The recent tragedy in Orlando has once again brought the perpetual debate regarding gun control, domestic terrorism, and national security to the forefront of the American political agenda. Amidst the many painful lessons of yet another incident of gun violence, we must scrutinize the shortcomings of the legal system that tolerate, and even enable, such hate-fueled violence. While post-Orlando political discourse about criminal justice and the law has rightfully focused on gun laws, hate crime statutes, which are just as dysfunctional, are often overlooked. While five states in the United States still don’t have any legal recognition of hate crimes, statutes in 15 states don’t include sexual orientation or gender identity in their definition. To achieve meaningful progress, we must address such attacks as the Orlando attack in all its dimensions, which warrants a focus on the sorry state of hate crime laws throughout the country.

In his initial press statement regarding the Orlando shooting, President Obama said, “We know enough to say this was an act of terror and an act of hate,” and yet the hate angle faded in the political firestorm that followed.  As calls for policy reform followed, political partisanship quickly reared its ugly head: GOP politicians highlighted the “Islamic terrorism” aspect of the shooting to bring issues of terrorism and immigration to the center of the debate whereas Democrats emphasized the targeting of the LGBTQ community and focused their efforts on gun reform. Still, even with the President and Vice President emphasizing their support of the LGBTQ community in the aftermath of the hateful act, the politicization of the Orlando shooting detracted from a sorely needed re-evaluation of hate crime statutes.

A hate crime is one in which the perpetrator targets victims because of specific traits such as race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, or disability. Hate crimes are motivated by a strong, twisted bias against particular categorizations of identity and therefore have additional significance in terms of their impact, because they are meant as violent threats, conveying a message of hate to entire vulnerable communities that are often disadvantaged in some way, such as the LGBTQ community in the Orlando attacks or the African American community in the Charleston attack last summer. Hate crimes instill a sense of fear for victims and their communities, inhibiting their freedom to live, work and travel. In fact, since the purpose of hate crimes is to express hatred and anger and generate fear, they involve more violence than most other crime, often including cruel torture, mutilation and captivity.

The incidents in Orlando and Charleston are unusually high-profile examples; most hate crimes garner far less attention and occur much more frequently. According to the most recent data available from the FBI, there was almost one hate crime in America in every hour of every day in 2007 – a total of more than 7,600 reported bias-motivated incidents. In 2011, 6,222 hate crime incidents involving 7,254 offenses were reported. Out of 6,216 of these crimes, 47% were racially motivated, 21% resulted from sexual-orientation bias, 20% were motivated by religious bias, 12% stemmed from ethnicity/national origin bias, and less than 1% (0.9%) was prompted by disability bias. Every week a cross is burned somewhere. It is particularly because of these harrowing numbers, which show just how disturbingly common hate crimes are, that hate crime laws deserve more scrutiny.

Since 1968, federal law has covered a narrow class of hate crimes: those committed on the basis of race, religion, national origin while the victim was engaged in a federally protected activity, such as voting. After the Supreme Court ruled hate crime laws constitutional in the landmark case Wisconsin v Mitchell in 1993, 45 states and the District of Columbia passed hate crime laws of some capacity. However, a historic moment in hate crime legislation came when the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crime Prevention Act was signed into law by President Obama in 2009. The law was named after Matthew Shepard, a student who was brutally tortured and murdered in Wyoming in 1998 due to his sexual orientation and James Byrd, Jr., an African American man who was tied to a truck, dragged behind it and decapitated by two white supremacists in Texas the same year. Neither crime was classified and prosecuted as a hate crime since neither state had hate crime laws at the time. The legislation allows the government to provide grants and assistance to state and local authorities investigating and prosecuting hate crimes, ensuring that local law enforcement will have the resources it needs to address them.

The act became law in 2009 after more than 1 million emails, faxes and phone calls were sent to Capitol Hill since 2002 in support of hate crimes legislation, more than 300 civil rights, religious and law enforcement organizations signed on in support of the Act, 86,582 total hate crimes were reported since the introduction of the first hate crimes bill in 1997, of which 13,528 were been based on sexual orientation, and 14 floor votes in the House and the Senate over twelve years finally got the bill to the President’s desk. Yet, despite the federal progress Arkansas, Georgia, Michigan, South Carolina and Wyoming still don’t have hate crime laws at all and fifteen more states have hate crime laws that do not encompass sexual orientation.

Even before Orlando, the situation in South Carolina illustrated the need for stronger hate crime laws. In 2013, 51 hate crimes were committed in the state, and yet there is still no state law addressing them, an omission highlighted in the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. “The only reason someone would walk into a church and shoot people that were praying is hate,” Charleston Mayor Joe Riley said about the shooting. There was little doubt in anyone’s mind that the shooting was indeed a hate crime, since the perpetrator Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, had made numerous racist comments, was seen on social media wearing the flags of formerly white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia and said he had hoped to start a “race war” shortly after being arrested. Still, since the state, home to 19 known hate groups according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, most of which are focused on white supremacy and racial hatred, has no hate crime laws, the only way the Charleston shooting could be prosecuted as a hate crime was on the federal level. “What we have here is a hate crime that South Carolina cannot officially recognize as such,” Mark Pitcavage, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said. “They have no way to give respect to the victims by charging the suspect with a hate crime, and that is a shame, as it is symbolically significant. It will be recognized that they are victims of a crime, but not victims of hate.”

We need hate crime legislation in order to acknowledge that hate crimes are unique from other crimes, a message that could engender potentially rehabilitating effects on victims and their larger communities by paying them respect and offering them special recognition in the wake of tragedy and suffering. Whenever a hate crime is committed, the victim’s entire community is left feeling attacked, vulnerable, fearful, isolated and unprotected by the law. Furthermore, hate crimes are more likely to lead to retaliation and result in escalating inter-group violence, permanently disrupting the peace of society. Therefore, it is important to realize that hate crimes must be treated differently than other crime. In order to understand the rehabilitative effect of hate crime laws, it is enough to imagine how unjust it would be if we couldn’t classify the Orlando shooting as a heinous attack against the LGBTQ community, or in other words, a hate crime. Not being able to call it what it is would discount the pain and suffering that the entire LGBTQ community has endured in the aftermath of the shooting. Additionally, by increasing the penalty for a crime, hate crime legislation generates an added-on deterrent effect. Victims are more likely to report hate crimes as such if they know that they will be recognized by the law, on a local level even before a federal charge is considered.

There is indeed broad public support for hate crime laws: a 2007 Gallup poll showed that 68 percent of Americans favored expanding hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity while a 2007 Hart Research poll showed large majorities of every major subgroup of the electorate – including such traditionally conservative groups as Republican men (56 percent) and evangelical Christians (63 percent) – expressed support for strengthening hate crimes laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. With Charleston, Orlando and countless other tragedies constantly reminding us that we aren’t doing enough to combat hate-fueled violence, and with the general public recognizing the practical as well as symbolic importance of hate crime legislation, it is way past the time that all US states have their own, all-encompassing hate crime laws.

The shooting at Umpqua Community College is not going to lead to gun regulations. Neither will the shootings of the five people killed in Florida and Maryland the following day, and neither will the ones that are undoubtedly soon to come. Fear not, arms-bearing, red-blooded Americans. Congress isn’t coming to take your guns — their hands are well tied,  and the gun lobby knows how to make a vicious knot.

