Re-writing Shakespeare

My husband and I catalog our books on LibraryThing and I often get books to review through the Early Reviewers Project.  Most recently I got Anne Tyler’s re-writing of “The Taming of the Shrew”, Vinegar Girl.  Why is Tyler re-writing Shakespeare?  Hogarth Publishing is doing a series for the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by having well known author’s take on a variety of plays.

The Telegraph story on the series started this way

Booker Prize-winning authors Margaret Atwood and Howard Jacobson are to write modern prose versions of two of Shakespeare’s most widely-read plays, despite admitting they maybe “mad” to do so.

Atwood will take on The Tempest, while Jacobsen, who won the Booker Prize in 2010 for The Finkler Question, will rework The Merchant of Venice.

The story ends

The pair will now join Anne Tyler and Jeanette Winterson as part of the Hogarth Shakespeare project, producing their updated version in time for the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death in 2016.

Tyler’s will take on The Taming of the Shrew, while Jeanette Winterson works with The Winter’s Tale.

A spokesman for Hogarth, the transatlantic fiction imprint of Penguin Random House, promised the publishing house was still in talks with other esteemed writers, with more expected to be added to the line-up in the coming months.

Shakespeare

So I got Vinegar Girl to review.  I started it, didn’t like anyone in the book and put it down 25 or so pages later.  Maybe, I said to myself, if I read the Shakespeare I will like it better.  I hadn’t read The Taming of the Shrew for decades and I found it very funny, but Kate the Shrew is almost no where to be found.  The play is about Petruchio’s efforts to woo her and about the men vying for her sister.

Back to Vinegar Girl.  One has to appreciate Tyler’s attempt to put Kate front and center, but it also shows the difficulties of  having a central character who is grumpy and ill-tempered – although not without reason.  I didn’t like Kate until the very end of the book when she is a renowned plant biologist.  I don’t know if Tyler is making a statement about the importance of having a life of one’s own or not, but it certainly seems that way.  But it isn’t Shakespeare who doesn’t have many women characters.  Making Kate a real person who grows really is an update.

Many of the other reviewers for LibraryThing had never read Shakespeare and seemed to enjoy the book a great deal more than I.  I am, however, interested enough in the series to want to read Atwood’s re-telling of The Tempest, one of my favorites.

Photograph:  Alamy (from the Telegraph)

Democracy at the local level

Last year I attended the reunion of the Class of 1970 at St. John’s College in Annapolis, MD.  (That was the class I actually graduated with even though I am technically 1969.)  Our seminar reading was Democracy in America by de Tocqueville.  A lively discussion ensued one topic being whether the de Tocqueville vision of what we in the 1960s called participatory democracy still survives.  I argued that I thought it did survive at least in New England and particularly in Vermont.  For example, Brattleboro where I live, has citizen committees for everything from planning to finance to trees.  And, yes, while there are sometimes problems in finding sufficient people to serve, I believe committees eventually find volunteers.  Some committees are appointed by the elected Selectboard, while others are appointed at Town Meeting.

Every town in Vermont has town meeting on the first Tuesday of March.  Most towns have an open meeting with all town residents.  Budgets are approved and important issues are discussed and voted on.  These are de Tocqueville’s farmers conducting business.  Here is the link to a nice explanation done for middle school students.  Brattleboro is a little different.  On the first Tuesday, which is a holiday, we vote for people who will represent us at town meeting as well as for other local offices like Select Board, School Board, Lister, and Constable.  All the elected representatives meet several weeks later at Brattleboro’s Town meeting.

I decided to run for Town Meeting Representative, got 14 people (you need 10) to sign my nominating petition and got elected with a respectable number of votes.  Town Meeting this year was divided into two meetings.  The first was on a single question of authorizing the Selectboard to take money allocated for renovations at the current police station and, instead, purchase a building in a new location and move the police station.  I voted “no” because I was opposed to moving an essential government service out of downtown, and we lost big.  There is some move to do a town wide referendum on the question, but I don’t know if that will succeed.  My feeling is that my side lost and we just need to get on with it for the sake of the police officers.

