05 November 2013

Telling the Difference: Assault Weapons, Assault Rifles, and Machine Guns

On November 1, 2013, Paul Ciancia walked into the Los Angeles International Airport and opened fire with a Smith & Wesson M&P 15, killing one TSA agent (Gerardo Hernandez), and wounding 3 other people.  Within minutes, media outlets were throwing caution and integrity to the wind as they scrambled to secure ratings as the first outlet to cover this new atrocity.  And, as has become all too common in today's American Media, the reporting was riddled with errors, assumptions, and mistaken information.

One such piece of mistaken information, proliferated by the Huffington Post (link), was that the gunman was using an "assault rifle".  I read this, and I found it particularly distressing—largely because I understand what that means.  Many people hear "assault rifle" and think "assault weapon", and so I set out to clarify.  I posed the question: Was it an "Assault Rifle", or was it a gun that had cosmetic features to make it LOOK like an Assault Rifle?

In under 5 minutes, I was confronted with the following response:
I know, I know. Because it isn't fully automatic, it isn't really an assault rifle. Says you.
After a rather lengthy conversation, and being accused of thinking that I was the "sole arbiter of gun definitions", with a brief lecture on assault weapons being defined by law ca. 1996, it occurred to me that, while he was obviously not a dumb guy, my conversational partner had fallen into what is probably the most common trap in today's gun debate: Conflation, complete with the statement: "it's a distinction without a difference."

To a casual observer, the difference between an assault rifle and an assault weapon may seem trivial.  They're both guns, they both have "assault" in the name… in general, people don't like being assaulted with weapons, and especially not with guns.  Maybe assault rifles are just a sub-category of assault weapons, which includes handguns and shotguns, right?  Well, as it turns out: No.

Machine Guns are weapons capable of firing, automatically, two or more rounds with one function of the trigger. (ATF.gov, National Firearms Act Definitions)

Assault Rifles are weapons capable of selective-fire; meaning that they are capable of selecting two or more of semi-automatic, burst, and automatic fire.  (DOD's Defense Intelligence Agency, Small Arms Identification & Operation Guide, Page 105).  Since any combination of those options involves either burst or automatic fire, this means that all assault rifles are also machine guns.

Why does that matter?  It means that the weapon that people think they are trying to ban is, effectively, already banned.  Machine guns comprise a negligible amount of crime in the US.  So small, in fact, that the government doesn't waste its time quantifying it.  To put that in perspective: the FBI quantifies "drowning" separately from "asphyxiation" and "strangulation", despite it being less than one drowning-murder per month.

If you've fallen into this trap, correct it, but don't feel bad about it.  It's not something to be ashamed of, because the confusion is deliberate.  Josh Sugarmann, the man who popularized the term assault weapon, did so to intentionally take advantage of people's confusion and fear in order to advance gun control legislation.

Assault weapons—just like armor-piercing bullets, machine guns, and plastic firearms—are a new topic. The weapons' menacing looks, coupled with the public's confusion over fully automatic machine guns versus semi-automatic assault weapons—anything that looks like a machine gun is assumed to be a machine gun—can only increase the chance of public support for restrictions on these weapons.
Personally, I cannot place trust in an organization or individual who has a stated goal of using people's ignorance to pursue their agenda.  But if that doesn't bother you, at least have the decency to call the weapons by their real names.  Otherwise, you just look like you don't know what you're talking about.  When you call an AR-15 an "assault rifle", you may as well try to pass it off as a Gatling Gun... and with such a ridiculous comparison, it's no wonder gun advocates and gun-control advocates have such a terrible time communicating.

10 April 2013

Who Owns Your Children?

In response to my previous article, Edu-ganda, a friend directed my attention towards a comment made by Melissa Harris-Perry during an MSNBC advertisement, that we need to "break through our private idea that 'kids belong to their parents,' or 'kids belong to their families', and recognize that kids belong to whole communities."  Conservative Glenn Beck expressed that this is "so far beyond what we have ever thought as a nation, it is remarkable."  Rush Limbaugh followed suit, stating that "the nuclear family has always been under attack by communists, leftists."

When taken out of context, Melissa's statement sounds a lot more diabolical than I believe was intended.  In the video, she goes on to explain that raising a child is "everyone's responsibility", and that "once we recognize that" we can "start making better investments."

