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Confederacy Torn: A War of Ancestral Symbols

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2013 by Kontra

I grew up in the first state ever to secede from the Union. It was on the shore of South Carolina that my parents purchased me the only Confederate flag image I have ever owned: a raft on which I rode the waves of Myrtle and Lion’s beaches. Though I only personally handled this symbol during the humid southern summers, it surrounded me at all times. In fact, the Dixie flag flew over the South Carolina statehouse until the dawning of the 21st century, and while it can no longer be seen flapping in the breeze above the capital, it still sits on the lawn of the building.

I now live in Richmond, Virginia, a city positively saturated in Civil War history and legend.  (Let there be no doubt: I am a Southerner.)  It is here, in the capital of the Confederacy, that the ideological warfare surrounding the flag has found its latest incarnation.  As fall rolled across the Eastern Seaboard, two symbols were simultaneously hoisted over the city.


The first, a Southern Cross raised alongside Interstate 95, which now connects Richmond to the former Union capital of Washington, D.C. It was displayed by the Virginia Flaggers, a group that considers flying the flag “a way to protect and defend all Confederate heritage,”  openly rejecting the notion that it is, for them, a symbol of racism or slavery. “Heritage not hate,” as the saying goes.

The second: the Stars and Stripes. This (much larger) American flag was hung from a construction crane downtown in protest of the Confederate display. United RVA, the organization who paid for the display, gave interviews to local news channels to explain:

“We have a flag that unifies all of us here in Richmond, Virginia, and it’s the American flag. The Confederate flag is a symbol that at best divides our community, and at worst is a symbol of hatred, slavery, racism and oppression.”

 The lines are drawn, as they have been for some time. On one side, the claim that the Confederate flag cannot possibly be extricated from slavery and racism.  On the other, the claim that the two do not necessarily have any connection at all.  But if I am permitted a moment’s digression, I wish to propose that both sides of this debate have fallen victim to dangerous illusions: the supposed universality, simplicity and permanence of symbolic meanings.

Symbols Are Not Universal

Hearing these debates as an anti-racist Southerner tears a rift between my experience and my intellect. On the one hand, I spent the first half of my life around people who casually displayed the flag the way my sister and I did as children, running along the beach and bobbing in the ocean. My parents certainly held no openly racist ideas that I could determine at that age (or today), nor did most of the people who had Rebel flag stickers in the back of their vehicle windows, for example. It was a regional identifier of pride, a fuck-yeah/fuck-you redneck attitude—and to a lesser degree, advocacy of decentralized government—more than any identification with whiteness or derision of blackness. During those years, I wouldn’t have thought twice about seeing a person of color displaying one. (It’s possible that I did.)  I know that it’s possible to separate the symbol from race, because I did.

As I traveled and expanded my social circles during my early adult years, I had to accustom myself to the negative assumptions that people living outside (and those from outside) my region made about those who identified with the flag. I had to force myself to consider that it was once indeed the symbol of a group of people who, generally, believed in the institution of slavery and the inferiority of other races. And as time went on, I had to accept that some people who do hold racist beliefs gravitate towards symbols from a time when those beliefs were more common.

I had to consciously accept, in a way that the Virginia Flaggers refuse to, how the Confederate flag became a symbol for resistance to desegregation in the South only a few decades ago, and what that means for people of color who are old enough to still remember that, whose families are part of this community.  What abstract sense of honor or ancestral connection is worth triggering emotional responses to such experiences? Won’t the American flag suffice?

But it’s more complicated than that.

Symbols Are Not Simple


The first battle of the Civil War—and the birth of the American flag’s modern importance—occurred at Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina, where I grew up. A Southern officer named Major Robert Anderson became a traitor to the Confederacy soon after South Carolina seceded when he occupied Fort Sumter with his garrison of troops, running (what we now call) the American flag up the pole and determining to hold the fort for the Union army. The Civil War had begun and the solidification of the Star-Spangled Banner as a nationalist symbol had been cemented.

“Before that day, the flag had served mostly as a military ensign or a convenient marking of American territory, flown from forts, embassies, and ships, and displayed on special occasions like American Independence day. But in the weeks after Major Anderson’s surprising stand, it became something different. Suddenly the Stars and Stripes flew—as it does today, and especially as it did after the September 11th attacks in 2001—from houses, from storefronts, from churches; above the village greens and college quads.” –Goodheart, 1861: The Civil War Awakening

But before the Yanks start cheering, take note: Major Robert Anderson was not only an openly pro-slavery racist, but a slave-owner.

To repeat: We have a racist slaveholder fighting against the Confederacy under the American flag in the opening battle of the war. Can it really be said, then, that racism or slavery is inherently linked to one particular flag? If so, which one? Does it matter that our nationalist flag has since been used as a banner for conquests, coups, preemptive invasions, resource extraction and straightforward destruction of non-whites?

Is it possible that in an attempt to show the Virginia Flaggers that it’s time to move on, to step beyond a war that is generations past, United RVA has brought us back to the very beginning in the most explicit way they possibly could: us versus them, battle of the same old flags?

The Confederate history groups in Richmond claim that they are absolutely able to honor their direct ancestors via the symbolism of a flag without honoring every single thing they did or believed in. Is this true? If not, does that mean that other Americans must abandon the Stars and Stripes for our ancestors’ use of weapons of mass destruction on civilian populations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Or for supporting brutal dictators all over the world? For training Latin American warlords at the School of the Americas?

If it is compassionate to sacrifice the symbol of the Confederacy to people who lived through the desegregation of the south, how much more carefully must we tuck away the American flag in sight of a man from Fallujah, a child of the Japanese internment, a Palestinian woman whose house was bulldozed by US-financed equipment?

I will doubtlessly be despised for finding nuance where others see clear-cut moral certitude.  (This is, in fact, the nature of moral certitude.) If I mention, for example, that General Robert E. Lee was an abolitionist—that he called slavery a “moral and political evil”; that he was originally a Union general who was loathe to go to war but refused to allow his own Virginia statesmen to die; that his family worked to free slaves and provide them safe passage back to Africa while educating other slaves at an illegal school—I am virtually guaranteed to be called a racist slavery apologist.

And that would be somewhat fair. He actually thought that slavery was worse for white people than for blacks, and that only the slow Christianization of Africans would ready them for civilized coexistence—a theory readily provided by the Bible’s explicit instructions on how to handle slaves, and the promulgation of those directives through the church. (If mere symbols like the flags can be racist, precisely how racist does this make the Bible?)

Reality is complicated. Simplistic views on either side will not suffice.

Symbols Are Not Permanent

Finally, let us look at symbols in another context. If I were to point out that Guy Fawkes, current worldwide symbol of liberation and transparency, was an objectionable theocrat who fought for the Spanish Catholic empire to brutally repress the Dutch independence movement, it will be suggested that the modern interpretation of his persona is what really matters. Even the descendants of the Dutch freedom fighters he murdered have donned Guy Fawkes masks in demonstrations over the past 5 years.

Consider the morphology mashup represented by this aggressive image, which was published when the Virginia Flaggers announced their plan to raise the Confederate flag in Richmond:


A totally recontextualized symbolic character burning another recontextualized symbol because he doesn’t believe it’s possible to recontextualize symbols.


It is easy to forget, trapped (as we all must be) in a specific time and place, that the meanings of social and political symbols are not fixed. They are fluid, shifting and most importantly, personal. Frankly, I no longer have use for them as rallying or flash points. They can be momentarily useful as emblems of ideas, but are inevitably mired in human complexities impossible to represent in simple visual cues. They will inevitably mutate and they will inevitably offend.

I am no longer interested in being united by imagery and symbols.  I’m interested in ideas.  To the Virginia Flaggers and United RVA, I humbly suggest Thomas Paine as a starting point:

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

McQuinn Flees Shockoe Stadium Questions, Literally

Posted in Articles, Other Media on September 18, 2013 by Kontra

Who knew that Delegate Delores McQuinn could move so fast?

At the latest meeting of the Slave Trail Commission, McQuinn (who chairs the commission) practically sprinted for the door moments before the public comment/question period.

I’d brought my video camera along to record audio, and when she started for the door, I pointed the camera in her general direction, but she was gone.  She moved so quickly that even after pursuing her out the door, I only found her assistant standing in the parking lot on a cell phone, calling to tell her all the things she’d forgotten in her hurry to escape.

Reporters from several news organizations, including The Virginia Defender, Style Weekly and WRIR, had shown up to question the commission about why it has expressed no position on the proposed baseball stadium in Shockoe Bottom.

It’s no secret that the mayor is about to officially announce his plan to build a stadium there.  The Richmond Times-Dispatch has already reported that his ideological partner in the project, H. Louis Salomonsky, recently purchased the final piece of property necessary to complete the construction.  We know these two have their minds made up.

Conspicuously silent on the matter has been the city’s taxpayer-funded Slave Trail Commission, which was created to “preserve the history of slavery in Richmond”.  The silence has caused some to question how the commission could be indifferent to whether a massive, city-changing structure (and its accompanying structures) would be dropped into the most historic slave-related area in the city.  Shockoe Bottom is not only the site of slave auctions, burial grounds and the slave trail itself, but an area that birthed an entire slave-trade-related economic infrastructure that was key to the development of Richmond as a city.

Style Weekly managed to get a quote from McQuinn later, but the resulting article is sure to put political pressure on the commission.

The Virginia Defender wrote a scathing piece about Salomonsky and the entire project.

By the end of the meeting McQuinn escaped from, the co-chair promised that we would be informed of whether the commission would have an official opinion on the ballpark at their next meeting, during the first week in October.

The Intersection of Guns, Race & Abortion: Everyone Misses Again

Posted in Articles on September 14, 2013 by Kontra

[ This article dedicated to the young black man on the 1600 block of West Grace that’s always open carrying his pistol.  Word. ]

Pro-choice and pro-gun rights sentiments are the oil and water of sociopolitics.  Not only shall the two never mix, but ever will they be at odds, counterpoints of disparate cultures in seemingly unrelated debates.

I’ve written before that if I had a dollar for every time some gun-grabbing Democratic politician tried to convince Americans that “nobody’s trying to take your guns”, I would be financially secure.  Moreover, If I also had a dollar for every time some right-wing pundit acted utterly confused about how liberals can decry gun rights while supporting abortion (“the genocide of more than 1 million children every year”), I wouldn’t ever have to worry about paying my rent again.

Cases in point:

Sarah Silverman, offensive comedian extraordinaire, has recently released a satirical video titled “The Black NRA”, which overtly suggests that the NRA (which, it’s true, is the oldest civil rights organization in the country) would be terrified – absolutely terrified – if all shades of nonviolent, law-abiding American citizens, including young black males, actually carried firearms.  This is not only a shameless, generalized accusation of racism against more than 5 million citizens who pay dues (and many more who support the NRA’s general agenda), but a display of total ignorance of the NRA, which has always supported and encouraged young black males to avail themselves the civil right of firearm ownership.

Had Silverman (and/or her apparently clueless Hollywood costars) done any research at all, it would have been interesting to hear them address why one of the NRA’s most visible spokespeople, Colion Noir, is a young black male who deals not only with issues of firearms, but their intersection with race on a regular basis.  Or the plethora of historical ties of gun control with racism.  Or the fact that the NRA was formed by abolitionists who always welcomed people of color.  (Or, you know, any suggestion concerning the actual merit of this video’s message.)

But they’re just comedians, right?  If they don’t make any sense, it’s okay.  You’re just supposed to laugh.

Some young black folks decided to take an alternate approach, and released their own scathing critique of the video.

