Multi Automatic Dead Babies

Todd Akin uttered the words that have since defined his political legacy on  August 19th 2012 when he claimed that if “it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole [pregnancy] down.” Examples of further right-wing idiocy regarding abortion and pregnancy are embarrassingly plentiful. Texas state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg argued a rape exception to abortion prohibition was unnecessary because women can already get “cleaned out” by rape kits. During his slut-shaming rants against Sandra Fluke, Rush Limbaugh revealed his ignorant belief that you need one birth control pill for each time you have sex when he lambasted her for “having so much sex she can’t afford the contraception.” Illinois Republican Rep. Joe Walsh claimed “you can’t find one instance” of an abortion medically necessary to save a woman’s life, an  assertion so profoundly untrue that even the religious directives governing Catholic healthcare providers carve out an exception.

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Todd Akin illustrating where ovaries are positioned

Brazen ignorance on female anatomy and the reproductive system would not nearly be as troubling if the individuals expressing it were not in power and armed with the capacity to transform public policy.  The cynical interpretation might even conclude the misdirection is intentional. After all, if the public is convinced that “real” rape doesn’t result in pregnancy or that only promiscuous women need birth control then they could potentially be more likely to support restrictions on reproductive autonomy regardless of the severe harm it imposes on women’s health and privacy.

None of is to argue that reasonable people cannot disagree on the complex nuances of reproductive healthcare policy. Yet it is understandably frustrating when abortion prohibitionists and the like frequently parade with such flagrant illiteracy on the basic and elementary knowledge required to reach an informed opinion on the issue. Todd Akin was properly lambasted as a buffoon, and no reasonable person should pay attention to his policy opinions on women’s health. Before your policy proposals can be taken seriously, it is crucial to demonstrate at least a vague grasp on the issues at hand.

Which brings me to gun control.

A proposal for increased gun control is necessarily an expansion of the prison state. As Alex Gourevitch has written, it means producing “more criminal laws, creating new crimes, and therefore creating more criminals or more reasons for police to suspect people of crimes.” Whether this expansion can be ultimately justified on the basis of public safety gains is questionable given the deplorable state of the American criminal justice system. But precisely because the carceral consequences are so severe, elementary familiarity of the basic terms surrounding the issue should be the prerequisite for a sober analysis of any given proposal regarding gun control.

Yet an embarrassingly consistent lack of basic knowledge coming from gun control advocates continues, especially from those in power. Barack Obama, commander of the most heavily-armed group of individuals in the history of mankind, in a speech after Sandy Hook used the term ‘semi-automatic’ to refer to the AR-15 used before mistakenly revising himself to ‘fully-automatic’. You may ask, why does this matter? The difference with possessing the latter is a maximum 10 year prison sentence unless you have the requisite Class III license from the ATF.

Democratic New York Rep. Carolyn McCarthy introduced a bill in 2007 that would have reinstated the expired 1993 federal assault weapon ban. When grilled to define what a ‘barrel shroud’ was (one of the defining features of a proscribed firearm), she dodged the question before infamously providing it as “a shoulder thing that goes up.” The penalty for acquiring a firearm with a barrel shroud under the bill she introduced was a maximum 10 year prison sentence.

Joe Biden, selected by Obama to lead a task force on new federal gun control laws, advised a woman interested in self-defense by suggesting she purchase a shotgun and fire warning shots in the air to scare off home invaders. Warning shots are not only blatantly illegal, but prohibited by virtually any firearm safety expert due to the severe risk of third-party casualty. The penalty for following Biden’s advice in Delaware could be a 5 year prison sentence.

These examples have limited utility as comedy fodder in conservative circles. But more perniciously, they illustrate the disturbingly casual nature by which the scope of criminally proscribed behavior expands by thoroughly misinformed politicians. That fear and ignorance can serve as the propulsion behind legislation of questionable utility is obvious.

