Thursday, January 24, 2013


NRA's Wayne LaPierre


By John P. Flannery II

“The notion that registering gun purchases somehow violates the Constitution is unmitigated nonsense,” so said former Supreme Court Justice Warren Burger.  He also said that “[n]othing outrages me more than the conduct of the National Rifle Association (‘NRA’).” 

Former NRA Vice President Neal Knox once said that the assassinations of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were possibly “part of a conspiracy to enact gun control” and “could have been created for the purpose of disarming the people of the free world.”   This past week, the NRA has eclipsed its ordinary standard for bad taste by attacking the President’s children, asking why the federal government provides them Secret Service protection but not other children in our public schools.  Anyone want to suggest a distinction that the NRA might understand?

Our public discussion might improve, among the rest of us, exclusive of the NRA leadership, if we got some of the facts right -- like what the Second Amendment actually says and what it truly meant when it was written. 

When the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, our colonies were concerned about “standing armies” because the King had “kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.” 

When we had won our Independence and we had to concern ourselves with self-government under the Articles of Confederation, Revolutionary War Veterans led by Captain Dan Shays demanded cheap paper money, lighter taxes and the suspension of bank foreclosures of their farms.  They were going to close down the courts foreclosing on their property.  Massachusetts raised a militia to put down Shays’ rebellion and open the courts.

The Shays’ Rebellion became a part of the rationale for retired General George Washington and his aide, Alexander Hamilton, proposing a stronger federal government.  The resulting U.S. Constitution, in Article I, Section 8, clauses 15 and 16, said that the state militias going forward would respond to Congress’ call “to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions,” and Congress would provide for “organizing, arming and disciplining the militia” reserving certain rights to the states.

The States, however, remained concerned about a “standing army.”  Colonel George Mason wished that the constitutional plan “had been prefaced with a Bill of Rights.”  He got his way and the so-called Military Amendments in the resulting Bill of Rights were the 2nd and 3rd Amendments, with the 3rd Amendment prohibiting the quartering of troops and the 2nd providing for “a well- regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”  

The States were thus empowered to do exactly what they had done at Lexington and Concord.  It was a collective right, not a personal right to bear arms, and for a certain well-defined purpose, stated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 

In United States v. Cruikshank, in 1875, a plaintiff charged citizens had been deprived of their constitutional right to bear arms, and the U.S. Supreme Court found that “[t]his is not a right granted by the Constitution,” and that this Second Amendment right “has no other effect than to restrict the powers of the national government.”

In 1934, in United States v. Miller, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a constitutional challenge to the National Firearms Act regulating the transfer of firearms and imposing a transfer tax, concluding that the weapons at issue lacked “some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well-regulated militia.”

Actually, as a result of the National Defense Act of 1916, the “militia” has since been supplanted by the National Guard, and that same Act transformed the militia from an individual state service into a division of the United States Army, rendering the Second Amendment somewhat irrelevant as originally contemplated.

There was a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision, District of Columbia v. Heller, that struck down DC’s strict gun-control law but most agree that decision was less than meets the eye.  500 or more challenges to gun laws since have been defeated.      

Former Justice Justice Paul Stevens, who dissented in the Heller decision, reportedly said that, even if you “generously” construe Heller, “the Second Amendment provides no obstacle to regulations prohibiting the ownership or use of the sorts of automatic weapons used in the tragic multiple killings in Virginia, Colorado and Arizona in recent years.”

He also made a pointed observation about Congress: “The failure of congress to take any action to minimize the risk of similar tragedies in the future cannot be blamed on the court’s decision in Heller.”

Congress has failed to act.  The NRA may be fine with that.  But are you?

Friday, January 18, 2013


A stoic Roman Senator once said, “It is the easiest thing in the world to slide imperceptibly into vulgarity.” 

I don’t know that our national dialogue has “slipped” into vulgarity.  It has felt to me more like a down-hill flat out run into vulgarity. 

