“Believe that narrative, brah”

So, regarding the most recent development in the Stollznow/Radford harassment situation, Adam Lee noted how Hemant Mehta hadn’t contacted him (or, near as I can tell, any of the bloggers he mentions) before writing a post about the most recent developments in said situation, wherein he says those bloggers have an obligation to correct the record, make apologies, and blahdey blah.

I’ve been keeping up with the case on and off in my spare time, downloading court documents from PACER and mostly not having time to read through anything, but even a brief refresher on the matter showed that Mehta had gotten several things wrong in his post, not least of which was making insinuations and bloviating about journalistic responsibility when not actually bothering to talk to any of the people involved, though nearly all of them have publicly-available e-mail addresses, before insinuating that they’re being dishonest and have an agenda. Once again, we see that standards like “apply the principle of charity” and “pick up the phone” only go one way. So I said this:

@DaylightAtheism It’s okay, he didn’t bother to read Radford’s signed statement or look into the actual history of the matter either.

To which one of the atheoskeptic movement’s gaggle of assholes responded, a day later:

@Doubting_Tom Believe that narrative, brah. Believe until it becomes true.

So the SIWOTI syndrome hit, and now I’m writing this post instead of doing work. Thankfully, I’ve already hit most of the salient points in comments at various places. So, I’m pulling it all together here.

First, Hemant said:

Stollznow now says the allegations weren’t true.

We’ll leave aside the issue of believing wholeheartedly a statement released by one party in a case, especially when that party previously released a similar statement last year, falsely claiming it was signed and agreed upon by both parties. That event from last year is important, because despite linking to it in his post, Mehta seems to be unaware of what it said, and the key difference that makes that quote above such an egregious misrepresentation. To wit:

Karen Stollznow does not say the allegations weren’t true. An accurate description of what has happened is that Ben Radford released a statement that Karen Stollznow allegedly signed, and does not deny signing.

That statement does not say the allegations weren’t true. This is where it’s important to read things carefully, and especially important to consider what’s come before. The statement says “it would be wrong for anyone to believe” the allegations. This is weaselly wording, likely there as a result of a legal compromise. It would be much clearer, and would take far fewer words, to simply flat-out state that the allegations were untrue and are now retracted, which the statement from 2014 actually does:

These accusations and complaints against Benjamin Radford were false and Karen Stollznow retracts them. Radford was disciplined by the Center for Inquiry on the basis of them. One of Stollznow’s minor complaints (that Radford briefly stood in front of her during an argument when she wanted to walk past him) was the result of miscommunication during their relationship, but the accusations of sexual harassment, stalking, sexual assault, unwanted emails and the like were and are categorically false.

Emphasis mine. That’s a key difference between the statement that Stollznow did not sign and openly disavowed, and the new statement. It seems like a pretty relevant difference, too. There is no recanting, there is no retraction, there is no admission of dishonesty (or really, of anything, other than an acrimonious breakup and various unspecified misunderstandings) in the current signed statement. Mehta’s summary is a mischaracterization of what the statement says, especially in light of what has happened previously.

Mehta goes on to say this:

Radford has been cleared of any wrongdoing.

And this is false in nearly every possible way.

First, Radford hasn’t actually been cleared of any wrongdoing; CFI found sufficient cause to punish him for wrongdoing when the complaint was first made privately, and hasn’t (to my knowledge) since recanted or apologized or said they were wrong to do so.

Second, the court did not clear Radford of any wrongdoing, because the case was dismissed by consent of both parties. The court makes no statement regarding Radford’s wrongdoing, because the matter was settled out of court.

Third, no matter what the outcome of this case was, it couldn’t possibly clear Radford of any wrongdoing, because he was the plaintiff. The one accused of wrongdoing in this case was Karen Stollznow. At best, you could say that Karen Stollznow has been cleared of libel, assault, and slander1, but even that would be an overstatement since, again, they settled out of court.

So yes, I will continue to believe this narrative, brah, because it actually is true that Mehta has misrepresented various aspects of this case, whether through ignorance, incompetence, bias, or some combination of the three. The question remains, though: if you characterize a situation in a way that turns out to be false, don’t you have an obligation to correct it?


