Friday, January 18, 2013

Buying A Gun Is Like Adopting A Tiger

It takes a big man, a strong man, a man secure in his place in the intellectual universe, to admit when he's wrong, and while I am clearly none of those things, I admit it: I was wrong. I have declared both in this space and on Twitter that the Democrats, and President Obama in particular, would never so much as speak the words 'gun control,' much less pursue it in any form, and over the last few weeks, to my great surprise, they have decisively proven me wrong: Obama enacted a series of executive orders and introduced (probably doomed) legislation to try and reduce the number of senseless mass slaughters taking place in America.

The politics of gun control are difficult, to put it lightly. So difficult that no one in a serious position of leadership even bothered trying anything of the sort when someone shot up a movie theater, or when someone else shot up a Sikh temple, or when someone else shot a sitting member of Congress. But the pointless massacre of a kindergarten class seems to have moved people in a different way. It's certainly moved me: I find myself tearing up every time I think about it, including right now as I type this, and I didn't have that reaction to Aurora or Virginia Tech or any of the way too many other incidents like this that seem to be coming more and more frequently.

It's almost (I repeat: almost) like the Newtown shooter was a deep undercover gun control advocate, and he did what he did because only by going so far beyond the pale -- shooting a roomful of 5- and 6-year-olds -- would anyone actually do anything about this problem. (Some people seem to think that that's exactly what he was doing, that the Sandy Hook Massacre was just a big stunt designed by Obama to soften the public for his comprehensive gun control plan that's been waiting in his top drawer for just such a moment as this. THAT IS INSANE.) And even then, it's highly doubtful (in my opinion) that anything meaningful is going to come from any of this.

In any case, Obama has introduced some new legislation that would ban assault rifles, ban ammunition clips that hold more than 7 rounds, institute background checks on all gun buyers, including those at gun shows and buying from private sellers, among other measures. (Let's take a moment to reflect that everything meaningful here will have to pass Congress, and is thus far from a power-grab or rule by fiat or anything remotely like the shrieking cable news/talk radio outrage machine would have us believe.)

These measures, in my opinion, get it about half right. I won't lose any sleep if the ban on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines goes through, but I also don't think banning hardware is the right approach to the problem. I don't see any reason that licensed, law-abiding citizens shouldn't be able to purchase or possess whatever kind of firearm they want, be it semi-automatic, fully automatic, rocket launcher, or flying drone. If they jump through all the hoops they have to jump through to prove their trustworthiness, I think that trust, once earned, should be absolute.

Having said that, I think they ought to jump through a lot more hoops to earn that trust. Closing the gun-show loophole on background checks is long overdue, and a good start, but I think there are a few more things we can and should do in order to preserve law-abiding gun owners' right to shoot while also preserving law-abiding citizens' right to not get shot. I don't know exactly what a 'background check' consists of, but I'm guessing it's a glance at your criminal record and, with these new measures, a look at your mental health record, if one exists. These are fine as far as they go, but let's face it, they don't go very far. Background checks wouldn't have stopped the Sandy Hook shooter, because he didn't buy his guns; he borrowed them from his mother, who passed all her background checks and is by all accounts a law-abiding citizen. Nor would they have stopped the Aurora shooter, who had no criminal record.

When you want to adopt a dog, you don't just get to go to the shelter and take the dog home. You have to go through a thorough background check, which includes the shelter sending someone to your home to determine whether it's a suitable place for the animal. Where's it going to sleep? Does your yard have a fence? Do you have rat poison on the bottom shelf of the pantry? Who's going to feed it if you leave town?

I humbly suggest that similar safeguards should be built into the background check process for firearms, sort of like if you were adopting a tiger. Where are you going to keep them? Who else lives there? Is that person over 18? Has he also passed the background check? If he hasn't, how will you keep the guns secure when you're not home? Had the Sandy Hook shooter's mother had to jump through all these hoops, 22 more kids in Connecticut would be getting bored of their Christmas presents right about now.

Furthermore, I think that if a gun is registered to you and it's used in a crime, even if it was stolen from you completely without your knowledge, you should be subject to prosecution. If you kept a tiger in your house but didn't chain it up or anything, would you be liable if it busted through the front door and ate the mailman? You absolutely would. Had a similar liability for weapons been in place last month in Connecticut, the Sandy Hook shooter's mother might have kept her arsenal behind lock and key, safely out of reach of her Satan-spawn. Nothing motivates quite like the possibility of liability and jail time.