Over the past twenty years, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has not only made it unthinkable that gun legislation would get through Congress, but they’ve managed to stop debate on the subject all together. Following a 1996 study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control that showed the danger posed by private possession of firearms, the gun lobby kicked into action. After a failed attempt to completely eliminate the National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Rep. Jay Dickey (R-AR), known as the NRA’s point man in Congress, forced an amendment through Congress that stripped from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) budget the exact amount that had been spent on gun research in the previous year. The amendment, which is still in effect today, put any hope for future gun control research under the guillotine: None of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the CDC may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” According to its supporters, the ban was originally intended to prevent outright gun control advocacy, but for fear of political backlash, the CDC effectively stopped all gun violence-related research.

Facing the ever more frequent public outcry for more stringent regulations following these mass shootings, the gun lobby will do what they’ve always done: deepen their pockets.

Dickey has expressed regrets about spearheading the ban in the wake of the Oregon shootings, telling the Huffington Post “If we had somehow gotten the research going, we could have somehow found a solution to the gun violence without there being any restrictions on the Second Amendment.” He might be right; maybe somehow, the CDC would have been allowed to continue research into gun violence as a public health issue – one that kills tens of thousands of Americans annually – and would have been able to propose solutions regarding mental health or purchasing restrictions on firearms.

But even without Rep. Dickey acting as the legislative arm of the NRA, it’s unlikely that the CDC would’ve been allowed to continue their work — that’s simply not what the pro-gun groups would want. They’re worried that the findings of this kind of research would be exactly what any rational person would expect, and what studies conducted by independent organizations have already shown: that private ownership of guns drastically increases odds of death or injury. Unfortunately for the NRA, that’s the kind of information that could be used as a basis for new restrictions on gun ownership. And more unfortunately for the safety of Americans, these restrictions will likely never be realized.

Congress isn’t coming to take your guns—their hands are well tied,  and the gun lobby knows how to make a vicious knot.

Following the Newtown shoot in December 2012,  Gun rights increased their spending on political lobbying by $9 million in 2013. Gun lobbies including the NRA, Gun Owners of America, and the National Association for Gun Rights (among others) have spent upwards of $15 million in recent years on lobbying efforts. By contrast, gun control groups average about $1 million. The $28 million the NRA spent during the 2014 cycle not only left gun control advocates in the dust; it ensured that any future mass shootings (such as the 226 that have occurred in 2015 alone) wouldn’t result in any significant legislation from Congress.

The success of lobbies in career politics on both sides of the aisle has managed to inextricably link the success of legislation to the success of campaign donations. We have perfected the art of money-as-speech, and it doesn’t look like things are going to change any time soon. Lobbies only work if there are people supporting them, and that support tends to be fierce and ongoing. Once we commit ourselves to an idea, no matter how valid or invalid our reasoning, we’re not very likely to be convinced to change our minds. Our goals for believing one thing over the other go beyond a desire for accuracy, and factual opposition to those beliefs can often only drive us further to the extreme.

From climate change deniers to anti-vaxers to the ‘birther’ movement, we see time and time again that no matter how much scientific evidence supports one side of an issue, it will have little to no effect on its diehard opposition. This is not to say that supporting the right to bear arms is an irrational or invalid belief to have, nor is it to discount the value on independence and personal liberty which many gun rights advocates turn to as a basis for their views. This is to say, however, that there is science behind the push for gun control. We can no longer legitimately argue that having more guns makes us safer, nor can we say that limiting access to firearms won’t reduce the rates of homicides or suicides we see every year. To decide how exactly we should be limiting access to guns—whether through buyback programs, limits on high-capacity magazines, or bans on assault weapons, to name a few options— requires more research: the type of research that Congress and its lobbies have decided to end for good.

There is rarely a clear answer when values and reality contradict each other. The values of freedom, liberty, and protection from a tyrannical government, which defenders of the second amendment are determined to protect, are in this instance running up against hard data, scientific evidence, and rising death tolls. At some point, one side will have to give, and it seems like Congress has already picked its winner.

Photo: Josh Lopez

Slain five-year-olds, lethal movie premiers, massacred students: American citizens have become numb to these tragedies as they experience the routine consequences of nearly nonexistent gun control. Each tremor of terror sent through the country with a gunshot (or 20) receives the same desperate response, “Something needs to change.” And yet, there is none. The stark inaction after the loss of countless lives is shocking. While lobbying by the National Rifle Association has received much of the blame for the complete lack of progress in gun control, the issue may stem more from a large tangle of partisan politics that makes legislation impossible, especially as the Republican Party continues to disregard empirical evidence of the danger of gun rights.

Guns have killed more Americans since 1968 than have all wars in American history. The shooting just this month at Umpqua Community College in Oregon was simply the newest development in a long history of gun violence within the United States. As has become customary, politicians from every corner of the country — especially those seeking the presidential office — released comments on the deaths of ten college students at the hands of a gunman. Democrats reliably pressed for immediate reform of gun control laws. President Obama expressed utter frustration at his nation for its inability to enact legislation that could prevent tragedies such as this. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and Martin O’Malley followed suit, stressing the necessity of controlling American citizens’ access to firearms.

Reactions from Republican presidential hopefuls consisted of the entirely opposite idea. Jeb Bush responded to the shooting with the phrase, “Stuff happens.” Of course, Bush did not deny the tragedy of such an event. But, he urged against creating laws over a “unique event.” He continued to draw an analogy to a child drowning in a swimming pool: There may be an urge to pass legislation requiring barriers around kiddie pools, but this would ultimately cause more of a burden than safety.

Bush is not alone in his sentiments, as other candidates have deemed these sorts of attack inevitable. Donald Trump declared that deadly violence was bound to happen. He then pointed out the difficulty of placing “somebody in an institution for the rest of their lives based on the fact that he looks like he could be a problem.” Marco Rubio agreed that the real issue at hand was mental illness, boldly stating that “gun control would not have prevented that attack.” Their statements are representative of the general complacency of the GOP with regards to gun violence. Gun deaths are seen as beyond the control of legislation and out of the purview of the government, the very institution responsible for protecting citizens.

Other GOP candidates have twisted the story into evidence of a need for more guns and fewer firearm restrictions. Ben Carson advocates for the arming of teachers to prevent student shooters in the future. He stayed rigid in his stance on gun rights, claiming that he “never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away.” Mike Huckabee echoed Carson’s views, harping on the fact that a police officer ultimately stopped the shooter with a gun. He went on to deny a gun violence problem, claiming instead a problem with “uncivilized savages.” These views rely on the sanctity of the Second Amendment, which has stirred much controversy as to whether it guarantees the right to bear arms to individuals or specifically to regulated state militias. They also propagate the idea of a brave, gun-wielding citizen who will protect fellow Americans from shooters.

Though disturbing, this type of response to gun tragedies is not new. After the 2012 shooting at a Connecticut elementary school in Newtown, President Obama made a similar push for stricter gun control, which received support from many prominent politicians including then New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg. Mike Huckabee once again dismissed the need for legislation, blaming the massacre on a lack of God in schools. Multiple GOP senators invoked the usual “this stuff happens” excuse, while Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas claimed the need for more guns to prevent future violence. Speaker of the House John Boehner showed similar resistance to stricter firearm legislation after a shooting at a midnight premiere of a Batman movie in Aurora, Colorado. On the other hand, multiple Democratic senators who had previously supported gun rights decided to reverse their positions after such gruesome events.

