Monday, July 23, 2012

Another massacre in America: When will enough be enough?

A couple of days ago, a young man walked into a crowded movie theater in my hometown – a theater in which I have personally sat, I might add – and, with an arsenal of semiautomatic weapons and a mind-boggling 6,000 rounds of ammo, all purchased easily and legally, opened fire.

Within moments, 70 innocent moviegoers had been shot, 12 of them fatally. If that grim toll holds (as several of the victims are still in critical condition as of this writing), the really awful thing is that this massacre won't even be Colorado's deadliest. In April 1999, 13 were killed in the infamous Columbine school shooting.

In the intervening 13 years between that deadly day at Columbine and this weekend's rampage just 15 miles away, the United States has averaged roughly 20 mass shootings... per year. In 2012 alone, prior to the Aurora movie theater massacre, the number of homicides as a result of mass shootings stood at 50. In July 2012 alone, the Colorado incident is the sixth mass shooting in the country. If those stats don't make your head spin, try this one: The United States has a gun murder rate that is TWENTY TIMES higher than the next 22 richest countries in the world.


Let that truly sink in: Our gun murder rate is 20 times higher than the world's next 22 richest countries combined.

So these jaw-dropping statistics naturally beg the question: what is wrong with the United States? My friends here in Malaysia (not only Malaysians, but my colleagues who hail from several other countries, as well) sure are curious to know why the "land of the free and home of the brave" is such a savage, violent country. After all, how many mass shootings have there been in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Singapore, Tokyo, Taipei, Seoul, and hell, let's even throw in Shanghai and Beijing in there, too? In the same 13-year period in which America has averaged 20 mass shootings per year (260 total, and counting), the combined total of mass shootings in these cities is zero. Why? It's not a question of population – these are by far some of the most populous and/or densely populated cities on Earth. It's not a psychological issue. Any time you have 30 million people, statistically you are going to have some sociopaths and psychopaths in the mix. It's inevitable. The difference is guns.

So all I can tell my non-American friends when they wonder aloud why my country is so backwards when it comes to guns and gun violence is that the worst-written, least-comprehensible, and, by far, the most damaging part of the entire US Constitution is to blame: the Second Amendment. Let's face it, from any neutral standpoint, the text of the amendment is not very clear, which is why the thing has gone to the Supreme Court for clarification on more than one occasion. The price for those ill-chosen 27 words has been the blood of more Americans than can be counted. Two days ago, 12 more were added to the list. The 27 words? Though the original and ultimately ratified/certified versions differ very slightly in some punctuation and capitalization, the two version are equally incoherent and read as such:

"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."

To me, as a grammarian and editor, the prefatory clause (the first part) sets a condition for the operative clause (the second part), and names the militia as a subset of "the people." This means that when the people are part of a militia which is necessary to the security of the state, their right to own guns is absolute. The United States has a formal, proper military now; we do not have standing militias as they did in the late 1700s. The whole point of the Second Amendment was to ensure that the fledgling Americans would be armed and could be assembled into a militia in the event of an invasion or a British incursion. No rational person would say the Framers intended the Amendment to mean that any citizen could stockpile a massive cache of automatic weapons and handguns. There were no such things in the 18th century! Moreover, I find the phrasing to be actually a bit of an oxymoron. It stipulates that the militia be "well-regulated," yet goes on to say that the rights "shall not be infringed." Well, nearly by definition, any regulation is going to be some sort of infringement. So I think the whole thing is fraught with problems. However, the Supreme Court, indeed the same Court that awarded George Bush the presidency in 2000 even though he lost the vote, and then sold out our entire political system to cash-flush corporations with their disastrous Citizens United decision in 2008, has upheld that this text somehow means the average beer-guzzling citizen or antisocial grad school dropout has the unassailable right to quite legally buy up huge stockpiles of semiautomatic weapons, order thousands of rounds of ammo online, and even purchase police-grade body armor and bulletproof vests. That's apparently what the Second Amendment means, and as a result, innocent Americans pay the price in blood, every year, every month, every day. It should be noted, however, that in the landmark Supreme Court case that apparently settled this once and for all, District of Columbia v. Heller (2008), four of the Justices shared my opinion in their rather strong statements of dissent. However, five justices felt differently, and thus the decision was rendered.