It hits on the video, the race-baiting of the Trayvon case, and some facts I’ve already mentioned.  The smile on my face as I first watched this video was difficult to hide.

Right up until I got to 2 minutes and 40 seconds in.  Cue the facepalm as these guys revert to the old Republican argument about Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood, attempting a genocide of people of color through the strategic promotion of abortion.  (The video devolves from there into more false Democrat/Republican dichotomy.)

Will this never stop?  Am I doomed to wallow in the swampland between worlds of people who are unable to deal with facts?

Richmond, Virginia (where I live) has been drawn into this debate yet again recently, as commuters on Interstate 95 have been driving by this billboard:

This billboard is an advertisement for a meeting organized by fundamentalist Christians for the explicit purpose of perpetuating the myth advanced by the young men in the preceding video.

Local reaction to the billboard by all parties can only be described as utterly depressing.  Liberals and particular groups of black folks had their delicate sensibilities offended by the word “negro”, wailing about its “racism” without even bothering to determine that the “Negro Project” is a proper name for (who would have guessed it?) an actual project instituted by Margaret Sanger in an age when the word was not considered offensive.

Some publications, like the increasingly mediocre Style Weekly, have attempted to cover this story without actually covering it.  The latest article by Tom Nash somehow hoped to address the controversy of the billboard by joining in the ignorance of people who were offended by it.  It literally does not even mention (did Nash even bother to find out?) what the Negro Project was, or actually address any arguments about whether the concept was racist.  It simply interviewed a couple of people who disagreed on whether the billboard was racist.  Presumably, this is what passes for reporting.

For those offended, it is uncertain whether it would have mattered that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was not only a recipient of the Sanger Award in 1966, but that he lauded her work openly in his acceptance speech.  Or that Sanger’s clinics in Harlem were praised by W. E. B. Du Bois, founder of the NAACP.  We don’t know whether these things would have mattered because people who get offended at words without taking the time to understand their origin or meaning are not known to spend much time reading or reflecting.

Almost the entire core of the controversy surrounding the Negro Project is centered around the Sanger quote spoken in the video:
“We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”

This has been represented, notably by Angela Davis, with Sanger as mustachioed villain, rubbing her hands together maniacally as she plots the extermination of non-whites. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) for those who are incensed by the quote, Sanger wrote this in a personal letter as an example of what wasn’t happening, and how important it would be that, given the sensitivity of the issue of abortion at the time, to make sure that no one got this impression.  If this case of mistaken intention were to appear in a stage comedy rather than an important historical context, it would indeed be comical.

Sanger’s quote regarding the actual reason for the project is less often related. She considered the lack of reproductive options for black people in America a serious impediment to reducing cycles of poverty, calling them “a group notoriously underprivileged and handicapped to a large measure by a ‘caste’ system that operates as an added weight upon their efforts to get a fair share of the better things in life. To give them the means of helping themselves is perhaps the richest gift of all. We believe birth control knowledge brought to this group, is the most direct, constructive aid that can be given them to improve their immediate situation.”

Count the ironies:  Sanger specifies what isn’t happening and how important it is that people not even consider such a thing.  But the very people she was trying to help believe exactly that because she took the time to specify how it should not be viewed.  The Christian right comes along for the ride not only because they believe in the magical implantation of undefined “souls” in clumps of cells at conception, but because they could use the PR on the racial front.  This backfires when the Christians are then criticized as racist for writing a proper noun by liberals who would probably support the Negro Project’s agenda in the first place.

Of course, reality is always complicated.  Sanger is no saint.  She was a fan of negative eugenics and the sterilization of people with genetic, incurable disabilities.  The fact that she didn’t involve black people in the Negro Project until well after its inception, and mostly for public relations purposes, reeks of what we would now consider a “white savior complex”.  But a genocidal racist she was not.

The intersection between guns, race and abortion goes far deeper than I have addressed here. I’m going to leave that more intricate discussion to my acquaintance, Richmonder Matt Siegel.  In 2009 he wrote a fantastic article titled “Gun Control, Class War and Partial Birth Abortions” for American Gun Culture Report, which I trust will make crystal clear the ways in which these topics are inherently linked in our sociopolitical consciousness.

Read Matt’s article in PDF here to better understand how these issues interrelate.

“Banning guns has always been seen as a liberal position, but banning abortion is a typical conservative stand.  However, they’re both actually the same issue because they’re being marketed to us identically.  If you want to know where the Partial Birth Abortion Ban of 2003 came from, you have to look no further than the currently expired Assault Weapons Ban of 1994.”

Amazing Women Reclaim Country Music

Posted in Articles on June 21, 2013 by Kontra

“What kind of music do you like?” is a question that I’ve been asked many times in my life.  Even as a white, southern boy, my response has almost always been something like, “Anything that’s not modern country music.”  I like classic country music, I’ll tell them – Cash, Nelson, Cline, Hank, Dolly – but cannot abide country radio.

Country music, it seems to me, has been going through an identity crisis as the music has become less and less a reflection of the actual stories, lives and experiences of people living in rural areas.  Instead, we get song lyrics that name-drop cultural components associated with the south, but which have very little of substance to share about why those cultural components are important or how they play a role in the lives of the people the music claims to represent.

Male artists are the worst.  Turn on your local country radio station(s) at any time during the day, and you are guaranteed to hear a song like Jason Aldean’s She’s Country, which is basically a laundry list of words that he hopes you’ll think show just how country he is: “cowboy boots”, “prayers”, “born and raised”, “pickup truck”, “backwoods”, “homegrown”, etc.

Or for comparison, try on Blake Shelton’s Boys Round Here, which is essentially the same thing: “boots”, “prayer”, “southern”, “truck”, “backwoods”, “beer”, etc.

These two songs are representative of a large portion of today’s country radio.  The few corporations marketing and distributing mainstream music have essentially packaged up the most superficial aesthetic and cultural components of country music/life and sold them back to the population as culturalist anthems.  It’s like a deep south version of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle.

To make matters worse, the arrangements and chord progressions of mainstream country have increasingly begun to resemble the overproduced rock music that you can purchase from your local Family Christian Store in the strip mall next to Applebee’s.

These are serious problems, and have been for some time.


Over the past year, three all-female country artists have broken through this cultural echo chamber with stunning success.  I’m excited to tell you about them.  Before I talk about them individually, there are two themes that span all of these albums, worthy of mention:

1)  Religion – Two of these artists do not neglect the role of religion in their lives as southern women, and in fact portray its role in a much more realistic context than most artists who talk about their spirituality.  No sappy preaching here.  Only one of these three artists (Kasey Musgrave) seems to actually be questioning her faith, and this too is done tastefully.  As a humanist, it can be hard for me to listen to music with religious references, but these albums never irked me once.

2)  Marijuana – Finally, country is returning to its longstanding outspoken acceptance of  marijuana as a worthy element in its cultural narratives.  Every single album mentions marijuana use at least once, and never inappropriately.  If we want to see the failed and destructive war on marijuana end in our lifetime, we need public figures normalizing responsible use with honest depictions of their lives.

Pistol Annies – Annie Up


I had my doubts.  These gals sang backup on that Blake Shelton song I ragged on a moment ago, so I thought the odds were stacked against them.  Emphatically not the case.  This trio has crafted a country album that is not just listenable from beginning to end, but is both thoughtful and fun to boot.

Here are some women from the working class background that country music derives from, singing the virtues of working class men, marijuana and getting down.  But don’t mistake this for a party album.  Several songs on Annie Up are about complex personal and social issues, all of which are dealt with in a nuanced way.

The first lyrics to really perk up my ears came in Track 3, Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty, in which the band laments the soul-crushing difficulty of maintaining mainstream beauty standards:

Being pretty ain’t pretty, it takes all day long
You spend all your money just to wipe it all off
You spray on your perfume, you spray on your tan
Get up in the morning, do it over again
Being pretty ain’t pretty at all

The strongly reinforced feminine beauty standards that characterize southern culture make this voice no less than feminist, social counterspin.  And I love it.

Trading One Heartbreak For Another might be one of the most poignant songs about divorce ever written, and to my knowledge, is the only one that frames it just so.  The heartbreaks being traded are the kind that comes with a messy divorce, and the kind that comes from seeing a child needing his estranged father:  “I’m finally alive, but it’s killin’ who I’m livin’ for”.  The Annies deal with serious issues of guilt and relief and anxiety here, and deserve credit for writing a truly heartbreaking song.

Other notable songs include a personal struggle with alcoholism (Dear Sobriety) and the blue collar, girl-power track Girls Like Us (Make the World Go Round).

These well-crafted, often insightful songs stray from the country formulas in important ways.  This is a must own for people interested in new country music.

Ashley Monroe – Like a Rose


What splendid use of traditional country stylings!  What classic themes!  And yet, Ashley manages to explore those themes with a meta-consciousness that speaks volumes: “So the man is gone / What a damn cliche”.  This not only imbues the classic themes with new life, but reminds everyone that the themes (like breakup/heartbreak) are cliches because they are a universal experience.

At the same time, the lyrics seem to have been written in a time and place removed from the urban centers where large portions of the country music demographic now live.  Whether songs are talking about taking “the phone off of the hook” (do YOU still have a landline?) or shooting Polaroids (as opposed to Instagraming), the listener has the impression that these songs could have been written any time since the early 70s.

I’m also a sucker for artists with multiple personas, and Ashley offers us one by the name of “Monroe Suede”, a nickname for herself in a possibly-true story about an incident of grand theft auto from her youth.  Songwriting like this is perfectly suited to country music, and serves to boost her mystique both as a person and an artist.

There is no question that Ashley is also representing a working class ethic here, with songs about late rent payments and heavy drinking flanking fun-as-hell stompers like Weed Instead of Roses.  Strongly recommended.

Kacey Musgrave – Same Trailer, Different Park


Of the three albums, this one diverges most from roots and country stylization, but only by a few degrees.  Same Trailer, Different Park certainly has pop influence, but still relies on identifiable country instruments and lyrical elements.

But the thing that really sparks my interest in this woman is the way she actively calls into question the values of the culture that gave birth to her.

If you ain’t got two kids by 21, you’re probably going to die alone
At least that’s what tradition told you
And it don’t matter if you don’t believe
Come Sunday morning you best be there in the front row like you’re supposed to

Songs like these are not only a personal exploration, but also an encouragement for the listener to question for themselves.  If I had a teenage daughter, this is exactly the sort of music I would give her to listen to.  The range of empowering messages for young women on this album cannot be overestimated.  Sometimes they are couched in stories of other working class women, like Blowing Smoke, while others are direct encouragements that reach outside of country’s typical value scheme, like in Follow Your Arrow:

Make lots of noise, Kiss lots of boys
Or kiss lots of girls, If that’s something you’re into
When the straight and narrow gets a little too straight
Roll up a joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow

Keep Kacey Musgrave on your radar, and snag this album at the first opportunity.

Dear Gun Control Democrats: 6 Ways to Make a Better Argument

Posted in Articles on April 20, 2013 by Kontra

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks next to Vice President Joe Biden on commonsense measures to reduce gun violence, in Washington

Dear Gun Control Democrats:

It’s been less than a week since national gun control in America died. No “assault weapons” ban. No “high-capacity” magazine ban. Not even the Manchin-Toomey background check compromise that, according to Senator Mark Kirk, was reached by getting drunk on a 54-foot mega-yacht named Black Tie, which is part-owned by Manchin.

