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Unarmed And Dangerous: On Writing A Thriller With No Guns

Diana Renn   |   July 9, 2014   10:24 AM ET

I was partway through my first draft of a thriller for young adults, Latitude Zero, and my villain was about to threaten my protagonist. Then something happened that was worse than anything I could dream up for a novel: a gunman unleashed terror at Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing twenty children and six adults.

Like many people, this tragedy immobilized me. I felt powerless to stop watching the news. Some of the victims were just a year older than my son. Their faces haunted my dreams.

Gradually the relentless news let up. Real life beckoned, which in my case was the work of writing fiction. I returned to my novel. The villain backed my teen sleuth into a corner, and pulled out...

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Nothing.

I could not put a gun in his hand.

The idea of guns repulsed me. I didn't want them in my neighborhood or schools. Now I did not want them in my book.

Was I against violence or other representations of it? No. I just felt that guns were an easy reach, and that maybe we were all becoming too desensitized to them. In movies and in books, even for teen readers, guns seem as readily available as forks and spoons.

But no one was holding me at gunpoint telling me to arm my villain. Maybe I had other options.

I quickly discovered how tough it is to write a thriller with no guns. A gun is an obvious representation of power. A gun requires no words.

Unarmed, how could my villain exert his power? Shaking his fist and shouting "I'll get you!" wouldn't thrill my savvy teen readers -- and I did want them to be a little bit thrilled. This was, after all, a thriller.

My story took place partly in Ecuador. Could a villain clobber someone over the head with a pre-Columbian artifact? Hurl a spear from a jungle tribe? Run someone off a narrow mountain road? Maybe, but those gun alternatives meant contorting my plot in unnatural directions.

I thought hard about my antagonist. He was smart, with a technical background. Then I thought hard about my main character, Tessa, a media figure with a reputation to safeguard. Information could be obtained, falsified, misrepresented, disseminated. And I realized that information would be the weapon of choice for my villain. Information, based on social media and surveillance-era threats. Cyberbullying and its spin-off crimes would not work for every book, but in this thriller, in going back to character instead of relying on genre conventions, I found the perfect fit.

Still, it was hard work, avoiding that gun and maintaining high stakes. My villain had to be extremely cunning, articulate and precise in his threats. And the threats had to keep coming, keep changing, to keep the tension high. I had to build a new plot line, an added layer of complication. This layer engaged me deeply, and I knew I was on the right track, but it was exhausting work.

Just when I felt like having the villain simply reach for that gun, another real-life event hit close to home: the Boston Marathon Bombing and the subsequent manhunt for a suspected bomber -- a teenager, really -- took place just a mile away from my house. As the search helicopters droned above me that day, I thought again about why I wanted to take extra care with how I portrayed guns, or any violence, in my books. There is nothing casual about guns or the people who wield them with malevolent intent. I choose to take guns seriously, in real life and in fiction.

I am not against guns in all novels for young readers. Books can be a safe place to explore important issues of violence and power. But I believe writers of fiction for younger readers have an added responsibility to handle the guns with care. We should be clear in our minds about why characters might reach for a gun in any given scene, and to look for creative alternatives when possible. We should avoid throwing guns around for quick plot fixes, or because we think readers expect guns in thrillers.

I hope that the lack or appearance of guns in my books will get young readers thinking about the prevalence of gun violence in entertainment. Maybe then they will go on to think and talk about the prevalence of gun violence in real life. Because in the end, that's what is really at stake.

How the NRA Benefits From Stoking Fear About Gun Regulations

Mike Weisser   |   July 8, 2014    5:04 PM ET

One thing about the gun debate I find interesting is how quickly and easily gun owners get riled up when politicians, or anyone else for that matter, begin talking about taking away their guns. From the way they talk, you'd think the world was about to come to an end. What was Heston's famous line? "From my cold, dead hands." Heston made more forgettable movies than anyone could ever remember, but five words uttered at the NRA convention and he's immortalized forevermore.

I see the same intensity of feelings in comments on my blog. "You're a traitor," is one of the less-angry ones; "Mike the Gun Guy is Enemy #1," crops up from time to time. I have never once advocated any legislative or legal response to gun violence, but God forbid I say that maybe some of what the NRA claims to be true isn't so true and you'd think I was calling for the confiscation of every, single gun.

Maybe I just don't appreciate how gun owners think about their guns. So I decided to get a better understanding of the average gun owner by conducting a survey on how frequently gun guys (and gals) actually walk around with a gun. After all, if you listen to the NRA, you quickly learn that nobody understands the problems faced by gun owners like they do, and nothing is more important to gun owners than being able to protect themselves and their loved ones by walking around with a gun.

Yesterday I sat down and sent an email to 650 men and women who took the required safety course from me that my state requires for issuance of the LTC. If they had, in fact, received their LTC, I asked them to tell me how often they carried a concealed weapon with the choices being: always, usually, sometimes, frequently or never at all. Obviously, the folks who said they always or usually carried a concealed weapon were embodying Wayne LaPierre's "good guys" dictum. The rest? "Pussies" or worse.

Within 24 hours I got back more than 130 responses, of whom 103 stated they had their LTC. And how did the NRA do in convincing them that they would be fulfilling a sacred trust by walking around with a gun? Not very well, I'm afraid. Only 29 of 102 LTC-holders reported that they 'always' or 'usually' carried a gun, of whom 23 were guys and 6 were gals. The rest just weren't convinced that they needed to carry a gun, and 54 of the respondents, 44 men and 10 women reported that they 'rarely' or 'never' carried a concealed weapon at all.