A bit of background: I grew up, literally, shooting guns. Shotguns, rifles, revolvers, pistols... if it's a relatively common firearm type, chances are better than average I've held it and fired it. I've still got a scar between my thumb and forefinger from popping off a few rounds with a .44 magnum, a weapon whose recoil I was, as a skinny 12-year-old boy, wildly ill-equipped to handle. I have personally owned a 9mm Ruger semiautomatic pistol and have spent many enjoyable hours at the shooting range, followed by the methodical enjoyment of disassembling and cleaning the weapon. So I don't hate guns. I'm not an irrational anti-gun zealot. I understand the fascination. The power. The realization that you can hold in your hand a tool with which you can, in very short order, end a human life (or hey, 12 of them) from a substantial distance. The fact that wielding such power carries with it no requirement for any sort of discipline or time-consuming training is a big part of the problem with guns. So though I'm not completely neutral and without opinion in the scheme of things, I am not a passionate anti-gun nut, either. I have spent a large chunk of my life with guns and managed to not shoot anyone, or to get shot myself.

But the United States, for reasons surpassing understanding, has evolved into a society in which two things are very true, and they are, I would argue, wholly incontrovertible, irrespective of where your opinion falls on the gun debate spectrum:

1. Violence is glorified. Everywhere you look – movies, television, sporting events, hell, even YouTube these days, Americans worship at the altar of violence. Oh we may ACT horrified, but when unspeakable acts of violence in a movie will merit only a PG-13 rating, and not only not drive away business, but increase it, while a 1/2-second flash of Janet Jackson's nipple during the Super Bowl causes a nationwide meltdown and Congressional hearings (literally), it seems pretty evident that we as a country not only have our priorities far out of whack, we are exquisitely enamored of violence.
2. Guns are prolific, legal, and easily available.When I bought my 9mm pistol, I did so at a freaking Wal-Mart not two miles from Columbine High School (though some years before the massacre there). No waiting period, no background check,I just filled out a couple of forms, took my shiny new gun, and out I went. I was 21 years old at the time, if memory serves, and even bought two boxes of ammo for good measure. Christ, I could have gone to my car, loaded up the gun, and gone right back in the store and robbed it. Now, in truth, gun purchasing HAS tightened up a little, and Wal-Mart no longer even sells handguns, but sporting goods stores do. Gun shows do. (And the phrase "gun show loophole" certainly doesn't exist because there's not one.)

So when you take into account these two truths – that we glorify violence as a society, and we that have made guns and ammo astonishingly easy to purchase and own – what happened in Aurora cannot seriously be seen as surprising or shocking in any way.

So we'll go through the pathetically familiar motions once again. We'll all wring our hands, moan "what a world, what a world," we'll have our meaningless candlelight vigils, local florists will reap the bounty as scores of useless bouquets will be scattered at the murder site, people will flock to churches seeking solace and answers, we'll fill up news comments forums for a few days with tens of thousands of diatribes, a million "thoughts and prayers go out to..." tweets and Facebook posts will litter the digital realm (something that didn't happen after Columbine), and people may even get a little action going towards a real gun control conversation. But we all know what will happen, and frankly, I think the NRA and their like-minded supporters actually count on it: People will move on. They'll forget and newer things in the 24-hour news cycle will bubble to the surface. The dead in the Aurora shooting won't even have been buried by the time this is no longer in the headlines or the national conversation. If anyone tries to make it an issue, particularly in an election year, they'll be chastised for trying to politicize a tragedy. Well, if after yet another senseless gun rampage isn't the time to make it a political issue, when would be? Why is it that we as Americans permit this insanity to continue? Does anyone really think that this latest mass shooting will be the last? Or really even the last this year?

When will it be enough?

