Backtalk


Our Jan./Feb. cover package, which called for a comprehensive ban on handguns and assault rifles, drew fire from the NRA and gun owners. Also controversial were our stories on abortion, the Ohio incinerator, Perot, campaign-finance reform, and building a progressive movement.

FIRING LINE

Your "Life without guns" issue (Jan./Feb.) smeared the most fundamental civil right of all--the right to the means to protect your liberty, your family, and your life. Your readers, the Bill of Rights, and the 70 million law-abiding American gun owners you slighted deserve better.

The idea that the Constitution's Second Amendment is a collective right to assemble National Guard-style militias is flatly wrong. The Militia Act of 1792 defined "militia" as every able-bodied male over age 16; the same basic federal law applies today. The Constitutional framers expressly and repeatedly wrote that the right to arms was reserved to individuals. And the U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in 1990) that the words "the people" in the First, Second, Fourth, Ninth, and 10th Amendments all refer to the individual--so the right to arms is an individual right.

The Cox Newspapers "study" one article cites--claiming "assault firearms are 20 times more likely to turn up in crime traces than conventional firearms"--isn't just flawed and deceptive; it's also been disclaimed by the U.S. government. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms testified its experts "do not necessarily agree with the conclusions of Cox Newspapers." Had the journalists checked Justice Department statistics, they would have found military-styled semiautomatic rifles are used in only about 1 percent of all violent crimes.

The New England Journal of Medicine "study" parroted in another article is equally absurd. In concocting a research scheme designed to "prove" households with firearms are more dangerous than those without, the researchers also "proved" that living in a rented home or with an illegal drug user both create a greater homicide risk than firearm ownership. Why weren't these findings reported? Maybe because the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which funded the study, openly supports a broad antigun agenda.

Wayne R. LaPierre Jr., Executive Vice President
National Rifle Association of America

Josh Sugarmann responds: It's nice to know that some things never change.

The simple fact is that no gun-control law has ever been overturned by the Supreme Court on Second Amendment grounds. "Justice" LaPierre's citation of 1990's U.S. vs. Verdugo-Urquidez is novel at best. The case has nothing to do with individual rights as protected under the Second Amendment. However, if La Pierre is foolhardy enough to anchor his argument on this case, we invite him to make it before the Supreme Court. In fact, we double, nay, triple dare him.

As regards LaPierre's insinuation that ATF sees no problem with assault weapons, in November 1993 Director John Magaw--hailing the addition of an assault weapons ban to the Senate crime bill--warned that such weapons "are more likely to be traced in a criminal investigation than they are to be owned by a collector or a sportsman."

Finally, regarding LaPierre's attacks on the CDC, perhaps one should weigh the motivation of each. The CDC works to save lives. The NRA battles to save guns. I think most Americans would agree which side has the more admirable goal.

--Josh Sugarmann

It's time to ask those who buy and sell firearms to take financial responsibility for the gun violence that threatens our lives and bleeds our health care system. I have proposed two measures that would command this responsibility. One would impose a stiff new 30 percent sales tax on the purchase of all handguns, assault weapons, and their ammunition; the other would boost the pathetically low three-year gun dealer license fee from $200 to $3,000. Both proposals would help curtail the widespread availability of the most destructive guns, and the revenue raised by each would be dedicated toward financing health care reform.

I add one more fact to the frightening statistics Mother Jones published about guns in America: There are more gun dealers in our country than there are grocery stores. We cannot live, much less feel secure and prosper, in such an environment. It's time to candidly face the reality that endangers us all.

Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J.


There are more gun dealers in our country than grocery stores. We cannot feel secure and prosper in such an environment.

The underlying premise of "Gun crazy" is that the people cannot be trusted. Whether the writer is Josh Sugarmann in his call for a "gun czar," or Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders with her contempt for the middle class and her flailing attempts to treat the roots of crime in schoolrooms, the message resounds: "Fear the people."

The history of gun control in this country is the history of the disarmament of selected groups so that government can control the people. The major difference between the advocates of gun rights and the advocates of civilian disarmament is one word: choice.