1. I took that phrasing of the parameters of the complaint from an earlier version, I think from the dismissed New Mexico case. Having looked through the more current documents, a more accurate version would be “defamation, fraud, and interference with beneficial contractual relations.” Either way, the point and outcome are the same. No matter what the actual complaint was, it was made against Stollznow and dismissed.

Racebook

I know that Facebook is a wretched hive of unwanted commentary by people you barely remember from high school and college, but I’ve been pretty lucky not to see anything egregious, largely by staying away on days that I knew would just infuriate me.

So I was a bit nonplussed to find a friend of mine sharing this anti-protest diatribe today, in the wake of all the terrible shit that’s been going down in the last several weeks. I ended up responding briefly there, but I can feel the SIWOTI burning, so it’s time for an old-fashioned fisking. I don’t know (or much care) who the original author is.

Imagine yourself, 13 years old, Christmas day. Your dad was executed 5 days earlier, assassinated, shot in the head at point blank range without a fighting chance. For what? For doing his job. For dawning the uniform.

Donning. And yes, it’s rough working in a line of work where your life is always at risk. We could talk about the things police officers do (and the unnecessary things they’re required to do) that increase that risk, but let’s not pretend that policing is usually regarded as a very safe pursuit. The reason that we hold up police and firefighters and soldiers as heroes is because we recognize that they put their lives on the line to protect and serve the rest of us. The chance of being gunned down on the street is a chance they willingly take every day. It is a terrible, but not unexpected, part of being a police officer.

It shouldn’t, however, be an expected part of playing at the park or shopping at Walmart or cosplaying or getting in a car accident.

For wearing the badge. For keeping chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay every single day. For serving an ungrateful and violent public.

Unfortunately, this description of how the cops are supposed to act is at odds with how they often do. Firing on peaceful protests with tear gas canisters and rubber bullets does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Disproportionately targeting communities of color does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Shooting first and lying about it later does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Defending unfit officers does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.” Engaging in unethical prosecutory conduct up to and including the subornation of perjury in order to prevent police officers from facing consequences for their own violent animosity does not keep “chaos, unrest, and animosity at bay.”

Physician, heal thyself, and all that.

Imagine yourself looking underneath the Christmas tree at a gift with a tag on it saying, “From Dad”, only knowing his funeral is next week.

Eric Garner had six, and three grandchildren. John Crawford had three children. Tamir Rice was 12 years old, the kind of kid who’d be opening those presents.

This December 25th, for 24 hours, at least one cable station will be playing “A Christmas Story,” a schmaltzy nostalgic movie about a young (white) boy who wants a BB gun for Christmas, no matter what any of the adults say is sensible. The movie is beloved by many, widely seen as wholesome and funny and charming.

Now imagine that your son was fatally shot for playing with just such a gun in a neighborhood park, by police who lied about it afterward, who handcuffed your 14-year-old daughter who watched it all happen and threatened you with arrest, and were not even charged with a crime.

The people killed by police had families too. Despite what many in the media would have you believe, despite what some of the police officers themselves would appear to believe, they are not universally violent inhuman demons. It’s not “ungrateful” to be upset that police are failing in their duty to protect and serve. It’s not “ungrateful” to hold police to their own stated standards.

Imagine your Dad being blatantly murdered at the hands of a crazed and radical individual, driven by media and political-instilled hate all because he wears a Police Officer’s uniform.

Imagine your dad, brother, son, daughter, sister, mother being blatantly harassed, injured, mangled, murdered at the hands of unstable, immature, angry, fearful individuals driven by media and political-instilled hate all because they have brown skin.

Now, imagine yourself, a newly wed, ready to get your life on track with the love of your life. 2 months of marriage under your belt and you and your husband are planning your first Christmas together as a married couple. While out Christmas shopping for him, you get a phone call saying your husband has been shot and is in the hospital fighting for his life, only to find out he’d died in his patrol car for no reason.

Now imagine yourself, shopping for a cookout with your boyfriend, when the police pick you up and take you to an interrogation room. They berate you for hours, threaten you with arrest, ask where your boyfriend got a gun, accuse him of wanting to murder his ex-girlfriend, and reduce you to tears and swearing on the lives of your family that he didn’t have a gun when he entered the store, only to be told ninety minutes into the interrogaton that your boyfriend was shot to death, only to learn later that he had been carrying a toy gun that he picked up in an aisle of the store, in a state where he would have been legally allowed to wave around an AR-15 to his heart’s content. And neither officer was indicted as a result, despite there being video evidence contradicting their statements.