Over the last several days, I’ve watched Democratic politicians, lobbyists and Facebook meme-sharers calling down shame on the senators who voted against every single gun control measure proposed in the Senate. Yes, it’s true that none of the measures would have passed the Republican-controlled House anyway, but to have lost in the Democrat-controlled senate was to truly be trounced. I have seen the Democratic pundits all over the nation looking across their podiums and well-lit television studio desks with stunned expressions. “How could this have happened,” they all ask? Only four months after Newtown?

I write this letter as someone who is politically far left of center. You and I have a lot in common, though you may not want to admit it by the end of this article. I think it’s time we had a talk.

I live in the state of Virginia, a place where it’s not easy to be a leftist. Just last week, our State Board of Health voted to approve TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) regulations that would close most abortion clinics in the state. It was a devastating loss for myself and other organizers, and it will be even more devastating to the women of Virginia, most of whom will not have access to safe, legal abortions for years to come. I mention this not only so that you have context for the sort of political work I’m involved in, but because I want you to know that *I do know*, from very recent experience, what it’s like to feel powerless as you watch a group of people vote for social policy that you think is absolutely insane.

But I’ll be honest with you: I watched the Senate votes live on Wednesday, and when these gun-related bills were defeated, I literally celebrated. Obviously, you and I have a lot in common, but plenty to differ on. And that’s kind of what I want to talk to you about.

I’ve owned guns since childhood, and it’s an issue that I’ve thought and written a lot about. It’s very difficult for me to communicate with the mainstream Democratic establishment about guns. But because I know how painful it sometimes is to listen to Republican and other Right-leaning people talk about things that we on the Left care strongly about, I thought I would try to help you out.

There are are a few things that you can do to improve your game in the gun control debate, and I thought it would only be fair to point out what they are. So here’s my best shot. Here are the things that you MUST keep in mind if you wish to further the dialogue on gun policy in America.

1. Stop Sending Mixed Messages

I wish I had a dollar for every Democratic politician and commentator that has looked into a television camera over the past few months and said, “No one is trying to take your guns away!”

Allow me this humble suggestion: The best way to convince the American public that you’re not interested in taking guns away is to stop talking about taking guns away.

Firstly, when your politicians are asked, “Do you support state legislation to ban the manufacture, sale and possession of handguns?” as Obama was in his 1996 Senate campaign, you should never answer “Yes,” as Obama did. Publicly advocating a ban on all handguns is not the way to convince people that you’re not interested in banning guns. Furthermore, when you are campaigning for president, never say the phrase “I continue to support a [federal] ban on concealed carry,” as Obama did in 2004. This gives people the impression that your intention is to prevent the states from setting reasonable guidlelines on who can defend themselves outside of their home.

If you then win the election, do not go on to fully support gun bans in two US cities – Chicago and D.C. – in which law-abiding citizens are disarmed, citing them as models for gun policy while trying to convince the rest of the country that you really aren’t interested in banning their guns. (Guess which two US cities you’re most likely to be killed by a gun in.)

It has become almost cliché for smirking Democrats to attempt to ridicule people like myself by crooning, “Obama wants to take our guns!” in a stereotyped hillbilly drawl – something particularly offensive to some folks here in the south – when in fact, Obama has said exactly that.

Some of you will argue that regardless of the President’s conflicted/dishonest assertions, the legislation that died in Senate earlier this week had nothing to do with taking anything. But let us not forget the “assault weapons” ban, which enacted slow confiscation over a generation. I wouldn’t have to immediately surrender any firearms, but because of the angle of the grip on the shotgun I own, it would be a felony offense to pass it on to a family member (or anyone else) upon my death. It would instead be confiscated by the government and presumably destroyed.

The same would happen to tens of millions of firearms all over the country, including more than 3 million of just one single model, the AR-15. In this case, gun control advocates literally want to pry the most popular rifle in the country from every owner’s cold dead hands. “We’re not taking any guns away from you, just all future generations.” Needless to say, this is not the way to convince people that no one is interested in taking guns away.

This sort of message and legislation has come not just from the president, but on down the chain of command. We have known that the ideal scenario (and presumably ultimate goal) for Dianne Feinstein – sponsor of the assault weapons ban and most outspoken advocate for all of the defeated legislation – has always been a total, door-to-door confiscation of firearms. She told us so in a 60 Minutes interview.

    ”If I could have gotten 51 votes in the Senate of the United States for an outright ban, picking up every one of them – ‘Mr. and Mrs. America, turn ’em all in!’ – I would have done it. I could not do that.”

But it’s not just the Democratic leadership. Cultural icons of the Left have also joined the fray. On Real Time with Bill Maher, the host wanted to know why Democratic leaders are pretending that they believe in the second amendment, when they ought to just come out and say what they mean:

    “Everyone on the left is so afraid to say what should be said, which is the Second Amendment is bullshit. Why doesn’t anyone go at the core of it?”

Every episode of the show is watched by 1 – 1.5 million (almost entirely Democratic) viewers, and the studio audience cheered his comment. Chilling. The followup comment is that the ballot box is our guarantee of liberty. Ask Germany (and countless others) how that worked out for them.

It is important to note that according to the Supreme Court (and most Americans), the views espoused by Obama, Feinstein, Maher, et all are unconstitutional. Is it really so difficult to understand why some folks might think that Democrats are just being politicians by giving lip-service to the second amendment while pushing new legislation? Taken collectively, these and many other open confessions by party members are more than probable cause for suspicion of intent. Constitutional voters don’t have to be ignorant or fearful to sound the alarm about these people. They just have to take them at their word and actions.

You can either tell people that you’re not interested in taking guns and stop thinking of ways to take them, or try to abolish the second amendment (good luck). But you cannot do both.

2. You Have To Understand What You’re Regulating

This is common sense for any sort of regulation, but especially when you’re dealing with something specifically protected in the Bill of Rights. Unfortunately, it has not been the case.

New rule: If you don’t know how guns work, you don’t get to craft legislation about them. There is nothing so embarrassing as watching a Democratic politician who has never held a gun in their life attempt to talk about why and how they should be regulated.

This is not a new problem. I included this classic video in my article on the assault weapons ban, which shows how a senator doesn't even understand what's in her own legislation.

Added to the list over the past several months has been die-hard gun control advocate New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg not understanding the difference between automatic and semi-automatic firearms.

    ”Pistols are different. You have to pull the trigger each time. With an assault weapon you basically hold it down and it goes ::machine gun noise::”

This is a man that has built a cornerstone of his career on gun control legislation. He has headed and commissioned panels on guns. He runs a whole group of pro-gun-control mayors. This is an issue he has supposedly been devoted to for a long time.

He doesn’t know how guns operate. He doesn’t understand basic terminology. He doesn’t know what an “assault weapon” is, even though he supposedly was involved in drafting legislation. How is this possible? And how is it possible that we who actually understand the topic are supposed to cede to his judgment on it?

He’s not alone in his utter baffledness about this. Obama recently told donors at a Democratic Congressional Campaign committee meeting that students at Sandy Hook were gunned down by a “fully automatic weapon”. From the White House transcript:

    ”I just came from Denver, where the issue of gun violence is something that has haunted families for way too long, and it is possible for us to create common-sense gun safety measures that respect the traditions of gun ownership in this country and hunters and sportsmen, but also make sure that we don’t have another 20 children in a classroom gunned down by a semiautomatic weapon – by a fully automatic weapon in that case, sadly.”

This is the President of the United States, who has been personally touring the country pretending to understand the issue of how guns function in society. This person has had entire panels and committees at his disposal specifically to educate him on this topic (so we’re told). There is no excuse for ignorance of this magnitude to be centered around conversations involving civil rights specifically enshrined in the constitution. (It is either astounding ignorance or dishonesty. I’m being generous and assuming the former.)

But the award for atomic facepalm goes squarely to Democratic representative Dianne DeGette of Colorado. During one of the many public forums on gun control that took place across the country recently, Dianne explained to the panel and a stunned audience that magazines and ammunition were the same thing, and therefore all the “high-capacity” magazines would soon be used up.

This person is making laws about the very thing she is completely ignorant of. How can people who actually understand the issue be brought to the table and expect to have productive, meaningful conversation when the people sitting across from them are this clueless?

These are a few selected, higher-profile incidents that represent a vast culture of ignorance in the mainstream Democratic left when it comes to even the basics of gun use and policy. I shouldn’t have to say it, but: Until people know what they’re talking about, none of us should care what they have to say.

3. Stop Using Children

It was the dead children of Newtown that were intoned as the push for gun control legislation began. As I have just evidenced, it was the dead children intoned during the drumming up of support. And it was the dead children intoned in Obama’s “concession” speech as every gun control measure in the Senate failed.

And let’s not forget ads like this one:


Fortunately for America, the FBI says that citizens of all ages are literally more likely to be struck by lightning than to be killed with a rifle of any kind – not just “assault” rifles. In fact, you are more than twice as likely to be killed be hands and feet than rifles of any kind, and about 5 times more likely to be killed by a knife.

What about unintentional firearms deaths? Fortunately for children, the National Safety Council says that they are less likely to be accidentally killed by any firearm than most other causes of death. Children ages 0-19 (which technically includes two years of life that aren’t childhood) are about 8 times more likely to drown or be poisoned, 4 times as likely to be killed by smoke or fire and almost 50 times more likely to be killed in a car accident.

No wonder the Left’s alarmist warnings had no effect on the people of Newtown, who voted for the NRA’s suggestion to put armed guards in schools.

Aside from the fact that a statistically insignificant number of children die from firearms, not a single person who advocated these gun control measures has suggested a way in which any of the proposed legislation could possibly have prevented the massacre in Newtown. (None of it would have.) Which could make someone wonder, “What’s with all the talk about kids?”

Children are no longer just pawns in the gun control story. They are now integral players. Sometimes the stories play out like Obama’s photo-op above. Sometimes they were never supposed to be stories in the first place.

A father in Florida was furious recently when his fourth grade son brought home this colorful page:

The teacher seemed to gotten the idea of this little gem from Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder, who asked for all schools nationwide to advocate an “anti-gun message” every single day. “Every day, every school at every level… We need to do this every day of the week and really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way.”

Such an anti-gun fever pitch has been reached that very young children are now being suspended and expelled from school for pointing fingers and saying “pow” on the playground, chewing a Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun, pretending a chicken nugget was a gun and shooting bubbles from a Hello Kitty bubble gun.

As I’m writing this, news has broken of a middle school student suspended and arrested for wearing an NRA t-shirt to school.

Recently a man’s house was raided after he posted a photo of his 11-year-old son – who had a hunting license – safely handling a .22 rifle. The father was a certified firearms instructor, an NRA range safety officer, and a New Jersey hunter education instructor. His house was raided without a warrant and the state threatened to take his children away.

04/23/13 Edit: I have been asked – reasonably, I think – not to refer what happened as a raid. A whole group of police and Dept. Children and Families officials showed up at Moore’s house, demanded to be let in to see his gun safe, threatened to take his child away, but did not enter without a warrant. Moore was told that by asking for a warrant he was acting suspiciously (specifically counter to a ruling by the Supreme Court – exercising rights is never cause for suspicion), and they threatened to find a way to get one. He told them they were welcome to do so. They ended up leaving.

How far we have come.

In some areas of the country, children are not props in a game of political football, but are giving testimony before their state legislatures about why new gun control measures are a terrible idea, like this 15-year-old who shoots those evil AR-15s every day.

In some areas of the country, children are given proper handling and safety training the way I was as a child, and are capable of safely handling rifles and “assault weapons” to defend their homes and family.

Most Americans know when they’re being emotionally played for political gain, and so do the senators who voted against the barrage of legislation that went down in flames this week. Until you can stop marching children around as your cause celeb for no apparent logical reason, and until you propose legislation that at least has something to do with protecting them, no one is going to listen.