The second meeting was yesterday and was a more traditional town meeting.  We arrived at 8:30 and adjourned about 4:30 with an hour for lunch.  (Unlike smaller towns, we have no pot luck, but a high school club sold us stuff for breakfast and lunch to raise money for a trip to Costa Rico.)  There were 30 articles on the agenda beginning with appointment of the Town Clerk (no controversy there) and accepting the audit reports for the Town and for the Town Schools.  We elected people to the Capital Grant Review, Library, and Finance Committees (I got on that one.)  And then a motion was made to raise the compensation of the Selectboard members. They currently get $3,000 a year with the Chair getting $5,000.  Interesting questions were asked during the discussion including whether increasing the compensation would attract people to run who could not afford to volunteer and whether paying the Selectboard more would change the character of the government from volunteer to professional.  The motion that finally passed was to have the Finance Committee study the matter.  I can see what I will be doing this year!  Interestingly we did decide to raise the Town School Board member pay from $2,000 to $3,000 and the chair from $3,000 to $5,000 to make them the same as the Selectboard.

We voted for modest sums to support a variety of local human service non profits and for tax relief for others.  I don’t think any of those votes were unanimous.  And we approved after much discussion, the town budget and school budgets for the next year.  I am more familiar with general government budgets than with school ones, but the town budget is very lean.

Finally we passed two non-binding resolutions:  First, to eliminate fees for activities at the Senior Center and second, to designate the second Monday in October, Indigenous People’s Day.

20160319__p_REF-L-TownMeeting-0319~5_500

All in all a very interesting day.  I heard a lot of concern about poverty in Brattleboro.  I think the number of children who qualify for free lunch – 62% – shocked a lot of people.  (According to the 2010 Census, the median income for a household in the town was $31,997, and the median income for a family was $44,267.)  I can see this becoming more of a topic for discussion at future town meetings.

We heard a plea for civility at the start and other than some mutterings and calls for points of order when one representative in particular spoke, that request was answered.  I think that if he attended any of the town meetings I’ve read about in the local paper for have friends who attended, de Tocqueville would have no trouble recognizing his democracy in America.

Photograph:  Chris Mayes, Brattleboro Reformer.

My Supreme Court Fantasy

One of my friends asked if she would go to hell because she was glad that Antonin Scalia was dead.  I have mixed feelings.  First, I’m very sad for his family as sudden death is always difficult.  On the other hand, I am happy he is no longer a factor on the Supreme Court.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote on the the nicest tributes I’ve seen.  This is from Vox.

So it’s no surprise that of all the tributes to Justice Scalia, who died Saturday of an apparent heart attack at the age of 79, Justice Ginsburg’s is uniquely moving. It’s a tribute to Scalia as an interlocutor, a fellow opera lover — including a reference to the opera Scalia/Ginsburg: A (Gentle) Parody of Operatic Proportionswhich debuted in 2015 — and a “best buddy.”

Toward the end of the opera Scalia/Ginsburg, tenor Scalia and soprano Ginsburg sing a duet: ‘We are different, we are one,’ different in our interpretation of written texts, one in our reverence for the Constitution and the institution we serve. From our years together at the D.C. Circuit, we were best buddies. We disagreed now and then, but when I wrote for the Court and received a Scalia dissent, the opinion ultimately released was notably better than my initial circulation. Justice Scalia nailed all the weak spots—the ‘applesauce’ and ‘argle bargle’—and gave me just what I needed to strengthen the majority opinion. He was a jurist of captivating brilliance and wit, with a rare talent to make even the most sober judge laugh. The press referred to his ‘energetic fervor,’ ‘astringent intellect,’ ‘peppery prose,’ ‘acumen,’ and ‘affability,’ all apt descriptions. He was eminently quotable, his pungent opinions so clearly stated that his words never slipped from the reader’s grasp.

