Thursday, December 20, 2012

Silencer on the ATF

The semiautomatic rifle used to execute 20 children and 6 adults in Newtown, CT last week was a Bushmaster .223 AR-15 rifle.  If this model name and number sounds familiar, it may be because this same gun was the one used by Jacob Roberts at a mall in Oregon last week in his rampage.  Also, it was one of the several guns used by James Holmes when he killed 12 people and injured 58 others at a movie theater in Colorado this past summer.  This gun is popular with mass murderers because it can fire a lot of bullets really fast.  (Check out Bushmaster's awful ad campaign here.)

This same type of gun is hardly ever used in street robberies or drive-by shootings.  It’s just not very practical.  For those sorts of crimes, criminals tend to use pistols.  But, if you wanted to know what specific brands and models of guns are used most often by criminals in the United States, you can’t find out.   It’s not that this information isn’t collected by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.  It is collected.  It’s just that the ATF is prevented by law from spending one penny of budgeted money to release the data.

You heard correctly.  The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms gathers data from police forces across the nation on the make and model of every gun seized in the investigation of a crime.  It then tabulates this data by crime type and gun type.  And then if files this information away somewhere because it is against the law for them to release it.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission collects data like this on tires and toys and appliances.  As soon as they spot an anomaly, they investigate.  And then, if there is cause, they issue an advisory or a recall.  In this way, dangerous products are kept off the shelves.  Sometimes, people injured by these dangerous products sue the manufacturers.  If they can prove negligence, they sometimes win cash settlements.

In 2004 the NRA got Representative Todd Tiahrt of Kansas to attach a rider to the Justice Department appropriations legislation.  It quickly became known as the Tiahrt Amendment and it has three main provisions.  The following description of the three provisions is from The Brady Campaign to Prevent  Gun Violence.

  • One Tiahrt provision severely limits the authority of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to disclose crime gun trace data to the public under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), and bars admissibility of such data when victims bring lawsuits against the gun industry.
  • The second Tiahrt-sponsored appropriations provision codified the Bush Administration policy destroying certain National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) records after 24 hours.
  • The third Tiahrt appropriations rider bars ATF from implementing its proposed regulation requiring gun dealers to conduct annual inventory audits to address the problem of guns “disappearing” from gun shops with no record of sale. 

So, the ATF cannot (by law!) respond to Freedom of Information requests and must not provide data for lawsuits against the gun industry, cannot save Criminal Background Checks for more than 24 hours, and cannot force gun dealers to conduct audits of their inventories once a year.  Police groups and big city mayors have complained about the Tiahrt Amendments since 2004.  Clearly Representative Tiahrt and the NRA’s waterboys in Congress are worried about what the data might reveal.  Is it possible certain makes and models are preferred by criminals or mass murderers?  And is it possible some gun sellers are not serious about keeping guns out of the black market?  Could a jury find that gun manufacturers share some of the blame for America’s 30,000+ gun deaths each year?

Until the Tiahrt Amendments are repealed, we will never know.

Monday, December 17, 2012

The C-Word

This week the Letter of the Week in my classroom is B.  I have written a large “B” on a poster-sized piece of paper, had everyone make the sound the letter B makes, and then asked students to say words that start with the B sound.  I then wrote the words they listed on the paper.  As we have played and sung songs this week we have noticed whenever a B-word is used.  If it is a word not already on our list, we add it with much fanfare.  At this point it is safe to say that almost all of my sixteen 3-year olds know what a printed capital B looks and sounds like.
            Some of my kids have attempted to paint or draw the letter B themselves at the Art Table using watercolors, markers, crayons or even purple gluesticks.  The classroom I teach in is play-based and has none of the overt pre-reading and writing curriculum of “academic” preschool programs—(yes, such things as academic preschools exist).  We do offer a word-rich environment and engage in many of the best practices activities that help children get ready to learn to read, but we do it in a way that disguises it as play.
            This week as some of my students have run over to me, thrilled at having discovered another B-word, I have been thinking about something else.  I have been thinking about the C-word:  CURSIVE.  I have not spent much time really thinking about cursive script and its place in modern literacy, but working with 3-year olds has raised the issue, at least in my own head.