4. Stop Pretending Background Checks Don’t Already Exist.

Yes, it’s true that 90% of Americans like background checks for firearms purchases. Well it’s a good thing we have them!

04/21/13 Edit: Four months after the shooting rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School, USA TODAY Poll finds backing for any new gun control legislation has slipped below 50%. The “90% approval for new background check legislation” has turned out to be very false indeed.

If you go to a sporting goods store and buy any firearm, you have to get a background check done. If you buy a gun from almost any table at a gun show, you have to have a background check. If you buy a gun across state lines on the internet, it has to go through a licensed FFL dealer who runs a background check. The same goes for Wal-Mart, flea market dealers, and everywhere else.

The “gun show loophole” you’ve heard so much about simply means that private individuals can sell a gun to each other without asking the federal government for permission. Which is to say that I don’t have to pay $150 (the cost for a check in D.C.) to ask the FBI whether a family member or friend to whom I would like to lend my shotgun for a hunting trip is a convicted felon.

Background checks are a relatively new priority for Obama’s Justice Department, which only prosecuted 44 of the 48,000 felons and fugitives that submitted background checks to purchase a firearm (and were denied because of the functioning system) in 2012. When the NRA pointed out this out to Biden, the Vice President explained that they “simply don’t have the time or manpower to prosecute everybody who lies on a form”.

Then how, pray tell, is adding to that number thousands of private transaction between individuals (who are already inherently law-abiding by filing the paperwork) going to help?

Aside from practicality and enforceability concerns, there are the ever-present privacy concerns. The Democratic left got a rude awakening from allies on this topic when the ACLU came out against universal background checks, citing the record keeping on law-abiding citizens as a “significant” privacy concern:

    “We think that that kind of record-keeping requirement could result in keeping long-term detailed records of purchases and creation of a new government database.”

    “And they come to use databases for all sorts of different purposes. For example, the National Counterterrorism Center recently gave itself the authority to collect all kinds of existing federal databases and performed terrorism related searches regarding those databases. They essentially exempted themselves from a lot of existing Privacy Act protections.”

The Deputy Director of the National Institute of Justice noted in a recent internal memo that the effectiveness of universal background checks would “require gun registration”. (It also went on to note that “gun buybacks are ineffective”, that a high-capacity magazine ban wouldn’t have any discernible effect, that “assault weapons are not a major contributor to gun crime”, and that even a complete elimination of all “assault” weapons “would not have a large impact on gun homicides”.)

When your own Department of Justice thinks your ideas are bad ones, it’s time to move on.

But the ACLU and Department of Justice are not alone in their rejection of universal background checks. Recently, the most comprehensive survey ever conducted on the views of 15,000 law enforcement professionals asked about the relationship between recently-dead legislation proposals and violent crime. 79.6% of them said that expanded background checks would do nothing to reduce violent crime. Here are three other questions and their responses:




These figures speak for themselves. When the nation’s police force, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Justice Department aren’t on board, you might want to rethink your strategy.

No wonder only 4% of Americans think that gun control is an important political issue.

5. Treat the NRA As What They Are: Other American Citizens


The story from the media – and certainly from your Democratic leadership – is that the “powerful corporate lobby” of the NRA is so indomitable that they single-handedly bought and scared off politicians from supporting legislation that they actually believed was going to do some good. But aside from the questionable legislation, this narrative still falls short.

After gun control legislation was defeated this week, I opened a friend’s Facebook link to an unrelated article on, a popular leftist news and opinion site. The full screen poll that popped up before I could read the article asked: “DOES THE NRA CONTROL CONGRESS?” along with an urgent call to sign up for their mailing list to email-shame politicians.

The problem here is the complete dissociation of the NRA as an entity and its membership base. As someone who participated wholeheartedly in the Occupy movement and in the national campaign to expose ALEC – the group of Right-wing politicians and corporate lobbyists who write laws together – I have no love for the influence of money on politics. But by making this narrative the dominant one, the Democratic left has missed a very, very important fact: the power of the NRA lies not in corporations, but in its membership.

The NRA definitely receives some contributions from the firearms manufacturers whose interests are tied up with their own. Of course they do. That’s how lobbying works: you pay people to take the time to represent your interests well to lawmakers, whether you’re a gunmaker contributing to the NRA or a high school teacher’s union paying The American Federation of Teachers lobbyists.

What you’re missing is that the vast portion of the NRA’s funds come not through corporate donors, but through contributions from average Americans. It was not a coincidence that between December 2012 and January 2013 the NRA grew 10,000 members every day, adding a full quarter-million new contributors to their roster since gun control reappeared in the national discussion last year. That’s just what happens when a populace that cares a lot about something gets mobilized. But the NRA – by which the Democratic party should mean “the American citizens who comprise the NRA because they believe in gun rights” – has consistently been characterized as the heartless, monolithic boogeyman.

I have already mentioned the young man who was just this week suspended and arrested for wearing an NRA t-shirt to school. How is this possible? How can the demonization of 5 million Americans engaged in strictly legal activity literally put a child in jail in 2013?

I hope that one thing this latest loss has taught you is that you cannot advance the discussion on gun policy by treating the NRA as if they were something other than the citizens who intentionally pay for them to do exactly what they do. (Even if members do have to grit their teeth at brash methods sometimes.) Your opponent is not the corporate profits of Ruger or Beretta, it is the beliefs and ideas and the resulting money of other citizens just like yourself. Speaking of which…

6. Don’t Forget About Us!

Gun policy is not really as partisan a debate as mainstream media would suggest. There are plenty of left-leaning citizens and Democratic voters who love our guns. Some of us are in the south, some of us are out in Colorado, and some of us are right in the middle of New York City. Some of us not only like the process of shooting guns, but actually think that it’s important to know how. Some of us hunt to supplement food/income. Some of us believe that the safety of our selves, families, communities and yes, even our nation are our own responsibility as citizens. It’s not such a radical thought.

And don’t forget that we are the swing voices in this debate. After the mass shooting in Aurora, I posted an article on why the “assault weapons” ban should not be renewed. Much to my surprise, it garnered a half million reads. This was not because I’m a great writer. This was because it spoke to other leftist people with gun-interests in a way that an NRA newsletter was not going to. And those people shared it with their leftist friends, and so on.

You cannot pretend that we don’t exist, and you cannot be surprised when we let our representatives know that we do not support gun control legislation.

“Amen, Brother!”: Layers of Hypocrisy Mark Biden’s Visit to VCU

Posted in Articles with tags , , , , , , , on January 26, 2013 by Kontra

photo copyright Richmond Times Dispatch

photo copyright Richmond Times Dispatch

Layer 1: A Table That’s Round?
I heard about Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond only two days before he showed up. He is currently on a whirlwind national tour with some other members of the administration to drum up support for their gun control policies, and Virginia was hardly a state he could afford to pass up. The press billed it as a “roundtable discussion”, but everyone in attendance had been preselected for their agreement on all the issues in question, and there were no meaningful policy discussions or disagreements to be had.

The public had no way of voicing input, and were mostly barred from the event. In fact, the media were only allowed to be present during a small portion of the short meeting – just long enough for the video cameras to catch a few staged sound bytes. The importance of the event for the administration was not what actually happened there, but to continue a directive that has been (successfully) implemented since Newtown: Keep gun control in the news, both nationally and locally.

Which is to say that Biden’s visit was, for all intents and purposes, a PR campaign.

Strangely enough (or perhaps not strangely at all), the federal officials surrounding Vice President Biden in that room would have had some disagreements with the Obama administration’s push for gun control… during their campaign seasons.

During her 2002 run for governor of Kansas, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius stated that she strongly supported “every Kansan’s second amendment right to bear arms. And, more than that… the Kansas Constitution which provides even greater rights for gun owners.”
Almost immediately after being elected, she would – twice – veto a basic concealed carry law that would have allowed citizens to carry concealed weapons after obtaining a state permit and passing an FBI background check, leaving Kansas one of only four states without any form of a conceal-carry law. (Only four days after the second veto, it was overturned in the Kansas Senate by a 30-10 vote, and in the House of Representatives by vote of 91-33.)

Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano had an even more noteworthy flip-flop on gun control policy. In her 2002 gubernatorial run in Arizona, she had a textbook gun-rights approach:
“My position on the 2nd Amendment is simple: existing laws related to firearms and their possession are a sufficient framework by which to ensure the safety of all Arizonans. Rather than focusing on new legislation, we must first be vigilant in our enforcement of the laws that are on the books.”

In a recent statement about the many, broad legislation changes proposed by the Obama administration – including bans on firearms with particular aesthetic styles and capacities – she affirmed her total support of them all. Which is why she got to accompany Biden.

The first layer of hypocrisy was what this event represented: a group of politicians who had claimed opposition to gun control legislation now spending taxpayer dollars to travel around talking (almost entirely to each other) about the importance of gun control legislation.

So when the news of this shindig reached me, I decided to drop in with my own message.

Layer 2: Walking the Circle
The frigid wind chill froze my fingers stiff around the sign as I began to circle the building where Biden and his entourage were talking about how much they agreed with each other. As expected, the number of state police, unmarked and federal vehicles was nearly impossible to count. I was turned away from the Commons building at one entrance, but was able to walk in the other, displaying my sign for the throngs of police, students who wanted to get in but couldn’t, and students who couldn’t have cared less. I continued in this cycle – walking around the building, then inside, around the building, then inside.

One person stopped me to snap a photo with their iPhone. A girl in a passing car playfully shaped her fingers into a gun and pointed it at me, winking. A couple of students read the sign and looked terribly confused, as if the idea of leftists appreciating the second amendment took some time to wrap their minds around.

But the most interesting reactions came from the working folks. I passed a multi-racial group of electricians working near the compass. They nodded at me and one said, “Amen, brother.” I smiled and nodded back.

A block away I passed a line of police/fed vehicles a quarter mile long. One large van was filled with state police, with another female officer standing outside, leaning against the open side door. As I came closer, a voice shouted from the dimly lit vehicle, “Amen, brother!” The female officer turned and smiled at me as I passed, and I again returned the gesture.

I have talked to a number of police officers about gun control legislation. While some have been supportive of changes to laws involving procedural matters such as the sharing of background check info and other similar aspects, I have yet to meet one who supports a ban on any weapon or magazine capacity. While being interrogated after my arrest at a protest in Washington D.C., one officer ended up venting to me about the District’s gun ban, infuriated after having seen the effects of a populace left without a way to defend itself.

Police in the state of New York have even more reason to be upset. Governor Cuomo, who has called for the outright forcible confiscation of weapons, recently wrote the most restrictive gun control policy in the nation, limiting the round capacity of all firearms to 7 rounds. (For those who are not familiar, that is less than half of the standard capacity of most 9mm handguns.) The legislation was written in only two days of hasty, secret meetings without any disclosure or debate. So hastily was the legislation composed that it does not provide any exemptions for police.

Which is to say that every police officer in New York state is now a felon.

In response to the NRA’s suggestion that the presence of a police officer in schools might deter would-be shooters, the New York legislation also included restrictions on any firearms on school property. Assemblyman Al Graf has since relayed a story of a school security guard that threatened to arrest a police officer who was picking up his child while wearing his holstered service pistol.

No wonder law enforcement officials all across the country are refusing to enforce any new gun control legislation.