Now don't get me wrong. The latest numbers indicate that there are roughly 8 million active concealed-carry permits in the United States, so if the results of my poll are representative, that means there may be about 2 million people walking the highways and byways of our beloved country ready at any moment to yank out and use their guns. But 2 million doesn't even represent 1% of the country's population so it's not like there's some huge, gun-toting army out there just waiting to protect the rest of us from the criminal hordes.

On the other hand, a couple of million people who believe that something's about to happen in DC that will directly affect them can make a lot of noise. They can contact their Representatives, or make a telephone call, or send a nasty email to me. I have never done any of those things because I can't recall that Congress ever debated a law which would have any direct impact on me. But the NRA, to their credit, has managed to make its membership feel that any discussion about gun control is a discussion about them. Why pass up the opportunity to let everyone know what's the most important thing to you? I wouldn't, that's for damn sure.

  |   July 7, 2014    8:34 AM ET

WINSLOW TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) — Authorities say a sleeping New Jersey teenager was struck by a bullet when gunfire broke out outside her home and a bullet pierced her bedroom wall.

The 13-year-old girl from the Sicklerville section of Winslow Township was struck in the buttocks early Monday. Her injuries were not considered life-threatening. She was taken to Cooper University Hospital in Camden.

Why The NRA Is Staying Silent On Target's Gun Ban

Mike Weisser   |   July 3, 2014    8:16 PM ET

Last week the mega-chain Target joined Chipotle and Starbucks in making their stores places where customers have a good chance of getting gunned down. At least this is what the NRA believes will happen now that the company's CEO announced that Target shoppers should leave their guns at home. Everyone remembers the NRA's reaction after Sandy Hook -- namely, that schools that were gun-free zones invited kooks like Adam Lanza to walk in and start blasting away. But the notion that public space is safer if people don't walk around with guns seems to be spreading and it's interesting that the NRA's response so far to Target's new policy has been no response at all.

The gun industry is not only encountering some push-back to its notion of guns as being the best way for citizens to protect themselves against crime; they can't even get their facts straight about whether there's any connection between gun ownership and criminal activity at all. The NSSF (the trade association for America's firearms industry) just posted a video which announces that "gun crimes have fallen dramatically over the past 20 years," except the graphic that accompanies this statement shows that the entire decline took place between 1993 and 2000, which was before Obama went into the White House and gun sales soared.

Despite what John Lott says, there's no proof that higher levels of gun violence occur in gun-free zones. And the evidence that protecting yourself with a gun may actually be less safe than using other protective methods to thwart a criminal attack -- yelling, punching, running away -- comes from, of all people, a scholar named Gary Kleck who first "discovered" that arming ourselves made us better able to stop crime. Kleck published a study in 1995 which, based on answers collected from interviews with 213 respondents, claimed that people used guns to prevent more than 2 million crimes from being committed each year. But in 1994 he submitted a report to the Department of Justice in which he found that defensive methods other than guns actually resulted in fewer injuries from criminal attacks. He didn't mention these findings when he began touting the benefits of armed resistance the following year.

And neither did the NRA. Ever since the mid-1990s the gun lobby has been tirelessly beating the drums for expanding concealed carry, as well as for diminishing the list of locations where guns cannot be found. Their latest victory was Georgia, where a new law took effect July 1 which expands the right to carry a gun in locations that serve alcohol, houses of worship and government facilities, as long as the owners of the affected properties don't object.

The campaign to promote carrying guns in public places took a big step backwards, however, with the decision by Target to ask gun-toting shoppers to stay out of their stores. The announcement was worded in a way that did not absolutely ban concealed-carry in states which, unlike Georgia, don't give property-owners the right to restrict the presence of guns. But when Target said that guns are at odds with the "family-friendly" atmosphere they try to maintain, they weren't just sending a message to gun owners, they were sending a clear message to the gun lobby as well.

Despite twenty years of unending appeals to fears of crime and the utility of owning guns, the NRA and its allies have failed to convince a majority of Americans that walking into a public place with a gun in your pocket is the smart thing to do. What they have done is to provoke a grass-roots backlash organized and funded by a guy with lots of bucks whose efforts to get Americans behind the notion of less guns equals more safety may just begin to pay off.

Breaking the Code of Silence

Marian Wright Edelman   |   July 3, 2014   10:32 AM ET

“I found my voice long before I became a writer in community organizing. That’s where I found my voice, where I was able to take all that pain and transform it into something useful in the world, and I never looked back.” Michael Patrick MacDonald is a storyteller. Michael recently encouraged the crowd of young leaders at the Children’s Defense Fund Freedom Schools’® National Training to understand the power of storytelling to create change.

His first book, All Souls: A Family Story from Southie, became a national bestseller and won an American Book Award, and All Souls and its follow-up Easter Rising: A Memoir of Roots and Rebellion have captivated readers with their accounts of his childhood in South Boston’s Old Colony housing project and the poverty, crime, and addiction that devastated his Irish Catholic neighborhood and killed four of his siblings.

He said All Souls begins with a description of an event he organized in his own community: “I organized an All Souls Day vigil to get the neighborhood to start to come out and to tell the truth about all the deaths in the neighborhood, from murders, overdoses, all of the things that we didn’t talk about, all of the things that we pretended didn’t exist. South Boston held the highest concentration of White poverty in America, and I grew up in the housing projects there in a family of 11 kids. Of the 11 kids, we lost four, plus a sister who was crippled in a fight over pills and was pushed off a roof in the projects. But the others all died from poverty and violence as well. My mother was shot as well, and all the years you would go through that stuff, and all of our neighbors were going through that stuff, we were strangled by this code of silence where you were never able to talk about it. You weren’t allowed to talk about this stuff because our neighborhood was controlled by organized crime, but also because the neighborhood was in a state of denial, choosing to believe what the media says—that this stuff doesn’t happen here, this stuff happens ‘over there,’ to ‘those people.’ That’s Black and Latino people, in particular. [South Boston] is very well known for the race riots of the 1970s, when the neighborhood broke into racist riots over desegregation in the city of Boston, but had an awful lot in common with those neighborhoods that we were trying to keep out—an awful lot in common in terms of class.”

