the vast majority of the general public and of gunowners who favor stronger background checks and other gun control measures.

Unfortunately, such action is also unlikely on the federal level, despite the horrific history of mass shootings and other gun violence and the eloquent and poignant voices of the survivors in Parkland. Sadly, this Congress and President have been moving gun policy and mental health care in the opposite direction. The first legislation DT signed as president was to rescind a rule making it more difficult for some people with mental illness to pass background checks for gun purchases. A current bill in Congress would make concealed carry permits granted by one state valid in all other states. The Trump budget calls for cuts in mental health care funding. These and comments from Congressional leadership indicate that the platitudes will continue without any meaningful action to prevent further bloodshed.

In the 2018 Congressional election, the candidates’ stance on gun control and on mental health care will definitely be important in my decision-making. Millions of others will join me and maybe we will finally get some national legislation to help reduce the plague of gun violence in the United States.

US immigration

The current United States government offers so many perplexities and outrages that it is difficult to react or reach out to policymakers about all of them. Or most of them. Even closely following a handful of issues can be daunting as legislation and DT’s mind often change markedly over the course of a few hours.

One of the most critical issues at the moment is immigration. DT has insisted since his campaign began that he would build a wall across our southern border and deport undocumented people. He also wanted to restrict Muslims from entering the country, even though that clearly violates the US Constitution and laws.

As president, he has succeeded in restricting visas from some majority Muslim nations and has been deporting some undocumented people who had been allowed previously to stay. In recent months, problems have intensified for people who were brought to the United States as children, known as Dreamers. Then-President Barack Obama had signed an executive order on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012, protecting some of the Dreamers until Congress could pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill. The Senate did so in 2013, but the House of Representatives failed to consider it, so DACA stayed in place until DT rescinded it in September 2017, calling on Congress to put a law in place to deal with the issue within six months. At the moment, there is the threat of a government shutdown because the budget still hasn’t passed and a replacement for DACA has been drawn into the negotiations.

It’s actually even more complicated than that, but I’ll spare you any more details.

The general upshot is that the current US immigration system is broken and has been for a long time. Some of the same people who rail against immigrants are exploiting immigrant labor, either undocumented people or those brought in as guest workers. For example, DT’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida has for years used H-2B visas to bring in foreign workers, even though there are Floridians available to take those jobs.

Immigration issues are sometimes used as cover for discrimination, prejudice, and racist attitudes. The most blatant recent example is DT’s disparaging Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries while asking why we don’t have more immigrants from Norway, a country with less than 10% people of color.

The vast majority of United States citizens are either immigrants themselves or have forebears who were immigrants. Many of those people came here to escape poverty or oppression in their home countries, the same reasons many current immigrants come here. Others came here to join family members.

It is hypocritical for people in government to disparage current immigrants when people in their families followed the same pattern in settling here.

It is true that our immigration procedures are desperately in need of updating. Processing times are also very slow, partly due to outdated procedures and quotas.

As some readers may recall, my daughter E’s spouse is British. They met in grad school and married and now have a daughter. At the moment, E and the baby are living in the US with us; L had to return to the UK after his student visa expired. They hope that E will be able to get a spousal visa in the UK later this year. Despite the uncertainties caused by Brexit, it is much easier, faster, and cheaper for E to get a UK visa than for L to get a US green card. I’m sad to say that there are some in the US who might use L’s immigration status, even though it would be legal, as a covert means of racial discrimination.

It has been heartbreaking to see families being broken apart as parents are deported away from their citizen children or children leave the only country they know to go to a parent’s country of origin where they may not even speak or write the language.

Congress and the President have the power to show compassion, justice, and welcome to immigrants by instituting a new system with an earned path to citizenship, similar to the path their ancestors followed in setting here.

Enough of the name-calling and threatening and divisiveness.

It’s time to protect the Dreamers, those under temporary protected status, and all immigrants, regardless of current documentation status. As Emma Lazarus wrote in “The New Colossus” which is inscribed on the Statue of Liberty:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

*****
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news response

I try to keep up with the news, both here in the United States and internationally, but it is getting more and more difficult to do, especially regarding the federal government here. It seems that every day has so many important news stories that I can only hear summary reports on most, delving into detail on only a small fraction.

One story that is more and more alarming is the interference of Russia in election campaigns, both here in the United States and around the world. During the 2016 election campaign, I was disturbed about the role of Russia in the Democratic National Committee hacking. I was also disgusted that Congressional Republican leaders blocked a unified response to the threat under President Obama.

Even more shamefully, that denial/lack of response persists both among most Republicans in Congress and with the current executive branch.

Meanwhile, more and more evidence has been found of Russian meddling in our election and many other countries, especially European ones, have experienced Russian interference as well. These countries are actively taking countermeasures, but the United States federal government is not.

Among the people, the response to the situation is mixed. Some of us are alarmed and making a point of staying informed and alert. Some companies, media, and state and local governments are putting in policies to counteract as much Russian interference as they can.

The problem is that the Republican lies about Russian meddling are believed by some of the people, making them particularly vulnerable to further foreign influence and adding to the bizarre discounting of facts and mistrust of the mainstream press that made the whole mess possible in the first place.

This division is dangerous to our society and our democracy. It appears that what Russia wants is to destabilize democracies.

I’m very much afraid that they have succeeding, in part, here in the United States.

We cannot and must not let them change our fundamental structures of government and daily life. Many of us are and will continue to fight for our American values.