The second layer of hypocrisy inherent to Biden’s visit was so obvious that you could almost miss it: Every person sitting in that room to talk about the ways that guns make us less safe was surrounded, mobbed, fortified by more than a hundred guns. On school property. Meanwhile, the very armed people guarding those who were attempting to limit gun rights were openly showing their disapproval of that very limitation. The irony is almost too complex to state succinctly.

Layer 3: Selective Perception
It was my second time circling inside the Commons building that my eye caught the latest issue of Commonwealth Times, VCU’s school paper. The cover story: Praise and recognition for VCU’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Research Lab, which is developing the next generation of drone warfare.

Not even Fox News could miss the third layer of hypocrisy.


As a president stands ready to enact legislation to ban weapons, as he parades schoolchildren in front of the cameras to talk about their safety, he kills almost 200 of them overseas, two of whom were American. What is left to say about this? How can we even conquer a cognitive dissonance this profound?

On the property of a school that bans firearms while developing weapons that kill children, hundreds of firearms guard people talking about the importance of banning firearms… while those very armed guards openly reject the banning of firearms. Another day in America.

Why Not Renew the “Assault Weapons” Ban? Well, I’ll Tell You…

Posted in Articles on August 9, 2012 by Kontra

[EDIT: After this article was published, the Democratic party officially added support of the assault weapon ban renewal to their party platform and it was reintroduced in the following Senate session in the hopes that Newtown would help it push through. It died.]

Between Two Worlds

It’s not easy being a leftist who loves guns. It’s like being a Republican who listens to NPR or supports single payer health care. But being a leftist, I get exposed to all the liberal publications and media that invariably call for gun control every time someone does something stupid with one. Being a gun enthusiast, I also get exposed to the political Right’s oversimplification of those liberals as somehow lacking moral fiber or true appreciation of freedom. Rather than agreeing with both, I tend to end up arguing with both. It’s exhausting to always feel like I’m apologizing for the other “side”.

This article takes a point of view, but aims to do so in a way that members of both sides of the political spectrum can understand. I’ll try to give some idea as to why we on the political left roll our eyes at the rhetoric of the NRA, and how we in the “gun culture” can possibly defend something called “assault weapons”.

We all know the cycle by now: Tragic incident occurs, both sides attempt to use it for their political gain, both sides act shocked that the other would attempt to use it for political gain, insults are flung, statistics are cherry-picked, rinse, repeat.

I began writing this some time after the Aurora massacre, but it was just this morning that news started coming in of the mass shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. I knew the wave of cries for a renewal of the “assault weapon” and “high capacity” magazine bans hadn’t yet faded from Aurora, and that they would be reinforced by this next event, regardless of how relevant either of the topics were to the incident.

So in order to get around to why the assault weapons ban was an utter and absolute failure in its attempt to deter violent crime, I have to start with mass shootings.

Misleading Vividness

I’m just going to submit this uncomfortable truth to both camps up front, with the vain hope that it will not sound callous:

Mass shootings are a tiny, tiny problem. Which isn’t to say that they aren’t utterly horrifying in more than one way. People’s lives are destroyed, both literally and figuratively. What I mean to say is that if we were to prioritize our political attention to topics according to how many lives were at stake, mass shootings wouldn’t even be on the radar.

Factoring in the rate of death caused by mass shootings from Columbine to the present (about 210 people in 13 years), it will be more than 300 years until we reach the number of casualties that occur from accidental drownings every single year in this country. In a little more than 150 years from now, we’ll approach the number of people who are poisoned to death every single year in this country. Sometime in 2014 we might surpass the number of people struck by lightning every single year in this country.

Which is to say that mass shootings are incredibly rare and don’t kill a lot of people when they do happen.

It is tempting to ask why accidental drowning is not 340 times more important a social issue than gun control. Or why poisoning isn’t 150 times as pressing a political issue. (If the number of people dying is truly what’s important, almost anything would be more pressing.) The problem is not hard to understand though, and rests in a psychological concept known as the “logical fallacy of misleading vividness”.

The fallacy of misleading vividness is when the thought, imagery or reality of something is so emotionally potent – positively or negatively – that you begin to overestimate the likelihood and frequency of its occurrence. This is why many people are afraid to fly. They can understand intellectually that crashes almost never happen, and that airplanes are statistically the safest way to travel, but the idea of being torn apart mid-air, or knowing that they’re about to die for a full two minutes in freefall, or being dragged under the ocean while stuck inside the cabin is so vivid and disturbing, that they actually experience intense fear about a process that is safer than their drive to the airport.

This is what happens to us collectively as a nation when mass shootings occur. Yes, it is terrible, for both the person who was so disturbed and all the people they harmed. It puts on graphic display the absolute worst aspects of our culture, which is painful to watch.

However, it is also an incredible statistical deviation from the norm, objectively inflicting far less suffering and death than many other ways that people are far more likely to die. This is an important point. When our policy becomes based on emotional content rather than facts, we are heading in the wrong direction.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how things are in the world of guns and how they got to be that way.

Obama & the NRA: Frenemies of the State

It is a running joke in gun-interest circles that Obama is the “gun salesman of the year”[1]. From the moment he won the Democratic nomination, gun sales in the US surged dramatically. If the joke were more honest, he might be called “gun salesman of the decade”. According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the economic impact of the firearm industry grew more than 50% (from $19 billion to $31 billion) between 2008 and 2011[2] In 2010, a record was set for the number of background checks filed for firearm purchases. That record was broken again in 2011.

All of this was largely the result of a campaign by gun rights advocates like the NRA to convince the country that Obama would be a gun control activist. To be sure, their concerns weren’t entirely baseless. In a 2004 NPR interview, then-senator Obama clearly stated that he not only supported the Federal Assault Weapons ban, but that he would “continue to support a ban on concealed carry laws” altogether.[3] The administration reaffirmed its support of the assault weapons ban in 2009.[4]

But, lacking political capital, Obama made no such push for gun control legislation. In fact, quite the opposite. During his first term he signed laws making it legal for people to carry concealed weapons in National Parks and in their checked luggage on Amtrak trains, provided they met their state’s requirements to do so. As a result, the Brady Campaign, the leading gun control lobbying group, gave Obama an “F” rating. When the administration was asked about how it would respond to the Aurora shooting, the first words out of spokesman Jay Carney’s mouth were, “We plan to uphold the second amendment.” When the Sikh shooting happened, his press conference informed people that the President “will continue to instruct his administration to take action towards common-sense measures that protect the Second Amendment rights of law-abiding citizens but make it harder and harder for those who should not have weapons under existing law to obtain them”.

Despite this conspicuously moderate viewpoint, the NRA continues to stoke the flames of fear, promising that once Obama is reelected to a second term, he’ll have no reason to hold back on the gun control legislation he’s been wanting to implement since 2004. In fact, at a recent CPAC conference in Florida, NRA vice president Wayne LaPierre went so far as to suggest, without offering any evidence, that Obama’s failure to act on gun control has been a “massive Obama conspiracy” to postpone his attack on the second amendment until his second term.[5] While I appreciate the NRA’s vigilance on an issue I feel strongly about, I can’t help but think that it is rants like this that make much of the populace totally unable to identify with the organization.

Meanwhile, the Aurora shooting, like all shootings, has revived the cries for gun control from the political Left. At a loss for somewhere to direct their grief, outrage and sense of justice after such a senseless tragedy, they are again calling for renewal of the Federal Assault Weapons Ban of 1994. If a second Obama administration will have the political capital to promote any gun control legislation at all, it will be the renewal of this ban. It will therefore benefit anyone interested in gun politics to review what the assault weapons ban was, what it was not, and how it affected (or failed to affect) the nation.

Creating the Category
How Do I Look?

The most important question, of course, is: “What exactly is an assault weapon?”

The term was specifically designed to conjure images of military machine guns, but for those totally unfamiliar with firearms, it should be made clear that automatic weapons (those that fire more than one bullet with each pull of the trigger) are already illegal for the average citizen to own. They are heavily regulated by the federal government, registered with the ATF and very difficult to obtain licenses for. Almost no crime is ever committed with them.

So in 1994, legislators were forced to ask themselves, “What exactly will this ban do away with?” The category of “assault weapon” didn’t actually exist, and this was an opportunity for gun control advocates to create it, to say exactly what they wanted off the streets.

As it turns out, they were mostly opposed to things they saw in movies. Which is to say that most of the features that now defined “assault weapons” had to do with form and not function, totally sidestepping the issue of violent crime altogether. Three quick examples:

1) Stock Manipulation

This is the Ruger 10/22. It has been in production since 1964 and is one of the most popular rifles in the country.

It is an ideal first rifle, small and manageable, which is why my parents bought one for me in my mid teens. It is well-made, inexpensive and easy to maintain. Its small caliber (.22) means that it is cheap to shoot and has almost no recoil. It can be used for very small game hunting (foxes, rabbits, etc) or varmint control, but is generally a sport (target shooting) gun.

What you see is also an assault weapon.

Not because of anything it actually does, but because of the stock. You might be able to tell that it is hinged, allowing it to fold up against the rest of the gun. This was one feature of an “assault weapon”, according to the new law. Another was the grip, which is vertical like a pistol rather than horizontal. A non-“assault” Ruger 10/22 looks like this:

There is not a single difference in the functioning of these two firearms. All the moving parts that make up the actual firing mechanisms are identical. The diminutive size of the ammunition means that it isn’t even recommended for self defense purposes. But the ban was far more concerned with the way guns looked than their ability to actually assault anything.

2) Suppressing

Can you tell the difference between these two guns?

The gun on the bottom has a slightly longer barrel, which is threaded to allow a suppressor or other accessory to screw on. This too was now illegal. Suppressors are usually called “silencers” by the general public, though they do no such thing. (That little *ptew* sound you hear in the movies whenever a gun with a “silencer” is fired? It was dreamed up entirely by the film industry.)

As an acquaintance of mine wrote:

    In the early 20th century, before guns lost social acceptability and marksmanship was publicly encouraged, people with enough space were known to practice in their back yards. No one wants to annoy their neighbor with fussilades of afternoon gunfire, so the Maxim Silencer found success being marketed as a relatively inoffensive and civilized way to increase shooting proficiency.

In addition to being polite, home defense uses also prevent the temporary and permanent loss of hearing that is sure to occur when firing a pistol indoors, while also reducing recoil and eliminating muzzle flash, which can be temporarily blinding or disorienting.

Modern criminals have never really used suppressors, and its hard to understand where the gun control crowd were getting their ideas about the world if not from bad movies. Did they really think that assassins were creeping around executing people with suppressed pistols? Surely not. Nonetheless, one of the pistols you see above is an “assault weapon”, while the other is not.

3) Shrouds
As it turns out, even the most vociferous and high-ranking gun control advocates didn’t actually know what was being legislated. After the Virginia Tech massacre, Democratic House representative Carolyn McCarthy went on MSNBC to explain why she had introduced legislation even more extensive than the elapsed Federal Assault Weapons Ban. After some discussion, Tucker Carlson picked a banned feature from the list – a barrel shroud – and asked her to explain what it was and why it should be regulated.

After some hemming and hawing she admitted that she had no idea what her own legislation was referring to, but made a wild guess anyway, and thus another gun-culture joke was born:

For those interested, a barrel shroud is simply a metal cover that prevents the operator of a firearm from burning their hands on a hot barrel.

It would have been interesting to me if Carlson had explained the barrel shroud, and then asked again how cooler barrels contributed to violent crime. It is hard to imagine what her response could possibly have been. But it looks mean, and this was apparently what mattered to whoever actually wrote the legislation.

These are some examples of what the ban in question covered. Perhaps most tellingly, semi-automatic (legal) versions of automatic firearms were banned just because they looked like illegal guns.

