Fair and Unbalanced

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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

If you believe what you read — and who knows, it may just be Russian bots — there’s a groundswell of support to actually do something about gun violence in America.

I know. This feels like Lucy and the football. We’ve been here so many times, and each time you think this must be it — Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, Charleston, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas — it’s not it. Nothing happens. Instead we get advice, as from David Brooks in The New York Times Tuesday, that we need to empathize with the gun rightists if we expect to make any progress.

The deal seemed to be forever sealed after Sandy Hook when the slaughter of 20 first-graders and six adults went unanswered. Instead of action, we got the worst kind of reaction when President Donald Trump’s favorite conspiracy theorist, Alex Jones, insisted it was all a hoax, with actors playing the roles of anguished parents and presumably of dead kids.

But this time, we’re told, might be different because the high school students themselves at Stoneman Douglas are loudly insisting something be done.

I hate to say that I am skeptical (although I can’t help but be) because it’s not the kind of issue you should ever give up on. And besides, maybe, just maybe, they’re right. We’re getting real hints of that now as politicians — even some of those usually found in the pockets of the NRA — are starting to take baby steps toward doing … something.

Something, in this case, stands as progress.

Let’s start with Trump, who announced he had instructed the Justice Department to propose regulations banning bump stocks — the previously obscure accessory that can make a semi-automatic gun act as an automatic gun and was used in the Las Vegas massacre. He had already spoken in favor of a bill that would make minor improvements in the federal background-check system. Meanwhile, when press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about Trump’s views on banning assault rifles — long ago, in another life, he favored banning them — she said he hasn’t “closed the door on any front.”

As Stoneman Douglas students were on a seven-hour bus ride Tuesday to Tallahassee to speak to Florida state legislators, The Miami Herald was reporting that the legislature would consider raising the age limit for purchasing guns like an AR-15 and to possibly add a 3-day wait period. Meanwhile, though, in real terms, the legislators voted down a bill to simply discuss banning the weapons.

As you may have heard, the students are also organizing a march in Washington to which George and Amal Clooney have donated $500,000. As you may see in the 24-7 coverage of the Winter Olympics, American biathletes, who use guns in their sport, are speaking out for gun control.

And maybe the most telling part is that the usual right-wing crazies have started to criticize the students for their activism in the wake of 17 deaths at their high school. Yeah, of course they have. Or maybe it’s this: The NRA hasn’t tweeted since the massacre. It’s the longest time the organization has gone without tweeting since 2015.

I’ve covered, God help me, five school shootings, from Columbine to Santee, California, to Red Lake, Minnesota. Long ago, we settled into an all-too-familiar routine of teddy bears and flowers at makeshift memorials, of candlelight vigils and grief counselors, of tears and of anguish.

What’s different this time is the addition of anger from students, anger that is aimed at the grownups for failing to protect them and, more importantly, their now-dead friends. It’s safe to assume that the anger arises in large part because of Trump and the anger toward him that was already in place.

One flashpoint came in dueling tweets — what else?

In the midst of his recent unhinged weekend tweetstorm, by which time Trump had figure out that the Mueller indictment of the Russia 13 wasn’t, in fact, good news for him, he found a way — a most offensive way — to conflate the Russia probe and the FBI’s blunder in the Parkland shooting.

 

In response, students hit back hard. My favorite was this from Aly Sheehy.

So, where does this go from here? History says nowhere. Recent polls show Americans want action from Trump and from Congress. But polls have favored different levels of gun control for years, and nothing gets done. You can thank the NRA, gutless politicians and the framers’ uncertain use of the comma when writing the 2nd Amendment.

There were two polls out Tuesday. In The Washington Post-ABC poll, 77 percent say Congress hasn’t done enough to prevent mass shootings and 62 percent say Trump hasn’t done enough. More people do think, though, that better mental health screening (77 percent) would prevent these shootings than gun control (58 percent).

In a Quinnipiac poll, people favor stricter gun laws by a 66-31 margin, 97 percent support universal background checks, 67 percent said it was too easy to buy a gun in the United States. The 66 percent wanting stricter laws is the highest number the Quinnipiac poll has ever recorded.