Michael knew the code of silence in his neighborhood very well because it was the way he was brought up. In his own family he was “the quiet one” of the 11 children, and as each of his four brothers died he initially felt “kind of stunned speechless.” But when he started working “over there” in some of Boston’s other neighborhoods he realized he wasn’t the only one holding a story inside—and learned how much more power people had when they started letting their stories out and sharing them with each other. “I decided to write a memoir after years of doing community organizing, especially with a lot of mothers of murdered children, from around the city of Boston—from Roxbury, Dorchester, Mattapan, the Black and Latino neighborhoods, as well as eventually South Boston and Charlestown, the poorer White neighborhoods . . . and I would organize these press conferences or rallies, and I’d push them to the microphone to get them to tell their stories. I saw what happened to them when they told their stories in whatever amount that they wanted to and were capable of telling—how it changed them, and it was also changing the world.”

Michael could see the impact these mothers were having on their communities, especially by speaking out against gun violence. He could also see that sharing their stories was helping reduce their own risks of suicide, alcoholism, drug addiction, and need for revenge against the people who had taken their family members’ lives, and breaking their silences was even changing them in other ways: “They had a really powerful strength, and they completely changed from ‘high-risk’ people to really powerful people . . . I saw what it did for them . . . and then they started to push me out to the front to the microphone, and I would give little bits of my story, and tell of my siblings that were killed, and eventually wanted to tell more and more because I started to feel what it does for you.” By the vigil he described at the beginning of his book he was both organizer and participant, one of the last people to step to the altar to light a candle and recite the names of each of his own lost brothers—“I stopped and took a deep breath. Then I spoke up. Davy, Frankie, Kevin, and Patrick, and for all souls.”

Michael ultimately learned a lesson that he compared to reading Howard Zinn’s beloved classic A People’s History of the United States: “When I even just saw the title of that book and started to think about what ‘people’s history’ means, that means that all of us have to tell our stories, and that’s ultimately a people’s history—and the more we can encourage that in young people, the more we will have a more complete story.” Readers everywhere have been grateful for the ways Michael Patrick MacDonald has helped complete South Boston’s story, and he says as he continues to travel and talk about his own writing he’s learned the idea young people connect with most is how powerful it can be to share their own stories and the “possibility of transforming trauma into voice.” It’s a critical lesson for all young people and for all of us—and especially for those who’ve experienced some of the same kinds of family and community poverty, violence, and addiction, for whom breaking silences and realizing they are not alone can be life-changing.

Why School Shootings Won't Be Stopped

Paul Heroux   |   July 2, 2014    8:09 PM ET

We are going about this all wrong. The folks on the left say with fewer or no guns we will have fewer or no more gun crimes. The folks on the right say with more guns we will have more safety from people who would abuse guns.

Despite thinking that they are keeping kids safe, both sides of this issue are arguing from what is in their own interest.

The right way to approach this issue is different than what we are doing. First, we need to realize that high profile events are high profile because they are unlikely. And trying to stop an unlikely event is very difficult if not impossible. Predicting a school shooting is a bit like predicting where lighting is going to strike the ground. There are some generic indicators but nothing that can act as an actual alarm bell. Guessing is what most politicians and pundits are doing right now when it comes to school safety.

What Drives Our Gun Crime Rates?
There are about 10,000 homicides with a firearm each year in the United States. Many of these are done by members of gangs. Their choice of weapon is a handgun. If should follow that if we want to reduce gun crime rates in America we would try to reduce the gun violence by the people doing it where they are doing it. Keep in mind that not all criminal shootings are the same; as such there is no one size fits all solution. But there are things that can and should be done. The OJJDP stated:

Long-term solutions to address the problem of gun violence must include a comprehensive approach to reducing the number of youth involved in gangs.

That said, gang related gun violence is not the only source of gun violence. I have previously written about how not all gun crimes are the same, but in general, here are several categories of the improper use of guns.

  • Individual Shootings

  • Mass Shootings

  • Justifiable Homicides / Self Defense

  • Accidental Shootings

  • Suicide with a Gun

Our Misplaced Focus
We are focused on so-called assault rifles. We are focused on mental illness. We are focused on background checks for guns. None of these has all that much to do with our gun crime rates in America.

  • Assault weapons are essentially rifles that look like they could be military use, but that is to the untrained eye. There are no 'machine guns' or automatic firearms commercially sold in the United States today. Handguns are the gun of choice when abusing guns.
  • Mental illness is not common in people who are driving our gun crime rates. people with mental illness are more likely to be a victim of violence than someone who commits violence. And the research shows that people with mental illness are generally no more violent than the general population. With a few high profile shootings done at the hands of individuals with a history of mental illness in one form or another, we have suddenly shifted our national attention to mental illness at the culprit for gun violence in America. This is absurd.
  • Background checks are not something that gang members subject themselves to. Law abiding citizens do. As such, getting more and more strict and increasing the layers of paperwork needed to get an FID or a LTC does little to nothing to reduce gun crimes.
What Doesn't Work?

The pool of what doesn't work is endless.