I have no problem that you choose not to be gun owners. I do have a problem with your denial of my right to choose.

Peggy Tartaro, editor, Women & Guns Magazine

Instead of being praised for fighting crime, the NRA should be held accountable for the level of gun violence that afflicts the nation. If the NRA had not spent the last 25 years opposing all gun control legislation and attempting to weaken what regulation does exist, gun violence would not be approaching the level it is now.

All concerned Americans should let their members of Congress know, in no uncertain terms, how strongly they feel about this issue.

Michael Beard, Executive Director
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

Your assertion that "it seems that anybody, anywhere, anytime is at risk" falsely implies that we all run the same risk. In fact, in 1970, the murder rate for young black adults was a grotesque 158.5 per 100,000, while white men died at a rate of 6.8. It is black families who live in places like bullet-ridden Cabrini-Green public housing in Chicago who are the real victims of criminal killers, and you can no more control their guns than the United States can control drugs.

Some drug dealers already do a sideline in illegal guns. I suggest a slogan for Mother Jones: "Control guns and help your local drug dealer."

William H. Mills, Kilmarnock, Va.

On July 1, 1993, I became acutely aware of the drastic need for reasonable gun- control legislation in this country. A man armed with three semiautomatic handguns entered my husband's San Francisco law firm and began shooting people at random. John used his body to shield me and was killed in the process. I was shot in the right arm and my right hand is partially paralyzed as a result. Before the gunman took his own life, seven other people were dead and five more seriously injured.

John and I were not "in the wrong place at the wrong time"--we were at work as productive members of society. Due to the easy accessibility of handguns in this country, we are not safe anywhere.

I have become involved in the gun control movement because I do not want another woman to have to hold her husband in her bloody arms and watch him die because a disturbed man had access to several semiautomatic handguns and an endless amount of ammunition. I urge everyone to join Handgun Control, Inc., the most powerful gun control lobby in this country, and to support legislators who have the integrity to stand up to the NRA. I sincerely hope that not everyone in this country has to lose a loved one to gun violence before we, as a nation, come to our senses and put an end to the senseless carnage.

Michelle S. Scully
San Francisco, Calif.

I am writing to express a cautiously dissenting opinion on your package "Life without guns." First of all, I've met people like those pictured on your cover. I do not identify with such people.

I do, however, identify with several of my neighbors who have bought guns for self-defense. I live in the depressed outskirts of a small city, and there recently were two burglaries on my block. Only two months ago and half a mile away, a woman was robbed, raped, beaten, and then killed inside her own home.

Buying a gun (any gun, actually, a shotgun will work just as well as an M-16 or pistol) is dramatically more effective than any alternative, from a practical point of view (witness police reports), as well as from a psychological viewpoint. (Could you sleep with the power out on that expensive alarm system? How about knowing that your pepper spray isn't effective against burglars on drugs? Or that the average police response time in your area is between 10 and 30 minutes?)

Carl Larson, Everett, Wash.


Your package on firearm proliferation ignores the simple reason why people are buying guns in record numbers:

They are terrified.


I am frankly amazed that your publication, which has built its reputation on exposing the abuses of power by government, would even consider giving a virtual monopoly over force of arms to government agents. Have you forgotten that white militias in the antebellum South terrorized newly enfranchised black citizens? Or that the military enforced the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II? Or the beating of Rodney King by the police?

Eric S. H. Ching Mountain View, Calif.

The very word "registration" causes a knee-jerk reaction among opponents of gun control. The standard response is that only reputable citizens will register their guns. Exactly. To paraphrase a familiar bumper sticker: "When guns are registered, only outlaws will have unregistered guns." The felonious possession of unregistered firearms will provide law enforcement officers with an important tool in preventing gun violence through the disarming of criminals and gang members.

If our forebears had seized the opportunity in 1934 to register all firearms, there would be fewer firearms and less gun-related violence in the United States today. Our children and grandchildren must not look back upon us in anger because we made the same mistake in 1994.