Republicans seem to use these three distinct illogical arguments against stricter gun control when presented with evidence of its necessity.

Republicans seem to use these three distinct illogical arguments against stricter gun control when presented with evidence of its necessity. The first is the swimming pool comparison: the fact that deaths do not mean burdensome laws are worthwhile. The analogy is incongruous, as drowning in swimming pools leads to 390 child deaths a year while guns lead to a whopping 2,677. This means nearly seven times as many child fatalities result from guns as swimming pools before even considering 29,837 additional adult deaths. In this case, the burden of gun control is clearly outweighed by the compelling interest to protect our citizens.

The second argument claims that tragedies will happen regardless of gun control laws. Yet, this statement completely disregards data regarding foreign countries with stricter firearm policies. This is not a global problem, as data shows that it is unique to the United States. Children in other similarly developed countries are 14 times less likely to die from a gun than American children. The United States experiences more than five times as many gun deaths as Canada and 42 times as many as the United Kingdom, both of which have tight gun control laws. For the Republican argument to stand, one would have to assume that the United States simply has a larger concentration of “evil” people, a clearly preposterous statement. Former Australian Deputy Prime Minister Tim Fischer has gone as far as to warn Australians to “think twice” before visiting the United States because of “illogical” and dangerous gun policies. After a mass shooting in 1996, Australia passed strict gun control laws and has not seen a similar act of violence since.

The last of these fallacious claims is the most dangerous, since it appears rational to the general public and plays on human emotions: the story of the “good guy with the gun.” In this GOP fairytale, lax gun policies allow the heroes of the world access to guns, which they then use to defend the innocent from madmen (who are also allowed to own firearms). Unfortunately, history has proven many times that this is simply not the case. In fact, Umpqua, the site of the most recent college shooting, actually allowed students to carry guns on campus. Furthermore, there were multiple armed students on the day of the massacre that chose not to get involved for their own safety. A supporting study done in Arizona, a state with high gun ownership, showed that defensive gun usage fell far below expectations at only three occasions in 100 days.

This myth has gained widespread acceptance. The thought of protecting oneself with a deadly weapon is appealing. Few things are desired more than absolute safety. This is clear in movements to allow concealed weapons on college campuses. It has also rung true for residents of Roseburg, the town of Umpqua Community College. Many community members have responded to the panic by seeking their own guns for the purpose of self-defense. These frightened citizens fail to realize that the same mechanisms protecting their right to self-defense protects the right of others to attack.

Clearly, no progress can be made without the GOP budging. Republicans’ fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of gun violence and disregard of empirical data has created an immovable road block on the path to a safer country. Still, it is unfair to characterize Republicans as illogical. The problem lies in the pattern of reinforcement of these ill-conceived notions. Unfortunately, there is little proof to convince them otherwise. Congress has blocked major funding legislation that would allow the Centers for Disease Control to make a full investigation into the science behind gun violence and control. The one study that was done was unable to reach any useful conclusions.

In addition, being a Republican has become equated with supporting gun rights. Since 2000, liberals have seen a slight increase of 2 percent (from 26 to 28) in support of gun rights. On the other hand, conservative support has jumped a whopping 20 percent (from 44 to 64). What started out as a marked but manageable difference in opinion has turned into an entirely partisan debate. This encourages conservatives to take a side on an issue without fully considering it first. Even Democrats who strike down gun control legislation in Congress seem to be doing so primarily to secure re-election in Republican states. This huge increase in support of guns may be influenced by the popular misperception that crime rates are rising in the United States and the resulting desire for a defensive weapon.

With such a large rift between parties, legislation is nearly impossible. This has been evident over the last few years, as most gun laws have actually made firearms easier to acquire. No substantive, non-expiring gun control law has made it through Congress since the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993. Multiple renewals of the 1994 Federal Assault Weapons Ban have also failed as recently as 2008. If the country wants to see a positive change in the safety of its people, the GOP will need to reconsider its views and begin working with Democrats rather than against them.

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One morning last month, Rhode Islanders woke up to the news that the National Rifle Association had been charged with the second-largest campaign finance ethics violation in state history. In a settlement reached by the Rhode Island Board of Elections, the NRA admitted that it improperly funneled money from its national Political Action Committee (or “PAC”) to the Rhode Island-specific PAC, illegal under state law. The PAC was fined a historic $63,000.

What the stories didn’t reveal? That the NRA’s wrongdoing, the record fine, and the shuttering of the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC was the result of the initial hunch of one person: Brown University student Sam Bell.

Bell’s story is certainly noteworthy for its David-and-Goliath appeal; the plot notes sound like a chilled-out version of “A Civil Action.” It’s also remarkable for the NRA’s astonishingly poor cover-up (their reports defy simple arithmetic) and the even more stunning realization that nobody checked them for ten years. But the real reasons Bell matters — the success of his legal complaint and the clues that led him there — together represent something else entirely: a new model, potentially, for enforcing campaign finance laws in Rhode Island and around the country.

Bell is a Ph.D. candidate in Brown’s geology department — not exactly the campus war room, unless you apply a broad interpretation to “digging.” But it’s the 24-year-old grad student’s other job that supplies his political adrenaline, as State Coordinator of the Rhode Island Progressive Democrats. Tall and ebullient, with a perennial tie and glasses that accentuate a scrutinizing demeanor, Bell sharply resembles the consummate grad student, including a thin, brass voice almost perfectly designed for administering factual correction. His age and background, in a way, are camouflage for political foes that get too casual with the facts, whom Bell can skewer (and I can testify) with an encyclopedic knowledge of state politics and polling data down to the district level.

I visited Bell at one of his monthly statewide meetings. A dozen coat-clad adults, all over 40, sat in a fluorescent conference room and looked on while Bell comfortably wrapped up a PowerPoint on monetary policy. Later, Bell told me that his suspicions in the NRA case began not with fishy numbers or a secret source, but an old-fashioned political ass-whooping. So ass-whoopy, in fact, that something didn’t add up.

“We failed miserably at passing an assault weapons ban,” said Bell, referring to the measure’s failure last spring, and citing a failure to act from the legislative leadership despite their repeated official statements of support. That seemed odd to Bell: after all, constituent support statewide for gun control reliably clocks in at overwhelming levels. Sixty-four percent approve an assault weapons ban, including 86% of Democrats, while the NRA received a toxic 56% “unfavorable” rating, both according to polling data from last year. Bell noted that more Rhode Islanders support gun control than  supported Barack Obama in the 2012 election.

Then Bell learned that the speaker of the house, the senate president and both chambers’ majority leaders all had accepted money from the NRA — a lot of money. An independent analysis of public campaign finance reports by BPR confirms that the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC spent over $162,000 on Rhode Island elections since 2002, and the speaker and senate president each took $2,700 and $5,700 in the same time frame, respectively. True, Bell reasoned, the Rhode Island legislature is notoriously conservative on issues of reproductive health and voter I.D. — a fact made even more frustrating by Rhode Island’s misnomer status as the most liberal state in America, but even that didn’t make much sense either, per the same polling data that Bell now knew by heart. The mystery wasn’t the legislature’s willingness to take the money, but the money itself. In other words, if the NRA was so unpopular, who was writing the checks?

“We wondered how this group was able to raise so much money,” said Bell. “We had never seen an NRA fundraiser, never heard about one.”

