Guns don’t kill people – people kill people, with guns

Houston Chronicle - Nick Anderson
Houston Chronicle – Nick Anderson

The cartoon above has made the rounds on the Internet in the last few days, alongside the argument that massacres such as the murder of 20 children in Newtown are not an issue of gun control, but an issue of access to mental health services. While I agree that mental health care should be more readily available for people suffering from mental illness, to me this issue IS about access to guns. Look at the cartoon again. What would happen if the gun store didn’t exist, or if it was up a steeper set of stairs than mental health care? Across the world, there are plenty of deranged people with serious mental health conditions, but they don’t all have access to semi-automatic or automatic weapons that make it possible to kill 20 people in a matter of moments.

One of my father’s friends suffered a terrible tragedy earlier this year when his brother was murdered in cold blood by a lunatic with an assault weapon in a cafe in Seattle.My family friend’s brother, a musician, was playing a gig with friends when the murderer walked into the cafe and started killing people. Why did this person have access to assault weapons and military-strength ammo? In the wake of the unspeakable acts in Newtown, my father’s friend took to Facebook to say that anyone who is getting his hands on military equipment – kevlar vests, massive amounts of ammo, etc – does not have good intentions. While this may be something of a generalization, there is some truth to the fact that nobody – no civilian – needs access to this type of equipment. It is simply unnecessary, and it is clearly dangerous.

How many more children need to accidentally discharge their families’ weapons? How many more times are we going to allow such disturbing, life-shattering events of violence to take place before we look deep into ourselves and acknowledge the problem: access to guns – and most especially deadly, military-strength, automatic and assault weapons, what Sen. Dianne Feinstein calls “weapons of war” – is creating opportunities for unstable people to commit insane acts of violence.

The statistics also speak for themselves. Compare the amount of people who die from gun violence in the States to similar statistics for any other industrialized nation. According to statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the US ranks 28th in the world in terms of percentage of homicides by firearm (per 100K people). Ahead of the United States? Countries such as Colombia, Brazil, South Africa, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala…. The United States beats any other country in terms of firearm ownership (270,000,000 guns in the US; second highest is India, with 46,000,000). According to the CDC, in 2009, there were 16,799 homicides in the United States. Of those, 11,493 were firearm-related. Look at the graph below, which charts deaths due to assault (firearms and other weapons included( in OECD countries. The US is an outlier, no matter which way you want to look at this information.

OECD countries: Deaths due to assault per 100,000 population from 1960 to the present

The issue is clearly not just one of access to guns, but also a culture that glorifies gun ownership. Gun advocates tout their 2nd amendment rights – sure, when the founding fathers sat down to write the constitution, clearly, gun ownership to protect Americans from the British was a necessity. But we no longer live in those times. And gun ownership these days has absolutely nothing to do with the “well-regulated” militia cited in the 2nd amendment. There are of course plenty of people who own guns responsibly, but their hobby is not reason enough to continue to sell instruments of death widely across the country. A lot of the sick, crazy monsters who shot up crowds of people in the US in recent years obtained their weapons legally. In some cases, there is no history of mental health problems, nothing detectable at all – only their purchase of hundreds of rounds of ammo may have raised red flags.

Seriously, who *needs* a gun? The answer is no one. I don’t care if it’s your favorite weekend past time, I don’t care if your family spends its quality time shooting stuff up – it’s time to put them down and seriously reflect: is your selfish desire to own an assault weapon more important than the lives of 20 innocent children in a school? More important than the lives of countless innocents that are murdered in cold blood and for no reason whatsoever in malls, movie theaters, universities, high schools?

I get that guns don’t kill people – yes, people kill people. But the presence of dangerous assault weapons sure makes it a whole lot easier for lunatics to wreak havoc on communities. Yes, we need better access to mental health services, but it’s not because these services exist that a) they will be used; b) they will be effective. For me, it’s obvious that better mental health care services are needed, but that actually has very little to do with preventing mass murder. It has a lot more to do with being a civilized society where we care for one another, where the government is able to demonstrate that it is – at least! – attempting to prevent people from falling through the cracks, whether they are a potential murderer or simply living a difficult, lonely life because of a condition that isolates them from their family and community.

