22 March 2010

God, Guts and Guns - Only One Goes "Bang!"

There was a genuinely delightful news item a couple weeks ago which came out of Northern California. The story described the worry-filled reaction of the management of the national Starbucks Corp. to the fact that some folks in California have selected Starbucks as a good place to meet and celebrate their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms by, well, keeping and bearing arms in holsters where everyone can see them. These are commonly called the “Open Carry” advocates. (There is even a website, www.opencarry.org.) Essentially, these are people who are in favor of strapping on hog legs and walking down the street. [Note to Carolyn: a “hog leg” is an old slang term for a large revolving pistol.] Since Starbucks is a natural and popular public gathering place, “open carry” advocates have chosen to gather there and celebrate their display of armaments.

After what was apparently a good deal of angst, Starbucks decided to leave the situation alone and ignore the fact that some groups of customers walk in tooled up. (In most states, including West Virginia, a landowner or business premises has a right to exclude people who are carrying firearms, even legally.)

As an aside, let me say that my communication were I the Starbucks president would have been, “Are you sure you people are smart enough to drink coffee without dribbling it all over yourselves?”

Gun rights are an unusually hot topic at the moment. Two years ago, the United States Supreme Court announced a decision in the Heller case which came out of the District of Columbia concerning the ban on firearms within the District. The holding in the Heller was that the Second Amendment did create a personal right to bear arms. Oddly, that was the first time that the Court had interpreted the Second Amendment vis-a-vis citizens. The limitation of Heller was that since it was a District of Columbia case, the ruling did not extend to states and municipalities. Earlier this month, the United States Supreme Court heard argument in the case of McDonald v. Chicago, which addresses the gun ban within the City of Chicago. The Petitioner there seeks to extend Heller to the States through the 14th Amendment Equal Protection guarantee, just as the First Amendment binds the States. The consensus among Court-watchers is that the Supreme Court will extend the Heller doctrine to cover the states, and thereby make it harder for states and municipalities to limit people being armed. (Shortly after Heller, somebody on a District of Columbia city Council proposed that they permit citizens to possess firearms only so long as they were disassembled. I don’t think that would very far.) The workings of the Supreme Court are much more open these days, and a transcript of the argument in McDonald is available online. (www.scotusblog.com) While the Judges talked some about historical context, the argument was mostly on arcane legal concepts.

What, I wonder, are the “open carry” advocates trying to do and trying to say?

While it is couched as some kind of joyous celebration of rights, it is fairly in your face to load up, tool up, and then go walkabout. Whether they admit it or not, these people are indulging in a defiant demonstration that (1) they can carry a pistol and (2) that they in-your-face support gun rights generally, and encourage an armed citizenry for the usual purposes of order, lawfulness and public defense. I find it annoying that many of these people equate themselves with the participants in the Boston Tea Party. (See observations in the not-too-distant future on this subject regarding the odd “tea party movement” in the United States.) Let us be clear at the outset to all open carry advocates: You’re not the Boston Tea Party. You aren't even close. In the locations you are choosing to openly carry weapons, you have a right to do so whether it’s smart or not, and if the representative of the sovereign is standing right there, he or she is not going to arrest you, put you into a prison, try you in a hostile court and then execute you. This was not the case with the actual participants in the Boston Tea Party. Had they been caught, they would have been ended up very publicly stretching a rope. As it was, they did a great deal of economic damage by destroying a very difficult-to-replace commodity. Frankly, strapping on a pistol and taking a walk to Starbucks is pretty weak tea compared to what the Sons of Liberty did. (Aside: They were nearly all Freemasons, and the Boston Tea Party plot was hatched in a Masonic lodge room.)

While the “defiant demonstration” is their best argument, the argument breaks down when you try to determine if it is an effective demonstration, which is not.

Some folks love empty or idiotic yet loud gestures, but I think we should look to the effectiveness of a demonstration. Waving a sign seldom does a whole lot of good, although there are exceptions. The most common misperception by those making demonstrations is that they will be taken seriously in direct proportion to how sincere serious they are. This is rather like Linus waiting for the Great Pumpkin because he has the Most Sincere Pumpkin Patch.
Credibility and truth are not irrevocably tied together, and so the open carry people are simply barking up the wrong tree. The abortion/abortion limitation protesters who wave coat hangers or gruesome photographs of aborted fetuses are two sides of the same coin. No matter how sincere or emotionally driven an advocate might be, if the demonstration is so extreme that it is perceived as coming from a fringe element, nobody is going to take it seriously. That does not impact the First Amendment right to make the statement. It does make the statement useless, ineffective and silly. You have your First Amendment right to make a statement, so go right ahead. If you don’t care if anyone’s listening, that’s your problem.