First of all, there is no correlation between the states' levels of gun violence and the Brady Campaign's ranking on states' gun law strictness - I have personally done the correlation. However, in the spirit of fairness, just because there is no correlation, it does not necessarily mean there is no causation. The point here is that the left often uses this claim in error. Second, the idea that more guns leads to less crime is all correlation. While the left makes the claim that a correlation exists when one does not, the right makes a claim that is nothing more than just correlation. Neither side has any sense of what actually works. They push talking points based on a political agenda, not good science. The research on gun bans shows they don't work.

People who claim that if we just arm schools and this will reduce school shootings need to prove that this. There is no evidence. By evidence I mean that we had a experimental group and a control group and we saw a decrease in school shootings in the experimental group. This data doesn't exist. In fact, we know that school shootings have still happened where there an armed guard was on the campus.

People who claim that fewer guns will mean less crime need to consider that there is a very robust literature on defensive gun uses (DGU). Admittedly, much of the research in this area was very poorly done. But it doesn't detract from the fact that there are legitimate DGU examples that can be referenced. In this same vein where we have more guns we also have more accidental gun discharges. Proponents who cherry-pick examples aren't using science or common sense.

So the bottom line is that we are talking about half a dozen of one, six of the other. Both the left and the right on this issue are missing the point. Both are pushing political agendas. Neither is pushing good science.

What Works?
What works is a science. Neither side of the gun debate really uses science and research is a responsible manner. This hinders real progress.

If we are going to implement strategies to reduce school shootings, we have to keep in mind that we are not really going to reduce gun homicide rates in America. Just as in medicine, there is no one wonder drug that will reduce illness. So too is the case with criminal justice programs.

Considering that gang contribute to a significant amount gun violence, we should be pursuing interventions such as the Kansas City Gun Experiment or Operation Ceasefire, which have been proven effective as evaluated through rigorous scientific measurement.

If we want to try to reduce crime in schools we need to focus on the type of crime: antisocial behavior or aggression, truancy, drug use, or petty crimes. A list here adapted from David P. Farrington and Lawrence W. Sherman details some effective interventions.

Setting focused interventions

  • specific school and discipline management interventions

  • specific interventions to establish norms or expectations for behavior

  • specific Classroom or instructional management

  • Reorganizing of grades or classes

Person focused interventions

  • Self-control or social competency instruction using cognitive-behavioral or behavioral instructional methods

  • Cognitive behavioral, behavioral modeling or behavioral modification interventions

  • Counseling, social work and other therapeutic interventions

  • Mentoring, tutoring, and work study

Remember to keep in mind that what works reducing drug use, might not work for other types of crime. What works in reducing truancy might not work for reducing antisocial or aggressive behavior. Juvenile criminal justice prevention programs are a science. They should not be applied 'willy nilly'.

Unfortunately, in my career I have personally seen excitement in city and state agencies I have worked in and with when the prospect of getting funding for a program trump prudent implementation and measurement. Performance measures are not built into the administration of the program. No real discussion of the limitations of what the program is going to and not going to accomplish is had.

There is another critical element that we are missing in this debate and that is that we are a very violent society. We enjoy watching violence on TV and in movies, playing it in video games and listening to it in music. We pay money to have access to simulated violence in these mediums. Bullying may well be a part of the problem of the increase in mass school shootings, but bullying has always been with us. What is new is the availability of learning through media and social media about the reactions of others who were bullied. It is reasonable to surmise that the recent increase in school shootings is the result of copy-cat crimes.

My point of this article is that we need to consult the research on what works in a more objective and less self-interested manner, whether you are on the left, the right, a city or state administrator or a politician.

Paul Heroux is a state representative from Massachusetts. He previously worked for a prison and a jail, and with 5-12 year old children for seven years. Paul has a Master's in Criminology from the University of Pennsylvania and a Master's in Public Administration from Harvard. Paul can be reached at paulheroux.mpa@gmail.com or 508-639-9511.

Should Kids Be Taught About Guns in School?

Keosha Varela   |   July 1, 2014    7:20 PM ET

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Historian and former Guns & Ammo columnist Dick Metcalf during the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival

At the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival, historian and former Guns & Ammo columnist Dick Metcalf sat down for a fiery discussion on guns with National Journal Editorial Director Ron Brownstein. Metcalf made headlines late last year when his long-time career at Guns & Ammo came to an end after a piece he wrote about the line between firearm regulation and the 2nd Amendment.

Today's wide-ranging discussion included points about the power of the National Rifle Association (NRA) as a lobbying group in Washington, whether the Supreme Court will move any further on the 2nd Amendment, and the extreme divide between those for and against the use and ownership of guns. But throughout the conversation, one of Metcalf's main points was the need for gun training to be required for those who own guns. Using the analogy of drivers being allowed to own and operate a car only after receiving the required training and proof of it, Metcalf stressed the importance of doing the same for guns.

"We've had numerable conversations. I cannot tell you how many senior executives and firearms companies, who -- over a beer -- when no one's watching, would say, 'You realize, of course, that at least a third of our customers shouldn't be let within five miles of a gun.'"

He closed the conversation with this: "Hell, let's do that in the schools. We have driver's training in the schools, let's have firearms familiarization in the public schools."

Listen to the full 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival conversation on guns.

The New Mississippi? Black Sheriff, White Millennial Gun Store Owner and Former GOP County Chair Becomes Obama Fan

David Dent   |   June 30, 2014    6:51 PM ET

2014-06-28-SheriffJacobSheriff2.jpg His last name is actually Sheriff. Yet, while growing up in Yazoo, Mississippi, Jacob Sheriff never thought he would one day wear the name as a prefix and actually become Sheriff Jacob Sheriff.