Likewise, when you want to drive a car, you need a license for it, and we wisely require the same thing for prospective gun owners. But drivers don't just have to get a license, they have to renew that license periodically, prove their eyesight is still okay, pass a written test. I think in addition to passing a gun-safety test and criminal background check, each prospective licensee should be subject to an interview and psychological evaluation initially and, in the case of the already licensed, at every renewal. I'm not talking about a grilling on political views or personal habits or anything like that -- just a check to make sure you can sit still in a chair and answer a few softballs (name, address, date of birth, hometown, opinion on the Red Sox bullpen) without foaming at the mouth, pulling your hair out one at a time, or shouting out violent threats. The thrust of this interview is basically "are you visibly untethered?"

The NRA and its very vocal membership seem to believe that the proverbial jack-booted thugs will be coming any minute to take away their guns, but they (specifically, their fundraising arm)  may be disappointed to see that there's nothing remotely like that in Obama's proposal. I would be in favor of an amnesty/buyback program, though, so that people in possession of unlicensed weapons would have an incentive to bring them back voluntarily and get them off the streets. These programs already intermittently exist at the local level, but it would be nice to see some coordination and escalation to see if we can't get as many untraceable weapons back into safe hands as possible.

I was born in Missouri, and I've spent more than half my Christmases in a very small rural town where every house has at least a couple of rifles and every truck has a shotgun rack in its back window. When my family all gets together we always make a point of getting out for some target shooting or, even better, breaking some clay pigeons. I learned gun safety when I was 9 or 10. Both my uncle and my dad are licensed gun dealers -- my uncle professionally, my dad recreationally -- and they go to several big gun shows a year. (I hope I am still invited for Christmas dinner next year.) I am more sympathetic to the people who oppose gun control than most folks of my political profile. The vast majority of gun owners out there, even the ones foaming at the mouth in opposition to this or any other form of gun control, are law-abiding citizens who pose no threat to anyone.

So it's particularly confusing to me that so many of them are dead-set against taking any steps at all to make sure that it's only people like them -- trained, mentally stable, responsible -- with access to this most lethal of toys. (Because, let's face it: whatever gun enthusiasts might say, their enthusiasm is not for self-defense or a well-regulated militia, it's for making big loud noises and blowing holes in stuff from a hundred paces. There's nothing wrong with that, I indulge in it myself, but let's call it what it is.) These things are death machines. It's what they are. It's what they're for. It's a big responsibility to possess a death machine, and I think that just like with getting a driver's license, you should have to prove you're up to the responsibility.

The most common refrain of the no-reforms-ever crowd seems to be "criminals will always be able to get guns, regardless of the laws." This one is particularly frustrating to me, because it turns the issue into a binary argument: gun control will either work or it won't work. I think that's the wrong way to look at it. I mean, we can agree that 1,000 gun-related murders is better (or, more precisely, less awful)  than 10,000, can't we? If we can get a reduction in that number (whatever the true number is, it's too depressing to Google), what kind of society are we if we don't even try?

Would my proposals eradicate gun violence in America? Of course they wouldn't. Would criminals, and the criminally insane, still be able to get their hands on firearms? The anti-gun control folks say they will, and to an extent I'm sure that's true. But saying "criminals will always be able to get guns" assumes an across-the-board resourcefulness on the part of the mentally ill community that I don't think is warranted. Most of the mentally ill people I've known (and I have known a few) haven't had their shit together enough to get the rotting takeout off their bedroom floor, much less tap into an underground firearms black market. (A common corollary to "criminals will always get guns" is "if they didn't have a gun, they'd use a bomb." This similarly assumes universal bomb-building knowledge that's, at best, suspect.) I have a wife, a kid, two dogs, two jobs, and a mortgage, and I don't have the first idea how I'd get a gun if I couldn't do so legally. (Nor do I know how to build a bomb.) Maybe some of the murderous crazies out there would still figure out how to arm themselves despite these measures. I'm sure some of them would. BUT SOME OF THEM WOULDN'T. If we can keep even one innocent person from being murdered in the most senseless, gruesome manner possible while minding their own business, isn't that worth a little extra paperwork? Even with all my bright ideas, it would still be less hassle than, say, applying for a mortgage.

