Blow, Kristof and Collins

In “A Ghastly Ritual Repeats Itself” Mr. Blow says we are stuck in a cycle of savagery as one shooter after another catches us in his sights.  In “Fawzia’s Choice” Mr. Kristof says a visit to a refugee camp in Jordan underscores that Syrians aren’t focused on chemical weapons. They’re too worried about conventional ones.  Ms. Collins has a question in “World War O:”  Seriously, people, why have the Republicans gotten so carried away with the issue of health care reform, a k a Obamacare?  Well, Gail, they’ve all gone barking, gibbering mad…  Here’s Mr. Blow:

The dreadful monotony and morbidity of the gun control discussion in this country has left me dispirited.

Another mass shooting. Another round of shock, sadness and outrage. Another pitched discussion about rights and responsibilities, mental illness and background checks. And then nothing.

The pundits debate merits. The public demands action. But in the end, N.R.A. intimidation pressures the cowards in Congress to maintain the status quo and scare ordinary citizens into believing that they face extraordinary threats — from the burglars out to steal property to a government out to rob them of their guns and the Second Amendment.

As President Obama told Telemundo:

“I do get concerned that this becomes a ritual that we go through every three, four months, where we have these horrific mass shootings, and yet, we’re not willing to take some basic actions that we know could make a difference.”

But it has become a ritual, and we — or at least too many of our congressmen and congresswomen — are too afraid to act. We are stuck in a cycle of savagery as one shooter after another catches us in his sights.

One reason we talk past one another on guns is that we’re talking from vastly different worldviews.

According to a March report by the Pew Research Center, gun owners are more likely to be men than women, older rather than younger, white rather than black or Hispanic, live in the Midwest and South, live in rural or suburban areas, and be married. In many ways, this gun ownership division reflects the ideological split in our politics.

Another reason is that N.R.A. and gun lobby scare tactics have been depressingly effective. They raise the dander of one-issue voters to dazzling effect, and that leaves politicians groveling at their feet.

So rational discussion gets lost in the weeds of extreme rhetoric. This is not an all-or-nothing battle. But we must approach the issue and the facts with an open mind.

And we have to start with one point: the vast majority of gun owners are responsible, law-abiding citizens. They own guns for protection, hunting, sports or even as collectors.

If most of these people weren’t responsible, there would be far more mass shootings than there are now.

The problem, rather, is that there are simply too many guns in this country to ever ensure that some portion will not fall into the hands of the criminally inclined or the violently insane.

Gun proliferation is a chicken that has come home to roost.

According to the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey, there were an estimated 270 million civilian firearms in this country in 2011. The country with the second highest number of weapons — 46 million — was India, which has nearly four times the population of America. A November 2012 Congressional Research Service report put the estimate even higher, at approximately 310 million firearms “available to citizens.” That’s almost one gun to every man, woman and child in this country.

That leads to this idea of guns-as-protection, the idea that because criminals already have guns, law-abiding citizens need to have them too, just to even the playing field — or dare I say, killing field.

According to that March Pew report, protection has replaced hunting as the No. 1 reason that people own guns.

The notion that the world is more dangerous than it used to be and you can be kept safe only with more guns is a linchpin of the N.R.A. argument and a profit inflater for the gun industry. As the N.R.A.’s executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, put it: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The only problem is that the facts don’t neatly line up with that line of reasoning.

A June report from the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council entitled “Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence” had some intriguing but not conclusive findings.

According to the report, there were about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008. However, the estimated range of defensive uses of firearms ranged from 108,000 to more than three million. Furthermore, the report pointed out that studies of the effectiveness of the defensive use of guns “have found consistently lower injury rates among gun using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies.”

However, the study hastened to add:

“Even when defensive use of guns is effective in averting death or injury for the gun user in cases of crime, it is still possible that keeping a gun in the home or carrying a gun in public — concealed or open carry — may have a different net effect on the rate of injury. For example, if gun ownership raises the risk of suicide, homicide, or the use of weapons by those who invade the homes of gun owners this could cancel or outweigh the beneficial effects of defensive gun use.”

Furthermore, a study this month in the American Journal of Public Health found the following:

“We observed a robust correlation between higher levels of gun ownership and higher firearm homicide rates. Although we could not determine causation, we found that states with higher rates of gun ownership had disproportionately large numbers of deaths from firearm-related homicides.”