Then there is his good buddy growing up, Roy Wilson. Wilson became the Fire Chief of the city of Yazoo -- the county seat. The idea of a black sheriff or fire chief in Yazoo in the Sixties and Seventies was as foreign as imagining someone named Barack Obama as POTUS one day. Though unlike Obama, Sheriff is not a first. He's the second black sheriff of Yazoo, narrowly defeating his white Republican opponent two years ago.

In 1975, Sheriff, Wilson, and two other good friends were restless 18-year-olds. They had graduated from Yazoo High School and were students at Mary Holmes Junior College, 113 miles away from Yazoo. Sheriff and Wilson missed the sweethearts they left behind at home. So the boys decided to drop out of college and go home to the girls of their dreams. They would get married, start families and find jobs. "I told Wilson, 'Man, I'm going back home to get married.' He said, 'Me too.'"

Though the plans didn't quite work out as they expected. "Well, long story short, he got married and I didn't. He said, 'Man, I thought you was going to get married.' I said, 'Man, you go ahead and do your thing, I got something else I want to do.' We have a little issue about that. Wilson now says, 'Man, you tricked me into getting married.' I say, 'I didn't trick you, man. Mine just didn't work out.'"

So before the "trick" and back to Mary Holmes Junior College, Sheriff, Wilson and two other friends boarded a Greyhound on a Saturday night, both professing marriage plans. There was a layover in Houston, Mississippi (coincidentally in Chickasaw, another Bush-Obama county). How would a group of 18-year-old buddies spend a layover? In the bus station? No way! They decided to stroll the streets of Houston.

"We are young and enthused, wanting to get out and sightsee. That's what we did in our own neighborhood. As we were walking, a law enforcement officer, a white officer, he pulls up behind us and he asks, 'What are ya'll doing? What are you doing in this neighborhood?' And I said, 'We just walking.' He kept going on and on, 'Did you do this? Were you at this place? Didn't I see you doing this? Yes you were?' I'm like, 'What are you talking about?' So I'm like, 'Man, is he accusing us of robbing something or burglarizing something?' And we all looked at each other. Long story short, he told us the best thing for you to do is to get out of this community. We went back to the bus station. I said, if I ever become a police officer, I don't want to have that mentality that he had. I want to treat people the way I would want to be treated."

***

Does Sheriff live in a new Mississippi -- one that is closer to the dreams of those Freedom Riders featured in the Stanley Nelson documentary that tells the story of the brave young people who gave up comforts to fight for social justice in Mississippi? We examined that question and others in the state's Bush-Obama counties, which include Yazoo. Of course, the state was all over the news last week with the Republican runoff election between Senator Thad Cochran and Chris McDaniel, a challenger from the Tea Party movement. Cochran defeated McDaniel with the help of black voters, also carrying the state's five Bush-Obama Counties. (see results and demographics of counties) Yet don't call it a victory if you are in earshot of the Tea Party members still refusing to concede defeat. Many who have conceded are considering giving up on the GOP, entertaining ideas floated by Sarah Palin and others. They suggest the Tea Party should lead a conservative exodus out of the GOP for a new third party. The drama continues with the apparent suicide of the McDaniel aide. Now, McDaniel blames the Republican Party for the suicide. What next?

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Zack Huffman was shaking his head as he watched the Republican Party drama of the week. In high school, he was "a radical no, make that passionate" conservative. At 19, he was so devoted to the GOP that he was elected chair of the party in Chickasaw, his home county, while living as a student at Ole Miss. That was the same county where Sheriff and his friends encountered the mean cops. Huffman grew up in Houston, Mississippi. As the state's youngest GOP county chair, he was a Republican star, campaigning across the state for Mitt Romney in 2012. Now he says he wishes he had voted for Barack Obama. Blame the university -- Ole Miss -- for transforming Huffman's view of the world. "It would be in the latter part of my college career and I attribute developing the thought that this is not what I can stand by anymore.

"I applied for the Marshall and Truman scholarships and my professor did a good job of saying 'Is this really what you believe?' In fact, I was being interviewed for the Truman scholarship and ... a committee nitpicked every belief I had and asked me to justify it ... and a lot of these things, the certain platforms and policies of the Republican Party I realized I couldn't justify this."

"I think gay marriage being number one. It just baffles me the kind of hate that is present in some of these candidate statements, or politicians' statements. In this article I wrote, you know pursuit of happiness, to put such a -- so we have gay marriage. Some of the things I do agree on with the Republican party is fiscal restraint. But defund education! That's stupid. And leading into the McDaniel thing, he says the U.S. Department of Education or the Mississippi Department of Education should be done away with, that makes no sense."

Huffman remains enthusiastic about politics. In fact, he has switched parties and is running as a Democrat for the state legislature with a proud comparison to Hillary Clinton. "It's almost like the situation is comparable to Hillary Clinton, you know, the Goldwater girl and then, you know, boom."

***
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Seth Howe, 26, another Mississippi Millennial, purchased Bob's Gun and Pawn in Chickasaw County a few months ago. Like Huffman, Howe is a graduate of Ole Miss, where he was surprised to discover Mississippi's reputation on race. "Until I went to college, I had no idea that the rest of the world thought Mississippi was the most racist place on earth. Really had no idea. I mean, I work in a town that's predominantly black, it doesn't bother me," says Huffman, a member of the National Guard. "Half my friends in the army are black. ... I try not to be around people who have those kind of racist ideals. It is still here though, and to say it's not would be a lie. But it's on both sides. ... There's a lot of white racism as much as there's black racism against white people. ... Oh, I see, I've got two or three old black men who hate other black people. Then I got a bunch of young black guys who come in here -- they use words like 'cracker' and other stuff like that. Of course, nobody cares because we don't really -- I guess white people really just don't care about being called 'cracker' or 'jellybean' or anything else."