Speaking of which, Chris Rock had the best solution to this problem that I've yet heard, but it's every bit as unrealistic as my own, so I'll close with his remarks on the topic, given at a Television Critics Association roundtable last week:

"The gun lobby always says, well, people need the right to protect their property. Every mass shooting is done by a guy who lives with his mother. I honestly believe you should have to have a mortgage to buy a gun. No one with a mortgage has ever gone on a killing spree. A mortgage is a real background check. And you know if you go to jail for 30 years you still have to pay your fucking mortgage."

For shorter, equally trivial postings follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.

Friday, January 11, 2013

A Horribly Embarrassing Incident in a Very Nice Restaurant

Exhibit A: The scene of the crime.
About nine years ago, my wife and I took a weekend trip to Miami. We had been gifted some free plane tickets from a friend who couldn't use them, so we decided to check out South Beach. It was a particularly brutal New York City winter, and neither of us had been to Miami before, so it was an easy choice to go relax in the sun and take in some classic deco architecture.

So we flew down, checked into the South Beach Holiday Inn, gaped at people much more attractive than ourselves, gasped at people much wider than ourselves, went to some truly awful nightclubs, and did some surprisingly excellent thrift shopping.

One thing we did not do was consume any alcohol, which was a drastic departure from how I would have conducted myself under these circumstances even six weeks before. It's a long story, and I don't really want to get into it here. Suffice to say: for 15 years, the acquisition and consumption of alcohol was the organizing principle of my life, and after a particularly debauched holiday season, I took part in the annual tradition of Sober January, enjoyed the lack of paralyzing headaches and watery diarrhea, and decided at the end of the month to continue teetotaling. (Sober January has lasted nine years and eleven days and counting.)

The point being, I was newly sober on this trip to Miami, and though it was a positive choice that I was feeling good about, I was not yet accustomed to being sober, and particularly being sober on vacation. If you're not trying to break the landspeed record for taking Pacificos to the neck, what are you supposed to do on a beach vacation?

I was relaxed and I was having a good time, but I was a little jittery, and my wife and I didn't really know what to do with ourselves. We decided to find the best restaurant in South Beach and spend all the money we weren't spending on Pacificos and tequila shots on a nice meal, a rare treat at the time. (Actually it's a rare treat now, too. Then it was because we were broke, now it's because we're parents.)

So we asked around and ended up at a fancy seafood place at the south end of South Beach called Nemo. It was indeed a nice restaurant, it came highly recommended, and the food was great, but this was our first dinner at a nice restaurant since I stopped drinking, and though I didn't feel any much anxiety or weirdness about it, my body was telling a different story: I knocked over both a bottle of Perrier and the little vase on our table within five minutes, I dropped my fork on the floor, and it took me ten minutes to stammer out my order. But the food was good and we had a nice time, partly making fun of the decor in the place.

It was the kind of place that is so aggressively "designed" that it's distracting. I could feel my eyeballs jittering all over the place like a rabbit on a coke jag just trying to take it all in. Different colored glass on all the light fixtures, decidedly unchair-shaped chairs, rusty wrought-iron rods holding up lighted glass globes, a copper bar top... that kind of place.

We order dessert -- my sweet tooth had returned with a vengeance to make up for 15 years of fulfilling my sugar cravings with alcohol -- and then the check comes and it's time to go, so I excuse myself to go to the restroom. 

Kind of like this, but longer.
It's just as overdesigned as the rest of the place -- everything looks like it's made out of slate, granite, or copper, and as a result it's kind of dark. I look around the bathroom and don't see any urinals, just a big slate trough about 8 feet long, like a super-fancy version of where you pee at the ballgame. So I shrug, unzip, and begin relieving myself. I have to stand up straight to get over the edge of this thing, but I don't think much of it -- my weird-o-meter had already gone off when I saw the long granite trough, and I didn't bother to reset it.

Just after I get going, another guy comes into the bathroom and gives me a weird sideways look. He walks past me and disappears around a corner. Wait, what? I hadn't even noticed that there was a corner to go around, so without stopping the stream I lean back to see where he's going.

I can't lean back far enough to see, so I take a few steps to my left, still peeing into the trough, until I see the guy up against the wall with his back to me... peeing into a garden variety, white ceramic urinal.

I manage to process this information right about the time the stream tapers off to a trickle: I am peeing in the sink. My first thought, as I realize the guy is about to come back out: So, what do I do now? Zip up and wash my hands? The guy walks by, decidedly does not pause to wash his hands, and gives me another, more contemptuous sideways look.