The strapping on of the old hog leg does, in my judgment, make two statements loud and clear:
One, I watched a lot of cowboy movies when I was a kid. Look at me I’m a real buckaroo. Yippee-ty-yi-yay. And I’m also a dork.

Two, and this is rather more immediately problematic. If one carries firearms for their lawful purposes, open carry tells the ungodly “Please, Mr. Criminal, shoot me first.” (Yeah, yeah, if you have a gun, you can shoot it out. Wrong. You cannot outdraw someone whose gun is already drawn.)

We don’t have to like it, it is not biblical, and it’s not nice, it is not pleasant to contemplate, but much conflict resolution is resolved in this society with force. Force can take lots of forms, the simplest (and most brutal?) of which is physical force. Implements multiply physical force. Firearms multiply it to the point of being deadly force. For all our so-called gun culture, there is really not a very good understanding of firearms in America. Very few people have seen a gunshot wound. GSW’s are not accurately depicted on TV or in the movies. Even in the “real life” medical programs, the brightness of the blood, the subtle gurgling of lungs filling up, and the mixed odors of a perforated body are lacking. Directly visualizing a heart or a brain is just another breed of experience. On television, it can be “just a flesh wound.” That is rare in the real world. On television, we don’t see instances of permanent disability and nobody ever seems to end up in a nursing home. People who do a casual “study” of firearms bandy about terms like wound channel, projectile expansion, muzzle velocity and so forth, but few have the experience to match that in the effect on the human body.

I enjoy shooting as a sport. Not very many people do. That’s okay with me, because as long as people don’t require me to be interested in what they do that I think is boring, the reverse should apply. But make no mistake: firearms are weapons. They were made to be used against flesh, human or animal. Where handguns are concerned, they have been invented and modified and perfected in the way which is best calculated to create the most effective harm to human beings. Whether you are sipping coffee with your Colt on your hip at Starbucks or have a peashooter in your night table at home, if you cannot accept that it is a weapon aimed primarily at shooting people, you’re an idiot and you need to get rid of the gun before you do something terminally stupid with it.

The people who are most familiar with firearms are not those who are running around wearing them to Starbucks. People most familiar with firearms have a deep respect for firearms and what they can do. As such, they are very unlikely to seek out any confrontation and very likely to go to great lengths to avoid confrontation. Some armed people, for example, carry a money clip with $50 or so to give to a mugger/attacker so that a confrontation has a chance to end without the presentment of a gun.

Also, just as a true automobile connoisseur can “love” a Corvette, so can a gun person “love” some particular type of weapon. And when the gun person touches a weapon, he or she does so with the same degree of professional attention and respect that the competent driver shows when firing up a hot car. Let me point out, this is not a genetic thing. My Y-chromosome does not make me a good shot, a good driver, or the world’s greatest lover. No matter how much practice I have, I doubt if I’m ever in a better than decent in marksmanship, if that. When someone picks up a firearm and thinks that this makes them more powerful than a locomotive and able to shoot bulls-eyes at 100 yards, they are exactly the people who shouldn’t be handling firearms or even sharp implements. If you watch people who are familiar with firearms handling, you will be struck with the concentration and attention and FOCUS they pay to them. Every time such a person picks up a weapon, for example, they will clear it, or determine whether it is loaded, safety on, etc. And then, no matter what the result, they will continue to treat it as if it is loaded. If you are not willing and anxious to be this fanatic about the safety issues, you’re not a gun person and you shouldn’t carry a firearm. If you are not willing to accept that what you know about firearms before you pick one up is wrong and are ready to have an open mind to learn to use weapons from the ground up (i.e., from the point “this is the end the bullet comes out of”), don’t go around armed. That’s not a problem, and that’s certainly not a challenge to anyone. If it’s not your cup of tea, you don’t need to do it.

So why do we have armed society and why do we have a Second Amendment? My little bit of writing is not going to add anything to the lexicon, but I do have a few comments.

One argument that is sticky is that an armed populace will not be overwhelmed by a despotic government. That’s not a popular argument, and perhaps the conditions have changed so much since the Revolution that it no longer has tactical viability. (I briefly made that argument to the West Virginia Supreme Court in a gun rights case several years ago, and got REAL negative feedback from a couple of the justices.)