If you live in America (and haven't yet been gunned down), you've doubtlessly heard some of the gun lobby's talking points because they are repeated like clockwork after every mass shooting that takes place. But let's really consider them logically, rather than emotionally:

1. "If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns." This is a great catchphrase. It's short, it's linguistically symmetrical and reciprocal, and it fits really nicely on a bumper sticker. Only problem is – and this is the case with most bumper sticker philosophies – it's not entirely true. Let's take a look: There are numerous countries in the world in which guns are outlawed. And unsurprisingly, they don't have a big problem with gun violence. For some reason that defies easy explanation, many Americans fail to equate gun violence with guns. Now, advocates will point to the massacre in Norway last year by the right-wing militant Christian, Anders Behring Breivikas, as a prime example. "Guns are illegal there," they'll say, "and Breivikas was still able to get guns and kill 77 people." A true statement indeed, but this massacre was extraordinarily uncommon not only in Norway, but in the whole of Western Europe. Mass shootings are not an ongoing problem in Norway. Gun violence is not an ongoing problem in Norway. This incident stood out because it was so rare. Mass shootings happen so frequently in the US, we can't even remember exactly when the last one was. Admittedly, if we suddenly banned handguns (which is what I favor, not the abolition of ALL guns), there might be a period in which "only outlaws" would have them, but in the long run, it would obviously and logically curtail handgun violence as the number of guns in society dropped. There are ways to manage the stepping down of firearms in the US, but we have to first have a rational discussion about it for that to ever happen.
2. "If there had been an armed citizen in the crowd, that could have stopped this massacre." There is actually some truth to this, but it's highly conjectural and extremely conditional. Though every situation is different, let's consider this one. A darkened movie theater in which the shooter enters, and throws smoke and gas canisters. The shooter is prepared for this, and is wearing full body armor, including a neck and groin protector, a bulletproof vest, and a flak jacket. He is also shooting randomly and indiscriminately, not caring who his target is. An armed citizen, who is not trained for tactical or combat situations, would have to extricate his weapon, determine exactly who the shooter is – and where – and in a chaotic, darkened, smoke-filled theater full of running, screaming, diving, pushing people, aim at the shooter from a distance (a difficult task at the best of times) with a small handgun that's ill-suited for precision aiming in the first place, and fire, hope his aim is true, and that he doesn't hit any innocent people instead. And if, somehow, all that actually takes place, and by some amazing series of events, the armed civilian manages to overcome the formidable tactical odds and find his mark... well, sorry, it doesn't really matter because the shooter is clad in body armor anyway. Game over.
Another valid point is that even if a person who is legally carrying a gun has a good reason to use it, there can be civil and criminal liabilities. If the civilian shoots an innocent bystander, even by mistake, that law-abiding citizen is subject to criminal and/or civil liability. In most jurisdictions, even whipping out a gun and pointing it at someone constitutes felony assault. Now, many states would bar lawsuits in a situation like this, but it could still get very messy and ugly as anyone whose been dragged through the legal system can attest.
And more to the point, irrespective of whether laws protect a concealed weapon carrier, or whether a theater is a "gun-free zone" or not (some states allow private businesses to post signs barring concealed weapons; Colorado law has no such provision), the point is there are no security points, there's not a pat-down, there's not a metal detector. (And really, do we want there to be? Is that the sort of society we want to become?) Colorado has among the more liberal concealed-carry laws in the nation, so in a theater with hundreds of people, surely some otherwise law-abiding gun wielder could have still walked in easily with his or her concealed handgun. But no one did. Over and over