When the category of “assault weapon” had finally been conjured into being, all of its included firearms together accounted for less than 2% of violent crime.[6] None of them had any more functionality than a hunting rifle. It couldn’t have been clearer that this was a war founded on image rather than reality.

The foreshadowing of just how much it wouldn’t accomplish was clear. Years later, a study of the ban’s effectiveness by the National Institute of Justice seemed to scratch its head out loud that “[a]lthough the weapons banned by this legislation were used only rarely in gun crimes before the ban, supporters felt that these weapons posed a threat to public safety…”

There was only one banned feature that had anything to do with practical function.

“High Capacity” Magazines

The ban on “large capacity ammunition feeding devices” was the most far reaching aspect of the legislation, as it applied to magazines for all guns, not just guns that were illegal due to other cosmetic features. Again, the question became: “What exactly is a high capacity magazine?” No such thing had been defined, and an arbitrary number of rounds would have to be selected.

Legislators settled on the number 10 for rifles and pistols, while 5 shells would be the maximum for a shotgun.

The strongest focus by gun control advocates in the wake of various shootings has been a return to these limits on magazine size.[7] (During Carol McCarthy’s question-avoidance in the above video, notice that her stump speech is an assertion of the importance of banning high capacity magazines. This has been duplicated on countless news and talk programs, blogs and websites, especially those that lean politically to the Left[8].) The idea is that if mass shooters have larger magazines, they will be able to kill more people before police or an armed citizen can intervene.

Keeping in mind the statistical rarity and relatively tiny death toll of mass shootings to begin with, is this true? Will high capacity bans lower the number of people killed in mass shootings? All we have to do is look at one of the deadliest shootings in the world: the Virginia Tech massacre.

With one pistol of 10-round capacity and one pistol of 15-round capacity, Cho killed more people than anyone has ever killed in a single U.S. shooting incident. He didn’t need any massive magazines or custom weapons. The embarrassingly simple reason that magazine size restrictions can’t lessen the lethality of mass shooters is that it doesn’t matter how many rounds fit in a magazine if a shooter has multiple magazines. When one runs out, they can simply drop it and pop another in, a process which takes five seconds at most. (Less than half a second, if you happen to be this guy.) Cho was able to carry out this massacre because he carried a backpack containing 19 magazines, a fact not well-publicized.

Of course, most semiautomatic pistols hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition. In preparation for this article I asked a gun dealer to guess what percentage of new pistols came standard with magazines of more than 10 round capacity. His estimate was 70-75%, and he took model after model out of the display case to illustrate. The most popular (best selling) handgun in the world, the Glock 17, holds 17 rounds of 9mm ammunition. In fact, after looking at all available Glock models, I found that less than half them even had magazines smaller than 10 rounds available at all.

This is the model I own, a Ruger P95. It’s a standard sized pistol, small enough for me to regularly carry concealed. It was made to hold 16 rounds, more than either of the standard-sized magazines used by Cho.

My point here is that “high capacity” magazines are not some specialty aftermarket part that criminals obtain shadily over the internet. They were defined arbitrarily into existence, and before the ban were considered standard production to give consumers a decent product. (If you’ve made the decision to be an armed citizen to defend your self, home or family to begin with, why would you want less capacity than you could practically fit into one mag?)

Bottom line: Whether you have two magazines that hold 15 rounds, three mags that hold 10 rounds, or 5 mags that hold 6 rounds, you’ll be able to shoot all 30 bullets accurately in about 20 seconds. Can I prove it?  Sure.  Here’s an experienced shooter and a novice each trying all three of these combinations with time comparisons.

I have already discussed why I do not believe that mass shootings should guide our policy to begin with, but this clearly eliminates the claims of gun control advocates on magazine capacity aiding mass shooters.

And yet, I can almost hear the voices I have heard before, asking whether it is realistic to think that people actually defend their homes with “assault rifles” that have “high capacity” magazines…

(The gun used to defend both of these homes was an AR-15, the same gun Holmes used in Auarora, banned for production because there existed models of it elsewhere that were automatic.)


This ban presented gun control legislators with another huge problem, which can’t be overstated.

There were about 1.5 million of these “assault weapons” already owned by Americans, and far more high-capacity magazines. In order to actually ban them, the government had to do one of two things:

1) Turn many thousands of law-abiding citizens into felons overnight, even though the guns were legal at the time of purchase or receipt.

2) Demand that the whole country surrender 1.5 million guns and millions of magazines.

Both options were practically and politically impossible, especially the latter. Images of the federal government confiscating and destroying the firearms of veterans, families and law-abiding Americans would not sell to most of the nation, and in some areas, might result in open revolt or civil unrest. It would also ignore a fundamental flaw with gun control legislation in general – that people willing to abide by laws aren’t the ones we should be concerned about.

The predicament resulted in what is generally referred to as the “grandfather clause”. It essentially meant that all “assault weapons” and “high capacity” magazines manufactured before the ban remained legal to own, sell and use.

To reiterate, millions of these banned firearms and high capacity magazines were legal to own and sell during the ban.

This meant that prices for these firearms and magazines shot up along with demand. Manufacturers had churned out as many soon-to-be-banned items as they could before it went into effect, then sold them at nearly twice what they had originally cost. Individual dealers who had already stocked up made small fortunes. You might even say that the Federal Assault Weapons Ban was the gun salesman of that particular decade.

10 Years Later
When the ban expired in 2004, everyone was anxious to study the results. Had it reduced crime?

How could it have?

The National Institute of Justice found that the ban hadn’t reduced gun crime or crime involving “high capacity” magazines, and that the effects of renewing the ban were “likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” It then added: “Assault weapons were rarely used in gun crimes even before the ban.”[9]

The Center for Disease Control released a study of gun control legislation, including the assault weapons ban and found “insufficient evidence to determine the effectiveness of any of the firearms laws reviewed for preventing violence.”[10]

The National Research Council noted that all of the studies they had looked at “did not reveal any clear impacts on gun violence” and noted “due to the fact that the relative rarity with which the banned guns were used in crime before the ban … the maximum potential effect of the ban on gun violence outcomes would be very small…”[11]

Slippery Slope

If there was ever a single quotation that summarized the fears of the gun rights crowd surrounding the “assault weapon” ban, it is this one:

“No one should have any illusions about what was accomplished [by the ban]. Assault weapons play a part in only a small percentage of crime. The provision is mainly symbolic; its virtue will be if it turns out to be, as hoped, a stepping stone to broader gun control.”

    – Washington Post editorial, September 15, 1994

As we have seen, the battles of gun control have been fought, won and lost with definitions. Categories are created, connotations ascribed with the stroke of a pen. The Brady Campaign, the strongest advocate for these bans, has taken this particular work one step farther since Aurora. They have now redefined “mass shootings” to include all drive-bys involving a shot fired toward three or more people, regardless of whether anyone was even actually hurt, leading them to assert that there are “20 mass shootings every year”. People who follow the news with some regularity may sense that there is something wrong with this statement, but this sort of redefinition does influence many people who don’t have the time or will to investigate such a claim.

It is intentional deceptions like this that have peaceful, gun-loving folks like myself looking over our political shoulders all the time. Add to this the fact that the Brady Campaign strategically changed its name from the more honest designation of “Handgun Control, Inc”, and perhaps it’s easier for the Left to understand why those of us who believe in the importance of ALL of the items in the Bill of Rights (including firearm ownership) are worried about the progressive nature of these bills.

With intentionally dishonest lobbying groups pushing already-failed legislation while calling it a “stepping stone”, we can see the slippery slope right in front of our feet.

If gun control advocates want to actually have meaningful discussion and debate about the “assault weapon” and “high capacity” ban, they MUST address these questions:
– Why ban cosmetic features?
– Why ban guns used in a mere 2% of crime?
– Why base gun control legislation on rare and statistically insignificant mass shootings to begin with?
– Why ban magazines that have been consistently sized since their invention?
– How would banning these magazines have saved lives, given that all a shooter needs is multiple magazines and 3 seconds of time (i.e. Cho)?
– How will a ban on either these weapons or magazines reduce crime, since there are many millions of them legal and available anyway, especially since production has ramped up after the ban’s expiration?

And most importantly:

After a decade of failure, why assume that the bans will reduce violent crime THIS time around?

Richmonders’ Documentary Prophesies Tragedy

Posted in Articles on June 2, 2012 by Kontra

A film that was screened at both the James River Film Festival and Gallery 5 received a sobering postscript this week. With Signs Following is a documentary film by Richmonders Mark Strandquist and Kate Fowler about the last church in West Virginia to practice snake handling. It’s primary subject, pastor “Mack” Wolford died on Sunday from a rattlesnake bite, the same way his father died years before.

Photo by Richmond filmmaker Mark Strandquist

The trailer for the film is eerily prophetic, and foreshadows Wolford’s death in an almost beautiful way.

Wolford’s congregation has been in the public spotlight for some time, first appearing in a 1989 Bluefield Telegraph article about his father’s death. A November article in the Washington Post profiled Wolford as well.

Be on the lookout for future screenings or digital availability of With Signs Following.

How the Cops Disappeared The Camel’s Owner and My Van.

Posted in Articles on June 1, 2012 by Kontra

This is a strange tale of coincidence and/or dick cops.

In addition to my photographic work, I am also an independent contractor who drives my cargo van every day. On the weekends, it picks up tons of food that the Short Pump Whole Foods is trashing to deliver to Food Not Bombs. I have crammed 5-10 activists into the back on multiple trips to conferences and gatherings. I have eaten, slept and fucked in that van.

This morning I found it missing.

I left it parked on Broad Street, right across from the Camel and WRIR. It had either been stolen or towed. I called the police impound lot, and sure enough, they had it in custody. The person on the phone seemed surprised that it had been towed (rather than just ticketed), but then found a note scribbled by the officer citing its tow because it had no license plate.

The plates were definitely on the vehicle when I left it. All I could assume is that someone had stolen them, after which it had been found by the cop who had it towed.

Imagine my surprise when I found this post on the Richmond Playlist blog:

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
The Camel Owner Arrested for Fighting Parking Tickets

Parking near the Camel has been somewhat of a nightmare. It’s especially been rough recently as police are out enforcing parking laws. Apparently you can’t park on the street after 11 p.m. in certain areas. Both Marionette and Karen got parking tickets at Wednesday night’s birthday party. Just park at Lowe’s, it’s easier.

Rand Burgess, owner of the Camel apparently got fed up when police were ticketing last night. According to Burgess’ Facebook page, he was “arrested for obstruction of justice as the cops tried to give parking tickets to my customers.”

It’s awful that he was arrested, but I for one am very impressed and proud that Burgess would stand up for his customers. Thank you Rand for always looking out for your friends. Everyone should support and drink more at the Camel.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Yep, that’s my van in the shot, with license plates. At the same time the officer said it disappeared without plates. Turns out that Rand actually watched the cop remove them.

Perhaps I should have removed that Occupy Richmond sticker…

***Update: It was apparently legal for the officer to tow the van in that spot, though usually tickets are given. Why he removed the plates and reported them missing, I have no idea. (It’s causing me a headache though.)

700 Miles To Sanford: On Being a White, Southern, Gun-Toting Leftist in the Age of Trayvon Martin

Posted in Articles on May 6, 2012 by Kontra

[EDIT:  This article was written long before the juried trial of Zimmerman.  I have only recently disseminated it widely because it might be relevant again with his exoneration.]