Then he consulted the public records in the Board of Elections archive (the same source of BPR’s analysis) where Bell noticed the organization hadn’t reported a single donor in ten years. Such a practice is only legal if a donation is less than $100, known as “aggregate individual contributions.” Additionally, Bell said that the NRA’s federally filed expenditures matched dollar-for-dollar those of the NRA’s Rhode Island-specific PAC — again, every year dating back to 2002.

Put another way: the NRA didn’t even attempt to hide what plainly appeared to be suspicious activity. Something was clearly up. And Bell was the first to have checked in over ten years.

Here’s what Bell saw when he consulted the public records. First, he saw the same pattern repeating over and over again in the NRA Rhode Island PAC’s reports to the state Board of Elections: a large sum listed for “aggregate contributions,” and a long line of goose eggs for every other category:

  Agg Exp. PIC

 

Those many “zeros” coincidentally line up with all the categories for which PACs don’t have to report their donors. The $1,200 in the example above was filed in the seven days before the 2012 election in October. Notice that the NRA quickly spends all of its “aggregate contributions” in the same reporting cycle, ending with a “Cash Balance” of zero. BPR’s analysis of records from the Board of Elections shows that of the 65 reports that the NRA filed with the Board in which they disclosed receiving contributions, 60 followed this identical pattern — listing all receipts as aggregate individual contributions, and spending the exact amount in the same period. The five exceptions in which the NRA reported their receipts were all cases of voided checks.

Next, Bell noticed that the addresses listed for the NRA’s national and Rhode Island PACs were identical, and both registered as the “NRA Political Victory Fund.” Below is an example from the NRA’s public reports with the Rhode Island Board of Elections:

RI Address PIC

And here is the NRA’s filing in the same month with the FEC:

NRA Address PIC

 You can see they didn’t exactly try to hide it. Second, and related, the NRA double-listed their campaign contributions, or “disbursements,” in both reports. Here’s one example from the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC, in their October report to the state Board of Elections:

Costa RI Pic

 …and the exact same contribution reported in the same month to the FEC:

 Costa Fed PIC

 

Again, about as inconspicuous as Justin Bieber at a DMV.

It raises a key question. Campaign finance is a notoriously dense field. The notion of keeping hopelessly opaque and unclear documents “transparent” before the public is often seen as a cruel joke. It takes lawyers to enforce campaign finance laws — and most of the time they get frustrated: see Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig’s march across the New Hampshire tundra just to get a few people to pay attention to the issue at all. But the NRA-Bell scandal forces us to reduce this sad canard to its core. Does the NRA assume that people care so little — are they so contemptuous of the law and the intellect of those who might enforce it — that they don’t even pretend to comply?

Bell was about to find out. With the pro bono help of the law firm CFO Compliance, and with the crowd-sourcing teamwork of his Progressive Democrats posse, Bell began building a case.

In September of last year, Bell filed a formal complaint on behalf of the Progressive Democrats, alleging three specific violations. Here is the Campaign Finance 101 digest of what Bell alleged:

1. A federal-state PAC conspiracy. Rhode Island law says that if a PAC is registered in Rhode Island, it cannot receive money from any federally registered PAC.  The first and most obvious complaint alleged that the NRA’s federal PAC was sending money to the Rhode Island state PAC — a violation of Rhode Island law.

2. A failure to report donations. Rhode Island law says that any candidate, campaign or PAC must disclose the name and address of anyone who donates more than $100. The second complaint alleged that there was a high likelihood that many “donors” to the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC (if there were any at all) must have given more than $100, just by  sheer odds. According to BPR’s analysis, the NRA Rhode Island PAC’s “aggregated individual” (i.e. undisclosed) contributions amounted to over $160,000. For the NRA to be innocent, that means that not a single donation — once, ever — over a ten-year period and among these hundreds of thousands was ever over $100.

3. A violation of the overall campaign contribution limit. Rhode Island Law limits any candidate, campaign or PAC from receiving more than $1,000. If Bell’s first complaint was true, that would likely mean that the NRA was sloshing it’s money from its national coffers into the RI PAC. Since many of these donations were over $1,000 (in the October 2012 filing above, the contribution is $1,200) — and if that money came from NRA’s national PAC as Bell alleges — that would mean the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC illegally received more than $1,000 from a single source.

Bell’s Progressive Democrats filed the complaint in September, and after that… well, we don’t really know what happened after that. The Board of Elections conducts its investigations under strict confidentiality.

Here’s what we do know. On October 3, the NRA’s Rhode Island PAC formally dissolved. Whether this was part of the negotiations, or a political attempt to save face, no one knows except for the NRA. It seems clear that without the Progressive Democrats’ complaint, the state of Rhode Island would be one NRA Political Action Committee richer.

Then, on January 17, the Board of Elections announced their closed-door settlement with the NRA, fining the organization a historic $63,000. Again, how that number was reached is confidential. But far more intriguing was the rationale used by the Board of Elections. The Board found the NRA guilty of funneling money from its national PAC to its Rhode Island PAC — point #1 in Bell’s three-part complaint. For that, the NRA faced an enormous fine. But the Board found the NRA not in violation of Bell’s complaint #2 and complaint #3: that is, NRA RI was not fined for accepting donations over $100 without disclosure, nor for accepting donations over $1,000.

What defense did the NRA use to bring the Board to their side on these latter two points? The NRA argued that its Rhode Island PAC was maintained and operated “within” the NRA national PAC’s finances. In other words,  they shared the same bank account.

Think about that for a second.

The spirit of the law — the idea of precluding national PACs from giving money to state PACs — is meant to create separation between national and state money, and to keep state organizations free of outside influence. In response to the allegation that it violated a law meant to keep national and state PACs separate, the NRA argued that the only reason its national and state PACs looked so similar was “only” because the two PACs shared an address, legal liaison and bank account — such that they became indistinguishable from one another. That was their defense.

Yet as counterintuitive as their defense may seem, it offers the brilliant catch-22 of exonerating itself from Bell’s second and third complaints. If the sharing of bank accounts is an acceptable legal explanation, then suddenly there would be no realistic way to know if the NRA’s “Rhode Island PAC” (indistinguishable from the national PAC for financial purposes) ever inappropriately accepted donations of more than $100 or $1,000. Remember, the NRA isn’t required to say if checks or cash were earmarked especially for the Rhode Island PAC. If NRA national and NRA Rhode Island indeed shared the same bank account, we can only take the NRA’s word that every dollar of “aggregate expenditures” was really intended for Rhode Island, and not just sloshed into Rhode Island as needed from the national PAC’s war chest. Why is this, you ask? Because, that’s why. Welcome to the Kafka novel that is American campaign finance.

If you’re confused as hell, that only means you’re paying attention — campaign finance is confusing. To the left are Bell’s claims and the NRA’s defense spelled out graphically. Click on each below for an expanded view.

Bell/RIPDA ComplaintNotice how conveniently self-referential the NRA’s defense appears — almost too perfectly, it fits the explanation one would expect if we were to cover up the funneling of anonymous national cash into state politics, hand-in-glove. In that scenario, it would appear that the NRA admitted to a lesser offense in order to deny the far more egregious ones, especially the $1,000 limit.

