Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Guns and the Second Amendment: A Common Sense Solution

“There's no tragedy in life like the death of a child. Things never get back to the way they were.”
Dwight Eisenhower

Lately, it feels like every other week we hear about a tragic and random mass shooting in America. Sadly, this seems to have become such a common occurrence that the post-tragedy outpouring of sympathy has become rote while our outrage seems to have dissipated into resignation. This should be frightening to everyone, irrespective of where they stand on the issue of guns rights. It is as if both sides have resigned themselves to the fact that these tragedies will continue to occur because lawmakers have neither the political will to take on the NRA, nor the backbone to stand on principle and find a common-sense solution to protect young lives.

The second amendment, written by James Madison in 1787 and ratified by the House of Representative in 1791, made imminent sense. At the time, standing armies had been used by the British and European monarchies for centuries as tools of oppression against the people. Apart from fighting wars, armed state militias were used to help protect people from bandits, American Indians and militias from other states (source: Wikipedia). However, that was more than 200 years ago and arguably today there is no threat to America or its fifty states from bandits, American Indians or the British. Iranian or North Korean long-range missiles and home grown terrorists are something to consider, but none of these threats can be countered by the right for individuals to bear arms. There is also now a formal US army and National Guard structure comprising of the old ‘State’ militia, after the Militia Act of 1903 organized the various state militias into the present National Guard system (source: Wikipedia). It is for this reason that the rest of the world does not understand America’s continued obsession with guns in the face of the growing rash of violence.

There is no quick and easy answer to this problem, but I do believe the time has come for all of us to act - it would be unconscionable not to do so. That said, I am optimistic that we can find a solution that will satisfy people on both sides of the amendment. However, before we can get to a practical and workable solution, both sides need to listen to each other and take into consideration the other’s legitimate concerns and constitutional right.

Let’s start with the pro-gun advocates - other than it being their constitutional right, and a hobby, many people also own guns for sport. I don’t think anyone will have an issue with people wanting to own guns for hunting (other than animal rights activists), provided hunters are properly trained to use their weapon, take care to avoid accidents, and do not trophy hunt endangered species. For the most part, this is true of all hunters, other than Dick Cheney. And, yes, accidents do happen, but that is not sufficient reason to revoke a gun license for those who like to and want to hunt.

The second area involves having a gun to protect oneself. This is the more complex part of the gun rights debate and the more contentious one. Here I want to point to an important difference between being a city dweller and a suburbanite. One can make a pretty persuasive argument that in large cities it is hard to justify the need for a person to have a gun at home, leave alone to carry a concealed weapon. For the most part we live in apartment buildings, where there are always other people around. In the event of a crime or burglary, help can be there within minutes.

There is also a difference in psychology that is worth considering. I find that people in big cities tend to be more aggressive, impatient and rude, compared to our brethren in smaller cities and towns everywhere in the world. I imagine that the constant dog-eat-dog competitiveness and daily rat race can cause us city-dwellers to lose our patience and tolerance over the years. So, given the access to police and help from strangers, who are more often than not at scream's length, and with people generally more angry, aggressive, and pissed-off – why would we want to put a gun in their hands?

If someone in a city pulls a gun, during a crime, common sense tells me that the odds of getting out alive or unharmed would go down dramatically if the victim were to pull out a weapon of their own. So, I have a hard time justifying the need to own a gun in big cities like New York, Bombay or Shanghai.

Now let’s for a moment leave the madness, hustle-bustle and bright lights of big cities and travel to a home in a small town in America. We exit the highway and find ourselves on a smaller road. We suddenly start to see the scenery change. There are no more McDonald’s or concrete structures; instead we are surrounded by lush green fields and gently meandering hills. There are no buildings here, and often the only views on the horizon, where the fields end, are a thick brush of trees that form the beginnings of a forest. The homes are not clustered together. One can drive seconds and then minutes between each one. There are no hospitals, police or fire stations. Even the GPS screen, which normally shows surrounding areas by highlighting roads, bridges, rest stops, fuel stations and various different aspects of civilization, goes completely black, until there is just darkness all around. Suddenly, even the sparse and dispersed homes start to disappear and one is surrounded by green, brown and the sounds of nature. You can no longer tell where the homes are because each has a long winding driveway off the little country road and are completely hidden from view. In what seems like an age since one left the highway, we come to the type of navigational point we were told to look for – a large green mailbox. This destination is officially in the middle of nowhere, and this is life outside the big cities and city suburbs of America.
The reason for that long and detailed picture is a simple but important one. If you live in a place so isolated, cut-off, and miles away from the nearest hospital – a place where in a crisis, police and emergency response times can be upwards of thirty minutes, and the sound of your loudest gut-wrenching screams are drowned out by the trees barely after exiting your lungs – would you not want a weapon to protect your wife, sister, daughter, son or yourself in the event of a threat? I know I would. I would go even further and argue that in such surroundings, knowing that people own and carry guns actually serves as a deterrent to would-be robbers and criminals.