            I am left wondering why we teach kids one series of letters to start with and then switch over and teach them an entirely different set a few years later.  It seems a bit much to me.  We don’t do this with numbers.  If you step back and think about it for even two seconds, you can see that it would be stupid to teach children how to write the digits from zero to nine and then, three or four years later, to teach them a different way to write those same digits.
I am going to say it out loud:  teaching cursive is a waste of time.  Once a child learns how to form the letters, they can do all they need to do to communicate their thoughts in writing.  The keyboard I am looking at right now has 26 upper case printed letters on it.  The keypad on my phone has printed upper case letters.  Is cursive used anywhere in the everyday world any more?  And if not, why do we waste time teaching it?
            I am generally a bit of a traditionalist when it comes to teaching things at school.  My sixth graders have had to memorize the states and capitals.  In the past, they had to memorize the American Presidents in order.  I have even taught them how to find a square root using a long-hand algorithm instead of a calculator.  I believe there is a value in knowing how to do hard things by hand or mentally.  I no longer see any academic value in teaching or learning cursive writing.
            The newly adopted Common Core State Standards for English do not require cursive, but states can choose to teach cursive if they want to.  Many states are opting out.  There are many arguments for the continued teaching of cursive; it connects us to our past, it teaches fine motor control, and it is faster than printing.  Using a slide rule would connect us to the past, too.  There are other tools to develop fine motor control. And studies show kids print just as fast as they write cursive.  In fact, fourth and fifth graders write much slower in cursive.
            A hundred years ago students were taught calligraphy and I imagine some parents were concerned when schools stopped instruction in that beautiful-but-unnecessary art form.  The same will be true today as schools decide it is a waste of time to teach children how to write twice.  But as I teach my three-year olds what the letters look like, I come down firmly on the side of dumping cursive.  It just makes sense.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Now What?

Yesterday I had a very good day at work.  My kids were nice to each other, they shared their toys willingly, they cleaned up when they were done, and I left feeling very good about working with small children.  Some days are just like that.

Then I turned on the radio and heard the first reports coming out of Newtown, Connecticut.  They mentioned 18 dead school children and it hit me like a hammer blow.  I started crying and couldn’t stop for a long time.  I pictured someone coming into my school and intentionally shooting my kids and I was dumbstruck.  How could anyone put bullets in innocent children?  This man didn’t just spray bullets randomly.  He executed those poor children.

My first instinct was to call my wife, but she is in Israel and out of phone contact, so I e-mailed her instead and continued to cry as I listened to radio coverage of the massacre.  My next instinct was to get on Facebook and rail against guns.  Whenever this sort of mass killing happens, it is just about always with a gun.  You rarely see massacres carried out by a knife-wielding killer or a machete-carrying madman.  Semi-automatic handguns and rifles make it easy to shoot a lot of people in a short time without having to get close to them.  If these guns were rare and difficult to procure legally, there would be fewer mass shootings.  That is a fact.

About an hour after I heard the news, Erica managed to borrow a phone in Israel and she called me, distraught and teary.  Our conversation soon got to the question on my mind: “what can we do to stop this shit?”  I know deeply in my heart that America is a society with an unhealthy fascination with both guns and violence.  We ban buttocks on tv but allow grisly scenes of violence.  You can’t say “shit” over the airwaves but you can show blood-soaked victims lying on the floor of any weeknight drama or police procedural. 

I also know deeply in my heart that the Founding Fathers really did intend for citizens to be able to own guns as a defense against tyranny.  However, I also feel pretty certain they did not mean for this right to bear arms to be unregulated.  The most advanced killing technology at the time of the writing of the US Constitution was all single-shot.  There were cannon, howitzers, mortars, and muskets and all had to be reloaded after each shot fired.  Second Amendment radicals today argue that any regulation of firepower or magazines is unconstitutional.  This argument is ridiculous.  If you take it to its most absurd length you end up arguing for the right of citizens to own anti-aircraft guns and shoulder-launched missiles.  Is that REALLY what the Second Amendment protects?