Justice Scalia once described as the peak of his days on the bench an evening at the Opera Ball when he joined two Washington National Opera tenors at the piano for a medley of songs. He called it the famous Three Tenors performance. He was, indeed, a magnificent performer. It was my great good fortune to have known him as working colleague and treasured friend.

So my fantasy is imagining Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined by a Justice Amy Klobuchar.  What a quartet that would be!

Patrick Condon writes in the Minneapolis Star Tribune

U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar is likely to mix it up in the coming political brawl in Washington around replacing Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and not just because her own name has again surfaced as a potential high court nominee.

Klobuchar

Klobuchar sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee.  This can be a plus because she has worked with all the Republican members.

Obama said late Saturday that he intends to try to fill the vacancy “in due time.” It is already shaping up to be an epic battle as Obama has been handed the rare chance to swing the ideological balance of the court, where Scalia served as one of the most reliably conservative voices in the 5-4 majority.

As Republicans who control the U.S. Senate vow to block Obama, the president will look for judiciary committee allies like Klobuchar and Franken. But Klobuchar, an attorney and a former elected prosecutor, may first be considered as a prospect.

“I think there’s a bunch of reasons she makes sense,” said Norman Ornstein, an expert on Congress and U.S. politics at Washington’s American Enterprise Institute, who was touting Klobuchar’s case on Twitter over the weekend. “I think there’s a substantive argument for her, and a political argument for her.”

Ornstein said by choosing a U.S. senator, Obama could make it a harder for Senate Republicans to block a trusted colleague for the entirety of 2016. And he suggested it might be a good time to reverse the recent presidential trend of only picking judges.

“There was a long tradition of selecting people who had been in public life, gone through elections and served in legislatures or executive office,” Ornstein said.
 Chief Justice Earl Warren and retired Justice Sandra Day O’Conner are two examples cited.
President Obama may ultimately decide that Klobuchar is too political an appointment and we don’t know if she would even be interested, but I can dream of the Mighty Four on the Supreme Court.
Photograph:  Twitter.com

What is being a feminist all about?

I’ve got credentials.  I was a delegate from Virginia to the First National Women’s Conference held in Houston in 1977.  I shepherded one of the early pay equity cases – a professor at Old Dominion University who was being paid less than her colleague with similar degrees and experience – to a successful conclusion.  I worked to make marital rape a crime and to ratify  the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia legislature.  The first successfully, the second not.  I’m the same age as Hillary Clinton.  And I am very disappointed in how her campaign somehow feels entitled to my vote.  Some how I lose my standing as a feminist if I support Bernie Sanders.  She seems to have migrated a long way from her wonderful speech in Beijing.

Women listening to Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in New Hampshire

Women listening to Hillary Clinton at a campaign event in New Hampshire

I was trying to figure out how to write about this when I read Frank Bruni’s column this morning in the New York Times.  I think he was hit the nail on the head.  He begins

I’m 51. My health is decent. And while my mother died young, there’s longevity elsewhere in the family tree.

I could live to see an openly gay presidential candidate with a real chance of victory.

Will there be a “special place in hell” for me if I, as a gay man, don’t support him or her?

I can guess Madeleine Albright’s answer. She more or less told women that they’re damned if they’re not on Hillary Clinton’s team.

I’m still trying to get my head around that — and around Gloria Steinem’s breathtakingly demeaning assertion that young women who back Bernie Sanders are in thrall to pheromones, not ideas or idealism, and angling to score dates with the young bucks in the Sanders brigade.

I could substitute Asian American for gay and ask the same question.

There’s a weird strain of thought swirling around Clinton’s campaign: that we should vote for her because she’s a woman. Or that she’s inoculated from certain flaws or accusations by dint of gender. Or that, at the least, there’s an onus on forward-looking people who care about gender inequality to promote her candidacy.