The valid and continuing argument/condition is that there are bad people out there. There are criminals out there. There are people out there who are at times lacking in control and at those times will hurt or kill their fellow man. There are people out there who are simply amoral or sociopathic and don’t care if their actions harm or kill others. One of our inalienable rights, and a right that does not come from the Constitution but which predates it throughout history, is the right of self-defense. Like it or not, the handgun is the highest current expression of a portable deadly weapon. If an aggressor is armed with a handgun, defense will be difficult and generally unsuccessful without a firearm of one’s own.

The principal common argument against the personal possession of handguns is that we have adequate police protection. This is incorrect, and any honest police officer will tell you that they act as a reactive force rather than a preventive force. They respond to 911 calls, but 911 calls occur after something bad is happening. If what is bad is happening amounts to personal violence, it is most unusual that the police response will be fast enough to intervene and prevent the harm. If the wrongdoers are apprehended, jailed and so forth, that may deter that wrongdoer and others from future offenses, but the victim of that particular offense is just shit out of luck.

That being said, not all voices which resist a universally armed society are liberal pinko nut cases. Most Americans do not own or use guns. We must respect that. There are restrictions on firearms which are supported by reason or by the most generous interpretation of personal rights. I have met few responsible people who have heartburn over the restriction on people who have committed violent felonies with guns possessing firearms. Ditto the incompetent, insane, drunken, and drug addicted. I know few responsible people who chafe too much about restrictions on weapons which push their capacities into places we commonly accepted as military or completely unrelated to defense. I cannot own a fully automatic weapon (note to Carolyn again – that means a machine gun) without a special license which is real hard to get and real expensive. Ditto a silencer or sound suppressor, or explosive projectiles. Nuclear weapons are not related to home defense, sorry.

Beyond that, we step into what few people are prepared to admit is grey territory. There are people who commit suicide who would not do so if a firearm were not present. Yes, they have the ability to do so by other means, but many just would not do so owing to the nature of the various mechanisms of violence. Yes, there are children who are injured and killed in firearms accidents. Almost invariably, this comes from a failure of adults to secure firearms, teach children, and supervise them. These injuries and deaths would not occur if the firearms were not present. You cannot brush those facts away and the most common response by the gun community, that it doesn’t happen too often, is cold comfort to the families where it does happen. On the other hand, it is not the Wild West in states where gun rights are generous, and gun deaths in those areas are less than those where guns are more restricted. Yes, we can argue legitimately about the interpretation of the data, but the data is there. And, importantly, there are something over 2 million instances a year were a citizen uses a firearm for defense. Mostly, that use is simply the presentment of the firearm or making the aggressor aware that the firearm is present. Within all of these situations, we can argue and predict how many bad or good things would occur proportionally if the firearms were or were not present, and there is little valid research to assist us. Fudging the facts is a poor place to start, though.

This is written in my West Virginia hills. Lots and lots of my fellow Mountaineers are armed routinely and perfectly legally at this writing. And you may be certain that damn few of them are carrying weapons openly.

And so a message to the ungodly: you guess which of us are armed, and have a nice day.

Pippa passes.


19 March 2010

Power, Justice and Just Us

The Power of the PA

I’ve read a couple of news stories this week about shocking prejudice in action. It seems that there was an announcement made in a New Jersey Wal-Mart. Someone as yet unidentified came on the public address system and told all black people to leave the store. Pretty quickly, the store manager got on the public address system, told everyone that the announcement was a hoax and apologized.

That cannot, of course, be the end of the story. The store manager now needs to figure out if this was an employee who made the phony announcement and, if so, fire their ass for misconduct. And if it wasn’t an employee, the store manager needs to secure access to the PA. Lots of more immediately harmful things can be done with a PA. (Shouts of "Fire!" in a crowded store come to mind.)

End of story, right? No, not by a long shot. We have victims. We have people who have experienced tons of angst. They are too traumatized to realize that taking this “announcement” seriously is idiotic and that spending more than a few minutes being pissed off about it is a trip to drama queendom.

Where does this desire to be victimized come from? And why do people grasp at the most harebrained things to get all sniffly about? People, it wasn’t Bull Connor on the PA. Remember if you will the folks in Birmingham in the 50's and 60's - Police Chief Theophilus “Bull” Connor used high-pressure fire hoses, vagrancy arrests, holding people incommunicado in jail, attack dogs and even a small tank to express his brand of hate. And the funny thing is, it pissed off and motivated a lot of those real victims to do constructive and effective things to bring about a change rather than prompting them just to bitch and moan.

Well, the bitching and moaning is not enough for 2010 New Jersey, and now government must have a firm and heartfelt public demonstration of deeply caring distress and how public officials, too, are too dumb to realize that morons abound in our society. And so, true to form, some trendy government leader has turned the police loose in an investigation over this hate crime.

No kidding.