Let’s consider one example that covers the waterfront.

Back in March 2012, the Georgetown University President, John J. DeGioia, said that the foul language used to characterize student Sandra Fluke’s sincere objections to HHS regulations affecting contraceptives, especially what Rush Limbaugh had to say, was “misogynistic, vitriolic and a misrepresentation of [her] position.”

We teach our children to respect and not to bully others, but then we call a woman names, describe her in a hateful and demeaning manner, and purposefully misrepresent what she said.

If an opponent can characterize an individual as unappealing by how they look, or based on sex, nationality, race, religion, association, and any other personal aspect that is irrelevant to what he or she has said, they do it anyhow because it discredits the person – and they can slip the argument, perhaps never address it.

With networks, print, social media and emails, we have an epidemic of distortion, disinformation and material omission of what was truly said and of the contents of the source material purportedly quoted.

Currently, we have those insisting the second amendment was passed so that the people could overthrow their government with hand guns, rather than so that our fledging government could have a militia to protect it.  The Federalists were concerned about revolting revolutionary troops in Massachusetts when they so constituted this nation.  They were not inviting insurrection by an amendment to the constitution.

We don’t examine carefully the trite doggerel that passes for sense when repeated like a Hare Krishna chant, for instance, the phrase, “guns don’t kill …,” when plainly they do and when we have not heard of many drive-by knifings – nor any mass knifings. 

Whatever we think about who bears arms, the lawless wild west where every tobacco-chewing man or woman carries a gun to “settle up” is just not civilization – although some argue this is “civilization.” 

Some say this stuff out of ignorance, to con us, or to frighten us. 

On this last point, fear, we have heard of this baseless fear that “they’re going to take my guns” – even though we have struggled with this issue as a nation for decades – mourned other dead innocents - and still no one has taken anybody’s guns.  The Mayans shall likely be proven right before anyone’s guns are taken.  Given the invertebrate character of our elected representatives, there probably won’t even be reasonable protections put in place to save Johnny from the next assault rifle ambush in a school.

The best way to protect against the political con and the fear and anger mongers is to study – and not from the re-affirming slanted echo chambers that pass themselves off as news outlets these days.   

“Balanced coverage” has come to mean any sensible proposition can be offset by any stupid thing anyone says in opposition.  

It is little wonder we are slipping in science world-wide when some can insist without raucous laughter, such superstitious beliefs as the world is thousands of years old, when, spoiler alert, it’s billions of years old. 

We have those who say that we need not worry about extinction from “man” like that could never happen when, by man’s reckless clumsiness, greed and malicious intent he has so compromised species all over this planet since the mid-19th century that many are now extinct. 

Nor are we doing so well by ourselves.  We put ourselves – humankind - and our progeny at risk of extinction as the planet’s weather slips away from our scientific understanding and control. 

As for our planet, we have those who would proliferate like rats and roaches while supporting, ironically enough, any great war that comes down the pike to prove that we are better, I suppose, so we may have territory, fossil fuels, power, influence and imperial bragging rights.

How do we dial back the vulgarity, our inability to communicate in a reasoned and constructive fashion -- so that we have a chance to address what really matters instead of, let’s choose another odious example, whether gay marriage is responsible for a 50 % divorce rate among heterosexual couples?

We must as a people resist invitations to demonize a person rather than consider the content of their argument. 

We must be aware of those who distort and omit material information. 
We must be sensitive to those who would inflame the public when using these techniques of slander, distortion and omission so they may prompt fear and anger in response. 

We must read and study more to protect us against a clumsier political class and a less reliable media, so that we know what we’re talking about when they don’t. 

We should choose our words more carefully than we’ve been doing. 

If we could do these things, that would be a little less vulgar, don’t you think?