I care about gender inequality, and I don’t buy it. It’s bad logic. It’s even worse strategy. People don’t vote out of shame. They vote out of hope.

Perhaps that was among the lessons of Clinton’s defeat in New Hampshire on Tuesday, where she lost to Sanders among all women by at least seven percentage points, according to exit polling, and among women under 30 by more than 60 points.

Somehow we got from the positive nature of a woman running for President to what must seem like a bunch of old women scolding young ones for supporting – gasp -a man instead.

Clinton’s gender indeed matters. Just as you couldn’t properly evaluate Obama’s arc without factoring in race, you can’t see her accurately without recognizing that she’s a woman of her time, with all the attendant obstacles, hurts, compromises and tenacity.

That informs — and, ideally, illuminates — her perspective. And her presidency would carry a powerful, constructive symbolism that can’t and shouldn’t be ignored.

But those are considerations among many, many others in taking her measure and in casting a vote. To focus only or primarily on them is more reductive than respectful, and to tell women in particular what kind of politics they should practice is the antithesis of feminism, which advocates independence and choices.

We’re all complicated people voting for complicated people. We’re not census subgroups falling in line.

I’ll go to the barricades for that imagined gay candidate if he or she has talents I trust, positions I respect and a character I admire. If not, I’ll probably go elsewhere, because being gay won’t be the sum of that person, just as womanhood isn’t where Clinton begins and ends.

I will be voting for her in November should she be the Democratic nominee, but I will never quite admire either Madeline Albright or Gloria Steinham in quite the same way as I did before.

Photograph:   Richard Perry/The New York Times

Hillary and Bernie

I woke up this morning to pundits talking about the debate last night as if it had been a boxing match.  As a friend posted on Facebook that is not what he saw.  Me either.  What he and I saw were two smart, articulate people who both want to be President.  Yes, they each had good moments and not so good ones, but if you are a Democrat you can be proud that you have a choice between two people who can talk about issues without mudslinging and with no name calling.  As my husband pointed out, either of then could stand up to questioning during British Prime Minister Question Time without embarrassment.  Can the Republicans say the same?

Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton met for a debate at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday night.

Senator Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton met for a debate at the University of New Hampshire on Thursday night.

Politico published a list of the “11 most important moments”.  I think it is good list and tells us more than the stories with headlines like “Clinton and Sanders get ugly.”  No, they didn’t.  Passionate, yes.  And don’t you want some passion from people seeking your vote?

Politico’s first moment

“A very artful smear”
In one of her most energetic salvos of the campaign, Clinton ripped Sanders for “attacks” and “insinuation” suggesting that anyone who takes campaign contributions has been “bought.”

“If you’ve got something to say, say it directly, but you will not find that I ever changed a view or a vote because of any donation I ever received, and I have stood up and I have represented my constituents to the best of my ability,” she said, calling on Sanders to “end a very artful smear that you and your campaign have been carrying out.”

An incredulous Sanders, shaking his head attempted to respond, but Clinton continued talking over him.

I’m waiting for someone to find an instance where Hillary changed.  If there is one, it will come from the press not from a negative Sanders super pac ad because he doesn’t have one.

One thing I like about Bernie is that he learns.  He doesn’t have to change his views very often (gun control was not discussed last night), but he is learning how to broaden his appeal.

Sanders makes pitch to African Americans on Flint
Sanders and Clinton largely agreed that urgent and overwhelming action must be taken to fix the crisis of contaminated water in Flint, Mich. But Sanders harnessed the issue to hone his pitch to African Americans, who have largely overlooked his candidacy and favored Clinton, despite his repeated overtures.

Sanders said he wondered whether, if Flint were “a white suburban community, what kind of response there would have been.”

“Flint, Michigan is a poor community, it is disproportionately African American and minority and what has happened there is absolutely unacceptable,” he said.