People are killed by police for no reason too.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a reality we of the law enforcement community live with day by day. Every Police Officer’s goal at the end of the day isn’t to fuck you over for a speeding ticket or to pick on you because you’re black, red, purple, white, a dog, or anything.

Their goal at the end of the day is to come home safe to the loving, embracing arms of their families at home. That is it.

Surprisingly, this is also a goal of the people of color who are disproportionately stopped, harassed, and arrested by police.

But you make a mistake in that first paragraph. It’s true, not every officer’s goal is to fuck with people, but it’s not true to say that every officer’s goal is not fucking with people. Go watch that Eric Garner video, if you can stomach it. Watch him talk about how often they fuck with him. If only the officers were so zealous about tax evasion with people walking down Wall Street instead of just Bay Street. Read up on Stop and Frisk. Police Officers are human beings too, and just like any humans, are all too prone to human biases, human bigotries, and human abuses of power. Campaigning for reform, for systems that actually punish officers for abusing the badge, isn’t a self-serving ploy by criminals. It’s a way of protecting everyone from those few bad apples. As it stands, police culture protects the unfit officers, and the effect is to further endanger all officers by making them complicit, by making them accessories, and by making it clear that they are above the law.

So while you sit there, sympathizing with the criminals and becoming part of the problem by saying, “Hands up, don’t shoot” or “I can’t breathe”

First off, fuck you. This is exactly the problem: you can’t divide the world cleanly into unsympathetic criminals and sympathetic police officers. Not every cop is a hero, and not every person killed by a cop is a villain. Thinking that cops are incapable of doing wrong is why we have police departments and prosecutors’ offices who rally around bad cops to defend them from any legal consequences. Thinking that certain kinds of people–usually poor people, brown people, mentally ill people–are “criminals” is why we have cops pulling their guns without making any attempt to assess or defuse situations, why we have overpoliced communities and military tactics resulting in the continual harassment and injury of innocent people.

The problem is that we have police officers who are engaging in criminal conduct. Harassment is a crime. Assault is a crime. Battery is a crime. Murder is a crime. They do not stop being crimes when someone puts on a badge. Police should certainly be held to different standards, standards that befit their role as protectors of the peace. Those standards should not be lower than the standards that are used to judge civilians. All too often, they are. At least when unarmed teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death, his killer stood trial. At least when Jordan Davis was shot in his car for no reason, his killer was sent to jail. The cops who killed Michael Brown, John Crawford, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice haven’t even been indicted. That’s just the murders, just the high-profile cases, not the countless other instances of police brutality that occur day after day.

It’s not ungrateful or inconsistent to say that if you kill someone, particularly an unarmed someone, you should stand trial for that act. Whether or not they wear a badge, the question of whether or not the shooting was justified is one for a trial, not one for a grand jury or a blue wall of silence. This isn’t a perfect solution–the courts are hampered by the same biases as any other human institution–but it’s a better solution than this circling of paddy wagons.

and preaching an ignorant and biased agenda against an individual who would willingly die for you in an instant, no matter if you like them or not;

I’ll leave aside the irony of this diatribe calling out ignorance and bias with its Pollyannaish view of police and Manichean approach to law enforcement. The problem isn’t that police will willingly die for us, the problem is how willing they seem to be to kill for us. Whether or not we like it, whether or not it’s warranted, whether or not it does us any good.

while you sit there with hate and distaste over the fact that they are “all racist”

Citation please.

That said, if you’re complicit in a racist system, then it’s hard to wash off the stink. Study after study shows that law enforcement, from stops and searches on up to convictions and sentences, work differently based on the skin color of the defendant. That is a problem, it’s a race issue, and denying it helps no one.

and they can hide behind the badge and without mercy, murder anyone they please-while you sit there and bask in all the hatred that has been ignited this past year, understand that they will ALWAYS be there to help you.

Yes, they’ll always be here to help me, because I am a straight cisgendered white middle-class man.

But talk to rape victims, to homeless people, to people of color, to transgender people, to people with mental illnesses, to poor people, and you’ll find plenty of examples of how the police aren’t always there to help everyone.