The NRA's Defense

“This is why the NRA had to argue they were running the RI PAC inside their national PAC bank account,” Bell said in an email. “If they admitted that they transferred money from the national PAC to the state PAC, nearly all of those contributions would be in violation of the $1000 rule.” The DiCaprio-themed bank-account-within-a-bank-account alibi seems exactly big enough for a $1,000 limit violation to fit into.

All told, the NRA’s alibi might go down in history as a contender for the award given for Most Chutzpah Ever Summoned in a Legal Defense. Meanwhile, Bell says there are still major questions in the case, including strong, emerging evidence that the NRA’s claims are spurious or at least highly doubtful.

“We’re still looking into this,” Bell told me. “We’re still trying to collect data, still trying to figure out exactly what happened. I don’t think that this thing is fully over.”

Next week, BPR will take a close look at Bell’s claims, evaluate the defense that the NRA has offered, and talk to campaign finance experts about how Bell’s example might be followed in other states.  

October is proving to be an exciting month for congressional spectators. In several weeks Congress will vote on raising the debt ceiling, in the process Republicans will try to finagle spending concessions out of federal programs dear to Democrats. But before all this takes place the nation will see how the government shutdown showdown concludes as a handful of Republicans make a stand against Democrats’ most recent expansion of federal reach, the Affordable Care Act.

Watching this transpire paints Democrats as defenders of big government and big spending, which indeed has been the case in the past decades. The Democratic Party has relied on the federal government to secure a multitude of major liberal measures it has pushed for in recent memory. This legacy began with the New Deal; under FDR the United States became one of the first liberal regimes to provide welfare to its people. Thirty years later Great Society legislation transformed Civil Rights from a states’ issue to a national concern. LBJ’s legislation established a groundbreaking achievement that extended federal protection of the rights of racial minorities.

Turning to the federal government for reform has proven successful for Democrats: in the past century the federal government has virtually transformed itself, running programs to combat poverty and provide an economic safety net to citizens, and taking on the responsibility of dismantling segregation and other forms of institutional racial discrimination. We have yet to see if health care reform will follow in the footsteps of the New Deal and the Great Society by transforming the federal government’s relationship with American citizens, but the future of liberal legislation may follow a path less traveled by the Democratic Party.

Last week I wrote about the progress gun control advocates have achieved in states like California, Colorado, New York and Connecticut. The fights for marijuana legalization, gay marriage legalization, and gun control have in the past decade made significant progress at the state level revealing the promising frontier state legislation presents liberal causes. Though this strategy deviates from Democrats’ historic reliance on federal action, recent events point to an era of Democrat backed federalism.

August marked a major victory for those in favor of marijuana legalization: the Department of Justice, citing limited resources, announced it would not block state laws legalizing marijuana. This applies to the 18 states (and the District of Columbia) where the medicinal use of marijuana is legal, as well as Washington and Colorado where marijuana has been decriminalized. The policy is contingent on the industry being regulated to prevent drug use by minors and cartel or gang activity. Nonetheless, the Marijuana Policy Project called the announcement “historic.” The door has swung wide open to Colorado and Washington to license and tax the sale of marijuana, and similar voter initiatives on other states on hot on their heels. The MPP declared support for voter initiatives in Alaska, Arizona, California, Maine and Nevada in 2014 and 2016; the not for profit policy group hopes to legalize marijuana in 10 more states by 2017.

Same-sex marriage proponents also celebrated a major win this summer: in June the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, permitting legally married same-sex couples the same federal benefits of married heterosexual couples, and invalidated a California law banning same-sex marriage in the state. Despite the Supreme Court victory, more progressive federal measures on the issue – such as Congressional legislation defending marriage equality – are unlikely. However legalization of same-sex marriage in individual states has recently gained momentum. Currently the District of Columbia and 12 states permit same-sex marriage, Washington, Maine, Maryland, Delaware, Minnesota and Rhode Island joined the ranks only in the past 11 months.

The challenges federalism presents as a political strategy for marriage equality and marijuana legalization have become evident following the progress both causes have achieved in states. The Department of Justice’s new policy, though it permits the development of the marijuana industry in states where the drug is legal, leaves the trade on unsteady ground. The executive branch is simply ignoring a conflict of state and federal law: Seattle Marijuana Defense Attorney Douglas Hiatt voiced concerns about the future, “Is a new administration just going to come in and shut it down?” For proponents of marriage equality, federalism condones state-led discrimination against homosexuals and conflicts with the historical context of civil rights being addressed by the federal government.

Nonetheless, the immediate future of both left-wing causes seems to lie in the states. The United States has a long-standing history of individual states acting as laboratory grounds for innovative policy. Colorado and Washington’s decriminalization laws seem quintessential examples of the concept. The two progressive states will inevitably be looked to as models in the future for marijuana legalization and regulation. In contrast it’s unlikely that supporters of same-sex marriage will be satisfied with the state-by-state expansion of legal same-sex marriage in the U.S., however. As long as they argue that marriage is not a social experiment but rather a right that is currently withheld from a minority of American citizens, nothing short of federal protection will be adequate.

It is the Chinese water torture of a series of mass shootings that are happening more rapidly and are growing more deadly.” Mayors Against Illegal Weapons director Mark Glaze used this grim analogy while commenting on the effect the Naval Yard shootings will have on the national conversation about gun control. Many political commentators are reaching similar conclusions. The tragedy that took place on September 16th involved assault weapons, civilians, and a mentally disturbed attacker: it will inevitably impact the wider conversation about the availability of guns in America. But spectators of the gun control debate are also reacting to the Navy Yard tragedy with the demoralizing recognition that immediate effects are unlikely.

The Sandy Hook tragedy of last December, which resulted in 20 children and six adult victims of a shooter, precipitated a moderate piece of federal legislation that expanded backgrounds checks. The bill failed in Congress, falling short by six votes. The President addressed the outcome of such vote with a scathing condemnation. Few believe the Navy Yard shootings will trigger fresh efforts for federal legislation.

While Sandy Hook caused outrage across the nation, the most recent instance of gun violence has met a more muted response. Many commentators appear concerned that American people are too jaded to create a groundswell of support for further gun control reform. In his eulogy for the victims, President Obama emphasized that, “I’m here today to say that there’s nothing routine about this tragedy. Nothing routine about your loss.”

If Congressional change is out of reach at the moment, what is the future of gun control reform? Will Americans continue to endure this “Chinese water torture,” or will we find an alternative?

Interestingly enough, it seems some states already have. What has become a footnote in many reports on the Navy Yard shootings is the flurry of gun control legislation passed in state legislatures this spring. New York and California approved some of the strictest gun control legislation in the country, New York only one month after Newton. Among other measures, both states expanded bans on assault weapons and New York now requires health care workers to notify health officials if they believe a patient plans to harm others. Universal background checks have been approved by legislatures in Connecticut, Colorado, Denver, as well as New York; Maryland approved a reform package that includes a requirement that people submit fingerprints when registering for a handgun.

In contrast to aforementioned – and predominantly blue – states’ legislation, a handful of states have passed measures expanding gun owners’ rights. Conceal and carry laws were relaxed in Missouri, Arkansas, North Dakota, Kansas and Utah this year. Additionally, several states eased laws on school safety officials carrying arms.