again, gun advocates say, "Well if someone had been carrying a gun, they could have stopped it!" without looking at what the bigger picture says to us. In a crowd of hundreds, if no one is carrying a concealed weapon, doesn't that really speak to what we as a society want? Doesn't it at least suggest that maybe people don't want to live in a town where everyone is packing heat? Statistics show that perhaps only as many as 25% of Americans own a gun of any kind. Simple math tells us that that means 75% of Americans don't own guns. That's a very strong majority. And yet, the bloody toll continues unabated. Why? First, the Institute for Legislative Action, the benignly named lobbying arm of the NRA, is consistently ranked the most powerful lobbying group in the country, and some of our lawmakers apparently have no compunctions about accepting blood money to keep those pesky common-sense gun control laws at bay. And second, there are those oddly phrased 27 words in the Second Amendment which, when coupled with our national preoccupation with violence, ensure that more shooting sprees will occur.
3. "If he had no access to guns, he'd have found another way." Okay, I can logically deconstruct the other arguments because there is at least an apparent semblance of merit to them, though easily debunked with analysis. This one, however, doesn't even rise to that level. This one is just ridiculous. I offer up Malaysia as an example of this. The current population here is roughly 29 million. Now, statistically, with that many people, you're certainly going to have more than a few malcontents. Probably some sociopaths, and almost surely a few genuine psychopaths in the mix. It's statistically inevitable. How many mass shootings have occurred in Malaysia in the last 13 years?  Pretty easy to count: zero. (In that time, remember, America has logged over 250 mass shootings.) So according to this "argument," there should have been a relatively equal rate of mass murders utilizing bombs, knives, grenades, or durian fruits. Of course there haven't been. Look at Japan with its population of 90 million. Same story. Guns, particularly when they're easy to acquire, demand no expertise or proficiency to carry out their deadly role. Point and pull trigger.
To those suggesting that, in a country devoid of semiautomatic weapons, this guy would have just found another means, please do even a bit of cursory research. Building a bomb that could kill or maim 70 people in a large movie theater certainly isn't impossible, but it isn't easy at all. That's why most homemade bombs fail. Remember Columbine? The killers set homemade propane tank bombs in the school's cafeteria, all of which failed. Remember the would-be underwear bomber? His bomb failed because of the fuse. Time and again, we see that building a lethal, functional bomb isn't as easy as gun advocates would have you think. Consider this analogy: If you have two depressed people living in two different house, and all other factors are equal, which would you presume would be more likely to commit (or attempt) suicide, the one living in a house with fifteen bottles of various sleeping pills and painkillers, or the one living in a house with nothing stronger than a bottle of aspirin? Ease of access makes a difference. Sure, either of them could fashion a noose and find a way to get the job done, but a handful of sleeping pills is much easier, much less messy. It's the same with guns. They're easy to get, require no special skill to use, and allow you to kill easily from a distance. No need for hand-to-hand combat, no need to get your hands all bloody, no need to see your victims up close and personal – as fellow human beings – as you claim their lives. Just stand back and pull a trigger. And we see this scenario played out over and over and over and OVER again.
4. "We have to have armed citizens to keep our government in line." This one is the biggest cockamamie joke of them all. I'm sorry, but if the United States government, with the full might of its considerable military, decreed that citizens were no longer permitted to keep and bear arms, I assure you that your little collection of pop guns (when compared to their vastly superior firepower) wouldn't really cause more than a moment's disruption to their meeting that goal. There are scores of stable, healthy, prosperous countries whose governments are performing quite nicely without packs of armed citizens roaming the land.