I’d be curious who was helped by putting Eric Garner in a chokehold, by filling Tamir Rice and John Crawford full of bullets, by threatening and harassing their families, by gassing and assaulting protestors and journalists, by putting unstable cops back on the street with freshly-slapped wrists.

Certainly not the police. If the deaths of Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos have taught us anything, it’s that the perception of police as violent racists who can kill with impunity endangers cops as much as anyone else. They should be leading the campaign to force trigger-happy cops to stand trial, to halt excessive force and police brutality, and to ensure that cops who are unfit for duty aren’t then sent on duty. Because even if it’s just a few bad apples spoiling the bunch, what we’ve seen so far is a movement among cops to retain and protect those bad apples, heedless of the effect on the rest of the bushel. That solidarity, the “snitches get stitches” of the law enforcement world, results in distrust and animosity between the police and the people they’re supposed to protect. That’s not making the job safer for the Lius and Ramoses of the future, nor is it making life safer for the future Garners and Rices.

How could anyone have the audacity to hate the protectors? The unseen heroes of every day life?

How could anyone have the audacity to call this kind of conduct protection or heroic?

Matthew 5:9-
“Blessed are the peacekeepers, for they shall be called children of God.”

You might want to check that quote again.
And if you call this peace-making

…I’d hate to see what you think of as war.

God bless NYPD Officer Liu-EOW 12/20/2014
God bless NYPD Officer Ramos-EOW 12/20/2014
Godspeed gentlemen, your deaths will not be in vain.

No, sadly, they will. Just like the deaths of children in Sandy Hook and moviegoers in Aurora, and students in Isla Vista and countless other victims of gun violence perpetrated by unstable individuals, the deaths of these two officers are unlikely to result in any meaningful reforms in mental healthcare or gun control policies. They’re also unlikely to result in any change to police culture, because assholes and racists and bad apples of all sorts are too intent to blame these deaths on peaceful protestors and victims of police overreach, rather than on a rotten culture that excuses and defends those who would abuse their power.

-Signed, the grateful son of an oath keeping Peace Officer.

If only all officers kept both their oaths and the peace, you wouldn’t have protestors to blame this on.

A follow-up

You may recall almost two years ago I posted about the indictment of Brian Dunning, host of the Skeptoid podcast, on charges of wire fraud. I actually signed up for a PACER account to follow the case, since no one else in the skeptical community seemed all that interested, but (like so many things) I never followed through with it since life got in the way.

I especially meant to write a follow-up after Dunning posted a form reply on that original post four months later, linking to his official statement on the matter. The way it tried to redefine and justify cookie stuffing in ways that a glimpse at Wikipedia could refute, and elided the way that the practice actually harms people trying to do business online, rang false and stank of guilt, but I never got around to actually posting about it.

Well, now, Brian Dunning has pled guilty. And to read what some people (like the blogger at the Skeptical Abyss) its as though Skepticism has lost its first martyr.

In the end, though, it is about a public figure in the skeptical community, and not just any public figure. It is, in fact, about a luminary. A shining light. A beacon that has brought many of us out from the swamps of superstition into the light of rationality and reason. The man of whom I write is all of that (and I say this without so much of a whiff of irony), and much more.

You have got to be fucking kidding me.

Look, I enjoy Skeptoid as a podcast. I disagree with some of the stances Dunning’s taken over the years, but I respect that he can at least make a show of correcting his mistakes. I like the wide variety of topics, and at one point, I liked the podcast enough to donate to it.

But Dunning is no luminary, no shining light, and I hesitate to associate with any “skeptic” that would so try to elevate a human being. Especially a human being who, you know, pled guilty to fraud.

This is, without any doubt, a horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large. One of our leaders has shown that he is not the man that many of us hoped that he would be.

What makes Dunning a “leader”? He heads no organization, he holds no elected or appointed position so far as I know. He talks for fifteen minutes each week about a topic in skepticism. Maybe the problem here isn’t that “one of our leaders” fell short of being the “luminary” and “shining light” that some wanted him to be. Maybe it’s that we conflate “popular speaker” with “leader” and further expect either one to have as much expertise in moral and ethical realms as scientific and skeptical ones.