Bernie is moving past his Black Lives Matter moment and past his long history of working for civil rights and learning to articulate contemporaneous connections is a more natural matter.  The upcoming debate in Flint should be interesting as Bernie is much tougher on Michigan state officials and the EPA than Clinton.

The last Politico moment I am going to cite is the discussion of the death penalty.

Debating the death penalty
It was a genuine distinction. Clinton outlined her support for the death penalty, arguing that it should be allowed in extremely rare circumstances but only if a state meets “the highest standards of evidentiary proof.” She cited the Oklahoma City bombing as an example of a crime heinous enough to warrant the death penalty.

Sanders argued that the death penalty had often been applied to innocent people, and despite “barbaric acts out there” he doesn’t believe in the death penalty. “In a world of so much violence, I just don’t believe that government itself should be part of the killing,” He said. “So when somebody commits any of these terrible crimes that we’ve seen, you lock ’em up and you toss away the key.”

My takeaways:  Hillary needs to figure out how to respond to the questions about Goldman Sachs and other contributions from financial issues.  Bernie needs to work on foreign policy since he was not Secretary of State but his answer to the question from Chuck Todd as to which of these countries is the biggest threat:  Russia, North Korea, or Iran was surprising and his rational well thought out.  Sanders picked North Korea because an isolated dictator has a nuclear weapon.

I’m voting for Bernie when Vermont has its primary on March 1 because I think someone needs to talk about the future in a big way and because I admire that he is running his campaign as a model of how one can run without big money in the age of Citizens United.  Plus he’s from Vermont.  But Democrats can be proud of their candidates regardless of which they support.  The New York Times quoted Mia Farrow “Now if they could just split the gig — Bernie would cover domestic, Hillary on foreign policy.”   I think a lot of people could agree with her.

Photograph:  Todd Heisler/The New York Times

 

 

Thoughts and questions about reparations

You have to admire Ta-Nehisi Coates for his persistence is getting the discussion started.  In 2014, Coates wrote a long piece in the Atlantic Magazine titled “The Case for Reparations”.  He generated a lot of buzz back then and we are still talking about it almost two years later.  If you haven’t read it, you probably should if you have any interest in race in America.

My parents were incarcerated into “relocation” camps during World War II because of their race.

In 1988, President Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act to compensate more than 100,000 people of Japanese descent who were incarcerated in internment camps during World War II. The legislation offered a formal apology and paid out $20,000 in compensation to each surviving victim. The law won congressional approval only after a decade-long campaign by the Japanese-American community.

Reparations were easily determined in this instance.  There was a list of everyone who was in a camp regardless of age.  Those who had died in the meanwhile got nothing and their estates and heirs got nothing.  My parents, uncles, and aunts got checks.  But the money was not enough to cover what had been lost, but was more of a token giving the apology some weight.

Coates has recently taken Vermont Senator and Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders to task for not supporting reparations.

What candidates name themselves is generally believed to be important. Many Sanders supporters, for instance, correctly point out that Clinton handprints are all over America’s sprawling carceral state. I agree with them and have said so at length. Voters, and black voters particularly, should never forget that Bill Clinton passed arguably the most immoral “anti-crime” bill in American history, and that Hillary Clinton aided its passage through her  invocation of the super-predator myth. A defense of Clinton rooted in the claim that “Jeb Bush held the same position” would not be exculpatory. (“Law and order conservative embraces law and order” would surprise no one.) That is because the anger over the Clintons’ actions isn’t simply based on their having been wrong, but on their craven embrace of law and order Republicanism in the Democratic Party’s name.

One does not find anything as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform, but the dissonance between name and action is the same. Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation. Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. But Sanders’s actual approach is really no different than President Obama’s. I have repeatedly stated my problem with the “rising tide” philosophy when embraced by Obama and liberals in general. (See hereherehere, and here.) Again, briefly, treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice.

