Friday, September 28, 2018

The Other Casualty of the Kavanaugh Hearing: Statesmanship

In the spring of 2015 my wife and I were part of an excursion to Washington, D.C. that included private tours of Mt. Vernon and the U.S. Capital building. Each tour was at night and was magical. The lamplight at Mt. Vernon cast long shadows across hallways George Washington once walked. The Capitol tour was just as memorable. Our footfalls and hushed conversation were the only noise as we walked the empty building’s marble halls.

Our host was a retired congressman from Ohio. As a former member, he retained some congressional privileges including access to the floor of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. As we walked from the House to the Senate I caught up with the congressman. I told him, “I wish there were more statesman in congress. People who would work together, compromise and govern for the good of the American people.”

He stopped, turned, and looked at me as though I had suggested he was the second shooter on the grassy knoll and thundered, “The object isn’t to compromise. The object is TO WIN!”

I thought a lot about that conversation as I watched the Kavanaugh hearing yesterday.

The hearing’s partisan entrenchment revealed two political parties less interested in governing than they are winning.

The Republicans aren’t interested in the truth of what happened or didn’t happen to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford in the summer of 1982. They want to win, which means putting Kavanaugh on the bench before the midterm election. Losing control of the Senate means losing control of the judicial nominating process. Their initial refusal to delay the Kavanaugh vote to allow for an FBI investigation isn’t about their indignation of Democratic obfuscation and delay. It’s about concluding the process by either putting Kavanaugh on the bench or by allowing enough time to vet and ram through another Republican-approved candidate before November 6.

Democrats, wanting to win just as badly, also put partisanship before principles. Before they read a page of Kavanaugh’s writings, or before a single senator met him or had a conversation with him, most Democrats declared their opposition to Kavanaugh’s appointment. Senator Graham noted in his eruption yesterday that only 23 minutes after President Trump named Kavanaugh his nominee Minority Leader Chuck Schumer declared, “I’ll oppose judge Kavanaugh’s nomination with everything. I hope a bipartisan majority will do the same. The stakes are simply too high for anything less.”

Speaking before the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday Kavanaugh protested,
A Democratic senator on this committee publicly referred to me as evil. Evil. Think about that word. And said that those that supported me were ‘complicit and evil.’ Another Democratic senator on this committee said, ‘Judge Kavanaugh is your worst nightmare.’ A former head of the Democratic National Committee said, ‘Judge Kavanaugh will threaten the lives of millions of Americans for decades to come.’
Is it any surprise GOP Senators questioned the motives and methods of Democratic efforts to insert Dr. Blasey Ford into the nomination process at the eleventh hour? That they announced their opposition to Kavanaugh before testimony was even scheduled revealed that they, like the Republicans, want to win. 

Democratic protests are ignored by Republicans. Republican intransigence is criticized by Democrats. And why not? When the object is winning instead of governing politicians refuse to listen to reason, to one another, and to public outcry. Listening leads to compromise. And compromise isn’t winning. Lesson: ideology trumps competence when advice and consent is no longer about getting the most competent court but advancing a particular ideology.

It didn’t use to be this way.

Interviewed by Amy Wang of the Washington Post, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg said she wished the nomination process were less partisan: “The way it was, was right. The way it is, is wrong … 
I wish I could wave a magic wand and have it go back to the way it was.”  Ginsburg was confirmed with a 96-3 vote in spite of there being 43 Republican Senators in the 103rd Congress. Did the Republicans have ideological differences with Clinton’s nominee? Certainly. But the chief qualifications expected of previous nominees was whether or not a jurist was unbiased, fair and qualified. Not if they met the specific ideological litmus tests of either party.

Those days are long gone.

Our moonlight tour in 2015 was actually my second trip to Washington. In 1985, about the time Judge Kavanaugh was getting blackout drunk (or not) at Yale University, I was a high school senior. Former Congressman Dan Coats invited students from each high school in his Indiana district to Washington for a week. We met Richard Lugar, as noble a public servant as Indiana ever sent to the Senate. One of our group asked him to explain his thoughts on judicial appointments. He said, “Elections have consequences. The Constitution affords Presidents the privilege of choosing the justices they want, and the Senate’s role is solely to evaluate their qualifications, not whether or not they are ideologically aligned with the majority party.”

Senator Lugar’s career ended abruptly in 2013 when he lost a primary election to a Tea Party backed candidate who became a nightmare for the GOP before being defeated by his Democratic challenger.

What Dick Lugar experienced is what I suspect will happen to Brett Kavanaugh (rightly or wrongly) in this toxic political climate where statesmen are an endangered species, Supreme Court nominees are the majority party’s trophies, and the object is no longer advice and consent but winning at all costs.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

My Take on the Gun Debate: Tool or Toy

In recent years I have tried to avoid divisive political issues. As a Christ follower commissioned as a pastor, my passion is to reconcile people to Jesus. To that end, I don't want to create barriers between me and someone who doesn't know Jesus. Though I try to carefully calibrate what I post on Facebook (I don't always succeed), I feel a bit more freedom to address such issues in this forum.