Rex D. Davis, former director
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms

Unfortunately, the left has decided that gun control is its panacea in the same way outlawing abortion has been for the right. The idea that outlawing handguns will make our streets a great deal safer is about as accurate as saying that outlawing abortion will greatly reduce the number of these procedures performed.

When I played basketball, my coach one time stopped practice and placed a basketball on the floor. He told us that the basketball would not score by itself. "Guard the man, not the ball" was the sports lesson, but it applies to humanity in general. While we are certainly going to have to keep guns out of children's hands, wouldn't we be better off educating them about the dangers of guns?

Until the people who commit violent crimes begin to respect other people's lives as much as they do their weapons, any actions are futile at best. Any gun control law is trying to stop a hemorrhage with a Band-Aid.

Dale Wiley, St. Louis, Mo.

Your presentation of how firearm proliferation has created a public nightmare was right on the money in some respects, but ignores answering the simple reason people are buying guns in record numbers. They are terrified and don't believe that good karma or the police can protect them from the same type of folks who were the subject of your feature "Gangstas!"

Just face an ugly truth. The boogeyman is alive and well, and those gang bangers are living proof of it.

Don Lampson, Creston, Calif.

Congratulations on your January cover story. We appreciate your bringing this timely discussion to the attention of your readers.

Although the passage and signing of the Brady Bill caps a long, seven-year effort, we view it as only the cornerstone of a much-needed gun control policy in America. We believe that to be truly effective in reducing gun violence, we must begin treating guns as we do cars--which means licensing and registration. We will continue to work for more long-term effects in trying to change the attitude of the next generation of Americans about guns.

Sarah Brady, chair, Handgun Control, Inc.

Your January issue was a good primer on the current status of gun control in the post-Brady world. However, some basic realities haven't changed:

The NRA still heads a formidable lobbying and grassroots machine that despite legislative setbacks, budget problems, and internal fighting, has powerful resources and influence in Congress.

There are over 200 million guns in private hands. Due to the sheer size of this arsenal, gun control measures will take time to have an impact and will not solve the crime problem alone.

The Brady Bill was a necessary but limited start. Now we can try for the gun control measures this country really needs.

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif.


"Where are you, Al?" (Nov./Dec.) targeted the noxious toxic incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, and questioned the lack of action by our "environmental vice president" and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA's number-two man, Bob Sussman, took exception to our analysis.

BURNING ISSUES

L.J. Davis's recent article on the hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, is remarkable for its simplistic, one-sided discussion of what is, in fact, a complex environmental and economic issue.

Partisanship in cases like this is to be expected. What is unexpected and unusual, however, is the article's disregard for factual accuracy. In haste to take sides, the author failed to speak to anyone at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with responsibilities regarding the facility in question. The result is an article fraught with error and misstatement, and it conveys an aura of conspiracy that is at odds with the facts.

For example, the article contends that the incinerator is sited in a 100-year floodplain, when in fact it was built up so it sits in a 500-year floodplain, reducing the chances of a disaster caused by flooding to virtually zero. The article further states that the incinerator failed its March 1993 test burn. It did not. It failed one of the conditions of the test, and was not allowed to operate under those conditions.

Most disconcerting, however, is the suggestion that the EPA "has done nothing" about this incinerator and has tried to conceal evidence in the case. Nothing could be further from the truth. The EPA has scrutinized this incinerator at every step in the permit process, and the agency has been extraordinarily open in sharing its information with the public. The permit in question, in fact, may rank as the most publicly debated, most scrutinized, most litigated permit in EPA history.

Reasonable people can differ about how to handle this country's hazardous wastes, what role incinerators should play, and where they should be sited. In local communities like East Liverpool, where such questions are not theoretical, reasonable people's differences can divide communities against themselves. Then the whole community loses, no matter what the final decision.

The Mother Jones article on the East Liverpool incinerator adds heat, not light, to an already heated situation. Your study in black-and-white is, in the end, merely yellow journalism.