In order to understand how I was accused – by a black man and white woman simultaneously – of being a vigilante murderer in a grocery store checkout line, it will require a brief review not just of the violent times leading up to that moment, but of the cultural phenomenon surrounding the death of an unarmed black youth more than 700 miles from Richmond, VA, where I reside. By the end of that review, I will undoubtedly hold a diminished social standing with many of those I have built working relationships over the past years. I speak from a position of skin privilege, which I acknowledge from the start, and have endeavored to bear this in mind during the entirety of the writing process.

The Rallies Begin
The first time I heard about Trayvon Martin’s death was a week before the Richmond vigils that were being organized in his honor. At first glance, the story appeared to hold nothing new: another person shot unnecessarily. Tragic, as all death is, but nothing new.

As I began to investigate the circumstances of this case that was just beginning to grab hold of the collective consciousness, it became clear to me – or so I thought – the injustice that was provoking such a visceral response in so many communities across the country. (It turned out that I was mistaken.)

My amazement surfaced with the 911 call in which someone can be heard screaming for help for nearly 30 seconds before the single gunshot that ended Trayvon’s life. When compounded with the fact that the call was placed because of those cries, it is clear that they went on for at least 45 seconds, probably closer to a minute. That there had been no charges filed, and would therefore be no official investigation of whose voice was on that recording was simply astounding to me. How could this possibly be justified?

As a compulsive documentarian, I spent a good deal of time taking photographs and video at the first of two vigils I attended, and as someone who identifies as a radical (or at the very least a D.I.Y. leftist), I was especially drawn to the black community’s message of self reliance and self defense. I strung together a couple of speakers on this topic in a 2-minute video short of that first vigil. I thought the hoodies, bags of Skittles and cans of tea were an excellent visualization of why Trayvon never should have been suspected of wrongdoing the first place. Like everyone in my social groups, I was an open and enthusiastic supporter of “Justice for Trayvon!”, and by the second rally I was carrying a sign that said so.

But around that time, I started to suspect that what I meant by “justice” wasn’t what everyone else meant, a suspicion that was very soon confirmed. For me, “justice” meant an arrest, the filing of charges and a juried trial to determine who had attacked whom, and who had been screaming for help. For nearly everyone else I knew, “justice” meant that Zimmerman was obviously and without question a racist, that Trayvon had certainly been pursued and murdered in cold blood because of that fact and that it had been Trayvon calling for help on the 911 tape.

In brief, I wanted an arrest to figure out for sure what happened. It seemed like everyone else was absolutely sure they already knew. Frankly, it seemed like they wanted a lynching.

The Lens of Race
For any ideological group, including the American left, the world is usually viewed through one or more ideological “lenses”. The idea is that if we critique a social institution, entity or event with a specific, intentionally narrow focus, we can see things that lie beneath the surface and might have otherwise gone unnoticed. While, on the surface, reading celebrity and beauty magazines might appear to be a fun (if superficial) way to occupy one’s time, the “lens” of feminism provides us with a much more disturbing view: the commodification and objectification of women to sell an unrealistic, unreasonable and unhealthy body image with the intention of reaping profits for predominantly male-dominated industries. (There are many, many other valid critiques.) These lenses help us break through the assumed to the real, the root causes and their repercussion.

The lens invariably chosen to view the Trayvon Martin case through has obviously been race. It is completely unnecessary for me to elaborate on the way that race has been a central focus, in and outside of the leftist milieu. Though the politically active leftists in Richmond’s particular subculture tend to be young and white (like in a lot of places), they are acutely aware of the realities of privilege and racism. They know that the genocide and land theft of an entire people cannot be separated from the way in which modern Americans understand ourselves and our country. They know that the enslavement and subservience of another entire race – not so long ago – cannot be extricated from the lack of privilege, wealth and opportunity in communities of color today. They understand that white people who claim to have never profited from racism are deluded. These are the people I call my comrades and friends, and these are views that unite us.

But like all ideological processes, the exclusive use of such lenses contain their own risks. What happens when we have utilized a lens for so long that we know exactly what we will find before we even actually look? What happens when the conclusion is foregone, and we begin to map the tint of our lens onto reality, rather than perceiving reality through it? What happens when that tint no longer allows us to see anything – or even the possibility of anything – that does not fit our preconceptions? The American left, should know, because it is a frequent occurrence that results in wildly imaginative interpretations of the world that invariably fit a narrative of oppression and domination. It happens in all strains of leftist thought: feminism, queer theory, and here in the capitol of the south, where you can still walk the slave trails, it is especially visible in the discussion of race.

A few months ago, an acquaintance of mine noticed a man in possession of an expensive bicycle that had been stolen from one of his friends. Rather than get the police involved, or even take the cycle back by force, he bought it (at considerably reduced cost) from the man. He felt it would be wise to post a description of the individual through his social networks so that if the man was seen loitering around anyone else’s property, he might be closely watched or chased off. This is a common sort of thing to do in communities that are trying to avoid police presence and involvement in their lives, which nearly all of my friends are.

The description of the thief received a backlash of personal criticism. Because he had noted that the man was black, other leftists charged, he had engaged in the perpetuation of negative racist stereotypes. For the people making this critique, it did not matter that the man was, in fact, a person of color and had, in fact, stolen the bicycle. It did not matter that the person’s race was integrally important to identifying this person. Reality (and practicality) was to be subjugated to the abstract of political correctness.

This but one of many examples from the community of people who I care dearly for, obviously not because I agree with them, but because they have truly dedicated themselves to seeking out whatever hierarchies of power, modes of oppression and means of their perpetuation that they possibly can. Unfortunately, human beings will always see what they expect to see, both in the realm of the physical and in the social. What might we, as the American left, have expected to see in the Trayvon Martin case?

This image of the cover of Liberation magazine gives some indication. But one doesn’t have to take into consideration such a left-leaning publication to find overt examples of race-baiting.

Crafting Public Perception
As of this past week, a third NBC employee has been fired for selective editing of the 911 call that Zimmerman made to police minutes before Trayvon was shot. As you might expect, the edited parts of the call were not irrelevant, but were specifically eliminated to give the impression that Zimmerman found Trayvon suspicious because he was a black youth. The edited audio – one that was a major factor in the national dialogue – sounds like this:

Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.

The actual audio sounded like this:

Dispatcher: Sanford Police Department. [indistinct]
Zimmerman: Hi. We’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood and there’s a real suspicious guy. It’s Retreat View Circle. The best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, is he White, Black, or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.

The important differences between these two versions hardly need to be elaborated on. What does bear note is the obviously deliberate nature of the changes.

During the first week of the case’s national presence, I repeatedly heard – both in personal and national conversation – people refer to Zimmerman as white. It did not initially occur to me that so many people getting something so wrong was the warning indicator of confirmation bias, or that few people passing judgement on the case had actually investigated it for themselves. Since that time, it has become readily accessible knowledge that Zimmerman is biracial, with Latino, African and white bloodlines. We now know that he “was raised in a racially integrated household and himself has black roots through an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather”, ate meals and went to school as a child with two semi-adopted African-American girls and started a business with an African-American friend.[cit] But that was no thanks to a conflict-driven mainstream media who began salivating to capitalize on the emerging race angle that was being perpetuated by well-meaning, ill-informed spectators and grieving parents.

Of course, Zimmerman’s multiracial heritage does not rule out racism. But if we (for reasons yet unknown and unproven) accept racism as the cause or instigator of Trayvon’s death, it does mean that an entirely different sort of conversation about race should be going on: the conversation about racism between communities of color.

And let’s be honest with ourselves… I know several Latino/white biracial leftists who adamantly identify as people of color, primarily because they can be and are often visibly identified as fully Latino. Just like Zimmerman. I cannot think of any other leftist friends or acquaintances who would dare to suggest otherwise to them. But the introduction of this issue as racism between communities of color is absent not only from the national dialogue, but from any dialogue that I’ve ever heard surrounding the case. Some commentators and citizens still just choose to stick their head in the sand altogether and continue to pretend Zimmerman is white*, or could very easily pass for white.

*I realize that race is a social construction to begin with, and that “white” is more an idea than an objectively identifiable characteristic, but for the purposes of conversation, I cannot avoid the use of relatively simplistic terms.

Several local news channels showed up to the second Trayvon vigil I attended, interviewing people who had gathered with hoodies, skittles and tea. Among them was a Latina who claimed that the case made her afraid for herself and child as minorities, apparently unaware that Zimmerman was a bilingual member of her own cultural community.

I was interviewed for the same news segment. The questions were as boring and uninsightful as I have come to expect from local news channels, which consistently cover my community’s social justice activism in simplistic, skewed or intellectually bereft ways. When the inevitable question arose, “Do you think this is racism?”, I answered in the only way it seemed to me that anyone possibly could: “How can I say what is in a man’s heart?”

Not surprisingly, that didn’t make the segment.

Contributing to the notion that this case has been about race is the imagery of the two parties involved that are being used by the media. Upon viewing this image as the visual representation of Trayvon and Zimmerman respectively, who would say that there could be any reasonable doubt that the teen was no threat, and that his death must have been about something else?

Of course, this photo of Trayvon is more than 5 years old, and Zimmerman is wearing “county orange”, already suggesting criminality. Trayvon, on the night of the shooting, was 6 feet 2 inches tall, though I have yet to see a single recent photo of him widely disseminated in the media. If it doesn’t seem to you as though this image has anything to do with the case, consider what those looking through the lens of racial justice would say if the media had been pumping out comparative images like this instead.

[Edit:  After publication, this photograph has been shown to be a different Trayon Martin on the right.  This does not affect the point being made.]

Amidst all of this furor about race, well-meaning white leftists who are more than willing to acknowledge their skin privilege have toed the media/party line, acknowledging that no, they are not Trayvon Martin, and that such an incident would never have happened to them. I am particularly reminded of another op-ed article:

No matter how much the hoodie covers my face or how baggy my jeans are, I will never look out of place to you. I will never watch a taxicab pass me by to pick someone else up. I will never witness someone clutch their purse tightly against their body as they walk by me. I won’t have to worry about a police car following me for two miles, so they can “run my plates… I will never look suspicious to you, because of one thing and one thing only. The color of my skin. I was born White.

The first time I read this, I began to reflect on how very wrong this author is. I remembered back to the night that a neighborhood watch volunteer had called the police on me (de ja vu) because I was in their neighborhood – on the sidewalk, no less – in a black hoodie. The police did indeed follow me for miles after I got in my car, then proceeded to run my plates, pull me out of it, and insist that they were going to photograph me for their files. I resisted this last part to a degree that, if I didn’t have skin privilege, would probably have landed me in jail with a few cracked ribs. But I did so successfully.

I also thought of another white social justice activist who wore a hoodie into his bank on a rainy day and was regarded as a threat until the transaction was almost completed. At that time the teller explained that she had been afraid of him purely because of his hooded sweatshirt. The last person who had walked into the bank wearing one had robbed her.

Criminals like hoodies. They conceal identity from multiple angles. They are the garment of choice for ne’er-do-wells in countless works of visual fiction and have permeated our cultural consciousness in this way. That anyone wearing one should be profiled as a criminal is patently absurd, but these are facts we have to accept.

And finally, one has to approach the uncomfortable fact that Zimmerman may have had a good reason for being suspicious of loitering black youths in his neighborhood. Not because of the color of their skin, mind you, but because loitering black youths had committed a number of neighborhood crimes in the recent past. Not only the theft of Zimmerman’s property, which is not a terribly uncommon thing to happen in any neighborhood, but more than one actual home invasion that forced Zimmerman’s friend and neighbor to move away entirely out of fear, despite his reassurances that if she ever needed help she could call him. There was the episode of a young black male peering into the windows of a nearby home, prompting an earlier call to the police during which he can be heard to say to the dispatcher, “I don’t know what he’s doing. I don’t want to approach him, personally.” The young man fled and got away. (“These assholes, they always get away.”)  Two young African-American men later burglarized the home of another resident nearby. When one of them was caught, it turned out to be the same young man that had been peering into windows earlier.