Howe went against the county in the last two elections, voting for McCain and Romney, largely because of their strong support of the Second Amendment. Unlike Huffman, he does not regret any vote against Obama -- though his views of the president are less harsh than many others in his party. "It's not fair to say he's done a terrible job, I don't agree with the health care laws that have been passed. But as far as anything else, I feel as if its a terrible position for anybody to be in -- I don't know why anyone would want to do it. ... I think people give him a harder time than maybe he probably deserves, but I don't agree with his policies per se. Especially not gun control policies. I think that if you take guns away from the people that just gives the government more power and I'm much more for small government than large government."

Howe voted for Cochran, but now wonders if he should have gone with McDaniel. While he aligns ideologically with the Tea Party, he rejects the notion raised by Palin and others, that the Tea Party wing of the GOP start a new party. "I think Palin is an excellent politician as far as politicians go and I like a lot of what she stands for, but I'm thinking a three-party system with anybody that's conservative is going to get trounced. Your representation is gonna go to crap. Three-party systems only favor the ones who don't split."

***

Sheriff Sheriff was not among the black voters who cast ballots in the Republican runoff because he had already voted in the Democratic Primary. "In my honest opinion, I would have voted for Thad Cochran. ... Chris McDaniel had one issue that I really didn't approve, when he was talking about closing the Head Start centers and stuff like that."

Sheriff disagrees with Howe's view that race is no longer a big issue in the state. He says too many in the state are still too consumed with racial differences and being separate and not considering the bigger economic picture. When he visits other cities across the country and sees gentrification and economic development in formerly depressed areas, he wonders why it can't happen in Yazoo. "If I had to have a title to make a movie, it would be: 'Hard Times in Mississippi'. Racism is established everywhere, ... what we need is ... somebody with an economic mindset that can bring some industries in here. ... If not, we're going to all suffer."

At War With Ourselves

Greg Carey   |   June 30, 2014   10:44 AM ET


Frustrated with the gun violence epidemic, Shane Claiborne transforms modern weapons into tools of life.

"I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

Paul's examination of the conflicted self stands as one of the classic statements in Western culture. Borrowing from Jesus, we often say something similar: "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38; Matthew 26:41). From our frustrations with diets and New Year's resolutions to the deepest insights of Buddhist spirituality and modern psychology, we grieve the clash between what we wish we'd do and what we actually find ourselves doing. Why do we find it so difficult to live up to our highest aspirations?

The train has long left the station, but just the same, biblical scholars try to intervene. We complain that the passage has been taken out of context. The Revised Common Lectionary rips verses 15-25a out from a larger argument. Paul isn't performing a deep analysis of the human psyche. Rather, he's making a point about God and God's law, the Torah. Paul has just rejected the idea that God's law causes sin: "For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin" (7:14).

In other passages Paul comes off as a lot less frustrated. As far as the law is concerned, he says, I was "blameless" (Philippians 3:6). He asks other believers to imitate him (1 Corinthians 4:16; 11:1) since he provides a worthy example (Philippians 3:17). He denies that he says one thing and then does another (2 Corinthians 2:17-22). Admittedly I've taken these examples out of context. Nevertheless, apart from Romans 7, Paul does not appear to lack confidence concerning his own behavior.

But the train has left the station. Regardless of what Paul may or may not have meant to say, this passage has long led us to examine our own divided motives and disappointing behaviors. Pondering those trapped in the super-violent cocaine trade of the late 1980s, the Living Colour song "New Jack Theme" begins with a voice saying, "And when they would do good, evil is present." This slight variation on Romans 7:21 invites us to expand our vision. It's not only individuals who find themselves trapped. Groups and societies do as well.

And so it goes with gun violence and gun control in the United States. In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut school shootings, Americans regarded gun control as more important than the right to own guns by a 49-42 margin. Just five months later (May 2013), things had evened out: 50 percent of Pew Research Center participants emphasized gun control over gun rights, but 48 percent saw things the opposite way. Most Americans believed gun control would reduce both mass shootings and accidental deaths, but most also believed gun control would make it more difficult for ordinary citizens to defend themselves from attack and vulnerable to a too powerful government. As of June 2014, public opinion remains about the same.

We just can't decide. We can't decide whether we're fed up with one mass shooting after another or whether it's not that big a deal, because gun violence incidents have been dropping sharply for about twenty years. (Despite the evidence, most Americans still believe gun violence is on the increase.) We can't decide whether we're disgusted that the United States has the highest incidence of gun violence among the world's developed nations - nearly three times the rate of second place Switzerland - or whether we're willing to sacrifice a measure of safety for a measure of freedom.

Most Americans believe gun laws should be stricter than they currently are, with a vast majority favoring background checks for gun buyers. But while those who favor such legislation outnumber those who don't, gun rights advocates appear to hold more passion for their position. At the same time, people continue to die. Philadelphia averages four homicides a week, Chicago over one a day and we do not act.

So we find ourselves divided, dissatisfied with the way things are but unwilling to change the way we structure our lives. It feels as if some maleficent power holds sway over us, preventing us from moving forward. "It is no long I who do it, but sin that dwells within me" (7:20).

"Who will rescue me from this body of death?" Paul asks. His response is to exclaim, "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!"

If you're like me, you get a bit suspicious when someone proposes a spiritual response to a political problem. Hopefully you're less cynical. But when it comes to an issue like gun violence, perhaps a spiritual response offers our only true hope. The political forces are so aligned, that it seems they will never cooperate with one another. But even more importantly, the question of guns and violence separates us from one another at a deep, even visceral level. On social media, I observe that my friends cannot sustain rational conversation about this issue - and these are smart, well-intentioned people.