Bob Sussman, Deputy Administrator
Environmental Protection Agency
Washington, D.C.

L.J. Davis responds:

Bob Sussman asserts that I "failed to speak to anyone. . . with responsibilities regarding the facility." Of course, if anyone in the EPA spilled the beans to me (or contributed to my dossier of confidential EPA memoranda), I would hardly bring their names to Sussman's attention.

The rest of Sussman's arguments are equally thin gruel:

  • "[The article] conveys an aura of conspiracy that is at odds with the facts." No doubt he's referring to facts such as the EPA's suppression of information regarding the cancer threat the incinerator poses; its repeated failure to acknowledge changes in the facility's ownership (which might have necessitated repermitting); and Sussman's own curious decision to disregard the Ohio attorney general's June 1993 ruling that the incinerator's permit was invalid. Interestingly, the FBI has also been caught up in the "aura of conspiracy"--it has launched a criminal investigation into the affair.
  • "[The incinerator site] was built up . . . [to] a 500-year floodplain, reducing the chances of . . . flooding to virtually zero." This means that engineers formed a hill of dirt in the middle of a 100-year floodplain, and put the incinerator on top. If last summer's floods prove anything, it's that natural disasters have a churlish contempt for our earthen defenses.
  • "[The incinerator did not fail its test burn.] It failed one of the conditions of the test." This is not true. It not only failed to meet its target for carbon tetrachloride removal, it destroyed mercury with an efficiency rating of 7 percent as opposed to the required 99.99 percent. Most importantly, the test burn has yet to be repeated. As far as anybody knows, the incinerator has been operating at an inefficient and unsafe level for about a year.
  • "The [EPA] has been extraordinarily open in sharing its information with the public." Except for the confidential memo warning that the incinerator's threat to the food chain could pose a cancer risk 1,000 times greater than inhalation (which is all that's taken into account in siting criteria); or the memo suggesting that the EPA decided to uphold the incinerator's permit before it even began its investigation, etc.
  • "Reasonable people can differ about . . . where [incinerators] should be sited." The siting of the East Liverpool incinerator is not only unreasonable, it would be illegal by current standards.
  • "Reasonable people's differences can divide communities." The people of the community are eminently reasonable, but not very divided: In an April 1993 poll, 89 percent of the respondents said they thought the Clinton administration had broken its promise to stop the incinerator.
It may be worth noting that before joining the EPA, Bob Sussman served as legal counsel to the Chemical Manufacturers Association, which he regularly represented against the EPA. DuPont and BASF (both dominant members of the CMA) had major contracts with the incinerator until March 1993. Sussman nonetheless declined to recuse himself from the case, despite pressure from environmentalists. (EPA chief Carol Browner, on the other hand, recused herself simply because her husband belongs to an environmental group which--like virtually all environmental groups--is opposed to the incinerator.)

Mr. Sussman did not respond to repeated attempts to reach him by telephone.

THE GANGSTA IS YOU

To disconnect from things and people we fear, from that which we perceive as a danger, requires distance. There are two emotions that assist in this process: hate and pity. We either hate the homeless, the welfare recipients, the "gangstas," or we feel sorry for them.

Richard Rodriguez's essay draws from both elements. He starts the piece with his hatred for the sign language, "occult and crooked palmings, finger-Chinese," for the shaved heads, the tattoos, the jargon. The rap.

And later he burns with pity, as when he forces us to examine a two-year-old in his tiny coffin, a victim of a drive-by shooting. Richard cares about these children, but he is so far removed from them that he has to frame quite a long and formidable bridge to reach them.

Unfortunately, Richard is stunned by the so-called mystery, the incomprehensible appeal, of the gangsta life. There is no mystery. In effect, there is no such thing as "senseless" violence. The violence--when looked at deeply, in context, with intelligence, by removing the mystique--makes a lot of sense. And herein lies the revolutionary path out, the transcendent quality never discussed in Richard's essay.