I can't pretend this is the first time I've ever relieved myself in an inappropriate place, but I always had a heavy buzz to blame it on, and I'm feeling the unfamiliar sensation of my cheeks flushing and my pulse quickening -- I realize that I'm embarrassed, an emotion I haven't felt since high school, when I began canceling it out in earnest with beer. My former coping strategy would probably have been to give that dude the side-eye right back, wish him a pleasant evening, and maybe (if he had an attitude or something) try and slash a little on his pant leg.

Instead, I wait a few beats for the guy to clear out, in hopes that he's either seated at a different part of the restaurant or on his way out the front door, to spare myself being outed in the middle of the dining room as a sink-defiler, and tiptoe back to our table, where my wife is patiently waiting for me. I wrestle for a moment with whether to share this embarrassing incident with her, and after a beat I do what I always do: I tell her all about it. We laugh about it and hurry out of the place before someone tries to stick us with a cleaning bill and take a nice long walk on the beach.*

*Actually, it was raining that night, so we went back to the Holiday Inn and watched the limited cable selection, but a nice long walk on the beach sounds nicer, doesn't it? Other than that, this tale of urinary misadventure is absolutely true. 

For much shorter, equally trivial postings hit me up on Twitter @alexcastle718.

Friday, January 4, 2013

I Solved The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict In Like 15 Minutes

An appropriately solemn image
for the subject matter
Now that President Obama is about to be sworn in for the second time, he needs a new Secretary of State to replace Hillary Clinton, who is of course on the lam, whereabouts unknown, to avoid testifying about the Benghazi incident. (Last punk rock band to rename itself "The Benghazi Incident" is a rotten egg.)

Just kidding. She's not on the lam, and I have no doubt that she will testify as soon as she's medically able. But she promised a couple of years ago that she would leave the State Department at the end of Obama's first term in order to get her first full night's sleep in about 20 years. If there were any doubt that she would follow through on that promise, the blood clot in her brain has put those doubts to rest (for the moment -- I wouldn't count her out for 2016.)

Which leaves a vacancy at the position of Head U.S. Diplomat. After Obama's first choice for the job, Susan Rice, was browbeaten into withdrawing her name, it now appears that former presidential candidate (and second cousin to Herman Munster) John Kerry will be drafted into duty.

The new Secretary of State, like all Secretaries of State, will spend 98% of his/her/its time trying to work out a peace agreement between the Jews and the Arabs, who have been at war over the right to live on the tiny strip of land currently called Israel, formerly called Palestine. It's been a long, bloody, terribly annoying conflict with no end in sight for as long as anyone can remember, and for reasons I don't completely (or even partially) understand, settling it always seems to be the top U.S. foreign policy priority (other than making sure we have enough oil) . 

With all the awful, intractable conflicts raging all over the world, why does this one occupy such special attention from the U.S. government? One, there are a lot of Jews in America and they feel some investment in what happens to their people, which after the horrors of the Holocaust, is certainly a respectable position. But let's be real -- it's more because there are a lot of dead serious fundamentalist speaking-in-tongues-type Christians in the American government, and it says somewhere in one of the Testaments (Old? New? New and Improved? Not sure) that Jesus won't come back unless the Holy Land is in the hands of the Jews, or something. (Raised without religion! Thanks again, Mom and Dad.)

Despite the fact that I don't really understand the origins of this conflict, don't grasp the current contours of the problem, have only the faintest comprehension of the motivations of either side, and am unable to stop my eyes from glazing over whenever I try to read up on it, it just so happens that I have a plan to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict. I put probably 15... no, make it 20... yes, 20 minutes (maybe more) of thought into this, and I don't see any logical reason why it wouldn't work. Although, I will stipulate that logical reason is the first thing to go in this argument.

Let me preface this by saying that if my proposal seems insensitive to the religious beliefs and goals of the Jews and the Arabs and the Christians, and moreover, woefully underinformed on the basic issues, that's because it is.

What little I know about this problem -- which like most Americans is however much I hear about it on NPR in the time it takes me to reach over and change the channel -- suggests that the most important thing for Jews (and by this I mean Israeli Jews, not all Jews everywhere) isn't just that they control the land -- it's that the Palestinians do not. The reverse is also true: the Palestinians want to win, but they ABSOLUTELY do not want to see the Jews win. (This dynamic is certainly nothing new -- we see it in American politics every day.) It's not that they are doing anything so super amazing on this Holy Land that they can't do anywhere else, it's that they shudder to imagine it being desecrated by their hated enemies.

