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The Establishment of Religion in the State House

Monday’s Providence Journal Political Scene contains an interesting moment regarding vague legislation (since withdrawn) to give the state government authority to go into all public and private schools in the state and test them against an official measure of tolerance:

Diaz told Political Scene she was stunned by the criticism. She said the bill evolved out of a conversation she had with the Providence school superintendent. She said it reflects her beliefs as a Christian woman about how children should be treated, and it matches legislation she successfully sponsored a few years ago for children in the care of the state’s Department of Children, Youth & Families.

Wait, what?  I thought progressives were opposed to politicians’ legislating their religious beliefs.  What happened to that separation of church and state?

The obvious reality is that “separation” talk is just partisan baloney.  Any particular progressive may simply be a hypocrite, but as a general proposition, its adherents understand that individual people are able to pass through the proverbial wall.  As long as a church hierarchy isn’t actually running the government, there’s nothing wrong with legislating one’s morality.

Progressives actually surpass most conservatives in wanting to impose their beliefs on others through the force of government.  Oh, they’ve got a number of self-deceptive gimmicks that allow them to feel otherwise — the assertion of their beliefs as objective fact, for example — but they see the law as the sine qua non of “who we are as a community,” and that means it must reflect their beliefs. It’s only your beliefs, if you disagree, that simply aren’t allowed… because those are the objective rules.

In a meaningful coincidence (or, as I’d tend to believe, a divine hint), the same Political Scene includes a run-down of the number of times either chamber of the General Assembly has even considered removing members.  Even the Dorr Rebellion — an armed insurrection — was not sufficient for legislators actually to seek expulsion, yet as of this writing, all that recently resigned Senator Nicholas Kettle faces are unproven allegations.

But Kettle is a political minority (a Republican), and even if he’s done nothing criminal, he appears to be an infidel against the #MeToo dogma, so his sacrifice serves as a useful message to everybody else that the progressive god will strike down those who are guilty even when the laws of men do not apply.

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The Governor’s Priorities on Gun Control

The video following the text on this WPRI story features me arguing that the governor’s executive order making gun confiscation a higher priority for law enforcement doesn’t adequately respect the rights of the gun owner.  One can tell that it was written entirely by gun-control advocates.  The person under investigation, while law enforcement must “follow up” with him or her at least once, has no advocate in the process.  Moreover, the Working Group for Gun Safety has no requirement that any members be supporters of gun rights or even private-sector gun experts.  “Gun violence prevention advocates” and “affected families and youth” get a nod, though.

As a distinct matter separate from the wisdom of the “red flag” policy that Democrat Governor Gina Raimondo promoted, however, the process and presentation raise important questions about the governor’s priorities.

First is the fact that the public was told on Friday that the governor would sign some broadly defined “red flag” legislation on Monday, which she did at a staged media event in Warwick.  Then, we all waited around to discover what, specifically, she had done after she had already done it.  No public input; Raimondo formulates a policy behind closed doors and assumes it is perfect.

That was followed by, second, the fact that the language of the executive order was not available anywhere, as far as I could tell, including on the governor’s executive order page, which at the time hadn’t been updated since 2015, and on the page for the related press release.  The executive order page was updated before the close of business, yesterday, after I’d complained about the omission on social media, but as of this writing (the following morning), the tab at the top of the list still says “2015.”

In other words, with all the public relations personnel that Governor Raimondo is infamous for having hired, nobody bothered to make this executive order available upon release — let alone beforehand, available for public comment.  That suggests that the important thing, to the governor, isn’t the policy, but the PR, and that isn’t how law ought to be formulated, especially when restricting Constitutional rights.

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A “Red Flag” in Our Trust of the Judiciary

Have we completely lost our understanding of why the founders of our nation attempted to design a system of government that didn’t rely on the good will and unassailable wisdom of the human beings who wield government’s incredible power?  One can only conclude that we have when reading proposed legislation sponsored by Democrat Representative Dennis Canario (Portsmouth, Little Compton, Tiverton).

The “red flag” bill would allow law enforcement personnel, including the AG’s office, or a household or family member of a gun owner to petition the court to have a person’s guns removed and to block him or her from buying new ones.

A single judge then decides the matter, with limited information and with no outside check (like a psychiatrist) required.  All of this potentially happens without the knowledge of the person whose rights are under attack.

With regard to our Constitutional rights, the step of taking somebody’s weapons should be the end of a process, not the first step.  In the immediacy of an actual incident “get the guns out of there” might be a reasonable first action, but not as a general rule, as this legislation makes it.