Look at other countries: there are plenty of mentally unstable people everywhere, but when they don’t have access to weapons of war, they don’t go – cannot go! – on shooting rampages.

I’ll conclude by quoting Barack Obama, who, I hope will live up to the promise of his words:

We can’t tolerate this anymore.  These tragedies must end.  And to end them, we must change.  We will be told that the causes of such violence are complex, and that is true.  No single law — no set of laws can eliminate evil from the world, or prevent every senseless act of violence in our society.

But that can’t be an excuse for inaction.  Surely, we can do better than this.  If there is even one step we can take to save another child, or another parent, or another town, from the grief that has visited Tucson, and Aurora, and Oak Creek, and Newtown, and communities from Columbine to Blacksburg before that — then surely we have an obligation to try.

In the coming weeks, I will use whatever power this office holds to engage my fellow citizens — from law enforcement to mental health professionals to parents and educators — in an effort aimed at preventing more tragedies like this.  Because what choice do we have?  We can’t accept events like this as routine.  Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?  Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

New Yorker Tid Bits

In the past week, two New Yorker features have caught my eye, and I thought I’d share them here. The first is about Bill Clinton’s epic speech at the Democratic National Convention, and how WJC doesn’t just read the teleprompter, he converses with it. The article is replete with quotes comparing the official speech to what was actually delivered, and it’s awesome (the speech ended up being twice as long as originally intended).

On a bit about Obama’s health-care law, the Teleprompter gives Clinton: “The Republicans call it ‘Obamacare’ and say it’s a government takeover of health care that they’ll repeal.” Clinton spits back:

The Republicans call it, derisively, “Obamacare.” They say it’s a government takeover of health care, a disaster, and that if we’ll just elect them they’ll repeal it.

That “derisively,” which underscores the point and clarifies it for anyone unfamiliar, is a good idea. The insertion of “a disaster” as the rhythmic fulcrum of the second sentence is an even better one. But the caustic irony of that “if we’ll just elect them”—that’s the kind of nuance that you could expect from a master speechwriter who has had days or weeks, not split seconds, to consider the best way of putting things.


The second article is about Facebook and the “Nipplegate.” It’s so incredibly silly, but I love the New Yorker’s treatment of the issue. Here’s a great out-of-context quote:

While female nipple bulging, or F.N.B. for short, is a potentially serious problem, with as yet no known cure, it also has no known victims. That is, unless you count freedom of expression, common sense, and humor.

On the fragility of democratic rights (and why I’ve been MIA)

Since last summer, I’ve been in charge of communications and fundraising at the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. Following years of working in international development and concentrating on international issues professionally and academically, this was an interesting challenge for me, and a new area of focus. It’s been a great learning experience on many levels. As the communications and fundraising person, I was for the first time on the “other” side of the organization. In international development circles and the aid industry, there are ongoing debates about the gap between fundraisers and marketers, and the field practitioners and others who focus on “substance.” People in these industries frequently complain about how little – if any – genuine collaboration exists between these areas.

I’m lucky to have landed in an organization where the staff is a tight-knit group, and the communications and fundraising strategies have historically been intrinsically linked to the organization’s work and its advocacy. For me, this has meant that I’ve had the opportunity to learn (a lot, and quickly) about civil liberties issues in Canada. One of the major issues the CCLA has focused on in the past year is what happened during last summer’s G20 summit in Toronto. As is the case with almost every high-level international summit, civil society groups planned protests and demonstrations on the margins of the official summit. A large number of unions, NGOs, community and student groups came to Toronto to voice their concerns on a wide range of issues: protesting the austerity agenda and cuts in public services, a lack of focus on poverty alleviation, their perception that the global corporate agenda was trumping people’s rights. Whatever their issues may be, regardless of whether we as individuals or the government agrees with their views, the Toronto protests were an opportunity for groups to speak up. In Canada, this is protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which guarantees freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of assembly. A nearly 30 year old document, the Charter contains many of the principles which underlie the international human rights regime – fundamental freedoms, democratic rights, mobility rights, equality rights…