So again, the question must be asked: When will it be enough? When will Americans of conscience grow sufficiently tired of their fellow citizens and their children being gunned down senselessly? What will it take for politicians to eschew the NRA's cash and lobbying efforts and take a stand on real gun control? Yes, I'm aware of the Second Amendment and the Supreme Court's ruling on its meaning. But the US Constitution is a living document and is built to be changed. And the Supreme Court has, on occasion, overruled its own previous decisions. Would any of this be easy to do? Of course not. But since 75% of Americans, who are ostensibly both the governed and the government, do not own guns, it's reasonable to suggest that at least making an effort to get handguns out of our society would be a logical, worthwhile approach, even if its full benefits wouldn't be seen for two or three more generations.

I gave up my 9mm pistol years ago. I'll likely never fire another handgun, and my life isn't any poorer for it. Not owning guns doesn't make me less of a man, and it doesn't decrease my lifespan or impair my enjoyment of my life. It simply isn't worth the blood cost to my fellow Americans for me to enjoy a few rounds of target shooting at the range. And even here in Malaysia, a country in which guns are banned, people can still go and shoot at a target range, anyway. Want to defend your home? I promise you, a shotgun is a far more effective weapon than a .38 revolver. Want to go hunting? Pistols are not reasonable tools for hunting, which is why hunters overwhelmingly use rifles, shotguns, and crossbows. So my proposal would be to continue allowing long guns – that is to say, rifles and shotguns – but to institute a ban on handguns and any sort of "assault" weapon (and do take note that they're not called "defense rifles," but rather "assault rifles"). We put a man on the moon; I'm sure we can figure out a way to rid our society of the proliferation of handguns that currently exists. Unfortunately, it's hard to even start the discussion because the NRA and the people that organization inspires stand firmly against any legislation that would curtail "gun rights." That means they oppose any sort of  gun control. They would rather the bloodshed continue unabated as long as they can continue to legally own their .45 automatic. That's one side. And on the other extreme are the anti-gun zealots who want to see every gun, every bullet, and every NRA sticker go into a giant smelter. So it's hard to get anything accomplished when you get these two groups together.

So why don't the rest of us take the lead? The vast majority of Americans are not gun-toting, gun-loving NRA members, and I'd guess that the vast majority also respect the Constitution and don't necessarily want to see every firearm eradicated from America. Most of us are somewhere in the middle, and there are an awful lot of us. I can't imagine that anyone truly wants this sort of wanton bloodshed to continue. A six-year-old girl was among the many fatalities at that theater. A nine-year-old girl was among the six who were killed in the Congresswoman Giffords assassination attempt. Surely no American wants to see innocent children continuing to be shot and killed in our schools, our malls, our movie theaters, our restaurants.

Haven't we had enough? If not, then when will that day come, and how many more will have to die?

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Sunday, July 8, 2012

Hiking Malaysia

Well, once again, it's been forever... here's a post I started months ago, and I'll segue into more up-to-date stuff later on...

Into the forest. As usual, these photos
never quite capture the real steepness
I've not attempted anything here remotely as arduous as some of the hiking I've done in Colorado. There, you have altitude, thin air, highly variable terrain with considerable elevation gain, and all sorts of potential weather issues to contend with, along with the possibility of black bears or mountain lions (I've been lucky in that respect). Here, it's mostly just heat and humidity... and maybe a random leech if you're in the jungle. So I've not done anything that avid hikers would call actual hiking, but rather more like walking around in fairly sedate forests not too terribly far from the comforts of the city. But that was simply too much text to fit into the title of the post, so cut me some slack.

Part of the waterfall's cascade, glimpsed from the trail
Having been to the Forest Research site (FRIM) a few times already, this time my friends and I decided to check out a place called Kanching Recreational Forest, not too far from the city, up between the small towns of Selayang and Rawang, somewhat north of KL proper. It's a fairly small site, and its primary feature is a huge seven-tier waterfall that cascades through the forest, collecting in pools at various spots along its descent. It has, regrettably, almost a sideshow feel to it as you drive up. The place is tremendously popular with locals, and, as such, stalls selling everything from local foods and snacks to stuffed animals and sunglasses have cropped up at the entrance. There was even a display of various parrots and other birds with which you could be photographed for a fairly outrageous RM10 cost.

A small sample of the hordes of people at each and every
pool of the waterfall's multiple tiers
Even more lamentable than the carnival-a-palooza atmosphere as you try to go hiking in a forest was the unbelievable quantity of litter left behind by picnicking Malaysians. It was absolutely appalling, and I've actually talked to locals here who've seen it and are frankly embarrassed by it. Hordes of day-tripping locals descend on the tiered waterfall, have big family BBQs, enjoy each other's company, relax in the cool of the forest, and delight in the pools of water... and then they leave about half their crap behind, from the looks of it. At times, I had to strategically re-frame my photos to exclude the detritus cluttering up the otherwise beautiful scenery. I don't know who oversees and manages this place, but a clean-up effort would be well-advised, along with a few "Please do not litter" signs, and a couple of large rubbish bins at each of the waterfall pools.

And oddly enough, my friends were literally the only Chinese folks there (and naturally, I was the only white guy). I asked about this — why in this verdant natural setting, were there only throngs of Malays present — and was only somewhat jokingly told that the Chinese really don't "do" the great outdoors, what with its lack of air conditioning and branded goods shops. Ha ha ha. Oh well, at least the malls stay full.