The divergent legislative action of states may give pause to gun control advocates: according to the Washington Post, there are fewer restrictions on guns than there were a year ago. In spite of this, the state action that I have chronicled makes abundantly clear that gun control is an issue intimately related to location and therefore an issue that is more appropriately handled at the state level. Gun culture across the United States is as diverse as its citizens. Gun control legislation should reflect the gun culture and the safety concerns of individual communities, just consider the vastly different perspectives on firearms an urban New Yorker would have in comparison to an Alaskan who has hunted recreationally since childhood.

State legislation appears to be the most viable strategy for gun control reform in the near future. Thanks to Michael Bloomberg, however, advocates for federal level reform may not need to wait long for a second shot at Congress. Now that the Mayor of New York City is out of work he’s creating a gun control interest group organization to rival the NRA.

If recent memory is any testament, helplessness, rather than mere evil, seems to be at the heart of modern tragedy. Grief breeds an awkward distance between our human compassion and the outcome of loss, a spatial component of heartbreak gracefully recognized by fellow BPR columnist Matt McCabe in his reflection on the Boston Bombing. As a state trooper sobbing in the parking lot of Sandy Hook Elementary expressed, “You just feel helpless.” But that’s what justice is for, to delineate the abstract from the concrete, to give us grounding and peace of mind: from here on out, we think, the actions that precipitated tragedy cannot be committed without consequence.

Zimmerman on the night of his altercation with Martin. Creative Commons License.
Zimmerman on the night of his altercation with Martin. Creative Commons License.

Before the defense rested its case in the trial that absolved George Zimmerman of all legal wrongdoing, it agreed with the prosecution upon a set of facts. The self-appointed neighborhood watchmen pursued, shot, and killed an unarmed teenager walking down the street with nothing more than a pack of skittles and a can of iced tea, after a 911 operator explicitly told him not to do so. Now, in the wake of Saturday night’s verdict, we should prepare for the George Zimmerman precedent to repeat itself: not just in Florida, but also in the other twenty-three states with Stand your Ground laws. The jury has refused to establish a deterrent to following and killing a teenager sporting a hoody over black skin.

It’s important to remember that we say “not guilty” rather than “innocent” for a reason: the former is a legal judgment, the latter a moral one. The fabric of Florida’s legal system clearly doesn’t even attempt to equate the two. George Zimmerman was entitled to stand his ground and shoot Trayvon Martin through the heart because the law enabled him to do so. The Florida legislature drafted a gun-slinging bill that played fast and loose with language, and the result was an obtuse law condoning the use of lethal violence by anyone with “reasonable” fear of great bodily harm.

It’s no longer George Zimmerman who should be haunted by a reasonable fear of great bodily harm, even death, now that his public license to shoot is calcified into law. Instead, that prize goes to every black child walking home from the convenience store with a bag of candy and a drink. Every black child wearing a hooded sweatshirt to stave off the rain. The defense wouldn’t let us forget that these children are invariably bearing arms – since the sockets of black shoulders are just holsters for the lethal weapons that are black arms – or in Trayvon’s case, his fists, which dealt Zimmerman the great bodily harm of a bloody nose.

John Rawls conceived of a thought experiment to evaluate the degree to which a society is just. Behind the veil of ignorance, we strip ourselves of demographic considerations like race, gender, age, class and orientation. Instead, we ask ourselves if we would be comfortable adopting those alternate identities before entering the world in which we now live. Rawls suggested that until a rational person would choose to be black or white, male or female, gay or straight, in equal proportion – in other words, until that choice would cease to exist as a meaningful one – we still have work to do.

So let’s remember that this verdict is tragic not for its dubious legal grounds, but for the fact that such grounds are precisely legal. Riots and violence cannot compel change. We would be better served channeling our churning stomachs into lobbying states to repeal Stand Your Ground laws. There should be no legal justification for slaying an unarmed and unassuming teenager. In nearly half the country, there is. As W.E.B. DuBois said, “a system cannot fail those it was never built to protect.” Amidst such tragedy, we should heed his words and start rebuilding. Because the resolution of this tragedy, following the Greek tradition, is catharsis: the realization that so long as these laws are in place, the system isn’t failing us. We’re failing the system.

Governor Lincoln D. Chafee ’75 is the 74th Governor of Rhode Island. Elected in 2010 on a platform of increasing government transparency and economic revitalization, Chafee will likely face challengers from both the left and right in his upcoming reelection. During a live filmed interview, Chafee sat down with BPR’s Interview Director Emily Gelber to discuss his time at Brown, gun control in Rhode Island and his upcoming chances at reelection in 2014.

Brown Political Review: Thanks for sitting down with the Brown Political Review. I wanted to start with your experience at Brown. Were you politically active when you were a Brown student?

Lincoln Chafee: No, although [during] those years — I graduated in 1975 — everything was very politically active on campuses all over America. When the 1972 presidential election occurred, which was Nixon against McGovern occurred, there was just a lot of involvement with students. Then Watergate came after that so there was a lot of involvement with students and the issues of the day.

BPR: Do you think it’s different today, that students are involved in politics like they were then?

LC: I pick up The Brown Daily Herald frequently and it seems like they are always asking for letters. Back in those days the letters would flood in [with] different opinions. You didn’t have to pull teeth to get someone to send a letter in. But it’s an ebb and flow. Other interests that are occurring might not be politics. With the Obama election, students were critical to his success across the country and I’m sure that’s true on the Brown campus. And I know here in the Statehouse, Brown students will be involved in political issues so there’s not a complete absence of activity.

BPR: Do you think this generation is distrustful of the government? Some people believe that there was an effort to stop students from voting, and students are really dealing with debt; is there a different sentiment towards government now?

LC: I don’t think so, and I don’t want to speak for you, but I don’t think there is a complete distrust. I think there is a little bit of discontent. You mentioned student debt, [the] disparity of wealth the students are seeing out there. I think the Occupy movement was an expression of disparity of wealth but I don’t think there is distrust yet. It is more that we have to stay vigilant and watch out for those that are looking out for themselves instead of the common good, and it’s always the idealism that young people have.

BPR: The Occupy movement has been criticized for having no central leadership and fizzling out; was there any change that emerged from this movement?

LC: It was a good statement. It came out of nowhere from my perspective, and all of a sudden, whether it was Manhattan or San Francisco or Providence, there were people making a statement. It occurred right as winter came on so it lasted much longer than I thought. I thought that the statement still resonates; I still see bumper stickers or signs that say “99 percent,” “I’m part of the 99 percent.” And so it was a strong statement coming as it did, without forecast.

BPR: You’re big on reducing student loans and making college more affordable. What is the meaning of a college degree now?

LC: Well, I do think that going back to my experience after World War II and the G.I. Bill and the strength of the state universities across America — whether it was Missouri or Arizona or Montana or Illinois or California — the strong institutions of affordable public higher education coupled with the G.I. Bill, that’s what made America strong. People just were able to go to that community college or go to that four-year institution and get a degree. And now we’re seeing that more and more debt, even at public institutions of higher education, just makes it more difficult.

The skills that are needed out there do take a lot of education to match the demands that companies have for higher technology, and if you are graduating with this tremendous student debt, one of the things it stifles is the chance to do something alternative, which I did after college, and what many were able to do like join the Peace Corps or Teach for America. You just can’t do that because you have student loans that you have to immediately start paying back and you want, I think, graduates to go out and get a little dirt under their fingernails in different ways and learn the ways of the world and make contacts that might take them into different paths of life that are very valuable. You cannot do that once you start having children and mortgages and all the pressures that come with those responsibilities. I mean Steve Jobs and other that have done different things profited greatly from those years of not having a high student debt.