In reply to what she called "vitriolic responses from the right", Melissa said that her first reaction was "relief."
"I had spent the entire day grading papers and was relieved that since these children were not my responsibility, I could simply mail the students' papers to their moms and dads to grade!  But of course, that is a ridiculous notion.  As a teacher, I have unique responsibilities to the students in my classroom..."
Now, as I read this, I see a problem with her argument: a child is not the same thing as their homework.  If you send a child to their parents without homework, it's a slow night.  If you send homework home without their child, it's an Amber Alert.  The "moms and dads" still bear the responsibility for rearing their children, and the teacher still bears responsibility for grading those papers; the two are definitively separate from one another.  To treat the two as interchangeable makes for a childish argument (no pun intended).

One of the things that struck me as odd about her blog post, however, is that she self-identifies as being pro-choice while writing about the inherent value of children to everyone.  I find it odd that a presumably intelligent person could make the argument that children belong to the community, and that the value of a child to their community is on-par with the value of a child to their parents; but then turn around and say that a woman has the right to end the "potential life inherent with every fetus."

What I found to be somewhat distressing, however, is this concept of ownership over children.  She was correct that parents don't own their children.  But neither does the community.  My dog belongs to me.  If I were so inclined, I could take my dog out into the woods and shoot him, and it wouldn't matter because I own him.  The phrase "my children" expresses a relationship, but does not imply any kind of ownership over them, because they are sovereign human beings.

And so, we ask the question: what does the parent-child relationship have that the community-child relationship does not?  Simple.  Actual responsibility and authority.  If my son throws a baseball through my neighbors window, my neighbor is not at fault for simply being a part of the community.  If I choose to relocate, my community has no legal authority over my children.  If my daughter comes home pregnant, it's not the community who has to find a way to deal with it.  As a parent, the sole responsibility for my children falls on myself, because I am ultimately responsible for everything that happens to, or because of, my children.

While I understand the sentiment that communities should provide a safe and secure place for us to raise our children, the safety of a neighborhood should not be dependent on the presence of children.  An unsafe neighborhood is an unsafe neighborhood, and efforts should still be made to improve the quality of those neighborhoods.


Armed with the belief that effort is more important than success or results, we have stripped children of the motivation to be more than mediocre.  We teach them to be lazy and complacent, and fail to prepare them for life outside of academia.  We have taught our children to accept information as fact, solely on the basis that it came from an authority figure; we discourage our children from thinking critically; and we discourage our children from questioning information or the authority providing it.  This places a huge amount of responsibility on those authority figures to which we expose our children.
So... what happens when they abuse it? 


I can already hear people calling me "paranoid".  I just don't empathize with children, people don't abuse their authority, blah blah blah.  If you're still reading, I'm assuming you've gotten over the fact that I'm a terrible person who doesn't trust authority and eats baby seals alive.

Attached to this article is a photocopy of a homework assignment sent home with students from a Connecticut elementary school.

The assignment sounds reasonable enough.  It's relevant to issues we are dealing with today, both locally in CT and nationally. The tone comes across as very moderate and "matter of fact"; it challenges the views of people who believe in gun-control, and of people who believe in gun-rights... or at least, it does a very good job of pretending to do that.

If you take a step back, and take a look at the reading, one sentence stands out as being obvious propaganda.

"... a person has no right to complain about a Second Amendment violation by state laws."
Any American has a Constitutional right to complain to their government about literally anything.  In fact, the White House recently wrote a formal declination to a petition to build a Death Star.  The idea that any US Citizen may petition the government for a redress of grievances, and that Congress shall make no law preventing the free exercise of political speech, is directly written into the First Amendment to the Constitution.

I started to look closer at the assignment, and I noticed something even more unsettling... the entire argument is a lie.  

"The courts have consistently determined that the Second Amendment does not ensure each individual the right to bear arms.  Instead, the amendment provides the right for the states to arm a militia such as the National Guard.  The courts have never found a law regulating the private ownership of weapons unconstitutional.  The courts have also said that the Second Amendment is not incorporated against the states.  This means that the rights of this amendment are not extended to the individual citizens of the states.  So a person has no right to complain about a Second Amendment violation by state laws.  According to the courts, the Second Amendment only provides the right of a state to keep an armed National Guard."

Here's where I'm going to throw some legal speak at you.  Title 10 United States Code, Section 311 definitively outlines what constitutes a militia in the United States.  In fact, it defines two different and distinct militias: the organized militia, and the unorganized militia.