I've been often asked – more so recently – about my take on the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and the ensuing gun debate. Here it is. (These thoughts are mine alone. They do not represent the church that employs me. I do not expect everyone to agree with me, and I respect my fellow firearm owners, hunters, and sportsman who have a different take.)

With every firearm in my gun safe I ask, "Is it a tool or a toy?" 

Every firearm I own is a tool. My family has shotguns and large caliber rifles for hunting. None of them are semi-automatic. We do own a semi-automatic .22 caliber rifle for target shooting. It is used for practice so we can become more proficient with our deer rifles. As a small-bore rifle it is not considered a deadly weapon in the same sense as large-bore semi-automatic rifles. We also have handguns. Two are .22 caliber target pistols; two are for home defense. Every firearm we own is locked in a gun safe.

Would I like to have an AR style rifle (called "modern sporting rifles" by the people who market them)? Absolutely! I've fired them at the range several times, and they are FUN to shoot! Really fun. But here's the deal: for civilians like me they're not a tool; they're a toy. (Stick with me. The understandable reaction is to say one should not call a weapon that can be used to murder 17 people at a high school a toy.)

Ask firearm enthusiasts why they want to own at AR and though it might take a bit to get to the root reason, it boils down to this: They're cool. I want one. And the Second Amendment says I can have one.

Some claim, "I hunt with it." Many do hunt with modern sporting rifles, I agree. But anything a hunter can do with an AR-15 can be done with a rifle like the Remington Woodmaster 750. It is a semi-automatic, large-bore centerfire rifle that does everything a modern sporting rifle does except look cool and serve as a platform for extreme military-style customization. You will never see a Woodmaster in a Call of Duty video game. They're not nearly cool enough.

Some will say, "I want an AR for home protection." Most gun enthusiasts – AR owners included – admit it isn't the best choice for home defense. Rounds from an AR can pass through walls and harm the very people you're trying to protect. Larger than a pistol, it is less maneuverable in tight quarters like a bedroom hallway. If one insists on a long gun rather than a pistol, home defense experts agree that best long gun for home protection is a slide action shotgun, commonly referred to as a pump shotgun. For one simple reason: the sound it makes when a round is chambered. My police officer friend once told me, "When a thief is climbing through your window and he hears someone rack a pump shotgun, he s---- his pants!"

The other widely-used argument in favor of AR ownership is this: we need the AR to protect Americans from government tyranny. I am not a historian so I will leave the merits of that argument's second-amendment premise to constitutional scholars. That being said, we long ago passed the point at which a well-regulated militia could seriously challenge the United States military.

The modern infantry soldier employs body armor, night-vision capabilities, advanced communication, specialized tactical training, and a military version of the AR-15 that is capable of fully automatic gunfire. That – together with grenades, mortars, mines, tanks, missiles, and aircraft – pretty much ensures that citizen militias armed with modern sporting rifles would be only slightly more effective against the most powerful army on the planet than my buddies and I armed with our duck hunting shotguns.

So, to review: there are hunting weapons that are equal to or superior to the AR; there are home defense weapons that are superior to the AR; and, the argument against a tyrannical government is specious.

There is really only one argument in favor of the AR that is irrefutable: I want one and the constitution says I can have one.

Is it legal? Yes. Is it your right? Yes. Are the massive majority of AR owners responsible and incapable of committing illegal, let alone heinous, acts with their firearms? Yes.

That being said, there is a word for someone who insists on possessing a toy simply because he wants one: a child. When a child exhibits that kind of behavior we call it childlike. But too many gun owners embroiled in the AR debate stamp their feet and with red faces insist on their rights. In adults we call that kind of behavior childish.

I doubt that banning so-called assault rifles will stop mentally deranged Americans from killing other Americans. The problem is far more complex and will require multifaceted solutions including increased mental health funding, increased age restrictions for firearm purchases, parents who actually parent, and a complete rethinking of the way gun violence is glorified in movies and video games.

All of those are possible solutions that need careful consideration and could be enacted, I believe, without infringing on my right to own firearms that serve as tools rather than toys.

To my fellow firearm owners who stand on their constitutional right to purchase modern sporting rifles my question is this: Can you demonstrate for me how an AR serves you as a tool? The vast majority, I think, will be hard pressed to demonstrate a need for an AR-15. Lacking the ability to demonstrate its utility, I must therefore assume that you must simply want it.

It is difficult for me to understand how wanting a toy – one that can be used to commit rapid-fire murder, anyway – is morally defensible as a singular justification for owning one even if it is legal to do so.

If restricting AR ownership is the price I am asked to pay for a child to feel even a little bit safer in his classroom, as an adult I am willing to pay it.