New York’s 2013 SAFE act transformed criminal possession of a firearm from a misdemeanor to a felony punishable by up to 4 years in prison. Yet the law was so hastily drafted, its clause mandating a maximum capacity of 7 rounds was criticized not only because seven round magazines don’t exist but also because police were not granted an exception to the cap (law enforcement exceptions are the expected norm for gun control regulations). A year after it was passed at least a thousand people were charged with the new felony, primarily in Brooklyn and the Bronx. The increased number of individuals ensnarled by the criminal justice system was heralded as proof of success by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The expansion of the prison population is its own goal.

The most prominent manifestation of the terminology gap in firearm policy discussion relates to the regulation of “assault weapons.” While the genesis of the phrase is most likely gun manufacturer marketing campaigns in the 1980s, it has been subsumed into a widely adopted legal definition of proscribed firearms. Defining the term depends entirely on jurisdiction.

Gun owners have a well-earned reputation of being a pedantic bunch; watch the consternations on online forums when the terms ‘clip’ and ‘magazine’ are used interchangeably. But when policy proposals hinge on criminalizing specific features of weapons, accuracy matters.

Although assault weapon bans enjoy majority public support, it’s unclear how much of it is conditioned on unfamiliarity of the term. Assault weapons and assault rifles are confused and used interchangeably even by otherwise reputable journalists on a frustratingly consistent basis (Ken White has aptly parodied the confusion under the penumbra of a fictitious “attack dog” prohibition). Although they can look identical, the former is only capable of semi-automatic fire while the other is capable of fully-automatic fire. The difference between the two is a 10 year prison sentence.

The fallout of this type of legislation can be depressing. Existing gun owners are either exempt explicitly or can choose to ignore registration requirements which are only enforceable in a circular logic loop. Apps can be downloaded to alert you on the law when you cross jurisdictional lines. Gun manufacturers can remove trivial features from their now illegal line-up and market it as “functionally identical.” California assault weapon owners can cleverly sidestep the entire issue through the use of a “bullet button” or (most recently) an “action disassembly.” Prosecutors receive another charge in their bargaining pile that they can transform into a successful tough-on-crime electoral platform. And the carceral state grows.

In rare circumstances, we can bear witness the motivations of firearm regulations more explicitly. When the Black Panthers adorned their protests with prominently brandished guns in 1967, a visibly frustrated and upset official lamented having no criminal charges to prosecute them with while emphasizing that “no one wants to touch the legitimate hunter.”

In 2015, 47.5% of federal inmates serving time for firearm offenses were black, compared to 38% of the general prison population. A survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated  “12% of State prison inmates and 19% of Federal inmates were either currently serving a sentence for a weapon offense or had been sentenced for a weapon offense in the past.” Given the United States’ high recidivism rate, one prison sentence is sufficient to set the course. With the crime of felony possession, the prison state gets its own self-perpetuating boot straps.

When the FBI terrorism sting focused on Khalifah al-Akili unraveled (notably after al-Akili googled their informant’s phone number) the FBI dug up an photo of him holding a rifle at a gun range from several years prior. Because of two previous felony drug convictions, al-Akili technically committed a crime by holding any gun and is now serving 8 years in federal prison. When one incarceration net failed against a monitored Muslim, the state was able to easily fall back on another.

Once in place, the law rarely chances an opportunity to exercise itself fully against the already downtrodden. Shaneen Allen stepped into a felony charge when she drove through New Jersey and volunteered during a traffic stop that she had a concealed carry permit for the handgun in her possession. New Jersey doesn’t recognize her Pennsylvania permit and Allen technically broke the law. Her conduct was perfectly legal up until she crossed a state line which transformed it into a felony punishable by a mandatory minimum of 3 years in prison.

The law doesn’t question which social benefits are served (if any) by imprisoning a black single mother of two for crossing jurisdiction lines. The law doesn’t care. Even when judicial mercy manifests, it will be doled out carefully based on the currency of privilege. It’s worth citing Gourevitch again: intrusive or harsh policing can only survive if it avoids the politically influential and focuses on marginal populations instead.

None of this is intended or sufficient as an argument against firearm regulation. Instead it’s a caution. If the left is more than nominally serious about reducing the scope of the modern prison state  it should appreciate the malignant combination of a public confused by technical terminology and a criminal justice system unhesitant with devouring the lives of marginalized minorities.

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