Monthly Archives: December 2015

Violence Policy Center and .50 cal

In the past, this weblog has often provided a critique of right-wing gun culture, but it’s important that gun control groups receive examination too. We need to be smart about it though. While 2nd Amendment supporters often cynically dismiss their opposition as “gun grabbers” with contempt for freedom and liberty, the reality is much more nuanced.


That acknowledged, it’s sometimes amazing to see how gun control organizations twist facts to make it fit their designs. For instance, I recently spent time scrutinizing the Violence Policy Center’s webside, and was struck by massively skewed information regarding .50 caliber long range rifles. It’s an easy target for them to criticize. After all, such large firearms appear particularly intimidating, have little hunting application and are unsuitable for use in urban areas during peacetime.


A .50 cal. rifle. The most terrifying looking gun to actually hurt so few.

The VPC vividly speculates about their dramatic potential to cause mayhem, everything from shooting down helicopters to destroying airports and other sensitive infrastructure. In their scenarios, terrorists and mass murderers could hardly want a more effective weapon of mass killing. The website quotes an NRA official claiming “that .50 calibers have not been used in crimes” and then drops a list of forty-six instances between 1989 and 2013 to disprove his statement.

It looks quite sensational, but lets examine more closely. Presumably, the NRA’s statement was intended to mean, ‘.50 cal. rifles are not used in murders.’ However, if that was their criteria, VPC’s list would shrink to just one or two documented examples in the US. Talk about deflating. To pad it out, they use techniques that would not be out of place among climate change deniers or tobacco industry scientists.

The foremost is guilt by association. Most of their examples involve people who were arrested, and afterward, officers happened to find a completely legal rifle in their dwelling. It’s incredible to suggest that, per several cases, marijuana growers and dealers should make a role of individuals who allegedly used these firearms in violent crimes. One might as well claim scooters are criminally dangerous, and then instead of listing fatality statistics, cite pot smokers with Vespas simply parked in their driveway as evidence.

Another tactic is sheer speculation. The VPC would like to number all four ATF agents killed during the notorious 1993 Waco siege as .50 cal. victims, since the defenders apparently possessed some of these rifles. However, I have found no evidence to suggest those were the guilty weapons, any more than the rest of the Branch Davidian’s arsenal, which included illegal machine guns.

Next, the VPC roved further afield. They count three Mexicans murdered during the narco-cartel civil war in recent years, as well as a 2006 attempt by Columbian FARC rebels to buy .50 cal. rifles and helicopters from the US, but why stop there? Large caliber firearms are used by revolutionaries globally, so shouldn’t African Boko Haram and Afghan Taliban victims be included? Presumably, when killings cross the line from individual acts to criminal syndicates or paramilitaries, public opinion ceases imagining they could be seriously hampered by gun controls. Of course, arms that fire the Soviet large bore equivalent of 12.7mm are popular among insurgent groups the world over and .50 cal. rifles are only one of many such weapons available. The inclusion of just Mexico and Columbia is a puzzling way to enlarge the list.

In short, out of all Americans killed by guns in the last 24 years, virtually none can be attributed to .50 cal. rifles, hardly making them the threat VPC hyperbole implies. In a social debate that can become so emotional, distorting facts only serve to make it more difficult finding common ground and reaching actual solutions to violence.

Bernie Sanders and Gun Control

I’ve never put much stock in presidential elections. As a socialist, the idea of choosing between different capitalist factions always seemed unappealing. While both Democrats and Republicans perpetuate boom-and-bust corporate economic cycles, it’s hard taking solace that one side might generously allow same-sex spousal benefits to the NSA agents conducting mass wiretaps. Historically, I’ve simply voted for whichever candidate suited my ideals best.

That meant Ralph Nader in 1996 and again in 2000. By 2004 I switched over to the Socialist Party favorite Walt Brown, but 2008 presented a dilemma. Barack Obama was clearly a status quo apparatchik, yet the conservative hysteria opposing him demanded pushback. I don’t think I changed, but it seemed perhaps America had. Could a person of color bearing a non-European name be electable? I wanted to take part in the experiment.

Both eyes stayed open though. An introduction I wrote for the Winter 2009 issue of my old ‘zine, American Gun Culture Report concluded: “I offer President Obama a hearty AGCR congratulations; although while the euphoria surrounding his election is undeniably intoxicating, let’s remember Democrats have let us down before and will do so again.” Obama verified this over his two terms by keeping a firm hand on the establishment tiller. Financial institutions remained too massive to fail, while secretive domestic surveillance chugged away unchecked and drones carried out extrajudicial assassinations against US citizens. The middle class continued its long decline as wealthy elements prospered.

So, did I learn any lessons? Will my 2016 vote go to some third party also-ran? Again, I don’t think I’ve changed, but just maybe America has. Bernie Sanders is not a completely radical candidate and already disappoints many leftists, first attracted by his embrace of the term socialism. A closer look explains why. His position on Israeli apartheid remains relatively uncritical, and given the number of votes cast in a lengthy political career, it’s not hard finding other exceptions to the progressive trend.

The gun issue for Sanders was always interesting and will probably become more so. While representing Vermont, a state with lax regulations, he has showed little motivation toward greater gun control. Votes landed on both sides; against the 1993 Brady Bill background checks, for the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban, then against holding gun manufacturers liable for operator misuse in 2005. Realistically, his record slightly favors gun rights, but for their official letter grade regarding him, the NRA awarded Sanders an F. Indeed, this says more about the NRA, which clearly feels burned after the only election where they supported him.

This occurred back in 1990, when Sanders ran against an anti-gun Republican. NRA strategists thought he might be easily dislodged, once the suitably chastened GOP produced a better material. In Vermont, that day never came. With all fairness, C+ makes more sense.

Sanders campaigns about big picture problems, most importantly wealth disparity, but that’s not all voters care about. He long ago realized Vermonters valued 2nd Amendment freedoms, and in a state with low gun violence, saw no reason for moving against a popular issue. Any personal feelings about arms took a distant back seat.

For example, last August I attended a large Sanders rally in Portland. He spoke extensively about poverty, racial injustice, unaccountable corporate monopolies, abuse of state power and the for-profit prison system. Compared with such major social concerns, firearms rightly warranted no mention. It can’t be denied, his speeches are sheer electricity.

Unprecedented success gained by Sanders in the Democratic primary has thrown status quo candidates into crisis. His stance on economic issues are undeniably popular, finding traction even when addressing audiences considered hostile territory for leftists. Among the current competition, mainly Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, gun control is the only area they might appear more progressive by comparison.

This presents a great opportunity for Sanders to own the issue. What other Democrats see as weakness, could prove viability on a national level, plus boosting his case for economic equality. Sanders should highlight his moderate voting record, regarding firearms, as simply reflecting mainstream American values and demonstrate economic inequality as the real cause of violence. This drives home the importance of leveling American economic systems, reassures potentially sympathetic conservative voters and exposes other Democratic candidates clinging to short sighted gun ban solutions.

However, recent high profile shooting spurred calls for increased gun control and instead, Sanders joined the bandwagon with other Democrats. Advisors presumably tell Sanders, to win the primary he must toe party lines, but that’s where establishment candidates hold advantage. For a candidate hoping to ride a wave of credibility to the White House, the issue that should propel him, may instead become Sanders’ anchor.