People, these were words. If it was done by an employee, their ass gets fired. Their ass would be fired no matter who they told to to leave the store. Mind you, using race is particularly stupid, but the difference between a good employee and a stupid employee is a whole lot greater than that between a stupid employee and a real stupid employee. Even if this was not malicious (improbable if the trickster was other than mega-dumb), there is no room in a public place for the lover of practical jokes who has no sense of proportion.

But are the words harmful? To whom? To sensitive people? Get over it, this is life. To children? Certainly, and that’s why they have parents, to teach them about the idiots in society and how to react to them. Having a grand case of the vapors and calling the police is an asinine lesson to teach young people. That tells them that they are without power, that they are weak, that they are helpless victims, and that only some authority “greater” than themselves can protect them. Poppycock.

Of course, I’m not certain that the manager handled this optimally. This was at the very least a great embarrassment that either an employee acted like a moron or that access to the public address system was unsecured. Management needed to meet everyone leaving the store and apologize for that failure, simply because that was the right thing to do. And then everyone needed to move on.

The fact that we are hearing about this nationally is a sad commentary on the state of the nation.

Sermon on The Common Good versus Individual Justice

Permit me to direct your attention to some superior scholarship and opinion expressed in the form of a sermon by Pastor Joshua Patty of Central Christian Church in Fairmont, West Virginia, on 14 March 2010. [Josh is a great scholar and passionate orator – I’m rather thinking that he will react with sharp criticism of the immediately preceding section, which I welcome. This is the marketplace of ideas, and his ideas are just as good as mine. Respect - Got it?] A recording of the sermon (something under 30 minutes) can be found at www.alongthispilgrimsjourney.blogspot.com, (link to the right, Central Christian Pastor’s Blog), in the widget on the right side of that site. I’ve encouraged Pastor Josh to reduce this one to print as part of his body of work. The subject of this sermon is “The Common Good or Individual Justice,” and is quite a fascinating and erudite discussion of that long controversial dichotomy.

Reading Bits

I am seldom without my Amazon Kindle, just as formerly I was seldom without two or three paper books. I am asked frequently what I am reading, and I read so many things simultaneously, that’s really rather hard to answer.

I am interested in the reading habits of my literate friends, including those in the Shelf Community. How many books do you read at once? How many books can you follow? Usually, I’m reading two or three fiction works (and generally a thriller, a Western, a sci-fi and/or something odd like a Garrison Keillor), some business/self-improvement books (some weighty, some slim), and several books on history, politics, economics and other technical subjects. For some months now, I’ve been rereading The Federalist Papers. With the “Tea Party” and now the “Coffee Party” “movements,” there is a staggering amount of misinformation, disinformation, and rampant ignorance about the history of government in general and the history of American government in particular. For some reason, people seem to equate being a whacker who carries a sign with being a committed patriot who will perform an act of civil disobedience that may get them hung. And I don’t mean hung as in “in trouble,” I mean hung as in the risk taken by the Sons of Liberty (mostly a bunch of pissed-off Freemasons) of the actual Boston Tea Party who, if arrested, could have been stretched by the neck until dead, dead, dead.
Let’s see, I’m also reading Gibbon for the first time and, yes, it is both as highbrow and as dry as it has been represented to be. I have no idea why TR found this such an absolutely fascinating creation. I am finishing Southern Storm by Noah Andre Trudeau, which is a history of the Sherman campaign through Georgia and South Carolina, as well as Through the Brazilian Wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt’s personal account of the 1913 to 1914 River of Doubt expedition. A note to Clank, Flick and my other transoceanic readers, the Sherman campaign came at the end of 1864 when a large Union Force under General William T. Sherman moved from Atlanta, Georgia, to the Atlantic, leaving a 60-mile wide swath of destruction. One hundred fifty years later, there are still some pretty hard feelings in the southern United States about these events.

How Old Can A Lawyer Be?

Over the last year and a half, we have fiddled with our letterhead a bit. I’ve always been interested in something a little bit nonstandard, but past partners have been mostly reticent about that. We have begun using the “Palladin” symbol, the silhouette of the knight or worse piece from a chess set, facing to the right, of course. I remember it being used in the old Richard Boone TV series, Palladin, from which comes the phrase “Have gun, will travel.” (Presumably because we read from left to right, almost all commercial logos face right. The only exception that comes to mind right now is the Greyhound Bus dog.)