BPR: I want to talk a little bit about your opinions on gun policy. Is there federal influence on the ability of a state to create gun legislation?

LC: It’s a mix. Certainly, we would prefer to have the federal government pass some common-sense gun safety laws. When I was in the United States Senate, we were trying to close the gun show loophole…We were also looking at the assault weapons. We already have a waiting period to buy a gun; we’ve passed that. To buy a gun, you need a background check but you can go to a gun show and buy it there and walk out with it, no background check.

BPR: Why is that?

LC: Because [sellers] said that gun shows travel around. [The gun show] would be in one community one weekend and then in another community another weekend and there’s not a chance for someone to buy the gun and then come back a week after the background check and pick it up because they’ve moved.

BPR: So it’s a matter of convenience?

LC: Yes, but there was a loophole and if you’re going to have the background checks, let’s stick to them universally. So those were federal laws. We were not successful. The Second Amendment advocates are very, very powerful and the NRA, we know about the power of the NRA. Also, hunters have an innate fear that the government is going to take away their guns. And even progressive states such as Vermont — Vermont legislators in Washington were very strong in fighting against some of these common-sense gun safety measures. Vermont has a big hunting population. There are a lot of deer hunters.

BPR: I didn’t realize hunters had such a big influence on gun policy. Do they have a huge presence in the NRA?

LC: Yes, so it’s a mix of true hunters that think that the government is going to take away their 20-gauge shotguns — and one thing leads to another, and pretty soon, they’re not going to have their bird-hunting gun or their squirrel-hunting gun or their deer-hunting gun.

BPR: And realistically, what do you think you could get passed for Rhode Island?

LC: We have a good package of bills. I think the ones that the law enforcement agencies really are strong on are the assault guns. Truly, what hunter needs an assault gun or a large magazine clip? I just think [Second Amendment advocates are] treating it as a step. First they take away my assault weapon, and then they take another. So we just have to fight back against that. This isn’t a progressive step of taking away guns. It’s just common sense; nobody needs an assault gun with a large magazine clip. You’re not allowed to hunt with them, so what do you need them for?

BPR: Many gun owners fear that “common sense” regulation like background checks and assault weapons bans will lead to more intrusion down the road. What do you say to that? Is that something that is just embedded in the American way?

LC: Well, I just know that being in politics, I went to a meeting that had nothing to do with guns — it was about fire districts in Coventry — but many of the people that were standing around were saying “Hey, don’t take away my guns.” Those are the buzzwords that come out, “Hey, don’t take away my guns.”

BPR: And is that a campaign from gun owners, catchphrases that people use to ignite fear?

LC: Well, we talked about distrust of government, and that it starts with that. They don’t trust the government [when it says] that this is common sense regulation. It’s not a subversive plot to take away every hunting rifle or shotgun that legitimate sportsmen need and have.

BPR: So, getting back to distrust of government, is political polarization in Washington increasing distrust of government?

LC: It certainly helps with distrust, the polarization that I witnessed in my time there, and it seems to have gotten even worse. Somebody yelled out at the State of the Union address at President Obama, “You lie.” A member of Congress in the middle of the State of the Union address — that to me crystallized the partisanship, such a phrase to yell out at a somber occasion. Unbelievable. We have to do a better job at coming together to solve our national problems. The two parties coming together at the table and getting the job done doesn’t seem to be working.

BPR: What do we need to do to get Democrats and Republicans to start working together on important issues?

LC: It’s a big discussion, what we need to do. They say as you get involved with these primaries — I think that is very accurate — that in order to prevail, as John McCain found out and Mitt Romney found out on the Republican side, you’re just pulled further and further to the edges. And they used to say it’s not as bad as the Democratic side, but [they are also] pulled further and further to the left. President Clinton was successful at saying, when he was running in the primaries, “I’m not going to be pulled way out to the left here. I know I have to run in November, and I think I can prevail in the primaries and still chart a more central path.”

It was in this last election when Romney’s campaign manager said, “Etch-a-Sketch, we take the primaries and shake it up and start all over again” and you shouldn’t have to be that way. You should be making statements that you’re going to be held to every day of the campaign, not shake it up and start over. Now we have a different view on immigration. Now we have a different view on international issues. Now we have a different view on guns. It shouldn’t be one position for the primaries and another one for the November election. It shouldn’t be that way.

BPR: But isn’t it that more polarized and politically extreme people vote in the primaries?

LC: Yes, that’s one of the problems.

BPR: So how do we get more people to vote in the primaries?

LC: It used to be that there weren’t primaries — you went to a convention.  And then there was dissatisfaction with the smoke-filled rooms [of conventions]. Out of the convention comes a candidate that a few delegates have elected who is now our choice for president, and so [people said], “Let’s go to the primary system.” Maybe we need to go back — and it’s ever evolving, to elect delegates and they go to the convention and argue over who has the most successful chance in November, and we’ll pick that person rather than through the primary system where you build up and you’re committed to the winning of delegates.

BPR: I’m curious, what did you think of the Republican primaries in the last election?

LC: It’s amazing to watch the Rudy Giulianis and the Mitt Romneys and the John McCains who I know as moderate — they couldn’t get elected in New York City or Massachusetts. And I know John McCain was good on environmental issues, he was good in immigration issues, he was good on tax policy when I served with him and when he ran for president, he changed. [He] was completely different on the issues. Completely different. It’s sad to see.

BPR: What’s your prediction for the future of the Republican Party right now?

LC: Good question. They are going through a lot of soul-searching. One of the reasons I left the party is their focus on social issues that seem to galvanize the base, energize the base and that was part of their strategy whether it’s immigration or gay marriage, whether its immigration, or gay marriage or abortion —so many of these social issues that I don’t think the general public ultimately cast as priorities. I’d rather [have] us get the economy going, take care of health care and have good schools and low tuitions. These are the issues people are talking about [while] the Republican Party is getting into these social issues deeper and deeper.

BPR: You mentioned your time as a Senate Republican. How have your views changed since you left the Republican Party to become an independent?

LC: Well, my views haven’t changed and that is why I left the party. I stand behind my votes against the deep tax cuts even as a Republican; in fact, John McCain and I were the only two votes against the Bush tax cuts which favored the wealthy and brought back deficits. I’m proud of my vote against the war in Iraq, I’m proud of my vote against the prescription drug benefit before we reform Medicare, because we are adding another unpaid benefit to Medicare. These are all fiscally conservative, Republican-like policies. And that hasn’t changed since becoming governor. I like being an Independent governor, the only one in the 50 states, and I don’t know whether governing has been easier since being independent, but it has been interesting to be in this position. [There are] a few other independents now in the Senate, like Bernie Sanders, but they caucus with the Democratic Party, so we’ll see.

BPR: Is there any chance we’ll see you on the Democratic ticket in 2014?

LC: Well, certainly I think about that, when I left the Republican Party, I became an independent and I did support Sen. Barack Obama for president in 2008. I then supported him again in 2012; I spoke at the Democratic Convention and heard the issues that I cared about, whether it’s environment or even fiscal conservatism which used to be Republic and is now more of a democratic issue — no deficits, using the tools of government to help build up strong middle class, and personal liberties. Republicans are turning their backs on warrant-less wiretapping and some of our First Amendment freedoms. It seems that the Democratic Party has embraced some of those issues that I care about.