Unlike Richard, I am a former participant of the East Los Angeles barrio wars. I am what he hates. I have the tattoos, the pierced ear, the walk and talk. I have committed great violence; I have been the brunt of it. But I have survived, I have transcended: I have found the personal power to supersede the situation. It's possible--even under the worst imaginable conditions.

Gangstas? Don't feel sorry for them, don't hate them. They are you, what you would be.

Luis J. Rodriguez, author "Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in Los Angeles"

OTHER CHOICES

I believe firmly that abortion should be legal in America. However, "The choices" (Jan./Feb.) is the most powerful argument I've ever heard for outlawing abortion. I was appalled from the first word to the last.

Its author, D. Redman, wrote with devastating honesty about her own immeasurable selfishness. Too irresponsible to practice birth control, despite knowing that surgical abortion would destroy her chance at ever having children, she first railed at God for her pregnancy, which she seems to have regarded as inexplicable. Then, after agreeing to an unproven medical treatment, she had the effrontery to blame the enormous risk she took with her own health on the government. "We're barbarians in this country," she raged. "We let everything important be decided by religious fanatics and big business."

"D." should have been blaming herself. She--not the government--decided on unprotected sex with a young man "not ready to be a parent." She--not big business--decided that parenthood would be too much of a burden.

Sex, like everything else in life, is a responsibility. If you're too careless to use a condom, you put three people's lives in danger--your own, your partner's, and the child's you could conceive.

While she rants about the unavailability of cheap and easy drugs to relieve her of her unwanted burden, we're stuck trying to convince religious radicals that there are valid reasons for wanting abortions. You haven't helped one bit.

Gail D. Finke, Cincinnati, Ohio


Bill Clinton is dealing with his political critics in much the same way Richard Nixon did: standing statesmanlike above the mudslinging but in fact in total control.

TRICKY BILL?

As I read Richard Blow's first-rate article "The Clinton plan to control Perot" (Jan./Feb.), I got an unsettling sense that Bill Clinton is dealing with his political critics in much the same way that Richard Nixon did.

Think about it for a moment--Richard Nixon gave the public impression of standing statesmanlike above any political mudslinging but in fact was in total control. Bill Clinton recruited former President Jimmy Carter to accuse Ross Perot of being a demagogue, and he orchestrated personal attacks on the Texan by Trade Representative Mickey Kantor, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen, and White House aide Bill Daley. Just as Vice President Spiro Agnew was trotted out to malign Nixon's opponents, Vice President Al Gore was sent to the Larry King show not to debate the merits of NAFTA but to diminish Perot by attacking his family, motives, and honor.

The ever-present political danger, of course, is that winning by smearing is highly addictive, particularly for presidents, because it works. Moreover, it is easy given the White House's awesome power to shape public opinion.

In the process, more than critics are victimized by such an abuse of presidential power. Indeed, the political tactics that Bill Clinton is using against his critics are bringing to our governance and our public-policy debates the very same negative campaign tactics that so diminished our elections.

Pat Choate, coauthor
"Save Your Job, Save Our Country"

PIZZO DONE WELL

By and large, Stephen Pizzo's article on congressional campaign-finance reform ("Doing well by pretending to do good," Jan./Feb.) was on target. Tragically, conducting business as usual on this issue will not produce serious and meaningful reform. Members of Congress who benefit from the current system are not likely to enact reform that diminishes their political advantage.

So where do we turn for hope?

Presidential leadership. Unfortunately, President Clinton abdicated this responsibility by not offering his own far-reaching proposal designed to really shake things up on Capitol Hill. Without presidential leadership, it is left to the electorate to send more new members to Congress this next election. Typically, newer members are less tied to the existing system and more enthusiastic about the need for change. Although 110 new members were sent to Congress in 1992, it simply wasn't enough. Real reform will not happen as long as the old guard is in charge.

Rep. Timothy J. Penny, D-Minn.

The first hurdle to overcome is the idea that campaign-finance reform is simply a "good government" issue. The real issue is the conflict between democracy and a money-driven political process.