Now that we have viewed both sides of the argument, I think it would be fair to say that we can see why it is larger numbers of non-city folk who tend to support the 2nd amendment while big city types tend to oppose it. Rather than changing the 2nd amendment or attempting to create a complex set of laws that try to factor in where you live, I believe we can agree to something simpler that will satisfy both advocates and opponents.

I often hear gun rights advocates refute the notion that it is harder to get a driving license than buy a gun, saying that the former is a privilege while the latter is a right. Well, then I would add that while the latter may be a right, protected by the US constitution, it is also a great personal responsibility. If we can agree on this, then let’s make sure that only responsible people are able to buy and carry guns; and that we are also able to create a system that holds them responsible. I am not suggesting we turn this into a driving test, but that we take virtually the same model and create a system for gun purchase and ownership akin to the one we have for the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

My suggestion is to create a Gun Registration Office (GRO), as extension to the DMV in each state. Here is a starting outline of the GRO’s main functions, beginning with strict background checks that a majority of Americans already agree on:

Anyone buying a gun, no matter where they purchase it, would be required to: 
  1. Pass a criminal background check 
  2. Not have any history of mental illness (national database will need to be created and fines imposed for not keeping it updated) 
  3. Complete a gun safety training course at a GRO accredited local range 
  4. Register weapons and acquire a gun license for each weapon
The GRO would be the sole issuer of gun licenses and would be funded by gun license fees. 
  1. License costs would be based on gun type, with additional costs for conceal permits and for certain types of assault or semi-automatic weapons (like car insurance)
  2. Licenses would need to be renewed annually 
  3. Owners would need to pass gun safety training, once every three years 
  4. Only law enforcement will be able to access the GRO database, with a court order
  5. Owners would get points and fines for minor offenses (similar to traffic violations) 
  6. When a licensee dies their family will have 90 days to transfer the license to another family member, surrender or legally sell their guns through a GRO accredited dealer
  7. Owners could lose their license for major lapses like: 
  • Failing to report a lost or stolen firearm, accidentally discharging their weapon publicly (whether injury occurs or not)
  • Failing to keep weapon out of reach of a child, being convicted of a serious crime e.g. assault with a deadly weapon or domestic abuse
Such a system will shut down the ability to legally sell guns without background checks (at gun shows, etc.) and stop people with mental illnesses from purchasing weapons. Of course, this will not to stop every madman from getting a gun and killing if he is intent on it; nothing will prevent that. However, such a system will go a long way in dissuading straw purchases (people who buy guns for those who cannot pass background checks) and preventing irresponsible gun owners from owning guns; i.e. people who allow their small children access to loaded weapons (Source: Washington Post article), fail to report a stolen or lost firearm or have a history of domestic violence, etc. 

I hope both sides can agree that it is the best way to add transparency and accountability, without limiting the right of individuals. It also serves to protect responsible gun hobbyists and owners, and does so in a way that will allay the fears of gun-right opponents. Such a system would not require banning any type of firearm.

All the gun owners I know are responsible, law abiding citizens, so should have no objection to making this constitutional right more secure and transparent, while being held accountable for abusing it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 2)

READ: Part 1 here.

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

Now let’s look at the two main arguments that lawmakers and spy agency officials constantly put forward to justify the far reaching and arbitrary nature of the current surveillance programs. Governments around the world agree that acts committed by seemingly normal people with no affiliation to a terrorist group are both the new soup du jour and their greatest fear. Yet, a few honest people in security establishments also add that there is virtually no way to detect or stop these people unless we can find a way to read their minds.