What would it mean if communities of faith turned our divided consciences over to Jesus Christ? We have divided opinions, but we live a common reality. We all grieve death and destruction. Most of us value our neighbors' ability to own guns they can use for hunting and other forms of recreation. We all aspire to live in safe, loving communities.

I propose that we take this on at a local level, inviting people from all political persuasions not to argue but to pray. We can all pray for peace and security. We can all grieve our common losses. We can all ask for God's protection of our freedoms and our lives. When our minds are divided, the path of freedom lies in giving up control and turning to the spirit.

Study Questions

1. Has your church or denomination taken a public stance on gun control or gun violence? You can often find public statements, resolutions, and the like on denominational web sites.

2. Read Romans 7:7-25. Some interpreters believe Paul is talking about his current experience, others claim he is talking about his experience prior to his conversion, and still others say he is describing the general human condition apart from God's help. In your opinion, who is the "I" in this passage?

3. Read Romans 7:19: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." Some interpreters reject this assessment of the human condition as too pessimistic. What do you think? Is it insightful, interesting, unhelpful?

For Further Reading

Atwood, James E. America and Its Guns: A Theological Exposé. Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2012.

Cosgrove, Charles H. "Paul and American Individualism." Pp. 68-103 in Cross-Cultural Paul: Journeys to Others, Journeys to Ourselves. Ed. Charles H. Cosgrove, Herold Weiss, and K. K. (Khiok-Khng) Yeo. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Faiths United to Prevent Gun Violence. Letter to Members of Congress. January 15, 2013.

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  |   June 30, 2014    3:19 AM ET

BLOOMSBURG, Pa. (AP) — A vendor accidentally shot a woman in the leg while demonstrating a gun and holster at a central Pennsylvania gun show, police said.

The Columbia County district attorney's office will determine whether the vendor, Geoffrey Hawk, will face criminal charges stemming from the shooting Saturday at the Bloomsburg Fairgrounds, Officer Brad Sharrow said.

What The Left Doesn't Understand About The Gun Ownership Debate

Mike Weisser   |   June 29, 2014   10:30 PM ET

I started to read Michael Waldman's book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, with a certain amount of trepidation, because if nothing else, here's someone who hits the ground running when it comes to anything having to do with public policy. And whether it's voting rights, or election financing reform, or same-sex marriage or just about any other domestic policy that liberals want to own, Waldman has been in the thick of the argument ever since he took over the Brennan Center in 2005.

Why trepidation? Because although Waldman may have actually shot a rifle at least one time, let's just say that he's not much of a gun guy and his friends and policy associates don't spend Friday afternoons popping some tops down at Franzey's Bar & Grill.

Now don't get me wrong. You don't have to be a gun guy to say something smart about guns. But Waldman's resume reads like the exact opposite of someone who would give gun owners a break, and let's not forget that he runs a public policy institute named after a Supreme Court justice who probably would have been just as happy if the Second Amendment didn't exist. So I figured the book to be just another one of those "it's time to defang the NRA" deals, with the usual elixir of anti-gun proposals like more background checks, another assault weapons ban and, for good measure, let's get rid of all the damn things anyway.

I was wrong. Leaving aside the early chapters on the how's and why's the Second Amendment even got into the Constitution, the book's real strength is Waldman's ability to tie the narrative of recent gun jurisprudence to the general rightward drift of American politics and American law. I have been waiting for someone to explain how judges like Scalia defend the notion of Second Amendment "originalism" in order to promote a conservative, current-day agenda and Waldman nails this one to the wall. Going back to the 1980s, he charts the confluence of conservative energies represented by politicized evangelicals, right-wing think tanks and specific-interest groups like the NRA, all combining to support a judicial agenda that seeks to roil back or dilute progressive programs and reforms.

It's not so much that gun control is at the top of the progressive agenda; it ebbs and flows as high-profile shootings come and go. But a majority of gun owners, particularly people for whom guns are a serious part of their life-styles, tend to be politically conservative anyway, so using fears of gun restrictions to enlist them in the anti-liberal crusade works every time.

A close reading of sources from the debates over the Bill of Rights makes clear that individual gun ownership represented the ability of citizens to protect and defend their political rights; rights to free speech, free assembly, due process and the like. But the argument for gun ownership advanced by the NRA today, Ollie North's appeals to patriotism notwithstanding, is based on the alleged social value of guns to protect us against crime. The NRA would never argue that the Glock in my pocket should be used to stop cops from coming through the door, but they insist that the same Glock is my first line of defense when a bad guy breaks down that same door.

Waldman clearly understands that by using the Second Amendment to justify gun ownership as a defense against crime, the pro-gun community has successfully restated the history of the Second Amendment to buttress a contemporary social justification for owning guns. Neither will be readily undone as long as gun control advocates believe they can respond to this strategy by stating and restating the "facts." Remember "it's the economy, stupid"? Now "it's the guns."

Emily Tess Katz   |   June 27, 2014   12:22 PM ET

While country superstar Miranda Lambert may not "preach guns," she certainly knows how to use them.

During a HuffPost Live appearance Thursday, Lambert talked about her experience shooting, which began at home during her formative years.

"My dad was a police officer my whole life," she told host Ricky Camilleri. "And so he'd come home and lay a gun on the coffee table, and he taught me early on what a gun is used for, how to use a gun."

Lambert recounted that she feels safe being around guns as a result of her early exposure.

"I had a BB gun when I was like, five. It's just part of our life," she said. "I never preach guns one way or the other -- this is the way I grew up."

And for those who were wondering, Lambert's been known to school husband and fellow country singer Blake Shelton when they head to the shooting range.