The history of the neighborhood, along with the aforementioned information regarding Zimmerman’s race and past has been researched and documented by journalists in a fascinating article titled “George Zimmerman: Prelude to a Shooting”.

And incredibly, all this is happening during a simultaneous investigation of one of the most flagrant, disturbing racist acts that I’ve heard of in years, during which police officers broke down the door of a disabled black veteran while calling him “nigger”, shot him with a taser, a bean bag gun, then shot him dead. All because he accidentally called for medical help. But the story of Kenneth Chamberlain is receiving almost no media attention.

Finally, if I could summarize what I wish to convey about race as it relates to this case, it is not that the death of Trayvon certainly had nothing to do with racism. Certainty is exactly what I think we should distance ourselves from. If I could convey one thing about race, it would be this:
– The fact that racism exists does not make every crime committed against racial minorities a racist crime. We must accept this.
– People of all races and ages, including black youths, commit violent crimes. We must accept this.
– If we are going to do what I refused to do for that local news reporter – claim to see into the heart of a man – we’d better have damn good reasons to back up our judgements.

Not a Defense
The one thing that has been most infuriating for me in the leadup to writing this piece has been the instantaneous accusation that the mere mention of facts that don’t fit the simplistic narrative offered up by mainstream media and leftist culture – which are conspicuously identical in this case – is itself a racist act. During one discussion about the case, I found myself summarizing by saying, “It’s a complicated issue.” An acquaintance (probably now an ex-acquaintance) immediately took issue with that claim, asserting that the issues of racism and guilt were clear cut, without any complications whatsoever. I later sent him a compassionately worded message online with links to the article cited above and facts that I hoped would introduce nuance where he hadn’t seen it.

He responded by telling me that by introducing those facts into the conversation, I was perpetuating the racist stereotypes of violent black youths. Facts were irrelevant. Context was irrelevant. Because that racist stereotype exists, we cannot accept even the possibility that a black youth would engage in violence. And perhaps most disappointingly, I was accused of “defending” Zimmerman.

This is what I fear has happened before, is happening now, and will happen again: The careless use of these lenses of social interpretation make us unable to distinguish between reserving judgement pending consideration of all possible evidence, and failing to use the lenses altogether. This attitude is the death of rational discussion. The end of any meaningful search for truth. The discarding of the principle of presumed innocence, which even our corrupted legal system is capable of preserving in some cases. The sacrifice of an accurate perception of reality in all its complicated nuance for something else of our own invention.

What I’m saying in this article has nothing to do with who is guilty of first physical contact. If Trayvon’s voice is on that recording, I won’t have been proved wrong, because I’m not making as assertion about guilt one way or the other. That’s the opposite of what I’m doing. I’m considering evidence that those who have made up their minds already are consciously ignoring. This is important.

Well, actually…
An enormous part of what has spurred me to write this article has been the degree to which the people I surround myself with have been so wrong about the verifiable facts surrounding the night Trayvon was killed. I had assumed that people who were actually interested in the case would also have done cursory reading into it, but this has turned out not to be the case. Conversations with these friends and acquaintances has resulted in me beginning a lot of sentences with the phrase, “Well, actually…” Submitted for your approval, inaccurate things I have heard more than once, and the replies I have given.

Zimmerman chased down Trayvon!

Well, actually, he followed Trayvon to keep him in sight and direct police to the location, but failed to do so, as anyone who listened to the 911 call would know. After having lost sight of Trayvon, he made plans to meet with officers near his car to make his report. His testimony is that having lost Trayvon, he walked back to his car, and on the way was confronted and attacked, which witnesses have corroborated. (One other witness testimony has contradicted this.)

If Trayvon did attack Zimmerman, it was justified self defense!

Well, actually, following someone is completely legal, especially if you’re filing a police report.  There is certainly no legal or ethical justification for attacking someone because they are watching or following you, especially after having stopped doing so, and it’s hard to imagine such a rationale being used in any other circumstance by the people who make this claim.   Whoever instigated the first physical contact was legally and ethically in the wrong, and was not engaging in self defense.

Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested or interrogated!

Well, actually, after Zimmerman told a neighbor to call the police, waited for them to arrive and told them his story, he was taken in handcuffs to police headquarters where he was interrogated. When all available evidence matched his story, including one neighbor who said that he was indeed the one shouting for help, he was released. (To reiterate, this doesn’t change my opinion that when you have audio of someone screaming for help for a full minute, you must file charges so an investigation can take place to insure that the killer is the one who was crying out.)

Zimmerman didn’t even have the injuries that he claimed to have!

Well, actually, he did. Cell phone photographs of the injuries to the back of Zimmerman’s head have been time stamp verified as being taken three minutes after the shooting, and are consistent with Zimmerman’s testimony of being straddled while his head was smashed into the ground. (That aforementioned acquaintance responded to them – he somehow hadn’t known they existed – by suggesting they were fakes. Others have, incredibly, suggested that Zimmerman injured the back of his own head before police got there.)

They finally caught Zimmerman after filing charges!

Well, actually, he turned himself in, as he always said he would, if charges were filed.

This sort of thing happens all the time!

Well, actually, I don’t think anyone has even tried to cite bad statistics to suggest that there is some epidemic of black youths being shot by members of other racial groups, just because it’s so far from the truth that it would require incredible stretches of statistics and the imagination. We know that almost 95% of the murders of “blacks” are committed by other “blacks”. Racism has a great deal to do with that, but not in the way that many people are suggesting. (Again, race is more complicated than the use of the word “blacks” allows for, but limitations of time and space require oversimplification.)

Guns & Violence in the Capitol of the South
I live in a violent city. It’s not the most violent in the country, but it’s far from the least. More than 30 people were shot in Richmond, Virginia over the past month alone, and my neighborhood is exemplary of such violence. A housemate of mine was recently beaten and robbed outside of our front door. Two murders took place just down the street a couple of weeks ago, another shooting in a parking lot a few blocks away, another robbery at gunpoint just two streets over this week, and the list continues. A few weeks ago I was informed that the house I live in had been vacant for some time before I moved in because someone had been murdered here. The DJ at a party I hosted said he used to live a couple of blocks away, but moved after his back door was broken down twice. Even the traditionally “safe” areas of the city like the VCU campus are finding themselves under siege of violence, with the savage beating and robbery of a young woman, the armed robbery of a couple at gunpoint, the rape of another young woman at gunpoint – all on campus grounds – and this list continues as well.

It almost seemed that the violence here was mirrored by the rest of the country in April as 10 people were shot, seven killed at a Christian college in Oakland, CA. International media like Al-Jazeera found themselves, yet again, asking why gun control laws are not being enacted here in the states. Criminologists found themselves once again trying to explain to the world and to well-meaning but uninformed American liberals why gun control is not a reasonable (or even attainable) option.

I carry a 9mm Ruger handgun with me almost everywhere. Aside from the principle of self defense, the foundational human right upon which all other rights depend, I have also spent some time studying the statistical efficacy and wisdom of using firearms to protect life and property. It turns out that about 2.5 million people do so each year, and in more than 90% of those cases, no one is even injured. The gun is merely mentioned, brandished or a warning shot is fired to scare off the potential attacker. And it almost always works. At the time these studies were completed, almost 8% of those uses were in the prevention of a sexual assault. (The number of women and GLBTQ folks arming themselves, training with and carrying handguns has skyrocketed since that time, and it is reasonable to expect that sexual assault prevention rates have risen accordingly, though I do not have more recent statistics on hand.)

When it comes up in conversation, my decision to arm myself is nonetheless controversial among the leftists I associate with. Most of them have never handled a firearm in their lives, and have been the psychological subject of television and movie culture that is specifically designed to make the gun seem to be something other than it is – either a insanely volatile tool of the wicked or a dangerous manifestation of vigilante machismo. Whereas responsible gun ownership was once something almost every American, from home-bound mothers to very young boys, was engaged in, we now live in a world where, for most city-dwelling leftists, the idea of gun owners has been relegated to rednecks and right wing nuts. The most “liberal” of cities sometimes even attempt to ban toys in the shape of guns, though it should be noted that this is all directly contradictory to the notion of liberalism.

Thankfully, I live in one of the most gun-friendly states in the country. While the state conducts background checks to ensure that I’m not a felon, have no history of violent crime and have not been involuntarily committed, I do not actually require a permit to buy a gun. I can purchase a firearm from a friend without any paperwork or background check whatsoever. Being in an “open carry” state, I can even carry my pistol visibly (in a holster) down the street with no government interference. I also have a concealed carry permit, and while I often do opt to leave my shirt-tail hanging out to obscure my weapon, I don’t have to be concerned with whether the gun is visible or not.  (I know this is hard for people from some states to imagine, but open carry is not actually that uncommon.)

I have had to place my hand on my firearm only once outside of my home: the night that I stumbled upon two people beating another person in an alley. I cried out to interrupt them, and they both began walking toward me. My fingers walked their way to the grip, but I had drilled into myself not to ever draw unless I absolutely had to. It turned out that I didn’t have to, and the situation was resolved with words.

I hope and pray that I never have to draw or use my firearm in any way. But if I am forced to protect myself or others, I plan to be able to do so.

I Am Zimmerman?

My gun was visibly holstered on the night I walked to the Market at Tobacco Row. The store lies at the foot of Church Hill, so named for the place of worship where Patrick Henry gave his “liberty or death” speech. It was dark outside, and the store would be closing soon. I picked up the single item I needed and walked to the register.

A young black man with neatly maintained dreads walked up behind me in line.

“Hey man, you a secret agent or something?” His tone was angry rather than joking.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“You a hero or something? Looks like you’re gonna shoot somebody. You gonna shoot somebody?” The tone was now accusatory.

“Naw, friend, just protecting myself.”

“Yeah, right.” He looked away in apparent disgust, and it suddenly occurred to me: he was thinking of Trayvon. He was calling me Zimmerman. I resisted the urge to engage in any controversial discussion that might get heated and just smiled. The girl behind the register hadn’t noticed the gun, and didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what we were talking about, but the white female bagger had been following the brief conversation. When the woman behind the register accidentally fumbled my pack of cigarettes and bent over to pick them up, the bag girl quipped in a sarcastic tone:

“Now you dropped his stuff and he’s got to shoot you in ‘self defense’.” She added air quotes around “self defense” with her index fingers to make sure the point was clear.

It took until I got out of the store for the shock to wear off. I had heard people make cruel comments about people’s weight to strangers. I had heard heterosexual men make seriously inappropriate comments to female bodied strangers. But I struggled to think of another context in which two strangers who didn’t even know each other had simultaneously attacked another stranger, not for some aspect of their appearance, but in accusation of intent. Murderous, pathological intent.

I would have risked my life to save either of these strangers, had the necessity arisen, and they had verbally assaulted me, together, as if reading from a script. The lynch mob culture surrounding the shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman has, in fact, been that script. As a white southern boy with a gun, I was just an unwitting extra.

We should remind ourselves that the reasons why we believe what we do are of utmost importance, and that each brush stroke of assumption, generalization, uncritical assertion, rush to judgement and blind acquiescence to our cultural narratives paints a canvas that will one day – perhaps not too far in the future – become our new culture. We are literally creating our world, and we have to be very, very careful.