In a report last summer, this is how CCLA characterized the importance of freedom of assembly:

…However, freedom of peaceful assembly is as important as the right to vote in a democracy. It should be treated with the same respect. Democracy is governance for the people by the people and politicians are expected to hear, consult, and engage with the people in between elections to govern effectively.  But access to politicians is unequally distributed: rich people have their lobbyists and poor people have their feet.  Marching in favour of or against a proposed policy is often the only way to be heard for people whose op-ed will not be published in the Toronto Star and whom the Minister will not meet at a cocktail party or a fundraising event.

This video gives you a pretty good sense of the completely inappropriate response from law enforcement and riot police last summer in Toronto:

Unfortunately, even a modern democratic state like Canada is not free from the abuse of rights. During the G20 last summer, law enforcement authorities (including the local Toronto police, the Ontario police, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), and police officers from all across Canada) cracked down on peaceful protests: demonstrations were violently dispersed – including in the so-called “free speech zone” -, protesters, passers-by, tourists and anyone who happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time, were rounded up for arrest. Over 1,100 people were arrested at the G20 last summer, the biggest mass arrest in Canadian peace time history. There were so many issues at the summit, and then a complete lack of accountability from the federal and provincial government, who are dismissing the evidence and the facts that something went terribly wrong last summer.

The photo to left is John Pruyn speaking at the rally CCLA and others organized last week to mark the one year anniversary. Mr. Pruyn, a Revenue Canada employee and part-time Christmas tree farmer, had his prosthetic leg ripped off by police during his arrest last summer. Pruyn was waiting for his wife and daughter at the subway station when he was violently arrested, and subsequently detained for 27 hours.

If you have a moment, I suggest taking a listen to some of the personal testimonies from the public hearings CCLA held back in November. There are horrifying stories of gay men and women being harassed by police, of dehumanizing, repeated strip searches, of beatings and violent arrests. The report based on the hearings, A Breach of the Peace, is also worth checking out.

I’m not Canadian, but in my three years here, I’ve come to appreciate this country, in particular for its attachment to social and human values – the treatment of minorities, the availability of social services, a generally progressive polity. Every day, in my job, I tell stories of rights being violated and abused – the G20 protests have been a big story, but there are also other areas of significant concern: the recent strike by postal workers was essentially shut down by the majority government through “back to work” legislation. Again, whether or not we agree with the demands of the postal workers’ union, we should be worried about the assault on collective bargaining rights and freedom of association.

There are countless examples of rights and freedoms being slowly and quietly eroded in Canada. There is no need to panic (yet?), but what this should remind us is that, even in a progressive country like Canada, people’s rights and freedoms are fragile. The fights we undertake also underscore just how critical democratic rights beyond the right to vote are. Around the world, democracy advocates need to ensure that they’re fighting for a free press, for equal rights for men and women, for the right to speak up against your government.

My work at CCLA has really brought home for me this notion that freedoms and rights are an intricate, dynamic web. The legal regimes that protect us – whether nationally or internationally – are not to be taken for granted. What I see daily are attempts to circumvent and erode the civil liberties, individual and collective rights that are the hallmark of modern life. I truly believe that human rights – civil liberties, fundamental freedoms – are absolutely critical to maintaining a civilized society. When we fight for rights in Canada, we’re also affirming the centrality of these rights globally.