All this bickering (if carpetbombing and ceaseless acts of brutal terrorism can be called bickering) over exactly where to draw the borders, whether part of Israel should be turned over to the Palestinians completely or whether they should just be allowed to live within Israel.... it's the wrong approach. These two are never going to stop fighting. The only way to make them stop is to physically separate them.

But if you do that, who gets the Holy Land?

The Arabs? No. Though to the completely disengaged, impartial observer the Palestinians look like the aggrieved party (they had a country and now they don't), their behavior has been, to put it mildly, less than gallant.

The Jews? Also no. Every time there's a cease-fire, and an agreement seems to be within sight, the Israeli government goes right back to provoking the other side with more settlements on the  ground the prospective agreements would give to the Palestinians, thus renewing the conflict.

When I was a kid and my brother and I would fight over what to watch on our TV, my mom always resolved it the same way: I don't care who was here first, you broke the lamp, you're making a ruckus, and I don't want to hear it -- both of you go to your rooms! However disappointed I might have been not to get to watch Three's Company, I could take comfort in knowing my brother was also not in there watching Heathcliff. (Holy God, did I hate Heathcliff.)

Nobody wins, so nobody loses! The obvious, simple solution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict: Neither of them gets Israel. They both relocate to areas of similar size and similar climate.

This might seem ridiculous. How can we kick these people out of their ancestral homelands? I know I didn't appreciate it when I was forced at age 12 to move with my family from Cincinnati to Baltimore. I despaired over it and fought it every way I could. But it turned out that Baltimore was a WAY MORE INTERESTING PLACE TO LIVE than Cincinnati.  I think maybe both sides have contracted a little tunnel vision here. They've had their jaw clamped on the same bone for so long that they can't see the huge banquet around them. (If comparing a bloody generational battle to the death over exactly has the best grasp on God's eternal love to the concerns of children and dogs seems less than reverent, I'm willing to live with that complaint.)

I happen to work with a few people from Israel, and one of them once told me, in his thick Hebrew accent (by the way -- have you ever tried to do a Hebrew accent? It's impossible. I can do a Boston accent, I can do a Southern accent, I can do British, French, Russian... but after 10 years working closely with Israelis I can't even come close to duplicating their accent. End tangent) that he had an easy and (relatively) affordable solution to the problem:

"Give everyone plane tickets," he said.

"To where?" I asked.

"Anywhere," he almost shouted. "One-way. Just get them out of there. Ten minutes after they land, they'll realize they never want to go back." (He has put his money where his mouth is -- he splits his time between New York, Costa Rica, and Taiwan, opening restaurants and surfing and making me with I could costar in a body-switch movie with him.)

So we've got to send both the Jews and the Arabs somewhere else, somewhere they won't be displacing any other culture (we certainly don't want to start all over somewhere else) and with a similar climate, so they'll feel at home.

New Palestine. In the middle there.
Under my plan, the Arabs will be moved to the interior of Australia. It's a vast, dry expanse of land, and the population density is two people per square mile or less. More than enough room for New Palestine! Also, the origins of Colonial Australia -- it was a prison for the worst of Europe's worst -- make for a tidy symmetry, in light of some of the Palestinians' shenanigans (if an endless campaign of brutal improvised warfare with countless civilian casualties can be called shenanigans) over the years.

It was a little harder to figure out where to put New Israel. My first thought of course was Florida, as the tribe already has a pretty good foothold in the region, but there are too many people there to absorb a whole country of refugees emigrants. But then it hit me: if I have learned one thing about the Israeli people in my time working with them, it is that they like to party. So where could we put them with a similar climate to their homeland, and also happens to host the greatest party in the world?

Yes, the Jews will be relocated to the Black Rock Desert and the surrounding areas of North Central 
Nevada, where they will surely flourish and of course make absolutely ideal hosts for the Burning Man Arts Festival. (They'll also be in charge of cleaning up after Burning Man, which is their just desserts for their own mischief -- if violently moving the goalposts in a game with the highest possible stakes can be called mischief -- over the years.)

Black Rock City, Capital of New Israel

So what happens to Israel? It shouldn't just sit there vacant, so how about we give it to the Native Americans. Not a lot of buffalo in Israel, but I'm sure they will be able to make a go of it. 

So there you go: World Peace. You're welcome. Is there a ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize, or will my plaque be mailed to me? 

Follow me on Twitter @alexcastle718.