It’s an ad hominem (or pro hominem) mistake. Being a good skeptical podcaster doesn’t necessarily make one a good leader, or an ethical software designer. Each of those is a separate skill set. One would think that the Skeptical Abyss would be familiar with these basic cognitive biases.

Also, note here that it’s a “horrible tragedy for Brian and his family, and for the skeptical community at large.” I’m sure it is. You know who else it’s a tragedy for? The victims of fraud. Maybe, and I’m just throwing this out there, it wouldn’t have been such a tragic loss if, you know, no one had broken the law.

All leading invariably to where we are now, because once the United States Attorney indicts you, you are pretty much done. The US Attorney, unlike state prosecutors, gets to pick and choose their cases, and they only indict people that they are sure of convicting.

That’s a fascinating claim that I would love to see the evidence for.

When someone does a podcast like Skeptoid, and they speak into our earbuds once a week, we start to think of them as a friend, even though we do no know them.

This is true. And I would kind of hope that a skeptical site would recognize that this is also a mistake. Brian Dunning is not my friend, I do not know him, he does not know me, and I should not assume that because I have fifteen minutes of one-way contact with him each week, that I can thus draw any valid conclusions about his character, his ethics, or any of his activities outside of producing a podcast. The sense of familiarity we feel with celebrities is an illusion, and the gushing laudatory comments throughout this piece are the result of confusing that illusion for reality.

Many of us have looked up to him, and considered him a beacon of reason. And yet, here we are. A hero has fallen.

I said this on Twitter, but it’s worth repeating: how do you end up with such low standards of heroism that “guy who hosts a podcast I like” is worthy of the title? How, in the same week that saw marathon runners continuing past the finish line to donate blood at the hospital, do you arrive at “guy with a fun series of YouTube videos” as your standard for heroism? Do you consider “guy who can do that rubber pencil trick” the standard for a great magician? Is a Big Mac your go-to example of haute cuisine? Is “socks in the dryer” on your list of favorite movies?

This heroism nonsense ends up being a vicious cycle. The more we respond to talented people by placing them on pedestals, treating them like something higher and more-than normal people, the more shocked and disappointed we’re going to be when they fail to live up to the standards we unreasonably held them to. No one should have considered Brian Dunning anything more than a talented, bright guy with a good podcast in the first place, and responding to the revelation that, no, in fact, he’s really just a bright talented guy and also guilty of wire fraud with these fawning “hero” and “luminary” and “shining light” comments only perpetuates the problem. Because it’s likely to become “Brian Dunning is a hero who was persecuted by an unjust system” or “Brian Dunning wasn’t the shining beacon of pure reason that we thought he was, but all these other skeptical heroes surely are!”

Let’s learn from this mistake: having a good podcast does not make you a leader. It does not make you a good person. It does not make you a law-abiding citizen. It does not make you a hero or a shining beacon of reason or even correct.

It makes you a good podcaster.

Brian Dunning is a pretty good podcaster. He’s also someone who pled guilty to wire fraud. Anything else requires additional evidence.


Edit: There are lots of people in various comment sections saying we should be skeptical, that a guilty plea doesn’t necessarily mean that the person committed the crime, and so forth. I agree, but I also think it’s worthwhile to consider the evidence against that claim, too. Evidence like the statements he made to an FBI Special Agent. It’s damning, and further damning are the claims made in the suppression request that, were they the subject of one of the Skeptoid podcasts, would be among the things torn apart toward the middle.

You can be skeptical of Dunning’s guilt; you can believe his claims of feeling like he was under duress and disbelieve the counterclaims of the FBI agents, and that’s all well and good. But if you’re doing it out of loyalty or personal incredulity, you’re not really being skeptical.

America’s Increasingly Mementoesque Gun Conversation

Last year, after the tragic shooting of Congressional Representative Gabrielle Giffords, there were a lot of conversations worth having. There was the conversation about how the increasingly divisive martial rhetoric of the conservatives–and in particular, the Tea Party, may have made the tragedy an inevitability. There was the conversation about what responsibilities the political parties have to try to defuse the more radical fringes of their movements. And there was the conversation about how Arizona’s lax gun laws might have contributed to the problem.

