Communion Of Dreams


RKBA – a progressive’s journey.
September 29, 2009, 8:53 am
Filed under: 2nd Amendment, Civil Rights, Daily Kos, Government, Guns

RKBA? Commonly used, the Right to Keep and Bear Arms.*

This is a personal story of my journey from being raised with guns, experiencing the personal effects of gun violence, and coming around to the belief that a ‘personal right’ interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is a good liberal/progressive value.

I offer it to my fellow progressives for perspective, and apologize for the length.

OK, first thing. I was born and raised in the Midwest. My dad was a cop, and a hunter, so I grew up with guns. I knew how to safely handle and shoot guns before I could ride a bicycle, and I owned my own guns by the time I was 8. So part of my familiarity with guns is just cultural – everyone I knew had guns in their homes, and it was just no big deal.

But I’ll be honest here: I don’t much remember my childhood. Because when I was 11, my dad was killed. And the shock of that (and my mother’s accidental death 18 months later) just sorta wiped away my memories of childhood.

My adolescence was predictably rocky, but thanks to the love of family and good friends, I got through it. My younger sister and I went to live with relatives, who did what they could to give us stability. But when you have lost one parent to violence, and another to accident, before your teen years, it leaves a hole in your life. And to this day, middle-aged man that I am, I am sickened at the thought of violence as it is so casually represented in popular culture, and as it exists in reality far too often.

Still, I went away to college at the usual time, reasonably well adjusted. While at college – Grinnell College, a proud bastion of liberalism – I continued my intellectual and political growth. I learned to let go of the last vestiges of homophobia and racism I had grown up with. I came to better understand the roots of crime, and of violence, and see that many of the policies of the Reagan era were at best counter-productive. My inclinations towards progressivism solidified, bolstered not just by education but also by life experience. I came to loathe the rhetoric coming from the Right, and to look upon all they said and did with deep suspicion.

This included the rhetoric coming from the NRA, which had turned strongly into being allies with the GOP. Through graduate school and work in the 1980s I didn’t have much time for hunting, though I still did do so occasionally, out of the belief that if I was going to be a carnivore I should confront the reality that another living being had died so that I could eat meat. But I just couldn’t understand why the NRA, which was just a safety organization while I was growing up, had gone so far off the deep end politically. Then – insanity of insanities – the push to legalize concealed-carry laws at the state level started.

I thought it was nuts. Particularly with my personal experience of losing my father to gun violence, I did not see why these people wanted to push more guns into more hands as a matter of public policy. Who on earth wanted that? Why, the streets would run with blood. Sure, I owned firearms, and knew how to use them safely, and so did most everyone else I knew – but this was just asking for trouble.

A year or so after Florida had implemented concealed-carry I had to attend a meeting in Fort Myers. I had been in close contact with a number of the attendees, all people I respected for their intelligence and thoughtfulness. After the meeting was over, we were sitting around talking, and the discussion somehow turned to guns and Florida’s experience with adopting “shall issue” concealed carry.

To my surprise, a number of the locals said that they thought the law was great. Several had obtained their permits. Further, since we were in a private residence, they were comfortable in showing how they carried their firearms. I, and a couple of the other people from out of state who were there, were rather stunned by the whole thing. I mean, it was just weird that I had been in meetings all day with people who were carrying guns.

This made a huge impression on me. And I started thinking through the matter, discussing it over time with others. And I watched to see how things played out over time in Florida, waiting for an upsurge in violence because of these people carrying weapons. But that didn’t happen. And I slowly came to the conclusion that I had made a classic mistake of considering myself to be “unusual” in my respect for safely handling firearms – when I knew to the contrary that most everyone I knew who owned firearms treated them with the same consideration that I did.

And I continued to think this matter through, to the point where I wrote an essay on the matter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1993, a companion piece to another essay of mine they had published. Here’s the beginning:

Recently, I had a column here concerning the radical NRA leadership, and the danger that their attitude of ‘anything goes’ with weapons and ammunition poses to police, federal agents, and the average American. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that I favor legislative efforts to allow most people to carry a concealed firearm.

I do not see a contradiction here. What the NRA leadership is doing to demonize and discredit law enforcement makes us all less safe. Having more law-abiding citizens trained in the safe handling of firearms, and duly licensed to carry those firearm for self defense, would make us more safe. Sure, the ideal solution would be to rid society of all firearms, or at least all handguns. But that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon, with a huge number of firearms already in private hands. Certainly, the criminals aren’t going to give up their weapons. And a crime-fearing public doesn’t want to relinquish their guns, though they rarely carry them in violation of current law.

A concealed-carry law would change the calculus of crime in a very fundamental way.

You can see the whole thing here.

OK, so that was 16 years ago. Since then, Missouri (where I live) and another 36 states have implemented “shall issue” concealed-carry legislation, meaning that if someone meets the criteria set out in law (some mixture of training and background-investigation), then the state has a duty to grant them a license to carry a concealed weapon. Another ten states have some form of “may issue” legislation. Millions of Americans have gotten these permits, and the wave of shootings I initially expected still hasn’t happened.