The Militia and an Individual Right

The organized militia essentially amounts to the sum of the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps National Guard.  They are the uniformed, national defense force.  For the unorganized militia, if you are an able-bodied male between the ages of 17 and 45, you are a citizen (or have made a declaration of intention to become a citizen), and you are not currently serving in the organized militia or the active duty military... then you are part of the unorganized militia.  As you can probably guess, this broad definition of "militia" is not something that gun-owners try to keep hidden away in some box nobody talks about.

It's not even really uncommon for a gun-owner to self-identify as being a part of the unorganized militia; but it's also not uncommon for those individuals who claim that they are part of a militia to be ridiculed and dismissed as being "right-wing extremists."

However, that didn't stop the District of Columbia, et al. v. Heller, 554 U.S. 1 (2008) ruling that "... the militia consists of all able-bodied men ..." and that "... the adjective 'well regulated' implies nothing more than the imposition of proper discipline and training."

In District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) the Supreme Court struck down provisions of Washington D.C.'s "Firearms Control Regulations Act of 1975", on the basis that handguns were included in the definition of "arms", and that an outright ban on handguns was therefore unconstitutional.

"The handgun ban ... [violates] the Second Amendment.  The District's total ban on handgun possession in the home amounts to a prohibition on an entire class of 'arms' that Americans overwhelmingly choose for the lawful purpose of self-defense.  ... Similarly, the requirement that any lawful firearm in the home be disassembled or bound by a trigger lock makes it impossible for citizens to use arms for the core lawful purpose of self-defense and is hence unconstitutional." (D.C. v. Heller, 2008)

The Court also ruled that "... the Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home."

The Justices explained that the prefatory clause ("a well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state") announces a purpose for the right to bear arms, but does not imply that it is the only purpose; that the operative clause's text ("the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed") and history demonstrate an individual right to keep and bear arms.

State Preemption

The idea that the States can ignore Federal laws and restrictions has been met with mixed reactions.  Liberals applaud "sanctuary cities", where illegal immigrants are protected from federal immigration laws, as well as the relatively recent moves by several states to legalize the non-medical use of marijuana.  Similarly, Conservatives celebrate the decisions by local sheriffs not to enforce federal gun-control laws which they believe to be in direct opposition to the spirit of the Second Amendment.  

I hold deep respect for people who are willing to stand up for what they believe is right, despite strong opposition from people with even more authority than themselves.  As a libertarian, I am strongly in favor of just about any individual right which does not inherently interfere with the rights of another person.  When petitions, voting, and protest don't work, civil disobedience is the only peaceful tool that Americans have left.  

The big difference between tyrannical tenancies and civil disobedience, is in who is breaking the law.  Our Constitution is founded on the idea that a government exists to serve and protect the freedoms of the governed.  The idea that State governments may undermine those rights which have been specifically enumerated in the Constitution, simply because they are individual States, is completely unfounded.  Fortunately, it has been tried, and it has been found to be unconstitutional.

In McDonald v. City of Chicago, Illinois (2010), the city of Chicago had a ban that was described as "effectively banning handgun possession by almost all private citizens."  The Seventh Circuit court had previously determined that District of Columbia v. Heller specifically avoided determining whether the Second Amendment applied to the individual states, and that therefore the states had an implied right to individually limit the Second Amendment.  Prior to the Civil War, they would have been correct.

The Court held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights against the individual States, and forced all states to observe the Right to Bear Arms as understood by the Federal Government.  This is also a direct example of a citizen "complaining about a Second Amendment violation by state laws," and being correct.


I am not inclined to believe that the person who wrote this piece into an elementary school curriculum "accidentally" constructed an entirely false argument.  Despite the moderate tone that the assignment tries to portray, the amount of outright incorrect information speaks to an agenda.  By telling children that they "have no right to complain" that their rights are being violated, and that the Right to Bear Arms "only applies to the National Guard", their teachers are abusing their positions and power to push a morally and legally unfounded ideal on those who are trained to believe anything they are told.

The only alternative is that the educators, themselves, are completely ignorant that their curriculum is false, and that they are accidentally pushing that information on unsuspecting minds.  If this is the case, then it begs the question: if they can't be bothered to fact-check their information, then why are we letting them educate our children?

Sponges to Zombies

It is sometimes difficult to explain to people why I am wholly dissatisfied with the American education system.  To be entirely honest, our education system frightens me.  There was a time when teachers, tutors, parents, siblings, and friends helped those few struggling children to get by, academically.  They were there to with encouragement and positive reinforcement, and took pride in being involved in someone's academic success.  

