Indiana: Beyond Thunderdome

Let’s begin with this image. In a bleak, dystopian future, a lone stranger arrives at the gate of a struggling bastion of civility in an otherwise savage world. The stranger is allowed in. But first, he must leave his weapons at the door because: “That’s the law.”

 

 

Mad Max is fiction, of course, so you wouldn’t consider the scene from Beyond Thunderdome to be a very persuasive argument when it comes to actual policy today. But if you look at actual history of the United States, you’ll see the same thing. Keeping guns out of certain peaceful, civilized places has always been an American practice. According to the LA Times and myriad other sources, Cities in the American Wild West required people to leave their guns at the sheriff’s office when they rode into town.

Back then, Tombstone had far stricter gun control than it does today. In fact, the American West’s most infamous gun battle erupted when the marshal tried to enforce a local ordinance that barred carrying firearms in public. A judge had fined one of the victims $25 earlier that day for packing a pistol.

“You could wear your gun into town, but you had to check it at the sheriff’s office or the Grand Hotel, and you couldn’t pick it up again until you were leaving town,” said Bob Boze Bell, executive editor of True West Magazine, which celebrates the Old West. “It was an effort to control the violence.”

Now consider a new initiative by the Republican majority in the state legislature of Indiana, framed in the following question from a constituent survey:

 

 

 

The question is dishonest. A good survey should ask questions without influencing the respondent to give a particular answer. But the language of that question is going to persuade people to choose “No.” Most people naturally (and rightly) oppose the notion that “law-abiding citizens” might be “denied” anything that is truly their “right,” so people are going to choose “No” without really considering the question.  Had the question been something like, “Should people be allowed to carry guns on state property, including college campuses?” it would have been much more legitimate.

There’s a larger point here, though. The wording of the question isn’t simply biased. It is based on a falsehood. “Should law-abiding citizens be denied the right . . . .” asserts that the right exists. But no such right exists today. Current law forbids carrying guns in certain places, including college campuses. Logically, nobody has a right to do what the law forbids. There is no genuine or legal right to carry guns on campuses, so denying that non-existent right is impossible.

Gun rights proponents are employing the “rhetoric of rights” to make their case. This “rhetoric of rights” occurs anytime anyone claims they have a “right” to something, as a way to make their argument more persuasive than simply saying they want it. A drunk might claim to have a “right” to another drink after the bartender has shut him off. A lazy mother might claim to have a “right” to more welfare money because she wants a nicer apartment or a newer smartphone. A sports fan might claim to have a “right” to playoff tickets. These are all example of the “rhetoric of rights” in practice. In each of these made-up examples, the person claiming the right has no real knowledge of (or interest in) the law. But respecting the gun question, the people asking the question ought to know better. Because the people asking the question are Indiana’s elected lawmakers. The survey was mailed out recently on behalf of various members of the Indiana House of Representatives.The survey came to me from Representative Jim Baird, elected to serve District 44.

 

 

 

I’ve met Mr. Baird once and got a good impression of him. My neighbors mostly speak well of him. To tell the truth, I don’t think Jim Baird is to blame for the fraudulent and deceitful survey design, or for the unprofessional use of rhetoric in place of fact. I think someone higher up is responsible and Mr. Baird is a dutiful member of the Republican caucus who does little more than go along with whatever the leaders say. And I think those leaders often do what they are told by powerful national influence groups. We know for a fact that the National Rifle Association was behind the unnecessary Indiana constitutional question about hunting and fishing on last year’s election ballot. It doesn’t take much to imagine they are back in Indiana again and demanding more.

So Mr. Baird and other like him are going to consider the gun question in the upcoming General Assembly. Before they decide, they are going to be influenced by whatever the NRA lobbyists whisper, snake-like, into their ears. And they are going to be influenced, too, by the results of the dishonest and biased survey mentioned above. I will be calling and writing Mr. Baird’s office to voice my opposition. I work at Purdue University, and have a daughter attending the same campus. I know the “right” doesn’t exist, and I don’t believe there is any benefit of any open- or concealed-carry weapon policies. And, oh, look! The evidence supports my position! Consider the October, 2016 report from Johns Hopkins University:

A recent study identified 85 incidents of shootings or undesirable discharges of firearms on college campuses in the U.S. from January 2013 through June 2016. Only two of these 85 incidents (2.4%) involved a shooter on a rampage. The most common incidents were interpersonal disputes that escalated into gun violence (45%), premeditated acts of violence against an individual (12%), suicides or murder/suicides (12%), and unintentional shootings or discharges (9%). Campus police much more commonly respond to a variety of violent and non-violent incidents than to rampage shootings. If those campus officers must assume that any given student is armed, this may compromise their ability to effectively respond to, and de-escalate, these incidents.