So, there is momentum. There is anger. There is anguish. There will be marches. And apparently a majority of Americans want to believe — even knowing that the NRA’s silence won’t last for much longer — that could be enough.

Photo by Bill Bradford for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

If we didn’t know better — and, of course, we do — we’d think it was pretty much impossible for a president to appear on TV to console a nation after the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., and mention only once, and in passing, the critical fact that the 17 victims died in a mass shooting.

But that was Donald Trump’s mission — to comfort those whose hearts are broken, to offer whatever help he can to the victims and their families and, most especially, to not say a single word about guns or the epidemic of gun violence, although, to be fair, he did once use the word “gunfire.”

In his brief address, Trump made what sounded like an important point. He said that when addressing these massacres “it’s not enough to take actions that make us feel like we are making a difference — we must make that difference.”

That’s true, or would be if we didn’t understand what he was actually saying.

Here’s the easy translation. The actions that “make us feel like we are making a difference” all have to do with addressing gun violence. And the actions that actually “make that difference” are those actions that have nothing to do with gun violence.

Trump didn’t mention any kind of action that might be taken — difference-making or otherwise — other than falling back on the Republican/NRA go-to position, that the real problem is mental illness and not guns. You don’t need to be a psychiatrist, though, to know that there are mentally ill people everywhere else in the world, but only in America do we have this problem because only in America do disturbed people also have such easy access to guns.

In an early-morning tweet, Trump had said that potential shooters must be reported to the proper authorities, as if that were the problem. But this shooter apparently had many interactions with the proper authorities. The police were often called to his house by his mother. He had been to a mental health clinic. He was seen as a problem by school authorities at Stoneman Douglas before he was expelled and transferred. And he had been reported to the FBI for his apparent comments on a YouTube post that he would become a “professional school shooter.”

With red flags flying, he legally purchased an AR-15, “countless” rounds of ammunition, a gas mask, smoke grenades and then killed at least 17 people. Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, it’s easier in Florida to buy an AR-15 — the semiautomatic used at Newtown,  San Bernardino, Las Vegas,  Sutherland Springs and Parkland — than it is to buy a handgun. More shocking still, it’s that way in most states.

If Trump had no plan to offer, that’s because there is no plan that can work without addressing gun violence as a societal crisis. Maybe we should have a study. But no, we don’t have studies because studies might show that there are ways, many ways, to reduce gun violence, and that nearly all of them are opposed by the NRA, meaning nearly of them are opposed by nearly all Republicans.

What we have instead is a broken social contract, in which we repeatedly watch our children die and then do nothing. It has been clear at least since Sandy Hook, where, remember, 6-year-olds were slaughtered, that Congress would not be moved. Remember Las Vegas and bump stocks and how those would be banned? There has been no action. Remember Sutherland Springs and the Air Force’s failure to report a court-martial that would have shown up in the FBI database? Nothing there either.

Here’s maybe the most tragicomic story to come out of Parkland, as if anything here could be funny. At a hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was asked if there were any money in the proposed budget to combat gun violence. Mnuchin said he wasn’t sure, but then added: “I will say, personally, I think the gun violence — it’s a tragedy what we’ve seen yesterday, and I urge Congress to look at these issues.”

It sounded like Mnuchin was saying — against all Trumpian logic — that Congress should look at these issues, but a Treasury spokesman soon explained that the secretary wasn’t actually talking about new gun laws, but, uh, something else. Anything else.

Meanwhile, reporters were digging into the Trump budget and how it was funding one of Barack Obama’s responses to Sandy Hook — a small government program to make schools safer “and increase access to mental health services.” It was a $64.7 million program which the Trump budgeters have reduced to, as one reporter put it, $0.00.

According to Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, the lack of action by Congress and by the Trump administration makes them complicit in the violence. As he said to his colleagues on the Senate floor, “This epidemic of mass slaughter, this scourge of school shooting after school shooting, it only happens here. Not because of coincidence, not because of bad luck, but as a consequence of our inaction.”

After reading that, I re-checked the tweets from Cory Gardner, Mike Coffman and Ken Buck. Looking at the first tweet from each on the shooting, the word “tragedy” appeared in all three, “hearts” made two, as did “prayers.” But none mentioned guns. None mentioned shooting. Not a word.