Sunday, January 13, 2013


We have had Republican leaders across the nation talk about the jobs that they were going to create.  But they never explain that their object is to suppress wages, health and retirement benefits so their rich donors can realize greater profits for their members.  Among the leading suspects are the Chamber of Commerce, the National Right to Work Committee and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

One way they hope to do this is by compromising the right of workers to organize. 
Virginia hopes to continue this race to the bottom for our workers by extending what I call “the new slavery.”.

It’s the opening act in in the General Assembly Session convened this Wednesday in Richmond, Virginia.

They wrongly represent the initiative as the “right to work,” but every working man and woman who has tried to bargain with a company, knows what it really means is a “right to work for less.”
In 1908 the Supreme Court thought that it was just fine for an employer to require a worker not to join a union as a condition of his employment.  The War Labor Board from the First World War reversed field when it forbade employers from interfering this way.  In 1926, Congress passed the Railway Labor Act  that prohibited any interference with an employees’ right of self-organization.  In 1935, congress passed the Wagner Act (the National Labor Relations Act) that authorized the “union shop” meaning that, if a union had a contract with an employer, that an employee had to join that union. 

The “union shop” policy was against moochers, against free riders, like if someone were to hop a metro turnstile to get a free ride while others paid. 
Supreme Court Chief Justice Charles Evan Hughes held that the Wagner Act was a statute that “safeguard[ed] the right of employees to self-organization and to select representatives of their own choosing for collective bargaining” without “restraint or coercion by their employer.” 

In 1947, a Republican-controlled Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act, over the veto of President Harry Truman, that said states could bar the “union shop” if they chose.  Virginia hurried to pass such a provision; now this Session of the General Assembly will consider making this abuse of workers, barring any “union shop,” a part of Virginia’s constitution.

The Reverend Martin Luther King said, “[W]e must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as ‘right to work.’ It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights. Its purpose is to destroy labor unions and the freedom of collective bargaining by which unions have improved wages and working conditions of everyone…Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights”

We now have 24 states with “right to work for less” laws and, just as Reverend King said, the average worker in those states makes less, is more likely to be uninsured, the poverty rates are higher, also the infant mortality rates, and they spend less on educating their children, and have a higher rate of work place deaths.

We have seen American companies go off shore and abuse workers there and give them that competitive advantage, because they pay so little, work so long, in overcrowded conditions, with underage workers in dangerous work places.  Some lament how manufacturing has gone abroad but buy these products because they are cheaper, ignoring the abuses that make these products so competitive.

Before the Civil War, Whig Representative Richard Yates of Illinois was concerned about how slavery in the territories would hurt free laborers; Yates said in the Congress, “The free laborer does not wish the labor of slaves to come into competition with his labor.  The effect of slave labor is always to cheapen, degrade and exclude free labor.”

Our Virginia legislature may again “cheapen, degrade and exclude free labor.”

Nothing has changed to alter Rep. Yates’ common sense observation that workers, who are constrained by force of law as to how they may bargain to earn higher wages and benefits, prompt a cheapening and degradation of what other workers may expect to earn as well.

Many have seen the movie, Lincoln, about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing “slavery” and “involuntary servitude,” as if it was an historical artifact without application to this world but we have a “new slavery” in the Old Dominion and in America; it is the constraint upon the working man and woman -- and not just with regard to this attack on the right to have a union shop.

The Thirteenth Amendment applies to the conduct of both public and private parties.  In 1968, the Supreme Court said that even private discrimination under the Thirteenth Amendment may constitute prohibited “badges of slavery.”  Even by the first provision of the Thirteenth Amendment, this so-called right to work law causes “involuntary servitude” by those worker’s representatives who are required by federal law to fairly represent a worker while state legislation withholds the expense of that representation in its prohibition against union shops.    

The South has been brazen in its extension of the New Slavery for our workers, and would make this abuse of workers part of the Old Dominion’s Constitution.  We’d like to think they’re better than that.  But we’ve seen what they can do.