This begs the question whether programs exposed by Snowden, like PRISM, are an attempt by the government (perhaps unwittingly) to build a machine designed to detect an act of terror before it happens? A sort of pre-crime unit like in the one in the Steve Spielberg movie, Minority Report. Is the US government attempting to collect every piece of communication from every citizen, in the hope of trying to establish a pattern of behaviour that might indicate self-radicalization? Proponents of the current NSA programs would have us believe that such a program is the only way for the government and security agencies to keep us safe by stopping lone wolf attacks. 

Many lawmakers defend these programs by talking about the number of terrorist attacks that have been thwarted as a result of this surveillance, but are conveniently unable to provide any statistics due to national security concerns. Both the Justice Department and the FBI have publicly admitted that “in spite of all that added spying, they couldn’t point to one single case that was solved, or one single terrorist act that was thwarted through the use of these Patriot Act provisions.” (Source: Washington Post Article). Some people disagree with this view and argue the opposite, but, since we do not have access to ‘sensitive’ information, let’s look at the last few major terrorist attacks that have been thwarted.

In the case of the Times Square bomber it was a vigilant food vendor that alerted police and not the massive surveillance apparatus the government has built. It was a last minute tip from a Saudi informant that prevented the printer bombs, aboard cargo planes, from exploding in midair en-route to Chicago. The two packages bound for the US, had passed undetected “through four countries in at least four different airplanes, two of them carrying passengers” (source: NY Times). The Nigerian underwear bomber’s father personally went to the US Embassy in Abuja to warn the US government that his son was becoming radicalized. This tip was passed on to counterterrorism officials in the US, yet less than a month later Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab successfully passed through Nigerian and Dutch security using his real identity, paying cash for a one way ticket and never checked luggage – all things that are supposed red flags in our post-9/11 Patriot Act security apparatus. The older brother in the Boston marathon bombings was identified by Russian intelligence, who warned US intelligence that this young man on a path to being radicalized. I guess the NSA’s multi-billion dollar machine did not think so. 

Time after time we have seen that human intelligence is the only surefire way to thwart a terrorist attack. Human intelligence will always be the most valuable and effective way for us to stop any kind of attack, because all attacks require time to plan and the process of radicalisation is visible to the people closest to the would-be terrorist. The attacker needs time to procure bomb-making expertise, buy physical materials and will likely also have some accomplices. A friend, co-worker, family or community member will witness changes in these people; homegrown terrorists do not live in isolation. All of the recent lone wolf terrorists in the US have been well-educated and functioning members of society – but all must at some point have displayed signs of odd behaviour and warning signs to the people around them. This is where we need to focus. 

No amount of reading emails or storing metadata from our Skype and cellphone calls can provide this intelligence. We should focus our energy on winning trust in local communities and educating people to inform authorities the moment they see well-defined warning signs. I am not talking about asking everyone to spy on neighbours, but about picking up on overt changes in behaviour in people we have known all our lives.

One other factor that should concern us is the government’s growing reliance on machines and data. Every data scientist will tell you that ‘too much’ data is worse than having none at all. It can actually hamper one’s ability to prevent attacks because you either miss the needles in the haystack or spread yourself too thin trying to understand and connect every dot. Consider the sheer amount of data being collected today; it requires authorities to cast a much wider net and as a result lose focus on the more important warning signs.  

I am not suggesting that we abandon spying programs or get rid of the entire Patriot Act. Nor am I suggesting that we lay down our arms and meekly accept our fate. We absolutely must be vigilant and put measures in place to prevent attacks, but there also needs to be a discussion about the limits and oversights that must be placed on these programs. Government needs to be more honest about the realities and limits of how safe we can be, rather than pandering to voters and behaving like there is always something more that can be done after a new attack. 

America’s founding fathers were acutely aware of too much power corrupting people and built safeguards into the constitution. Today, our government and security agencies are building deeply sophisticated and frighteningly broad surveillance systems designed to spy on their own citizens in the name of protecting us from acts of terror. The problem is that this is a disingenuous and irrational argument, one that will not make us safer, but will lead to greater abuse of power with less transparency and virtually no accountability.