The sad state of gun violence is such that we have websites dedicated to keeping track of mass shootings, school shootings, child shootings, etc. There is some argument about how many school shootings there have been already this year and what actually qualifies as a school shooting. But in its fact-check on the question, The Washington Post offered an analysis that I guarantee will shock everyone.

It found that since Columbine in 1999, more than 150,000 students, attending no less than 170 elementary schools and high schools, have been on campus during a school shooting. That number doesn’t include suicides. It doesn’t include after-school shootings. These were simply kids having gone to school and having been exposed to the trauma of a campus shooting.

The number is staggering. The number is appalling. The lack of response is just heartbreaking.

Image by Mike Licht, via Flickr: Creative Commons

 

If there’s anything we’ve learned during the #MeToo movement, it’s how to apologize and how not to.

And so I think we can all agree that the apology/explanation/dodge from Sen. Randy Baumgardner is a prime example in the how-not-to category. And the follow-up from Senate President Kevin Grantham, who administered the so-called “punishment” to Baumgardner, was even worse. Much worse.

Here’s where we are: Following a third-party finding that it was “more likely than not” that Baumgardner had, in fact, slapped and grabbed the buttocks of a legislative aide during the 2016 session, a shaken Baumgardner met the press.

He said he was stepping down from his chairmanship of the Senate Transportation Committee and that he had agreed to do some sensitivity training. We’d better hope the training is good because Baumgardner said he was accepting the punishment despite the fact he had nothing wrong — and that he just wanted to get the thing over with. What’s the training protocol for that?

By insisting that he had done nothing wrong means, Baumgardner was, of course, accusing the aide of lying. But he left his own accusations for the third-party investigation, which he said was “flawed, inaccurate, incomplete and biased.”

Told you, it had better be some really, really good training.

Why the investigators would be biased, I have no idea. What was inaccurate about the report, I have no idea. Baumgardner didn’t say. And not only didn’t Baumgardner say, he then refused to take any questions.

Meanwhile, Grantham and Majority Leader Chris Holbert made public a letter to Baumgardner saying the third-party report was filled with “inaccuracies, bias, conflicts of interest and inconsistencies.” What the letter from the GOP leadership didn’t say was whether Baumgardner had slapped anyone’s ass. Or how the report was biased. And what was the conflict of interest.

It also didn’t say whether the leaders thought the bipartisan issue of harassment was a problem at the Capitol, even though three senators (and two representatives) have been accused.

Meanwhile, Democrats have introduced a bill to expel Baumgardner. It is not likely to go anywhere, which is not to say that Baumgardner’s position is safe.

Megan Creeden, a legislative staffer, has now filed a separate complaint against Baumgardner, who offered up the pre-emptive “if I offended anyone” non-apology apology.

So, we get this from Baumgardner: “If I did anything at all offensive to you or suggestive that you thought was offensive, I want to apologize to you — or to anyone else that I’ve been here at the Capitol with, if I’ve said anything that could be perceived as offensive, I want to apologize to them as well.”

If you’re confused as to what Baumgardner was apologizing for and who else might have been offended over exactly what behavior, that was exactly the point — to claim innocence without actually addressing the accusations. No wonder Baumgardner wasn’t taking any questions.

If there’s anything else we’ve learned from the #MeToo movement, it’s that the outrage doesn’t go away. In Baumgardner’s case, the new complaint will only bring new questions — which eventually he’ll have to answer and, most likely, have to answer for.

 

Photo by John Herrick

Well, this is embarrassing.

At the same time the U.S. Senate is busily debating a way to protect the Dreamers, an effort that will almost certainly fail, America has officially fallen in love with the daughter of Korean immigrants who had emigrated to America with next to nothing in search of a better life.

The story of 17-year-old half-pipe wonder Chloe Kim is the perfect Olympic, made-for-TV, up-close-and-very-personal story. And the story of Jong Jin Kim, Chloe’s father, who came to the United States from South Korea in 1982 with $800 and a Korean-American dictionary in his pocket, is the perfect complement.

Forgive me if you’ve overloaded on this, but there’s a point to make here, I promise. When Kim arrived in Los Angeles, he bought a clunker of a Chevy Nova, put down a deposit for a one-week stay at a motel and went looking for a job. He got one washing dishes in a fast-food restaurant. Later, he moved up to cashier at a liquor store. And when he had finally saved enough money, he worked his way through college on the way to becoming an engineer.