To a certain extent Coates is correct.  Whether one uses the rising tide image or sticks with trickle down, programs begun in the 1960s like affirmative action and various anti-discrimination laws in employment and housing have helped but have not come close to solving the problem that black Americans are more likely to be poor than white Americans.  No one can deny that slaves, former slaves, and their present day descendents have not suffered every form of economic discriminations one can think of because they have.  The question is are reparations a good solution.

Bernie

Conor Friedersdorf provided some speculative reasons why Bernie Sanders is right in not embracing reparations in his recent piece in the Atlantic.

Perhaps Sanders just thinks reparations are bad policy on the merits. There are many plausible reasons that a principled radical might come to that conclusion (though it isn’t entirely clear to me that Sanders is that radical even on matters of class).

Perhaps he is convinced that the highest incarnation of justice is a government that redistributes resources toward its citizens based wholly on their need, and doesn’t want to shift the Overton Window toward any model that is predicated on dessert beyond need, or that would redistribute wealth from poor to rich in some instances.

That seems consistent with principled socialism.

Perhaps when Sanders says that reparations would be divisive, he doesn’t mean that they would damage his campaign or the Democratic coalition by dividing its supporters––the plausible interpretation that Ta-Nehisi argued against in his critiques––but that it would divide Americans of different races against one another in a manner likely to cause more harm to vulnerable minority groups than good, or necessitate a divisive process of bureaucrats defining who qualifies as black.

The Overton Window referred to above is a media pundit term meaning the range of discourse the public is willing to accept.

When I commented on a friends Facebook page during a discussion of reparations that I thought it would be difficult if not impossible to figure out who was owed, another friend commented that maybe that was what Coates was trying to do – get us to talk about the issue.  If that was his aim, to move or enlarge the Overton Window, then he has succeeded.

I have a question for Sanders.  Why not take up Coates’ call to support a study?

…For the past 25 years, Congressman John Conyers Jr., who represents the Detroit area, has marked every session of Congress by introducing a bill calling for a congressional study of slavery and its lingering effects as well as recommendations for “appropriate remedies.”

A country curious about how reparations might actually work has an easy solution in Conyers’s bill, now called HR 40, the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans Act. We would support this bill, submit the question to study, and then assess the possible solutions. But we are not interested.

Perhaps rather than demand reparations now we, Coates included, should push Congress – and all of the Democratic Presidential candidates to support HR 40.   Let’s keep talking about this.

Photograph:  huffingtonpost.com

 

 

Guns and public health

There are too many guns in the United States.

Last October Christopher Ingraham wrote in the Washington Post’s Wonkblog

It’s tough to know exactly how many guns we have in the United States. Most estimates of the number of guns in the U.S. use federal tallies of the firearms manufactured, imported and exported by U.S. gunmakers. A 2012 Congressional Research Service report published exactly one month before the Sandy Hook school shooting put the number of civilian firearms at 242 million in 1996, 259 million in 2000, and 310 million as of 2009.

If that 310 million number is correct, it means that the first year of Barack Obama’s presidency was an inflection point: It marked the first time that the number of firearms in circulation surpassed the total U.S. population.

It is clear that the Obama years have been a boon to gun manufacturers regardless of whether the number of guns is 245 million, 270 million, or 300 million.

guns

Do they keep us safe?  Some gun owners point to falling homicide rates, but there are studies showing that places with few guns have lower rates.  Ingraham writes

It’s important to note that even as the number of guns has increased since the early-to-mid-90s, the per-capita gun homicide rate has fallen by nearly half over the same time period. On the other hand, it’s also true that when you make comparisons between states and countries, you see that places with more guns have more gun homicides, as research from the Harvard School of Public Health shows.

These two seemingly unreconcilable facts form the factual basis for much of the contemporary gun policy debate. Defenders of gun rights can point to falling homicide rates and rising gun numbers and argue that the solution to gun violence is more guns. Gun control advocates, meanwhile, can point out the correlations between gun ownership and gun crime and push for tighter restrictions on gun ownership.