Also on the letterhead, we put “Serving West Virginia since 1978.” That is the year I began practice. I was hooded on Saturday, 12 May 1978, graduated on Sunday, drove to Charleston on Monday, was admitted to the Supreme Court on Tuesday, and opened my office on Wednesday. So, I think I’m on pretty solid ground here with the 1978 date. Generally, it is the practice of law firms to put on their letterhead or otherwise advertise how long they’ve been in business. This makes some sense, as there certainly is an institutional identity. Sometimes, though, I do wonder. One law firm which began in 1864 probably has no lawyers who are 160 years old. It is, however, certainly one of the three or four most competent bunch of lawyers in West Virginia. The largest law firm advertises that it began in 1822, but I’m thinking that it has no 210-year-old lawyers.

It makes me wonder about lawyer advertising in general and “puffery.” I’ve had some unpleasant dealings lately with “The Jones Law Firm, Personal Injury Attorneys,” which is not the real name. This law firm consists of one lawyer and a couple of office people. Because he was previously associated with another lawyer, he maintains the fiction that it’s really a law “firm” in the sense that there are multiple lawyers. And of course, on the other hand, Fairmont has an example which goes just the opposite way. One of the oldest and leading lawyers in Fairmont is Pete Higinbotham, who has a very large personal-injury practice. He advertises heavily on television, and has swept up the majority of the modest value car wreck insurance claims in this area, those from say $10,000 to $100,000 in settlement value. [I’m estimating here - this is not the kind of info that law firms share.] Pete has at least six lawyers and his firm, as well as a number of legal assistants and at least a couple of the lawyers there are damn fine trial lawyers. And yet, in the advertising, generally it’s just Pete, often in dungarees and a flannel shirt, and often with his dog. I’m not sure what the point is, but it certainly works and is certainly the opposite of puffery.

The fact remains that the attorney-client relationship is a highly personal one and should be entered into with recommendations from friends and family, or at the very least with a long and candid talk between prospective lawyer and prospective client before the representation begins.

Coming in future installments:

Beyond Coffee and Tea Parties

Nuclear Weapons and Home Defense

- - Stay Tuned

Pippa passes.


13 March 2010

Return of the Blather

Hello? Hello? Is this thing on?

Yes, I know it has been a month since I last made a blog entry. I have been reminded of this by everyone and their Aunt Tilly. No excuses: when the muse is active, you write, and when the muse is silent, you write anyway, only not as well.

This West Virginia winter of ours has ended and for the first time in many weeks, acres of grass outnumber acres of snow. Given a little bit more time and a little knowledge of modern photography, amazing get a photo of the new iteration of Number 3 Equity Court into “print.”

I’ve also missed just a touch of work this winter, which is exceedingly annoying. A couple of encounters with Mr. Gravity had a little bit to do with that. Mr. gravity never forgets. As a result, I am temporarily sporting a long coup stick which I use as a proto-cane and have a new appreciation for access issues.

Black Wreath

The Charleston Gazette reports tonight that a fireman with the Glasgow Volunteer Fire Department of Kanawha County is missing and presumed killed on duty in flooding in Raleigh County last night.

Greater love hath no man . . .


I’m reading, amongst other books, Through the Brazilian Wilderness, by Theodore Roosevelt, his account of the 1913 -14 exploration of Rio Duvida (the River of Doubt, later Rio Teodoro) in the Amazon. I just read a couple of passages, one where he blithely talks about walking off alone “a couple of leagues,” (a league is 3 miles) and another where he took a “stroll a couple of miles up the road.” Even sans-coup stick, I’m the last person qualified to talk about our reluctance to walk anywhere. But this does give me pause.


I was sitting in a café one morning this week having coffee with my best friend and brother David. Two other brothers were there, and we were having a wonderful and freeflowing conversation about not very vital issues. The Fairmont Fire Department had some sort of call, and within a couple of minutes every fire engine in town came through the intersection as we were sitting there. One of the brothers sitting there was Bill Hawkins, who is well into his 80s and who defines “a hell of a man.” Among the many things he has done in his lifetime is that he was a captain on the Fairmont Fire Department for many years. (Later, he was mayor Fairmont.)

After the fire engines had finally passed, Bill was reminiscing just a bit. He recalled a fire on a Christmas Eve in a big house up on Maple Avenue. When they arrived, the house was full of smoke and a woman was out front screaming that her baby was still in the house. Bill recalled that was in the days of the “smoke eaters” before everyone wore air masks as a routine. He recalled that he went in, searched the upstairs and found the four-year-old child, stuck her under his coat to keep her out of the heat and smoke and took her outside. As he was leaving the house, he looked down inside his coat, and she looked up at him and said “You’re Santa Claus!” Bill said that’s what made those years of hard work worthwhile.

And my mind goes back to the brother killed last night.

Pippa passes.