Years later, when Chloe was 4 years old, he bought her a $40 snowboard which, as we would learn, was basically a ruse to get Chloe’s mom to go snowboarding. It worked. The entire family went, and as Chloe climbed onto her snowboard, it was quickly evident that she was a natural. Soon the family would be taking six-hour treks up to Mammoth Mountain as Chloe turned from natural into prodigy into a gold-medal winner.

By the time she was 10, she was so accomplished that her dad would quit his job to dedicate himself to helping Chloe pursue a dream. We know which dream. The same kind of dream all those Dreamers are dreaming.

As Chloe roared down the hill in her final, near-perfect run, her dad was a holding up a homemade “Go Chloe” sign with a heart drawn in the upper right corner and pointing to himself, saying “American dream.”

Asked what he meant, “When I came to the United Sates, this was my American hope. Now this is my American dream.”

And this is where the embarrassing part comes in. Kim was born here, and her parents came here legally. But if Donald Trump has his way, the next Jong Jin Kim will be stuck in Korea, hoping that Little Rocket Man is no longer in power in the North. Trump doesn’t want Kim’s style of immigrant. As he said Tuesday in a Team Trump email: “The American People are SICK of the government forcing us to pay TAXPAYER DOLLARS to fund unqualified migrants. Merit-based immigration is the ONLY acceptable alternative for the United States.”

I’m sick of the caps-filled tweets and emails, but that’s just me. As Trump went on to say, “the ‘diversity visa” IGNORES whether individuals are actually likely to contribute to American society and respect our laws and customs. DEMAND THIS BIASED, DANGEROUS POLICY END NOW.”

Meanwhile, on the Senate floor, Dick Durbin — the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, a champion of the Dreamers, a card-carrying member of the Gang of Six, an opponent of ending the diversity visa program and also of ending what Republicans like to call chain immigration — has, let’s say, another view.

“Let’s remember,” he said, “Chloe Kim’s story is the story of immigration in America. Chloe Kim’s story is the story of people who come to these shores, determined to make a life.

“They don’t bring wealth. Many of them don’t even bring proficiency in English. They certainly, in many cases, don’t bring advanced degrees. They only come with a determination to make a better life for themselves and a better country for all of us.”

Although he didn’t mention Trump in this rant, Durbin wasn’t exactly going for subtlety. He stood in front a poster of Kim wrapped in an American flag. I’m surprised no one was playing the National Anthem.

There are other stories, of course. This is, after all, the Olympics. If you didn’t have stories, what you’d be left with is a bunch of semi-obscure sports — only some of which use brooms — wrapped in the best of American commercialism.

I read about one, the story of Maame Biney, who is the first black woman on the U.S. speed skating team. She came from Ghana at age 5 to live with her father. For the geography challenged, Ghana is in Africa. In other words, as our president advised us, she came here from a shithole country.

Personally, I’m not in love with child-prodigy stories. We see the successful ones. We don’t see the rest of them in which children give up their childhood in search of a dream — often a parent’s dream — that never comes true. But this is the Olympics and we give ourselves over to a fantasy of Opening-Ceremonies world harmony and competition among nations that is, in most cases, friendly, and where the greatest evidence of evil is found in the ice-skating judging.

Chloe Kim is easy to fall for. As she says, she has a Korean face and is, at the same time, an all-American teen, champion tweeter, ice cream indulger, who tells us how grateful she is for her opportunities and how she can’t even imagine the sacrifice that her father made for her.

If you’re a parent, you can’t help but tear up.

Or maybe you can. As I write this, our Tweeter-in-Chief has not sent out a single congratulatory tweet to the American Olympic team. Meaning, while he’s busy defending Rob Porter or discussing his box-lunch plan to replace food stamps or taking another rip at fake news media, he hasn’t had a word for Chloe Kim. Or her father. Or of an American dream in which some people are making America great right now.

Photo courtesy of Republic of Korea, via Flickr: Creative Commons. PyeongChang Alpensia Sliding Center

As you may have noticed, the #MeToo movement has marched into the state legislature and doesn’t seem ready to leave any time soon.