Malaysia's assault on Western foods doesn't stop
with pizza... roti aiskrim manages to offend both hot dogs
and ice cream simultaneously
But probably the most horrific experience at Kanching was saved for the end. We were leaving and one of my friends kept pestering me to try this foul creation known as roti aiskrim, which is easy enough for anyone to translate: ice cream bread. Seriously, what the hell? It's nothing at all more than a hot dog bun, split open, with like four little scoops of different flavors of ice cream inside. It's awful in theory, and it's equally crappy in actual practice. But apparently, for Malaysians (at least some of them), it's evocative of fond childhood memories, so even though I tried fruitlessly to insist that I really, really, really did not want this "treat," it was foisted upon me nevertheless. I ate a couple of bites and yes, it was every bit as awful as you'd think. Ice cream in a hot dog bun: it was never going to end well. And not even real ice cream, mind you. It's the local version, which admittedly isn't awful (when it's the right flavor and not served in a bun), and the texture is great, but it's made with palm oil, not milk and certainly not cream. I don't think ANY cows were involved or even consulted in the making of this particular type of ice cream, which really should be legally barred from using the word "cream" in its moniker. But yeah, this was four scoops of palm oil-based ice cream in colors never intended by nature, once again, in a hot dog bun. At least this wasn't the deep-fried version, roti aiskrim goreng. In any event, two bites was enough, and the rest went to a scraggly monkey, who may or may not have polished off the rest after scampering up a nearby tree with the proffered dessert facsimile.

Walking along the wide paths through secondary
forest at Kuala Selangor Nature Park
A pair of great egrets (Birdicus longneckus) spy
each other; tawdry romance ensues
A couple of weeks later, an entirely different experience was to be had. This time, we headed out to Kuala Selangor and visited the marvelous nature park there, a 2.4-sq km preserve with three distinct ecosystems that has become a sanctuary for numerous species (over 150) of resident and migratory birds, as well as at least two species of monkeys, some small mammals such as otters, and larger reptiles such as the monitor lizard. Also, a very happy home for innumerable legions of mosquitoes, so be forewarned and slather on the repellent before hiking here. The Park encompasses the estuary of the Selangor River as it empties into the Straits of Malacca, and along the coastline can be found thick mangrove forests, which give way to mudflats (and we saw some huge mudskippers, too), grassy swamps, and ultimately secondary forest. Hiking trails are really well-maintained (the Park is under the auspices of the Malaysian Nature Society, an admirable organization) and the entrance fees are wonderfully cheap, only RM4. It's a great place to spend a day and feel like you've been transported to another world far, far from from the urban chaos of KL. At night, the primary draw is the spectacular fireflies that congregate along the banks of the Selangor River; the members of this particular species synchronize their flashing, so that hundreds and hundreds of the insects light up simultaneously in the otherwise pitch black of the evening.

A grey heron skulking around in the verge,
miserably awaiting his own tawdry romance
So although, to be very honest, Malaysia doesn't put even remotely near the emphasis on outdoor recreation that my home state of Colorado does, there are still some nice places to be found, and I hope I can stumble across a few more. One day, I want to visit the crown jewel of outdoor excursions in this country, the 130-million-year-old primary tropical rainforest of Taman Negara, Malaysia's 4,300-sq km national park.

This walkway lets you walk through
the mangrove swamps and keep your
shoes clean
A big part of why I haven't been writing much here lately is that I've been doing it for a living elsewhere. I took a job about three months ago as the group editor for a company that publishes a hefty number of magazines in Malaysia, and to say that it's kept me busy is a gross understatement. I do get to write a bit in the job, but a lot more of the work is managerial and, naturally, editorial in nature. I've also taken another trip to Bali, two trips to Penang, and two trips to the amazing Tioman Island, which I think I may write about in the next entry. Coming soon is a trip to the Philippines – that should take place in August.

In any event, apologies for the delay and will hope to have another entry a LOT sooner than this one.

P.S. That scientific name in my photo caption above is just for a laugh, and perhaps an homage to the old Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoons, the roti aiskrim of MY childhood nostalgia, so please, no ornithological flames, okay? In fact, I may well have even gotten the common name of the birds wrong!