The issue of money and politics must be linked to ongoing grassroots struggles using a movement-building, empowerment-oriented, bottom-up strategy. Efforts to change the way American campaigns are financed are first and foremost about justice, democracy, empowerment, and community. And it is important to remember that the kind of fundamental shift in public policy that is necessary will not come about overnight.

Ellen S. Miller, executive director
Center for Responsive Politics

BUILDING THE LEFT?

Eric Alterman's "Who speaks for me?" (Jan./Feb.) is not a strategy for the left as much as a meandering, "one white man's opinion" rooted in no geographic context, no social movement, no multi-racial reality.

What would a clearer left strategy look like? If we begin with Alterman's posing of the problem--building a movement against multinational capital and overthrowing a market-driven definition of the common good--then strategic interventions must be based on a class analysis that attempts to organize those who suffer the most from a market system.

A revitalized left strategy begins with arenas of long-term contestation that include transformation of the international economy away from environmental degradation and towards sustainable economic development, aggressive attacks on xenophobia, raising the race and gender components of class exploitation, fighting for a reassertion of the social responsibilities of government (including radical taxation of wealthy individuals and corporations), and opposing the growing movement toward a police state against the poor and people of color.

These structural arenas of engagement (not gimmicky "issues" such as gun control or any other magic-bullet nostrums) will allow a revitalized left to confront directly the system's structural failures. And as we have seen during the height of the civil rights, antiwar, and women's liberation movements, politics that challenge our society's institutional class exploitation, racism, subjugation of women, and imperialist economics have a chance to galvanize the best and brightest of the middle class of all races. These ideas are further developed in the strategy center's report reconstructing Los Angeles from the bottom-up.

Eric Mann, director
Labor/Community Strategy Center
Los Angeles, Calif.


In Somalia, our young people are sent into harm's way only to find themselves looking down the barrels of American-made weapons.

Eric Alterman is right. Progressives need "an honest-to-god, alternative, post-Cold War vision." It is time to consider another dimension to the escalating violence and proliferation of weapons in the post-Cold War era. It has already killed millions. The driving force behind it is profit and the political stakes in congressional districts facing the loss of high-paying defense jobs.

It's the international arms bazaar.

Since the Cold War ended, the United States has become the largest arms supplier on the planet. We now sell more arms to the Third World than all other nations combined.

Many defense contractors see international arms sales as an important hedge against declining orders from the Pentagon. They say foreign sales are better than defense conversion--no need to retool plants or retrain workers--just sell the weapons to other willing buyers.

In Somalia, as in the Gulf War, American young people are being sent into harm's way only to find themselves looking down the barrels of American-made weapons. Now Congress--instead of investing a "peace dividend" into our long-neglected schools, infrastructure, and communities--is grant-ing defense contractors new taxpayer subsidies to ship more weapons overseas.

We have a choice. Commit ourselves to the difficult task of converting weapons production lines into what we need to rebuild our domestic economy, or continue to sow the seeds of mass destruction around the world.

Rep. Tom Andrews, D-Maine

My only disagreement with Alterman is his conclusion that disarming America is the agenda that will pull the anti-NAFTA and other forces together into a more effective progressive movement.

The key challenge for progressives is to build upon and expand the very NAFTA coalitions that began to create a new politics in this country. These coalitions broke down barriers between organized labor and environmentalists, and exposed many to the issues of Ralph Nader and consumer groups, the Rainbow Coalition, family farmers, and the more progressive forces in the churches. Likewise, the coalitions linked the Washington-based groups with fair-trade networks in 48 states. Finally, less than three years ago, U.S. groups hardly knew the organized citizen movements in Canada and Mexico. Now, many close working relationships have been built, along with a positive agenda for North American development.

Much of what makes or breaks large social movements is trust among constituent groups and the recognition by all parties that their message is vastly amplified by unity. Both were nourished in the NAFTA struggle; progressives should be encouraged to help elaborate the movement's larger agenda of a new set of rules for global firms.

John Cavanagh, coauthor
"Global Dreams: Imperial Corporations and the New World Order"