As I write this, there have been five recent cases — that we know of. There may be more. We have no idea because according to the legislative rules, such as they are, they can’t tell us. Or won’t tell us. It’s not really clear.

What is clear is that we have a problem here. There are 100 legislators, 62 of them male, and five cases. You can do the math. It’s a very big number. Or let’s just put it this way — over the past few months, at least one of every 12 males tasked with writing the laws for our state has been accused of sexual harassment.

This is a crisis.

The question is whether the legislature understands that. And, at this point, it’s not clear at all.

To put this right, there needs to be more disclosure, there needs to be more accountability, there needs to be more urgency. There needs to be action.

There are two reasons we even know about these cases. The first is the people who have stepped forward in what is fast becoming the #MeToo tradition, in which one revelation is followed by another, in which one story is heard and often believed and is followed by another story heard and often believed. It’s remarkable how the dynamic has begun to shift in such a short time.

And the second is the great reporting done by KUNC’s Bente Birkeland, who has owned this story from the start. Birkeland just broke the story of the fifth case, in which state Rep. Susan Lontine accused Sen. Larry Crowder of harassment — of pinching her buttocks and making a lewd remark — and a third-party investigator has substantiated the claims.

Lontine made the complaint in November but came forward this week, she said, because after a ruling that her allegations were “more likely than not” to be true, she wanted an apology from Crowder. She got one, but Lontine felt it was insincere and felt that Senate President Kevin Grantham hadn’t taken sufficient action.

Grantham, a Republican, is now under attack from a few sides. Sixteen of the 17 Democrats in the Senate have demanded that Senate Republican Randy Baumgarder resign. This follows another third-party investigation, in which accusations that Baumgardner had repeatedly slapped and grabbed the buttocks of a legislative aide during the 2016 session were found credible.

The report came weeks ago, and, as far as we know, Grantham has done nothing. Senate Minority Leader Lucia Guzman has said she dropped out of the disciplinary process because of the inaction. Grantham tells The Denver Post that Guzman’s decision prevents a bipartisan resolution. And there we are.

One problem, there is no settled disciplinary system. Another problem, there is no system of disclosure. Two Democrats in the House have been stripped of their chairmanships — one of them, Steve Lebsock, has been asked by leadership to resign. Three Senate Republicans have, as far as we know, received no punishment.

Disclosure is the key here. I’m a fan of great reporting, but we can’t just depend on Birkeland breaking stories that should be publicly released.

As Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, told me, “In a regular workplace, in a case like this, the boss would handle it, and that would be that. In this case, we’re the bosses of the people we’ve elected, If we don’t have the information about people who work for us, how are we going to be informed when it’s time to vote?”

All the laws that now seem a little confusing were, in most cases, written to protect the accuser (which, of course, would stay in place) but also the offender, which has to be changed. Due process is important, but so are the results of that due process. And we know how gets this changed. The legislature passes a bill; the governor signs it. I think I learned that in seventh-grade civics class.

To see the problems with non-disclosure, all you have to do is turn on your favorite, non-Fox cable news network to see the story of Rob Porter, the top White House aide who was accused by two ex-wives and one former girlfriend of physical and emotional abuse. You’ve probably seen the picture of the black eye. It took that photograph, for which Porter seems to have no alternative explanation, to force his resignation.

On Friday, in his first remarks about Porter, Donald Trump said it was “a very sad” time and “tough time” for Porter and that “I certainly wish him well.” He added: “He also, as you probably know, says he’s innocent, and I think you have to remember that. He said very strongly yesterday that he’s innocent, so you have to talk to him about that, but we absolutely wish him well.”

No mention of the three women who stepped forward. No mention of the abuse. No mention of the black eye. No mention of how long it took for this to come to light. Only that Porter says he’s innocent, in much the way, it should be pointed out, that Trump insists he’s innocent. And that Trump hopes it all works out for the wife beater.

The lesson here is easy to understand, and it’s one that every Colorado legislator must take to heart. The #MeToo movement can’t survive on its own. The people who are finally listening now have to act in support of those who are finally being heard.

Photo of Colorado state Sen. Randy Baumgardner by John Herrick for The Colorado Independent