Ingraham concludes

Is there a way to reconcile these divisions? It’s hard to tell. I keep coming back to this quote, from the Economist earlier this year in response to the Charleston massacre.

Those who live in America, or visit it, might do best to regard [mass shootings] the way one regards air pollution in China: an endemic local health hazard which, for deep-rooted cultural, social, economic and political reasons, the country is incapable of addressing.

Which brings me to Margaret Talbot’s comment in the January 18 issues of The New Yorker.  Talbot writes about President Obama’s Executive Order on background checks.

Last week at the White House, as President Obama announced a set of executive actions aimed at blunting gun violence, he seemed anything but numb. He wept as he invoked the first graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut—a response for which some gun advocates mocked him. He quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s words about the “fierce urgency of now.” But he also acknowledged the numbness that can overcome people in the face of one mass shooting after another. That numbness puts proponents of unfettered gun rights at an advantage. People can easily start thinking of gun violence as something native to America’s angry, intractable soul—the armed, anti-federalist takeover of wildlife-refuge buildings in Oregon this month seemed like proof. And when, time and again, Congress thwarts gun reforms that are supported by majorities of Americans it can be hard to imagine that the status quo will ever change.

If numbness benefits gun-rights absolutists, uninformed numbness might serve them even better. In 1993, The New England Journal of Medicine published a study showing that “keeping a gun in the home was strongly and independently associated with an increased risk of homicide” in that home. The researchers had been funded by the C.D.C.’s National Center for Injury Prevention, and the N.R.A. responded by trying to get the prevention center defunded. It didn’t succeed, but, in 1996, Congress amended an appropriations bill to the effect that “none of the funds made available for injury prevention and control at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” It was a little like saying that no research on the health effects of smoking should be interpretable as anti-smoking. Congress also removed $2.6 million from the C.D.C.’s budget—the precise amount that had gone to the prevention center’s research—and then restored it, earmarked for an entirely different purpose. As a result, one of the study’s authors said in a public-radio interview last spring, “many, many people stopped doing gun research.”

With gun research, maybe we could have safer weapons as we have safer cars.  Maybe we would better understand the dangers of gun ownership.  Maybe we wouldn’t have to read about the six year old who finds Daddy’s gun and kills his two year old sister.

Jay Dickey, the Republican representative and N.R.A. member from Arkansas who sponsored the amendment, came to regret it. Dismayed by the continuing toll of gun violence, he was eventually persuaded that firearm deaths could be reduced without violating the Second Amendment. He now believes that research on gun violence can help prevent it, much as similar work on highway safety resulted in innovations like seat belts, air bags, highway dividers, and minimum drinking ages, and prevented hundreds of thousands of traffic deaths. In December, in a letter to Mike Thompson, the chairman of the House Democrats’ Gun Violence Prevention Task Force, Dickey wrote, “Research could have been continued on gun violence without infringing on the rights of gun owners, in the same fashion that the highway industry continued its research without eliminating the automobile.” He added, “We should slowly but methodically fund such research until a solution is reached. Doing nothing is no longer an acceptable solution.”

Talbot cites a recent study (not government funded) comparing the repeal of a permit and background check law in Missouri and the initiation of more stringent laws in Connecticut:  Gun homicides dropped around 40% in Connecticut and rose by a similar percentage in Missouri.

Those opposed to background checks, bans on weapons with large capacity magazine, or even trigger locks often say that the issue is one of mental health not guns.  I think our national obsession with guns IS the mental health issue.  They are a public health issue.  Talbot concludes

In part, Obama is trying to reframe the gun discussion not as a Second Amendment issue but as one of public health. This approach acknowledges that, while we can’t eliminate gun crime, we can reduce it, and that doing something is better than fatalistically doing nothing.

Photograph:  M&R Glasgow/Flickr