June marked one year since the G20 summit was held in Toronto, and the Canadian Civil Liberties Association was in overdrive to make sure that the issue stays on top of the agenda, and that accountability mechanisms that work are put in place. My colleagues and I have been speaking to the media extensively on this issue (below is a clip of our general counsel talking about how CCLA human rights monitors at the G20 were arrested), and we organized several events with a number of partner organizations to reflect on lessons learned, and to keep the pressure on the government to take the massive violation of civil liberties that occurred last summer seriously.


To see more about the events we organized, click on the image:

June 21st - A gala honouring 21 Canadians for their contributions to democracy

Democratizing energy policy

I should have posted this yesterday to mark Earth Day, but since we should be thinking about these issues every day – not just on an arbitrary Friday in April – here is a short video made by a German group, PowerShift, which offers a quick overview of some issues related to energy policy. The video focuses on the use of biomass (like trees) from developing countries to produce energy in the West, using the example of a German company which purchases rubber trees from a Liberia-based company, Buchanan Renewables (which is actually a cool company, worth checking out their work), to use in a power plant in Berlin which uses gas and biomass. The idea they present is that instead of perpetuating a cycle whereby rich countries use up resources of poorer countries to support their unbridled energy consumption, we should turn to smaller-scale, decentralized models of energy production.

Video is in German, with English subtitles (click “CC” at the bottom right of the screen to enable them)

I am not an expert in energy policy by any means – but I instinctively agree with the notion that we need to rethink our models of energy production. We are hooked on oil, gas and coal, and have developed unsustainable energy consumption practices. I fully support the efforts of those who are committed to thinking about new and innovative means to produce energy.

As individuals, I believe we have a responsibility to curb our own energy consumption as much as we can – it’s not so hard to turn off power bars connected to the wall, drive a little bit less, buy at least some of your food from local sources. Every bit makes a difference. Furthermore, we can also support the efforts of companies like the one presented in the video. Even simply talking about these alternatives, raising awareness among friends and family that a different way is possible, can go a long way toward shifting paradigms.

Things I read you should read too

I’ll admit it, I have a bad habit. When I find a multi-page article on the web that I want to read, I’ll usually send it to my partner with the e-mail subject “Print please.” My mind is rarely settled enough to read over 2,000 words in one go online – I find that I get distracted by e-mail, Twitter, other news stories… The result of this is that we have a growing collection of printed articles, that we collect in a binder, by category (nerdage – I know.)

Some of these are older features, but since they’re not straight-up news items, I think you’ll find them still relevant and interesting. You’ll notice that I tend to read a lot about the American neo-conservative movement. I don’t know why specifically, but I find the personalities of people like Glenn Beck or Sarah Palin endlessly fascinating. Their mode of thinking is so far removed from mine, I might as well be reading an account of alien life. Anyway, in an age where people have little time or patience for long form journalism and books, I continue to enjoy turning off the computer and delving deeply into one subject. Without further ado, here is a list of things I read you should read too:

Sarah Palin: the Sound and the Fury. From the October 2010 edition of Vanity Fair, an in-depth article which looks at Palin’s modus operandi. You have to hand it to her for being one of the scariest politicians in the United States. This profile is interesting because it looks beyond the “bloopers” and paints a picture of a woman who knows what she wants, and is determined to get it. The journalist had a hard time getting people to talk about her; there is obviously a fear of reprisal.

Small Change, by Malcolm Gladwell, in The New Yorker. This particular article has been making the rounds in the past week or so, so you may have already read it. If you haven’t yet read the whole thing, I really encourage you to. In it, Gladwell talks about “why the revolution won’t be tweeted”, and he contrasts the civil rights movement – its depth, its seriousness, its commitment – to online activism. Having just finished reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography, I thought his choice of examples (the sit-ins at lunch counters in the South) were pertinent. Nevertheless, as much as I agree with Gladwell that creating real change – like the civil rights movement did – requires more (much more) than a few clicks of the mouse, I think he fails to see the point that Twitter, Facebook and other social media are actually advocacy and activism tools. There is no doubt in my mind that nothing will replace the courage of individuals who challenge authorities  and the status quo, but I think you’d be hard pressed to make that point without acknowledging the capacity of social media and web-based tools to support and enhance these activities. Anyway, a great read. (PS. My Canadian friends like to remind me that Gladwell is Canadian, so I’ll just throw that in)