The question we need to answer is – have we become so irrational in this fear that we would give up freedoms for which our forefathers gave their lives? Are we willing to live in a world where government watches our every move and monitors every form of communication just to find one needle in a vast haystack? I know I do not want to live in such a world. I would rather take my chances and die in a terrorist attack.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The Patriot Act, Terrorism and the Irrationality of Fear (Part 1)

“The essence of Government is power; and power, lodged as it must be in human hands, will ever be liable to abuse.”
James Madison

I believe most can agree that, no matter what your stance on national security, terrorism is and always will be a heinous and cowardly act of violence committed against innocent people, motivated by political, religious or social fanaticism. However, how we chose to let our government protect us and how we decide to fight this cowardly and invisible enemy is a choice we must make. The questions we have to ask ourselves are: How many hard-fought freedoms are we willing to let our government sacrifice in the name of protecting us? And how much privacy are we are willing to give up to feel safer? To say that we need to make an absolute choice between our freedoms and our security is a false argument because it’s impossible to be 100% safe from an enemy that is willing to give up their own lives to take ours. 

This is an extremely important debate given the revelations about the opaque nature with which our government and the NSA have been operating and abusing their powers. They have gone beyond our borders, bypassed our laws and their severely overextended their remit. The NSA no longer felt the need to keep the President of the United States of America informed about some of their spying programs. We urgently need a new framework for the NSA, one that has sufficient and effective oversight by the executive, legislative and the judicial branches of government. The NSA has shown they cannot be trusted, operating with complete impunity, little transparency and zero accountability. Beyond the argument to protect privacy, there are a number of other reasons why the current NSA spying program needs to be curtailed and have some reasonable limits applied to it, before it is too late.

Let’s start with the simple fact that, while fear is an irrational thing, it does have a tangible effect in our daily lives and societies. Take the stock market, for example. It goes up and down based on a number of rational factors, but is also directly driven by irrational sentiment – our level of confidence or lack thereof, in the economy, personal job prospects and optimism or pessimism about our future. So too with terrorism, there are irrational and rational elements that we need to consider when determining the level of security that is reasonable to protect against attacks.

First, security experts around the world agree that the majority of airport security procedures are completely ineffective in preventing an act of terror; yet the TSA’s budget in 2014 was over $7 Billion (source: Wikipedia). There have been numerous studies and reports published on how ineffective the TSA and their methods are (Source: “Airport Security Is Making Americans Less Safe” and “Report Says T.S.A. Screening Is Not Objective” and “TSA Chief Out After Agents Fail 95 Percent of Airport Breach Tests”.) So, if you examine these facts rationally, you could build a strong argument for getting rid of most of these airport security measures, or at the very least cut down on the number of inconveniences travelers face. Yet, the reason for all this security is simple and has little to do with making us more secure on an aircraft. It is psychological and driven by the fact that air travel is vital for global commerce and economic growth.

Imagine if people became too scared to fly - the world and business would come to a grinding halt. So even though the amount of money spent on airport security is disproportionate to the actual security it provides, the visibility and inconvenience makes people feel safer, which in turn helps them go about their daily lives. For this reason, there are sometimes important and valid reasons to make a show of security. There is a tangible economic benefit involved and this is why airports and not train stations, bus depots or sea ports are protected in the same manner. This is also the reason we always see a beefed up security presence on the streets in the aftermath of a terror attack anywhere in the world.

The second thing to weigh in this debate is that we have a disproportionate emotional response to terrorism as compared to every other event that ends with loss of life. Consider our response to the Boston Marathon bombings against our response to the Texas refinery explosion that happened the same week. Three people died in Boston and fifteen in Texas. In Boston, a number of people were maimed; in Texas an entire town was leveled with hospitals, schools and homes all destroyed. Yet, we and the media fixated entirely on the events in Boston and the subsequent manhunt for two young men. Within a few weeks America had donated $61 Million to the OneFund for the Boston victims; while Texas has received little more than $1M of our kindness in that time. I am not arguing that one was less or more devastating than the other, simply pointing out how disproportionate, both our fixation and our tangible responses is to terrorism versus any other calamitous event. Ultimately it is much easier to unite against a common enemy that has a name and face, and get some sense of closure when our government hunts down and kills them.