BPR: What’s your feeling on gay marriage in the Supreme Court? What are we going to see?

LC: A prediction? The Supreme Court ruled on the Affordable Care Act — President Obama’s healthcare bill — favorably, with Chief Justice Roberts being the key vote there. So I think they’ll see this as a constitutional right. Why should we be discriminating against two people that love each other and want to get married? I have some guarded optimism there. Our neighboring states have all passed it — NY, CT, MA, VT, ME, NH. It’s passed our House 5 –19 overwhelmingly and we’re waiting for a vote in the Senate. So although the Supreme Court is ruling, we’re also trying to get it passed here locally, here in our Statehouse and hopefully, that will be soon and successful.

BPR: So is the movement going to come from the states?

LC: Yes, it is.

BPR: Is that a more powerful force than the federal government?

LC: I’d like both. I think the Supreme Court should rule and that the states should pass it also.

BPR: So, my last question: Who’s going to be on the ballot in 2016?

LC: Well, it seems like we just got done with ’12, doesn’t it?

BPR: I know, but everyone is talking about it. Do you think Hillary Clinton is going to run?

LC: I do, at least that’s her plan right now. I don’t know whether the fatigue will set in, whether she can really keep this us. She’s going to do a book and then go on a book tour and eventually, it’s going to catch up to her. It seems like we just ended ’12 but that’s the sport that we’re in.

BPR: Are you going to give a name?

LC: The issues here in Rhode Island are just so intense. I have my own election coming up in 2014 so never mind 2016. My focus isn’t on 2016.

 

Source: Stanley Medical Research Institute, via the San Francisco Chronicle
What does mental illness have to do with guns?

This piece examines the gun control debate in response to the Janus Forum ongoing Miniseries On Guns in America. The Series’ final installment, “Mental Health,” takes place Tuesday, April 9 at 4pm.

Mental health seems to be the one point, and only one point, that liberals and the NRA agree upon when it comes to gun control—but one side is clearly getting the better of the other.

Let’s assume the consensus on mental health is pretty much set in stone. “Metal health outreach and screening” might have made the Aurora shooters’ fail a background check, writes Craig R. Whitney, a former New York Times editor and author of “Living with Guns: A Liberal’s Case for the Second Amendment.” A renewed focus on mental health and civil commitments was the only agreement between the NRA’s Chris Cox and Senator Blumenthal. In his announcement to introduce gun control legislation, Harry Reid assured reporters that the bill would include a “mental health provision,” without elaboration. Reid seemed to be responding to one of Wayne LaPierre’s favorite talking points: “We have a mental health system in this country that has completely and totally collapsed,” LaPierre said in an interview with NBC. “We have no national database of these lunatics.”

These lunatics. I empathize with the pro-gun control contingent’s stampede toward any glint of compromise from the NRA, but stop and think about what LaPierre is saying: his clear misunderstanding of what the mental health system is supposed to do, rehabilitate and not blacklist; the glibness of demonizing an underclass of Americans who already remain badly stigmatized; or, if nothing else, the tone-deafness of a spokesman for an industry whose main product was recently used to dismember children, ostensibly now having appointed himself grand inquisitor in the new Hunt for Lunatics. After all, only 5% of violent crime is committed by the mentally ill. Nearly 70% of murders are committed by the mentally healthy using Wayne’s weapons.

But the most unnerving point is the one that LaPierre actually gets right: our mental health system is deeply flawed. In a twist that should surprise no one, the actual flaws of the system represent exactly the opposite ones that might have lent LaPierre’s argument any validity.

Namely, one of the most under-reported crises in American mental heath systems is the widespread over-diagnosis of mental illness. This year, the American Psychiatric Association will publish the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the bible of mental health diagnosis. The DSM encapsulates the arrival of a private pharmaceutical behemoth with a profit motive that makes Trump Tower look like a kibbutz. We often assume the principle task of medical innovators is to discover new cures. In the case of mental health and the DSM, however, it may be more profitable to discover new illnesses.

Dr. Allen Frances recently has presented a similar argument, postulating that the real explanation for the rise in mental health diagnoses reflects a downward spiral of a political-medical complex and a profit motive gone haywire. Why not broaden the definition of mental illness when your industry has a monopoly on “curing” it? Using the AMA’s notoriously murky diagnostic guidelines, over half of the American population qualifies as mentally diseased during some point in their lives. Over 25% would qualify right now. If that strikes you as suspicious, Frances thinks you’re right (see video below). A few of the DSM’s new “disorders”:

Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (for “temper tantrums”)

Major Depressive Disorder (for “normal grief”)

Minor Neurocognitive Disorder (for “everyday forgetting” in old age)

Generalized Anxiety Disorder (for “everyday worries”)

“The rates of mental illness would seem to be climbing at alarming proportions,” says Frances. But “only a small portion” of this increase can actually account for medical and cultural improvements in recognizing the authentic signs of mental illness. “It’s very easy to change the definition of a mental disorder,” says Frances. “All of a sudden you can have millions of new patients,” largely by altering the text of the DSM. “You can invent ten million patients overnight.” The widespread debate over ADHD, for instance, represents the most visible layer of this debate. But it is also related to the conversation surrounding guns.

For the right, the fierce desire to lock up the “lunatics” presents an embarrassing contradiction. Think about it. The NRA believes that the government’s only motivation for implementing background checks is the tyrannical confiscation of everyone’s guns. But if I’m a scheming, tyrannical government, wouldn’t a far easier ploy to confiscate guns be to create a mental health requirement for firearms? Why waste political capital on background checks legislation, which has a far lower chance of passage, when you can achieve the same tyrannical step toward confiscation through the far-more-popular mental health barricade? ADHD, OCD, or any other form of neurosis would bar gun ownership, and the 50% of the population that suffers mental health issues in their lifetime could then conceivably become gun-less. Not that the NRA polemics were ever of serious consideration, but it serves as a good reminder that even venturing down their bizarre rabbit-hole of alternative reality, truly nothing holds up. Yet the NRA is promoting the mental health requirement as a magnanimous concession.

The answer why, of course, is that background checks now bite into profit margins in a way that mental health requirements later do not—that is, the NRA is willing to “lose” the business of mental health patients, because there is no business coming from mental health patients. Mental health patients are not violent, despite the enduring stereotypes of Americans.

And that’s where the right is meep-meeping the left on mental health. The liberal position ought to advocate for a mental health system that treats patients with dignity and, just like the medical field at large, remains devoted to making people’s lives better. That means taking small steps to realign the pharmaceuticals profit motive, taking a holistic and community-oriented approach to healing, and most importantly, creating and sustaining a national dialogue that reflects our commitment to normalizing mental illness relative to other illnesses.

Instead, the political left is largely entertaining LaPierre’s “lunatics” argument. Absent a voice of reason, our national approach for mental health now resembles a conversation that begins with “Keep these lunatics away from guns” and ends with “Let’s put them in a registry.” Is there any reason to believe that such a conversation serves our long-term needs to engender a more sensible mentality toward mental health—let alone the needs of the patients themselves?

The political left is betting away a chance to serve as that voice of reason, and setting back our national conversation on mental health as a result. All this for a provision that won’t cost the NRA a dime, and prevent all of the firearms crime that mental health patients don’t commit. And that, to use a term of art, is just plain crazy.