"I'm a better shot than Blake, I will say that," she laughed. "With a gun. He's better with a bow."

Watch Miranda Lambert's full conversation with HuffPost Live below:

  |   June 26, 2014    5:57 PM ET

A federal judge upheld gun restrictions in Colorado on Thursday, throwing out a lawsuit aimed at overturning the state's new gun laws, Fox 31 and the AP report.

U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger upheld restrictions that limit the size of ammunition magazines and expand background checks on firearms sold online and between private parties, according to the AP.

Many of Colorado's sheriffs had refused to enforce the gun laws, despite a December 2013 ruling -- also from Krieger -- that said the sheriffs don't have legal standing to challenge the laws in their official capacity.

HuffPost reported earlier on the gun laws:

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed a package of new gun control measures into law in 2013, including universal background checks and the ammunition magazine limit. Support for the new gun laws resulted in the first-ever recall election in state history, which ousted two Democrats -- Senate President John Morse (Colo. Springs) and state Sen. Angela Giron (Pueblo).

A third recall effort against another Democrat, state Sen. Evie Hudak (Westminster), over her support of the gun control legislation, resulted in her resignation in November.

Below, more from the AP:

In a ruling Thursday, U.S. District Judge Marcia Krieger said both laws are constitutional and that they don't infringe on individuals' right to bear arms.

The judge further said that limiting magazine sizes doesn't obstruct individuals' ability to protect themselves and that the expansion of background checks "is no more severe" than the requirements already in place before the new law.

Democrats passed the laws last year without Republican support.

Gun rights advocates and county sheriffs filed the lawsuit.

Democrats passed the laws in response to mass shootings in 2012 at a suburban Denver movie theater and Connecticut's Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Let's Call 'Open Carry' Gun Gangs What They Are

Bob Cesca   |   June 26, 2014    3:27 PM ET

On Monday, the Houston chapter of Open Carry Texas had originally planned an armed march into the Fifth Ward, a predominantly African-American community. The group canceled the event because, they say, one of the members was committed to a previously scheduled event elsewhere.

Canceling the march was probably fortuitous because what could possibly have gone wrong? A gaggle of white, paleoconservative rednecks with military-style rifles strapped to their chests marching through an African-American neighborhood is never a recipe for harrowing consequences.

But seriously, while they're not in line with the traditional definition of "terrorists," the various open carry gangs popping up in shopping center parking lots, Target stores and all points in between need to face more intensive scrutiny for deliberately inciting fear among bystanders.

Imagine in the days and weeks following the Boston Marathon bombing, a group of self-proclaimed "constitutionalists" decided to exercise their right to assemble at a high school track and field event with backpacks filled with pressure cookers. There's nothing inherently illegal about it, is there? Or imagine if following 9/11 a group of Muslim citizens walked into a random public place carrying box cutters and shouting, "Allahu Akbar!" It's extraordinarily difficult to see the difference between these examples and, in the wake of ongoing mass shootings and other less heinous though still terrifying shootings in schools, shopping malls and movie theaters, groups of, shall we say, odd-looking white guys marching into department stores and Starbucks restaurants armed to the teeth with AR-15s, the Sandy Hook weapon. Really, is there any difference at all? It's doubtful the pressure-cooker or box-cutter "protesters" would be allowed to get away with such activities. So, why are the open carry gangs getting a free pass?

open_Carry_target

The First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees "the right of the people peaceably to assemble." Naturally, then, there's nothing wrong with peaceably assembling and protesting, but much like anti-abortion protesters gathered near a grade school playground with giant placards featuring images of aborted fetuses, or Code Pink protesters accosting public officials with blood-red hands and, inexplicably, giant puppets, there are some forms of protest that go too far.

That said, Code Pink and the anti-abortion groups aren't (necessarily) armed.

However, carrying loaded -- or even unloaded -- military-style weapons that are intentionally designed to look like props from a Michael Bay movie goes light years beyond peaceably protesting and merges into being ominous, sneering intimidation of innocent people, shoppers and so forth. There's absolutely nothing "peaceable" about assembling while armed with weapons of death. If the only thing keeping intact the peaceable aspect of the open carry protests is that they haven't yet discharged one or more of their AR-15s into a crowd, I'm not so sure the First Amendment protects the open carry gangs.

What we're witnessing from these groups should absolutely be considered a form of "terrorism," thinly disguised as a defiant protest in support of the Second Amendment. Make no mistake, like the Bundy radicals, they're itching for a fight. They want to be arrested. They want a nation in which the open carrying of deadly weapons is commonplace -- with the critical downside that once the guns are accepted fashion accessories and the public is desensitized, actual homicidal mass shooters can more successfully blend into crowds without having to conceal a damn thing.

It defies reason that in the wake of these mass shootings gun laws continue to become more permissible, rather than more restrictive. More astonishing is the reality that open carry gatherings in public places, especially in locations where the open carriers aren't welcome, isn't a more contentious issue. The logical endgame here is a society in which every third or fourth white guy you bump into at McDonald's is armed with a retail product that can kill you on the spot. It's growing into a Mad Max movie with fewer shoulder pads and more corporate gathering places. Wait, come to think of it, firearms were banned inside Bartertown. So the metaphor doesn't totally hold up, but you know what I mean.

As with the conspiracy theory nutbars, there's an opportunity to marginalize the open carry gangs before their ridiculous "cause" balloons into societal regularity. There's an opportunity to shame them as extremists who are slowly transforming our public places into Tombstone, Arizona.

Oh, dammit, that's right -- guns were banned in Tombstone, too.

Cross-posted at The Daily Banter.

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