Unfortunately for the country as a whole, we couldn’t really have that conversation. Because every time anyone tries to have that conversation, conservatives and libertarians stick their fingers in their ears and shout “LA LA LA GUNS DON’T KILL PEOPLE LA LA LA THE SOLUTION IS MORE GUNS LA LA LA!” And because those chickenhawk conservatives and libertarians are in the pockets of the NRA and the gun lobby, and because the liberals have no spines especially when it comes to gun control, no one ever tries to have the conversation anyway.

It might seem like a strawman argument to say that conservatives think “more guns” is the solution to gun violence, but every time one of these tragedies happens, some asshole comes out and says “this wouldn’t have happened if someone in the crowd had a concealed weapon!”1 Because conservatives live in a fantasy world where carrying a gun makes you a cool-headed sharpshooting superhero, capable in a moment of precisely evaluating a situation that would have anyone else pissing their pants, drawing a bead on the bad guy, and taking him down in a single shot, then probably saying something clever and manly right before the credits roll. This is the same ridiculous fantasy world in which torture is a reliable way of producing information and trickle-down economics works.

Which is why I was so interested in this article in the wake of the Tucson shooting. See, there was someone at the event with a firearm. Joe Zamudio rushed over from a nearby drug store and, gun at the ready, nearly shot an innocent man who’d taken the gun from the actual shooter. If he had been a little more trigger-happy, a little less cautious and thoughtful, one hero would have shot another, and Zamudio might have been mistaken for a second gunman.

So we have here a clear-cut situation where carrying a concealed weapon at the scene of a tragedy didn’t prevent the tragedy (in fact, the gunman was taken down mostly by unarmed people, unless you count the folding chair as “armed”). Not only that, but the guy carrying the weapon explains that it would have only made things worse. In the end, having a firearm didn’t make anyone a hero–there were heroes with and without guns–and discharging that firearm would have resulted in more innocent people being injured or killed. Any lingering belief I had in that conservative myth of the Civilian Hero Who Shoots Back was well and truly shattered.

Then, earlier this year, that myth took another blow when would-be civilian hero George Zimmerman followed unarmed youth Trayvon Martin, ignoring the warnings of police, and indefensibly shot him to death. Zimmerman’s history marks him as a wannabe vigilante, leading a Neighborhood Watch and frequently calling the police to report suspicious individuals. Zimmerman’s tale punches further holes in the myth of the Hero With a Gun, because it’s a textbook case of someone mistaking their own fear and prejudice (whether toward Martin’s race or his attire) for evidence of someone else’s criminality. Zimmerman lacked the plot-granted rightness that belongs to the hero vigilantes of fiction, but retained their dogged certainty and lack of faith in the law to do the right thing. As a result, he killed an unarmed teenager, whose crime (at most) was defending himself against an armed stalker. The Martin case shows us that owning a gun and carrying a gun does not grant a person magic insight into the level of danger presented by individuals, nor does it give them the abilities or authority of trained law enforcement officers. Owning a gun does not make a person better able to sort out good from evil, does not make its owner a virtuous hero.

But if the Gun-Toting Vigilante is in luck, they might just live in a state whose laws treat Gun-Toting Vigilantes like automatic heroes, where you can “stand your ground” if you so much as feel threatened (whether or not that feeling is justified) and kill the source of that threatening feeling. And, in the eyes of the law, go on as if no crime has occurred. It’s interesting; if we trust Zimmerman’s story, then the law seems to be that it’s okay to shoot someone if they make you feel threatened, but it’s not okay to assault them. Or maybe it’s just the might of a firearm makes right.

While we were still having the Trayvon Martin conversation, a similar incident occurred2, with even less pundit-exploitable gray area. 13-year-old Darius Simmons was moving garbage cans outside his house when his 75-year-old neighbor John Spooner confronted him with a handgun and accused him of committing a theft that he couldn’t have possibly been involved with. Spooner shot Simmons in the chest while his mother was watching. When the police arrived, they treated Simmons and his family as if they were the criminals, despite Spooner having apparently premeditated the crime.

The myth of the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero takes another blow, as it becomes obvious that not only does a gun grant magic insight into other people’s guilt, but it doesn’t even grant self-insight. There’s no way for the gun owner to know if their certainty and belief in their own virtuousness is accurate or delusional. In other words, there’s no way for the gun-owner to know if they’re the hero vigilante, or just a murderous asshole.