Thursday, January 3, 2013


            We have this dramatic feast of a movie this holiday season, Les Miserables, based on Victor Hugo’s grand tragic novel (in 365 chapters), and a principal focus of that extraordinary tale of redemption is how ex-con Jean Valjean, a victim of disproportionate punishment and abuse, resists rage and adopts the orphan, Cosette, when her mother Fantine dies, and raises her as his own with love, kindness and at great risk and sacrifice. 

Jean Valjean saved Cosette from the Thenardiers, a cruel corrupt couple, who forced Fantine’s illegitimate daughter, Cosette, to work at their inn while treating their own daughters, Eponine and Azelma, so kindly.

When we walk from the darkened theater, we may overlook how little has changed from this artistic recounting of real historic suffering to the present day.

There has been a recent story about adoption and children that makes this crystal clear. 

Russia has put a stop to American adoptions of Russian Children.  The media, with rare exception, has covered this as if it is only a reprisal for America criticizing Russia’s human rights violations.  Citizens are screaming bloody murder, how could Russia do that to the children we would adopt?  But it’s more complicated than that.  It is more like how could we do what we have to the children from Russia adopted by Americans?

Three years ago, Dmitri Yakovlev, a 21-month toddler, adopted from Russia, was left in a parked car for nine hours, and Dmitri died of heatstroke; the adopted parent responsible, Miles Harrison, was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter.  A Russian spokesperson reportedly said, “When we give our children to the West and they die, for some reason the West always tells us it was just an accident.”

Two years ago, there was a 7 year old boy, Artyom, adopted from Russia, renamed Justin, who was put on a plane from Washington to Moscow, with a note by his adopted mother, Torry Ann Hansen, from Shelbyville, Tennessee, that said, “After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.”  Ms. Hansen paid someone $200 in Moscow to drop the child off at the Education Ministry.  Artyom told Russian authorities that Ms. Hansen was “bad,” pulled his hair, and that he had cried.  Russia thought then to suspend all adoptions of Russian children by Americans. 

This past summer, a Wisconsin couple, Martin and Kathleen O’Brien, who had four biological children and six adopted children - three from Russia - were charged with child abuse.  The three children were beaten, stabbed, kicked in the groin, slapped and doused with pepper spray.  The O’Briens made the adopted children stand naked on the back porch while the biological family ate dinner.  The parents made fun of them and said they should go back to Russia.  A Russian television reporter asked, “why American families with children of their own adopt Russian children and then mistreat them?”

Over the years, since 1991, more than 50,000 Russian children have been adopted by United States citizens.  Nineteen of them have died in recent years. 

I know families that have adopted children from Russia who have raised and cared for them as did Jean Valjean for Cosette – with loving kindness.  But we must admit there are also modern day couples like the Thenardiers who abuse children.

There’s a broader context for this abuse that we must consider – that Americans are not just abusive of adopted children; they are also terribly abusive of their own biological children.

  This is no recent occurrence and, for good or bad, we have some statistics on what the states are suffering in terms of child abuse and neglect, defined, at federal law, in the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, as “any recent act or failure on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act, which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.”

In 2011 there were 2 million reports of maltreatment of children, prompting a child services agency response and a disposition.    In the entire population of children, there were 9.1 victims per 1,000 children in the population.  Children in their first year of birth were victimized the worst at the rate of 21 children per 1,000 children in the same age group.  Slightly more abuse was suffered by girls.  More than 40% of the victims were white and the remainder split between Black and Hispanic.  More than 75% suffered from neglect, 15% from physical abuse, 10 percent from sexual abuse.  In 2011, there were 1, 545 deaths of children.  80% of the deaths were children younger than 4 years old.  Four-fifths of these deaths were caused by one or more parents.

Upton Sinclair, a muckracker who, in his own right, forced society to reflect upon its harmful excesses, described Les Miserables as a necessary book “so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth.”  He thought that there was something we could learn from such mirrors of our life so long as we witness “the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night” and so long as “social asphyxia shall be possible.”

A resolution we may wish to renew is to save our children – all our children – in this New Year!