When report cards came around, you expected the kid to earn "average" marks... maybe even "below average" marks... but they were doing their best, and maybe "math" just wasn't their strongest area.  The "gifted" children, as they were often called, were often given the opportunity to progress into more challenging classrooms, with more challenging content which often required a more analytic approach to problems.  Teachers in the gifted classrooms often also taught the more "vanilla" variety, and you could expect any student graduating from the less challenging classrooms to receive an education worth your tax dollars.  They probably weren't going to grow up to be an astronaut, but they also weren't "stupid."

Today, however, the education system has changed.  I was lucky (or, maybe I was unlucky) enough to see part of this transition as it happened.  We have adopted the idea that every student is academically equal to their peers, and that in order to facilitate their learning, we need to foster their self-esteem.  While self-esteem is important, to a point, we have overestimated it's value to success.  Instead of using a student's understanding that they are below-par in a given area to motivate them, and using that motivation to fuel their education, we have reversed the process.

When I was in High School, I remember taking "Honors" Biology-- essentially one step up from "Vanilla Biology", and one step down from "College Level Biology".  Though I cannot remember the year I took it, my teacher's name, nor just about anything I learned there, one event stands out in my mind.  Instead of a mid-term test, the class was assigned an individual project to test our understanding of what we had learned.  We were to demonstrate that we understood the principles of life, ecology, etc. and write up a package for a hypothetical plant or animal as if we were submitting it to the scientific community.

Taking the class for what it was, and understanding that the assignment would be worth nearly a third of my grade, I immediately went to work.  I dreamed up an insect, which I named the "swamp flea".  I remember taking the time to explain everything from it's parasitic dietary habits to it's environmental needs, a symbiotic relationship with a host, and it's reproductive/life cycle.  In painstaking detail, I illustrated (as the assignment required) the project, and was barely able to complete my project before the due date.  It wasn't glamorous, but I was confident that it satisfied the teacher's expectations.

On the due-date, we were expected to present our projects to the class.  I hadn't had a whole lot of experience in public speaking, and so I nervously presented my project to my classmates.  After a decent reception, I returned to my seat before the girl sitting next to me was called up to the front of the room.  She reached into her backpack, pulling out the manila envelope we were provided.  On the front, literally drawn in blue crayon, was a sea-lion in a cartoon pose with butterfly wings superimposed on it's back, with the caption "Rupert the Flying Sea Lion" centered below it.  Inside the folder was a paragraph blurb detailing Rupert's diet of fairy dust and how he sleeps on rainbows.  We both received an "A" on the project.

Armed with the belief that effort is more important that success or results, we have stripped children of the motivation to be more than mediocre.  After all, if they get an "A" regardless of the content of their work, why should they strive to perform well?  Worse yet, if the student who is striving to perform sees his peers receiving equal commendation for their obviously lesser work, then why bother making the effort at all?  This teaches students laziness and complacency, and obviously does not prepare them for life outside of academia.

However, the immediate impact this has is on the academic environment.  By teaching children that they don't need to work in order to succeed, their grades will obviously slip.  Couple this with the demands of "No Child Left Behind", that each batch of students perform better than the one that preceded them, and we are left with a recipe for disaster.

In order to meet a student quota, we have adopted a system of teaching which prefers and rewards repetition over thought.  What started out as a program with good intentions, to revolutionize the way we teach our children, became what amounts to a propaganda factory.  Whether the information is true or not is irrelevant; we have resorted to teaching our children to accept information as factual, solely on the basis that came from an authority figure.  What's worse is that we actively discourage children from thinking critically, and questioning that information (and, by extension, the teacher's authority).  What should be an exercise in analytic thought and an opportunity for learning can sometimes be punished or condemned as a student "being difficult."

After all, when's the last time you saw an 8th grade algebra teacher try to explain the calculus behind finding the line of symmetry to their class?  When's the last time you heard of a student asking the question, "where are these equations coming from?"  In fact, I ran into a college algebra teacher who refused to grade my homework on the basis that I was "working down" from calculus to solve problems instead of just using the "tricks" he expected us to memorize; so unfortunately this problem is not exclusive to our compulsory education.

And so here we have the problem.  We have a system that teaches children that success does not rely on work, and that they need to obediently accept any information that an authority gives them.  This places a huge responsibility on those authority figures to ensure that the information they are providing is factually correct.  So... what happens when people start abusing that authority?