And so we come to the recent3 shooting in Aurora, CO, which by virtue of occurring at a screening of a Batman film, throws these myths of heroic vigilantes into the spotlight. The shooter in this case, James Holmes, apparently planned the attack for months. He came armed with canisters of tear gas, a 12-gauge shotgun, a Glock pistol, and a .223 Smith & Wesson M&P semi-automatic loaded with armor-piercing bullets in a high-capacity magazine. He was wearing body armor and a gas mask. He’d booby-trapped his apartment with bombs. And it looks, for all intents and purposes, that this guy didn’t want to be the courageous gun-toting hero vigilante, but a straight-up supervillain. Seventy people were shot. Twelve died.

Colorado is a concealed carry state, but there are no reports that I can find of anyone in the audience pulling a gun on Holmes. It’s certainly possible that no one else in that theater was armed. It’s also possible that someone was armed, but realized that additional gunfire wouldn’t help–because of the tear gas, because of the dark theater, because of the body armor, because of the crowd trying to get away. It’s also possible that someone was armed and just wanted to get out alive.

But no one stood up in that darkened theater and, squinting through the tear gas, drew a bead and fired a single shot at the weak spot in the shooter’s armor, taking him down. No one even (as in the Giffords shooting) rushed him to tackle him to the ground. Where was our Vigilante Hero?

Where he belonged: in the fictional film playing on the screen.

The worst part of all this is how easily it could have been ameliorated, if not prevented entirely, if our country had sensible gun laws. We accept, as a nation, that you can’t buy certain kinds of weapons. If I went searching online for places to purchase nuclear warheads, I think I’d have the Department of Homeland Security on my back pretty quickly. We accept, as a nation, truly ridiculous extremes of security theater at airports, submitting ourselves to X-Ray scanners and randomish searches and taking our shoes off and not carrying certain amounts of liquid, because some very small number of people have or might use those types of things to kill.

Remind me: how many shoe bombers have there been versus gun-toting killers?

We accept, as a nation, that because pseudoephedrine can be used to make methamphetamines, there should be limits on who can purchase it and how much they can purchase in a given time period. We accept that places selling pseudoephedrine must keep careful records on the names and addresses of people buying it, and that any suspicious activity be reported.

In 2009, all drug use (of which methamphetamine use is a subset) caused 37,485 deaths. Firearms caused 31,228.

There’s a major difference, of course, between guns and pseudoephedrine. Used as intended, pseudoephedrine can clear up congested sinuses without making one drowsy. Used as intended, guns can wound or kill. Using guns to wound or kill is not off-label use. It is the purpose of the device. The wounding or killing may be in service of some greater good (defending innocents, hunting for food). But a “greater good” was not served in all 31,228 cases in 2009. There was no “greater good” served by George Zimmerman or James Holmes or John Spooner. And unless you live in Kashmir or dine exclusively on utahraptors, there’s no “greater good” served by owning a semi-automatic assault weapon.

Can anyone give me a good reason why we can’t regulate guns at least as heavily as we do cough medicine? The best I’ve ever heard is “but the Second Amendment!” Take a look at the Second Amendment, kids:

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

The word “regulated” is right there. “Well regulated,” in fact. Was James Holmes part of a well-regulated militia? Does letting George Zimmerman or John Spooner carry guns contribute positively to “the security of a free state”? How many more shootings will it take before we realize that maybe, just maybe, it’s time to give the NRA the finger and start working on more rational gun policy?

I know the response. It’s the response that Louie Gohmert gave: If someone in the theater had a gun, they could have taken the Aurora shooter down. Nevermind how many blows to the chin the Gun-Toting Vigilante Hero Myth has taken in the past few years. Nevermind the specific circumstances of the Aurora shooting that made it highly unlikely for anyone, gun-toting or not, to have taken Holmes down. Conservatives cling to their myths while real people die.

The other response is that determined criminals will always find a way to get their hands on weaponry. I suspect that’s a bit facile (I wouldn’t know where to start looking for, say, enriched uranium or sarin gas, even if I had the desire to use such things), but yes, determined criminals would almost certainly find a way to obtain guns.