So what? Why does a lack of violence support the RKBA? There also isn’t solid data to support that it has stopped crime – just anecdotal stories. Why should a self-proclaimed “progressive” support people carrying guns?

Well, I take a pragmatic approach, combined with a philosophical one. On the one hand, concealed-carry does not seem to have caused any problems, so there is no major reason to impinge on the Constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms. And, in keeping with how I see the other rights outlined in the Bill of Rights, I see the 2nd Amendment to be a personal right, not a “state’s right”. It has always struck me as odd that the conservatives see all the Rights to be “state’s rights” except the 2nd, and liberals have approached this the other way around.

Good, pragmatic progressive that I am, I want to see government serve the needs of people, while not limiting our freedoms unless there is a clear case to be made that it can do so in a productive fashion which outweighs the loss. My dad was a cop, and I have known cops all my life. And almost every cop I have ever known will tell you that their job is to protect *society*, and the unfortunate truth is that all too often that means catching a crook after they have done something – not before. Meaning after someone has been robbed, or assaulted, or killed.

The RKBA – or a gun – will not protect you from being a victim of crime. At best it may give you a chance to defend yourself or a loved one. Anyone who thinks otherwise needs more education and training on the matter. But I would rather have some chance – and the choice to take it – than no chance at all.

Jim Downey

(Written for and posted to Daily Kos, where I’m sure there will be an interesting discussion.)



“Grab your ankles, please.”
September 28, 2009, 10:35 am
Filed under: Bruce Schneier, Civil Rights, Emergency, Failure, Government, Humor, Predictions, Privacy, Terrorism

Good lord. I’d heard about this, as an “attempted assassination”, but I hadn’t heard the details:

On the evening of Aug. 28, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the Saudi Deputy Interior Minister — and the man in charge of the kingdom’s counterterrorism efforts — was receiving members of the public in connection with the celebration of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. As part of the Ramadan celebration, it is customary for members of the Saudi royal family to hold public gatherings where citizens can seek to settle disputes or offer Ramadan greetings.

One of the highlights of the Friday gathering was supposed to be the prince’s meeting with Abdullah Hassan Taleh al-Asiri, a Saudi man who was a wanted militant from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). Al-Asiri had allegedly renounced terrorism and had requested to meet the prince in order to repent and then be accepted into the kingdom’s amnesty program.

* * *

But the al-Asiri case ended very differently from the al-Awfi case. Unlike al-Awfi, al-Asiri was not a genuine repentant — he was a human Trojan horse. After al-Asiri entered a small room to speak with Prince Mohammed, he activated a small improvised explosive device (IED) he had been carrying inside his anal cavity. The resulting explosion ripped al-Asiri to shreds but only lightly injured the shocked prince — the target of al-Asiri’s unsuccessful assassination attempt.

As Bruce Schneier says:

Nobody tell the TSA, but last month someone tried to assassinate a Saudi prince by exploding a bomb stuffed in his rectum.

* * *
For years, I have made the joke about Richard Reid: “Just be glad that he wasn’t the underwear bomber.” Now, sadly, we have an example of one.

Richard Reid was the “shoe bomber”, and the reason why we all have to remove our shoes when you go through security at an airport.

Consider the possible reactions from the TSA. I suppose we all should limber up, and get used to literally bending over from now on.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



Yeah, they’d have to arrest me.
September 26, 2009, 11:04 am
Filed under: Failure, Government, Humor, Travel

Heard about this on “Wait Wait… “ this morning:

KALONA, Iowa (AP) — A tourism gimmick in the southeast Iowa town of Kalona is giving new meaning to the phrase three hots and a cot.

Last week the town’s Chamber of Commerce and Washington County sheriff pulled over people with out-of-state license plates and offered them an all-expense paid visit — including free meals and a night’s lodging just as if they were really being arrested — to the town of 2,300, about 20 miles southwest of Iowa City.

* * *

Then, along came Ron and Cheri Cunningham of Sedalia, Mo.

“I was behind a truck that I’d followed for about 15 miles. I wasn’t speeding. I didn’t know what I could’ve possibly done,” Ron Cunningham said.

Mr. Cunningham and his wife enjoyed their visit, however. But then, they’re from Sedalia. Almost anything would be an improvement.

Anyway, I’ve been to Kalona, back when I lived in Iowa. Used to drive through it pretty regularly, in fact, when the highway ran through it. They have a nice cheese shop there. But when the DOT relocated and modernized the highway, it was an improvement. And if I was driving by now I would really resent being pulled over for such a promotional stunt – it is nothing more than an abuse of police powers, and undermines the respect for those powers.

Yeah, at this point, they’d have to arrest me to get me to go back to visit Kalona.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



Now, if I wrote historical fiction . . .
September 24, 2009, 10:18 am
Filed under: Art, Preparedness, Science, Writing stuff

. . . this would make for a fascinating take-off point:

Largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasure found in UK

LONDON – An amateur treasure hunter prowling English farmland with a metal detector stumbled upon the largest Anglo-Saxon treasure ever discovered, a massive seventh-century hoard of gold and silver sword decorations, crosses and other items, British archaeologists said Thursday.