Frat House for Jesus in the September 13 issue of The New Yorker. This is a fascinating piece on the role and influence of a non-denominational “prayer group” which dozens of key American political figures belong to. Did you know that a bunch of conservative law makers lived in a house together on C street in DC? John Ensign, who was the chairman of the Senate Republican Policy Committee, got in trouble with his “frat brothers” when he had an extra-marital affair. The Fellowship – the name of this secretive group – is powerful politically, in and outside the United States (the Fellowship apparently organized a secret meeting between the Congolese president Joseph Kabila and Rwandan president Paul Kagame in 2001.) A fascinating piece, which shows just how much American political life is influenced by religious thinking.

Newt Gingrich: the indispensable Republican in the September issue of Esquire. The journalist spent a lot of time speaking with Marianne Gingrich, Newt’s former wife, so the piece is focused on Gingrich’s “last fit of empire building.” The article tries to make it seem like Gingrich is building up his election machine for 2012, but, to me, the article makes him seem like a rather irrelevant old politician. The interview with his former wife makes the piece particularly interesting and (seemingly?) honest.

Being Glenn Beck, in the October 3rd NYT magazine. Let me just say, this man is frightening. He’s clearly had to deal with a lot of personal issues over the years, and this is a man who’s come back from the brink – he might actually have fallen off and climbed back up, which explains his particular brand of “Idontgiveashitwhatpeoplethink.” (“You get to a place where you disgust yourself. Where you realize what a weak, pathetic and despicable person you have become”, Beck tells the journalist) In this epic article, he’s compared to Oprah; “Like Winfrey, Beck talks a great deal about himself and subscribes to the pop-recovery ethic.” Here is one review of the piece in Gawker, but I highly recommend you read it if you’re at all interested in contemporary US politics and trying – like me – to understand the appeal of Beck for American people.

An Army of One, in the September 2010 issue of GQ. This one is the story of whacky Gary Faulkner, the American man who took it upon himself to hunt down Bin Laden (or “Binny Boy”, as Faulkner likes to call him) in the mountains of Eastern Pakistan. His story is pathetic, in the true sense of the term. The delusional, possibly insane, Faulkner has been on a mission for the past five or six years to find Bin Laden. At times, it seems he’s just frighteningly crazy – his dreams told him he needed to reach Pakistan “without touching the ground”, so his first couple of attempts to go to Pakistan (from the US, mind you) involved twenty-foot boats he was planning on taking all the way across the Pacific and Indian oceans, to Pakistan, presumably. Another time, he tried to use a hand-glider (really.)  His whole story is so fascinating – and sometimes hilarious. I think one of my favorite nuggets from Faulkner’s story is the notion that once he found “Binny Boy”, Faulkner would be able to share Ben Laden’s dialysis machine. Apparently, both of them are diabetic.

– Finally, I highly recommend you check out “My relentless pursuit of the guy who robbed me“, in Salon. A very different story than the ones I link to above, this is about a woman whose purse gets stolen, and she manages to track down the thief through a combination of online and offline sleuthing. It’s well-written and the writer has such fire in her belly, you just root for her throughout, cheering her on as she perseveres. She seems awesome, and I just started following her on Twitter.

I also read several really good books recently, that I hope I’ll have time to really review at some point soon. But if you’re in need of reading material for your commute, I highly recommend the following: Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder (who wrote Mountains beyond Mountains), The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (she’s married to Jonathan Safran Foer, and it shows), Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African soldier by Alexandra Fuller. And I’m currently reading Diary of a Bad Year, by JM Coetzee, which is shaping up to be an excellent read.

Have you read anything particularly interesting recently?