We must prevail.
*****
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Not a beautiful Christmas present

On Tuesday, several members of clergy from different faith traditions held a noon-time prayer service, asking for Congress to seek justice in our tax code.

Then, we marched to the office of Claudia Tenney, who represents our district in the House of Representatives. Unlike some of the other Republican New York Congressmembers, she had voted for the House version of tax cuts, despite her opposition to cutting the deduction for state and local taxes. While the conference version of the bill restored partial deductibility for these taxes, it is problematic in many other ways as well, such as the repeal of the individual mandate for health insurance. All the bills have failed in terms of social justice, because most of the benefits go to the richest people and to corporations, which are getting permanent tax cuts while individuals are only getting temporary ones – and some people will actually have higher taxes even in the early years under this bills.

Hours after, Tenney voted for the bill, which passed the House, except that the bill had been rushed so much it didn’t conform to Senate rules, so the Senate passed it late Tuesday night and then the House had to vote again on Wednesday.

DT has described the bill as a “big beautiful Christmas present” for the American people, but, for many of us, it is not. The federal government, already in debt and deficit, will have less revenue coming in and Speaker Ryan is already talking about cuts to core safety net programs, which will most highly impact those at lower socioeconomic levels, children, and seniors.

The gifts of Christmas are supposed to be peace, joy, and good will to all.

A tax cut bill that is designed as a gift to big corporate and individual donors to politicians and their campaigns is not in accord with the true spirit of Christmas.

another mass shooting

Another week, another horrific mass shooting in America.

Another post I did not want to have occasion to write.

As some of you know, I live in the Binghamton, New York area, which was the scene of a 2009 mass shooting at the American Civic Association. Because of this, I know that these crimes can happen anywhere in our country. We lost the sense of “it can’t happen here” years ago.

Every time there is another mass shooting, much of the public response seems the same. “It’s a mental health issue, not a gun issue.” (Unless it is Muslim shooter, in which case it is a terrorism issue, not a gun issue.) “It’s disrespectful to talk about gun control when people are in mourning.” Corollary: we can talk about gun control later, except that we as a country are always in mourning/recovery from a mass shooting because they happen so frequently, so the “appropriate time” for the discussion never arrives. “The Second Amendment guarantees the right to bear arms.” “The guns were all legally purchased.” “This (insert gun control proposal here) would not have stopped (insert particular mass shooting here) from happening.”

Enough. Time for a reality check.

The issue is complicated. It needs and deserves thoughtful analysis and strategies to prevent future incidences. It needs and deserves consistent attention from the public and from public officials, because it is about the health, safety, and well-being of individuals and the country.

Yes, the mental health treatment system in the United States needs to be more robust, affordable, and compassionate. The shooter at the ACA was known to be mentally ill; his father begged the state of New York not to issue him a gun license, but the laws at the time allowed it. To its credit, New York made some legal changes to tighten qualifications for gun licenses and accessories like high-capacity magazines. New York has also made mental health treatment more accessible, as has the Affordable Care Act on the national level. Anyone who is serious about preventing mass shootings and other forms of violence needs to be serious about funding outreach and access to mental health services.

This leads to discussion of another characteristic that many mass shooters share, a history of domestic abuse. It lends even more weight to the current growth in public awareness of how widespread sexual harassment and assault are in our society. Abuse of all sorts is at its roots an abuse of power. Firearms in the hands of an abuser multiply the destructive force to the victim/s. Yet, too often, perpetrators of domestic or sexual violence are not prevented from owning firearms and are not adequately treated for their mental health problems.

The second amendment to the US Constitution is usually quoted only in part, only about the right to keep and bear arms not being infringed. If one reads the whole amendment and looks at the historical context, it is clear that the intent of the framers had to do with militias, not an absolute individual right. In July of 2016, I had a guest viewpoint on gun control published in the local paper; you can read it here. I think it can help to consider other military arms at this point. Do you think the second amendment gives individuals the right to own a rocket-propelled grenade launcher or a nuclear missile? Those are “arms,” as well. Should a military assault rifle be considered differently?

…which leads to my next point. We need to look at what kind of guns and accessories are available for sale to the general public. Fully automatic weapons are banned, so why is it legal to sell bump stocks that make semi-automatics behave like fully automatic weapons? Hunting for game is an old and time-honored tradition and most people use hunting rifles for this purpose. Even for the minority of hunters who use assault-type weapons, it seems that high-capacity magazines are not necessary. If you need thirty bullets to take down your prey, you are not skilled enough be hunting. I think that weapons designed for military use should not be in the hands of civilians and hope that Congress will again consider an assault weapons ban.

There should be public health research about guns and gun violence. Federal funding for this kind of research has been highly restricted due to the gun lobby’s leverage with members of Congress. Sadly, the presence of a gun in a household increases the risk that someone in the household will die or be injured with a gun. There are many heart-breaking instances of children inadvertently killing a sibling or friend after finding and playing with a gun in their home. Most people do not know that the majority of gun fatalities in the United States are suicides. Obviously, this ties into the mental health topic as well, but I don’t think that people who buy a gun for protection realize that owning a gun increases the chances that someone in the household will be injured or killed by a gun instead of protecting against that. People need all of these public health facts to inform their decisions and viewpoints.

Today – and every day – are appropriate ones to discuss and work on issues surrounding gun violence. There is never a day when someone is not mourning death or injury by guns, whether through mass shootings or other crimes, accident, or suicide. This is not an insoluble problem; nearly every other country has managed to cut gun deaths to low levels per capita.

The United States can do it, too.

Let’s begin today.