 

There are two arguments in favor of allowing individuals to carry guns on campuses and in other public places. The first argument is simply that the 2nd Amendment says “The right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”  There isn’t any argument against that. The 2nd Amendment does, unambiguously and irrefutably, say that. And I hate it. I have relatives and neighbors who hunt and shoot. I’m cool with that and I hope they’ll always enjoy their hobbies. But I hate the fact that our celebrated and revered national law says something as horrible and stupid as that anybody can take any gun anyplace at any time. I am grateful to level-headed people who have recognize how dumb the 2nd Amendment is and have gone ahead and infringed the dumb thing.

The second argument for guns on campus contends that the way to stop “bad guys with guns” is having more “good guys with guns.” But the Johns Hopkins study refutes that. The sort of incident vigilantes fantasize about ending doesn’t happen, and private vigilante citizens with guns don’t help enforce law or save lives. If you’ve heard anything to the contrary, it probably comes from a corrupt researcher named John Lott who has made a career of “proving” what the NRA wants to be true. In More Guns, Less Crime and other publications, Lott “proves” that right-to-carry laws lead to less crime and fewer gun deaths. His “proof” plays well on Fox News, but not so well in real scientific and journalistic circles who routinely review and find fault with his work.

 

Yes or No

The effort needed to gather and analyze data is worthwhile IF that data can be used to make more informed and better decisions. Sadly, that isn’t always the case.

Members of Indiana’s legislature have surveyed their constituents to learn voters’ preferences and priorities on various issues. That is a good thing. Various members asked different questions, depending on which issues they believe are most pressing. Here are the results from my representative, Jim Baird. Here’s the results gathered by Indiana House Speaker Brian Bosma, asking mostly different questions. And here is the results from Representative Justin Moed, a Democrat from the southside of Indianapolis, asking still other questions.

Thing is, these voter opinion surveys don’t provide the representatives with much help. Consider the result from Baird’s question about increased taxation for highway maintenance:


Baird5It is a straight-forward question. But what is Baird supposed to make of these results? For sure, there isn’t any universal agreement on this issue. Our republican form of government expects elected officials to represent “the people.” But how can they do that when the people don’t send a clear message? One answer to that question might be to do what the majority wants. But there is no majority for or against “additional taxes and/or fees” among Baird’s people. There isn’t even a strong plurality in either direction. Less than half (44%) say Yes and less than half (45%) say No. Is Baird supposed to look at these numbers and resolve to oppose more highway funding because 1% more said No?

Faced with results like these, representatives tend to set constituent opinion aside and decide how to vote on legislation by other means. A representative who might have preferred to serve his or her people might instead go along with the party caucus if they got no clear signal from the people. They might also vote according to the recommendation of some special interest. They tend to be clear and adamant about their preference, and that makes a stronger impression than a confused response from the faceless masses.

I wonder sometimes whether more attention oughtn’t to be paid to those 11% who are undecided. In this case, the Undecided could shift the balance and create a majority in either direction. But Mr. Baird and the rest of Indiana’s General Assembly aren’t going to wait while those people make up their minds.

I actually think that if America ever began to take “government by the people” seriously, they WOULD focus on those 11%. I don’t mean that everybody would be obligated to follow all public affairs closely at all times. It is a great, great boon when public affairs are managed by competent professionals so the rest of us don’t have to bother. You can drive up to a gas pump and fill your tank with confidence, knowing that an inspector has checked that the pump gives an honest gallon for the price.

Let me make a further point. The range of opinion seen in the above chart might be an accurate reflection of disparate views. Some people drive more than others. Some people find their tax burden easier to bear than others. But I really, really doubt that Baird’s chart elicited an accurate response from a well-informed populace. Some people saw the words “additional taxes” and automatically hit the No button. Other people saw “improve Indiana’s local roads” and automatically hit Yes. Those 11% who are undecided might be the deepest thinkers — who think, “I’d have to know more about the benefit/cost ratios of an increment of highway spending. I’d have to know what specific additional taxes and fees might be used: I’d much prefer they hiked taxes on 18-wheelers than on school buses. I’d have to know whether Indiana’s roads and bridges need improving (or improved if they speak Hoosier).” 

On that last point, Indiana’s roads ranked worst in the midwest and 36th overall according to a 2014 report from the right-leaning Reason Foundation, which considers pavement quality and bridge conditions in context with spending. The US Department of Transportation indicated a few months later that Indiana was best in the nation in terms of having the smaller of share of it roads in poor or mediocre condition.

So, I guess the point here is that if a legislator gets confused and indefinite input from his constituents, he will fall back on confused and indefinite input from the data sources.