And if that were monitored like pseudoephedrine is monitored, like terrorists trying to purchase WMDs are monitored, the lone nut stocking up on assault weapons would trigger law enforcement alarms as surely as the secret cabals trying to obtain grenade launchers or bomb bridges. And, moreover, the police would have a crime to hold the criminal on, namely possession of (too many/concealed/the wrong kind of) firearms. It wouldn’t be “oh, you killed someone, but we can’t charge you with anything because you said you felt threatened.”

It’s true, the determined criminal will get his or her hands on firearms if they want them badly enough. But there’s a big difference between “I can get this if I want it bad enough and save up enough to buy it on a black market” and “I can get this with a quick trip to the gun show/sporting goods store/Wal-Mart.” A determined meth producer is going to get their hands on tons of Sudafed, but we still keep it locked up and scan their licenses if they try to buy it.

And, as one last blow to the Mythical Hero Who Shot Back, James Holmes takes that craftiness a step further. Not only will determined criminals get weapons if they want them bad enough, they’ll also choose to attack places (like a no-guns-allowed theater in a concealed-carry state) where people won’t have guns. They’ll armor up and throw gas bombs so that, even if someone did have a gun, it wouldn’t do any good.

It’s time to put away childish things, like readings of a Constitution that omit the uncomfortable bits and fairy tales of gallant heroes with perfect apprehension of chaotic situations. It’s time that we close the Big Book of Conservative Myths and turn our attention to saving real lives in the real world. It’s time that we stopped waiting for Batman or John McClane or Dirty Harry, and started working on making a safer reality.


1. Following the Giffords shooting, one of those assholes was Arizona state representative Jack Harper (Republican, of course), who said “When everyone is carrying a firearm, nobody is going to be a victim.”

2. Sadly, I imagine that many such similar incidents occurred, but this is the one I read about at the time.

3. Since I started writing this post, the shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin also occurred. So far, it looks like the shooter puts another few holes in that Conservative Hero Myth, namely that the hero of one story (say, the White Supremacist narrative about taking back the country for white folks) might be the villain of another (say, the American story of one peaceful nation coming together out of many diverse races, ethnicities, religions, and so forth).

Haterade

So, PZ wrote a post recently that, among other things, got me thinking about hate crimes legislation. I think the story in the post is utterly ridiculous, that the church overreacted terribly, that the kid was (at worst) a jerk, and that suggesting that “not immediately eating a holy cracker” is some kind of hate crime is an absurdity beyond measure.

But, hate crime legislation is its own kettle of fish with its own set of problems. Generally, from my understanding, the hate crime statutes tend to increase the punishment given for something that is already a crime, based on the perpetrator’s obvious feelings of hate toward the victim’s particular minority group.

On one hand, this looks an awful lot like thoughtcrime. You’re punishing someone for what they think of some group–gays, women, blacks, foreigners, whatever. Thoughtcrime is pretty much universally dangerous, impossible to prove without telepathy, and the first step onto a very slippery slope toward various Orwellian nightmares.

On the other hand, and this is the way I tend to see it (at least, so far as I understand hate crime statutes–they may differ from place to place, and my opinion’s a bit conditional on the details), we already change the punishments for various crimes based on thoughts. The difference between first degree and second degree murder is premeditation–planning the crime before committing it. Things like conspiracy and collusion are similar to various degrees.

It seems to me that hate in a hate crime is similar to premeditation in a first-degree murder. It’s not entirely the same; it seems to me that hate crimes would tend more to be crimes of passion, crimes of the moment, while premeditation implies planning to harm a specific person or group or place in a specific manner at a specific time. In a hate crime, it’s more of a loose plan to harm some member of a specific group under some condition or as a principle. A gay-basher probably doesn’t walk into his local redneck bar thinking “I’m a-gonna drag Queer Charlie ’round behind my pickup truck tonight,” but if he’s gone around for years saying “if a fag hit on me in a bar, I’d kick the shit out of him,” and then he kicks the shit out of some gay guy for hitting on him in a bar, I’d say that qualifies for a harsher sentence than if he’d just beat up some random guy. It’s not quite premeditation in the sense of first degree murder, but it’s certainly a voluntary predisposition. It’s a soft sort of premeditation, but it suggests that there’s more than just passion and the heat of the moment at work.

Keep in mind that my legal knowledge is almost entirely culled from courtroom dramas, so I may in fact be talking out of my ass. Feel free to tell me if I am.