One thing I can do in response to the tragic waste of life in Newtown is to contact local, state, and national lawmakers and push for meaningful regulation of gun purchases and magazine capacities available to civilians. If you add together all of the gun murders in the 23 wealthiest countries of the world, fully 87% of the children killed are in the United States.  What does this say about us?  I do not have much faith in the politicians of this country to take any sort of meaningful legislative stance against the gun lobby, but I feel like I need to express myself to them anyway.  Maybe THIS time the horror of what happened will be enough to give lawmakers the spine needed to buck the NRA?  I doubt it, but remaining silent will make it that much less likely.

I am realizing this morning that the most effective and, in the short term, least satisfying action I can take is to respond to the people around me with love and respect.  The common traits these shooters seem to share are an overpowering wish to be seen and a desire to feel powerful.  With a gun in hand, they feel like God.  And with the wall-to-wall coverage, they are certainly seen.  I do not believe anyone I know right now is a potential mass murderer.  But people who knew Adam Lanza, James Holmes, Dylan Klebold, or other shooters probably would have said the same thing.  It is not an easy thing to do, but I can work hard to respond to the people I meet each day with love and kindness.

In the end, that is really all most of us can do.  As President Obama mentioned in his short statement yesterday, we can hug our children, tell them we love them, and then put politics aside and work to make further tragedies like this less likely.   The work I feel that I can do is simply to be more compassionate with people I meet every day.  Beyond that, I feel lucky to have a job that allows me to help 3-year olds learn how to deal with anger and frustration every day.  It is part of my job description to love small children and listen to them, and, while listening. to help them deal with the frustrations that arise from living in a world where you don’t always get your way. 

Maybe that makes me lucky.  I have a way to respond to this tragedy that feels real and immediate and effective.  When I get to work Monday morning you can bet I will have a bit more patience and a much deeper appreciation for each of the young lives I touch.  My hope is that those with different jobs, like Representatives, Senators, and the President, will also step up and do what their jobs allow them to do.  They are elected to carry out the will of the People, and the People want to live in a society where massive firepower is harder to acquire and our children are safe at school.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Parents of the Year

On Thanksgiving we had some people over for dinner.  Well, there was a lot of beer and wine and one thing led to another and before any of us knew what was happening we were deep into a game of poker.  The stakes were small, but the tension was big as our five-player tournament of Texas Hold ‘Em advanced.  Our friend Werner was the first one out, embarrassingly beaten twice head-to-head by his wife, Isabella, who eschews statistics for emotion and gut feelings.  Werner is an engineer by training, and he has spent much time and effort studying the math behind the game.

I was second to bite the dust, due to an irrational refusal to fold when I had crap in my hand.  I hate folding because it is boring to be out while other people bet.  Until I learn to control this impulsivity, I will not be a good poker player.  Erica was third to bite the dust.  The final two players were Erica’s dad and Isabella.  I cannot remember who came out on top, but that is really secondary in this little post. 

As we played, the three kids around the table showed a keen interest in the game.  They were a high school freshman and two seventh graders, one of whom was my daughter, Isabel.  They took turns dealing and asking questions about both the mechanics of the game and the strategies and psychologies behind the betting.  By the end of the night it was clear that Isabel was hooked, without having ever played a hand.

A few days later Erica, Isabel, and I sat around the kitchen table and played a few hands for fun.  Then we decided to buy in for $2.00 each and have a family tournament.  As usual, I was out first because I insisted on staying in when I had nothing but a 6 and an 8 in the hole.  Isabel held her own against Erica, taking her to 5 days before finally going bust. 

The next day, Isabel wanted to start another $2.00 tournament, but she was feeling short of cash.  She asked Erica for a loan, but Erica refused.  She instead suggested that Isabel drum up some babysitting business in the neighborhood to get some cash.  Isabel looked up from the table and said something like, “Wait a minute, mom.  Do you hear what you are saying?  You are telling me to go get work so I can gamble.  Is that really what you want to be doing?”  A proud parenting moment.

This comes to me this morning because I have just heard myself say to Isabel:  “You can have a friend over this weekend if you want to, but I need you to know right now that, come Sunday afternoon, you will be with me at Buffalo Wild Wings while I watch the Redskins game.”  In the course of one week we have told our 12-year old that she should get out and hustle up some money to fund her poker jones and that she MUST spend Sunday afternoon in a bar watching football.  

My poor daughter—she doesn’t stand a chance.