One expert said the treasure would revolutionize understanding of the Anglo-Saxons, a Germanic people who ruled England from the fifth century until the Norman conquest in 1066. Another said the find would rank among Britain’s best-known historic treasures.

* * *

“It looks like a collection of trophies, but it is impossible to say if the hoard was the spoils from a single battle or a long and highly successful military career,” he said. “We also cannot say who the original, or the final, owners were, who took it from them, why they buried it or when. It will be debated for decades.”

You can see images, and get more information, from The Staffordshire Hoard (I’m impressed that they got a nice website up and running in time for the news of this to break.)

Jim Downey



Fantastic news.
September 22, 2009, 9:48 am
Filed under: Art, Book Conservation, U of Iowa Ctr for the Book

Wow – the MacArthur fellows were announced this morning.

And one of them is an old friend and mentor: Tim Barrett.

I spent several semesters with Tim, studying papermaking, at the University of Iowa Center for the Book, as part of my training as a conservator. I can honestly say that without his help, I would never have become the book conservator I am today, because Tim did such a thorough job of teaching me about how paper behaves and how to use it intelligently.

Wow – I’m just gobsmacked!! I’ve never known a MacArthur fellow before!

Jim Downey



You gotta admit, the man had style.
September 18, 2009, 1:23 pm
Filed under: Government, MetaFilter, Survival, Violence

I haven’t written much about him, but I have always admired Abraham Lincoln. And not just for the usual sixth-grade Civics reasons. In early adulthood I explored the man’s personal history – his personal story – and ever since I have tried to keep up with at least some of the current scholarship about him.

Why? Well, because he was smart in how he handled himself. And furthermore, because he learned how to be even smarter as he went through life, even when he knew that he was faced with impossible situations. Here’s one example of this, which I had forgotten until a recent comment on a MeFi thread jogged my memory. Lincoln had been involved in a public argument with another Illinois politician, and had pushed the man too far – to the point where he was challenged to a duel. Here’s the full story, but I want to concentrate on this passage:

Due to the fact that Lincoln was the one who had been challenged to the duel, tradition gave him the privilege of choosing the time and location of the duel, as well as the weapons that were to be used. Being a man of humor and wit, and having no desire to kill Shields, or allow himself to be killed; Lincoln put together the most ridiculous set of circumstances that he could think of regarding the logistics of the upcoming duel.

* * *

Lincoln stated that the weapons he wished to use would be “Cavalry Broadswords of the largest size”. He figured that he could easily disarm Shields using the swords, whereas pistols would most likely lead to one of their deaths, if not both. He also added that he wanted the duel to be carried out in a pit 10 feet wide by 12 feet deep with a large wooden plank dividing the square in which no man was allowed to step foot over.

These “conditions” were designed not only to be ridiculous; but also to give Lincoln, who at 6’ 4” had longer legs and arms and towered over the much smaller Shields, a decided advantage. Lincoln hoped that these unorthodox conditions that gave him an almost unbeatable advantage would persuade Shields to withdraw the challenge and settle things in a more gentlemanly fashion.

Broadswords in a pit.

Think about that. Fuckin’ broadswords in a fuckin’ pit. Mad Max couldn’t have come up with anything better.

But then there’s this bit, about the day of the duel:

At the last minute, Lincoln demonstrated his obvious physical advantage by hacking away at some of the branches of a nearby Willow tree. The branches were high off the ground and Shields could not hope to reach them; while Lincoln, with his long arms holding a long broadsword, could reach them with ease. This final display was enough to drive home the precarious situation that he was now in, and Shields agreed to settle their differences in a more peaceful way.

And they went on to be life-long friends and political allies. No, seriously.

That, my friends, is how you use intimidation intelligently.

But Lincoln also learned from this experience (he was in his early 30s at the time) that it is possible to push people too far. He had entered into the argument with Shields in order to further his own political career, but was too clever by half in doing so. And once the duel was set in motion, Lincoln had to deal with the potentially deadly situation that he had created. Yes, he set up the conditions of the duel to maximize his intimidation of the other man, but he also knew that there was a mechanism in place (a written apology negotiated by their respective ‘seconds’) to allow the duel to be called off in a manner which would save face for both men. He didn’t seek to destroy his oppenent – he gave his opponent an out, and pushed him that direction, good and hard.

I’m not enough of a Civil War scholar to say that you can see this same approach in Lincoln’s conduct of the war. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to that in the future. But for now I feel comfortable citing the closing from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address as evidence that he understood the necessity of doing more than simply triumphing over an opponent:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Jim Downey

(Cross posted to UTI.)



The Search.
September 18, 2009, 10:14 am
Filed under: Comics, Failure, Fermi's Paradox, Humor, Science, Science Fiction, SETI, Space, tech

Ah, yes, xkcd gets the point across perfectly, once again:

Editing continues to go well with CoD, though this week has been slow due to other demands. Now done with Chapter 7, have trimmed a total of 11,086 words.

Jim Downey




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