The ambiguity here points to a much larger problem: the dearth of serious scientific studies on gun violence. A letter to the vice president and the Gun Violence Commission members, signed by more than 100 researchers from respected universities, pointed out that from 1973 to 2012, there were more than four million firearm injuries in America. Meanwhile, the letter said, the National Institutes of Health granted only three major research awards to study the epidemic over that time. By comparison, there were just 400 cases of cholera in America during that period, but the N.I.H. awarded 212 major research awards to study the disease.

This is in part because Congress discourages serious study of this issue. As the letter points out:

“Subsection c of section 503 and 218 of FY2013 Appropriations Act governing NIH and CDC funding still contains the language: ‘None of the funds made available in this title may be used, in whole or in part, to advocate or promote gun control.’ ”

We could get serious about this issue. We could turn away from scaring people and toward scientific principles. We could commit more money to more studies about the causes of and solutions to gun violence in this country, while sidestepping the talking-point spouters and the finger pointers and the profit makers.

But that would require courage and commitment, qualities that sadly run a deficit in Washington.

Next up we have Mr. Kristof, writing from Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan:

Those Americans who count themselves as “war-weary” should meet Fawzia, a middle-aged woman who made perhaps the most difficult decision any parent can.

Fawzia was among the refugees straggling across the Syria-Jordan border here. She had just arrived on a dangerous weeklong journey from Ghouta, Syria, a Damascus suburb where nerve gas killed hundreds on Aug 21. But for Fawzia, chemical weapons are secondary. The real weapons of mass destruction in Syria are the AK-47s, rockets, missiles and bombs. An agreement brokered by the world’s powers that is limited to chemical weapons — while useful — seems a bit irrelevant to the atrocities that define the lives of most Syrians.

No one in Fawzia’s family was hurt in the chemical weapons attack, but then there was a ferocious conventional shelling of her neighborhood. Her family members scattered in terror, and Mustafa, her 8-year-old son, disappeared. No one knows what happened to him.

Fawzia decided to flee with two children to Jordan, in hopes of saving them, possibly sacrificing Mustafa. She is racked by guilt.

The United Nations refugee agency, which runs this Zaatari camp, is accustomed to tragedy. An aid worker gently told her how to register Mustafa’s name in case he turns up somewhere.

Talking to Syrians like Fawzia, it seems bizarre and narcissistic that in Washington there is talk of whether the Syrian crisis has been “resolved.” Maybe the politicians’ crisis there has been eased, but the humanitarian catastrophe here just gets worse.

Indeed, in the last couple of weeks, President Bashar al-Assad seems to have stepped up the pace of bombing, shelling and other conventional attacks on civilian areas.

Fawzia says she would like to see American missile strikes on her country, in hopes that an assault would degrade the Syrian army’s capacity for mass murder and shorten the war. That seems by far the most common view among refugees here, although it’s not universal. Some worry about civilian casualties or think a strike would be too little, too late.

Whatever one thinks of a military strike to destroy some of Assad’s murderous air force — I’m in favor but have very little company in America — we should find common ground in insisting that international negotiations address not only chemical stockpiles but also humanitarian access in Syria.

That would mean demanding that the Syrian government and rebels alike allow aid workers and food and medical assistance across their lines. It’s not impossible that both sides would agree under pressure, and that might ease some of the worst suffering within Syria.

Valerie Amos, the United Nations humanitarian chief, tells me that nearly seven million Syrians will need aid to survive. Humanitarian access could save some of those lives, and also reduce the hemorrhage of refugees.

The United Nations estimates that every 17 seconds another Syrian flees the country, placing almost unbearable strains on Lebanon and Jordan, in particular. Jordan has been remarkably welcoming to Syrian refugees, but public resentment has apparently led the government to tighten the arrival spigot recently, and many tens of thousands of displaced Syrians are now reportedly stuck on the Syrian side of the border.

One-third of Syrians are now displaced. On an American scale, that would be equivalent to 100 million Americans having fled their homes.

This refugee camp, Zaatari, is already one of the biggest cities in Jordan, and the refugees are tough to manage. A few months ago, they began dismantling a trailer that functioned as a police station. Within hours, there was nothing left; they had stolen an entire police station.

Many refugees told me that everyone in their neighborhoods would relocate to Jordan if it weren’t so dangerous to travel.

Fareeda al-Hassan, a woman from the city of Hama, had just crossed from Syria with a gaggle of children when I met her. She explained that government bombing had destroyed her home and she had seen pro-government militias behead children, so she paid a guide to smuggle them on a 10-day journey that bypassed government checkpoints. If soldiers think travelers are headed for Jordan, they sometimes execute them as presumptive traitors.

During the family’s journey, a machine-gun post opened fire on their convoy. The two vehicles in front of theirs, a bus and a private car, burst into flames and everyone in them was killed, Hassan said.

Guides ferrying Syrians to Jordan sometimes give small children sleeping pills so that they won’t cry from hunger and draw an attack from Syrian troops.

We may not be able to solve Syria’s problems. I’m not even certain that we can mitigate them. But we can try, and a starting point would be a big push for humanitarian access.

Maybe that would even allow aid workers to find Mustafa and reunite him with his guilt-ridden mother.

And last but not least we have Ms. Collins:

The war against Obamacare: All the rationality of a Justin Bieber fan riot, and all the restraint of “Saw VI.”

On Wednesday, leaders of the House of Representatives announced their plans for a 42nd and 43rd vote to thwart the new health care reform law. If they don’t get their way, they’re threatening to defund the government and crack the debt ceiling.

“The law is a train wreck,” said Speaker John Boehner. The majority leader, Eric Cantor, said someone had to protect middle-class families from “its horrific effects.”

The arrival of Obamacare is worse than an invasion of giant zombies swinging nuclear-tipped crocodiles! Yet it lives! If only we lived in a country where citizens had the power to turn things around by voting lawmakers out of office. Like Uruguay or Latvia.

Seriously, people, why do you think the Republicans have gone so completely lunatic when it comes to this issue? Why do they behave as if, once the health law begins to roll out, it will be cemented in place like an amendment to the Constitution?

True, it would be a pain to repeal the whole thing if it doesn’t work out. But not a pain sufficient to wreak havoc on the global economy like, say, refusing to raise the debt ceiling. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas has been leading the push to shut down the government unless Congress repeals Obamacare. But have you ever heard him vow that if Congress doesn’t repeal Obamacare there will be … elections and then a new Congress that will repeal Obamacare?

Actually, Ted Cruz has an answer for this. Once the law goes into effect, he told the Web site The Daily Caller, the public will be overwhelmed by its sugary sweetness — “hooked on the subsidies.” It’s the duty of Congress to take it back before people can taste it, just the way New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg tried to whisk away high-calorie Big Gulps.

So, the message is clear. The new health care law is going to be terrible, wreaking havoc on American families, ruining their lives. And they are going to love it so much they will never have the self-control necessary to give it up.

So the war goes on. No issue is too big to ignore in the name of Obamacare repeal. None is too small. None is too unrelated. In the Senate, the latest victim was a popular, useful bill on energy efficiency, whose happy march toward passage came screeching to a halt when a handful of Republicans tried to make it a vehicle for votes on you-know-what.

“This will be the most, the worst …” sputtered Harry Reid, grasping for adjectives before settling on “the least productive Senate in the history of the country.”

“Least productive” was fairer than “worst.” After all, there was that session when somebody beat Senator Charles Sumner half to death with a walking stick.

Anyway, things are ridiculously awful.

The energy efficiency bill is the legislative version of a fluffy puppy. It was co-sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republican Rob Portman of Ohio. It involves helping manufacturers save money on energy use, and creating new model building codes, making plans and cooperating and studying. Portman and Shaheen have been working on it for three years.

“Energy efficiency is something everyone can agree to,” said Shaheen in a phone interview.

Well, possibly not everybody. It’s hard to predict how the bill would fare in the House, where some people still haven’t gotten over the Bush administration’s decision to phase out incandescent light bulbs. But there were at least some signs of hope.

And things were going great in the Senate. The bill was approved 19 to 3 in committee. When it came up for debate on the floor, nobody even attempted to offer a parliamentary motion to hold up all progress indefinitely and then require 60 votes to move forward.

“Then,” Shaheen said sadly, “Senator Vitter objected.” David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, demanded a vote on his amendment to eliminate any health care subsidies for Congress. He was followed by the minority leader, Mitch McConnell, waiving a proposal to postpone an entire piece of the law. Reid refused to allow indefinite voting on Obamacare during the energy efficiency bill debate. The fluffy puppy was caged in the basement.

You do not want to know all the details of Vitter’s motion. The original health care legislation stripped members of Congress and their staff of their traditional insurance coverage. Nobody would care if the members voted to cover themselves through policies available only on Nigerian Internet sites. But the staff is another matter. If the amendment passes, people like Congressional clerical workers would be virtually the only Americans offered every possible disadvantage and none of the advantages of health care reform.

“It’s to get them to recognize the pain that America’s about to feel,” said Senator Mike Enzi of Wyoming.

Followed, of course, by delicious, addictive joy.

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