The point about trusting judges is equally important.  We have judges because sometimes it comes down to somebody having to decide something, not because we think that people who take that position are somehow wiser or more objective.  It should be that somebody has to decide, not that we want to let somebody decide.

Even with things far less consequential than Constitutional rights, we recognize the importance of protections.  In the Olympics, events that require subjective review have multiple judges, from multiple countries.  We only use umpires or referees when we’re applying a clear rule to a set of circumstances.

This legislation comes nowhere near a clear standard.  It merely offers some suggestions about what a judge should consider, and with no consequence for frivolous petitions.*  Moreover, it transforms the concept of a “red flag,” which should mean enhanced scrutiny, into a regime of confiscation.

In short, it’s the sort of tyranny that inspired our forefathers to explicitly write down certain of our rights and the boundaries of government.

* The legislation does include language making it a misdemeanor to file petitions “knowing the information in such petition to be
materially false, or with intent to harass the respondent.” The bar to prove intent in either case could be high, however, especially if the petition comes from law enforcement. Moreover, if law enforcement files the petition in good faith based on false information, the language in the bill would not appear to cover that lie. (Although, it’s possible that other laws would come into play.

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A Red Flag for “Red Flag” Laws

Some version of this, as Paul Edward Parker reports it for the Providence Journal, is worth considering:

The Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association on Tuesday voted unanimously to ask the General Assembly to pass a law to help keep guns out of the hands of people who demonstrate they are a risk to public safety. …

Under a so-called “red flag” law, the police could obtain a court order preventing people from having guns if they are a danger to themselves or others.

However, caution is critical, because this is dangerous territory for our civil rights.  Any such policy needs explicit guidelines for what counts as evidence and how the threshold is to be determined, preferably with some sort of validation outside of government (say a psychiatrist).  Otherwise, the government could confiscate weapons from people who simply dissent from the ruling worldview.

Indeed, one could imagine guns’ being confiscated because people in government know a person will be in a position that might make weaponry more problematic… like politically motivated pre-dawn raids, as in Michigan, or some sort of activists’ action against the person.  Imagine if police know somebody will be soon targeted like FCC commissioner Ajit Pai when the net neutrality issue was boiling; law enforcement might take away any weapons he might have to make sure nothing gets out of hand.  Or on the other side, if somebody is known to be an activist, the government  might take his or her weapons away.

It is insufficient for anybody currently in office to profess that such a thing will never happen; Rhode Islanders should demand clear standards and laws for any such legislation.  Look even to the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association’s statement.  An association for law-enforcement leaders should not contain language following the pattern of “we respect the Second Amendment, but…”

The Second Amendment isn’t in place as a sort of vague principle to be “respected.”  It’s a fundamental law of the land.  Government agents shouldn’t profess “respect” for it so much as pledge to “adhere” to it.

In this case, that means taking every conceivable step to ensure that a “red flag” policy cannot possibly infringe on our right to bear arms.

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The Inherent Racism of Gun Control

Writing for the Independent Institute’s Beacon, Anthony Gregory argues that the mechanics of gun control are implicitly racist:

Perhaps the most telling data concerns the racial makeup of who goes to prison for gun violations. According to the U.S. Sentencing Commission, for Fiscal Year 2011, 49.6% of those sentenced to federal incarceration with a primary offense of firearms violations were black, 20.6% were Hispanic, and only 27.5% were white.

This is how gun laws actually work—those caught violating them go to prison. For the mere act of owning an illegal weapon—not necessarily for using it, not for threatening anyone with it, not for being irresponsible with it—people who have harmed no one are locked up in prison for years at a time. As with the rest of the criminal justice system, particularly the war on drugs, these laws disproportionately harm the poor and minorities. That is the inescapable reality of gun control.

Gregory further argues that we’re not just talking gang members’ getting caught with weapons that they may have used or may intend to use for illegal purposes.  In poorer, more-dangerous environments good people have incentive to make provisions to protect themselves, and as with every other area of society in which the government erects barriers and imposes costs, people with lower income are less able to make sure they’ve got all of their Ts crossed.  That’s especially true when minorities are more likely to have some sort of criminal record.

Murdering people is already illegal, and doing it on a large scale is among the most stunningly illegal things one can do.  Broadening the list of activities that are illegal (like owning a particular type of gun or carrying a gun on one’s person) may or may not make such killers unable to do what they want to do, but on a much larger scale, the laws will snag people who are innocent of any other crime.  Putting them on the list of society’s criminals will only harm their future prospects at the same time that it puts them in the company of actual criminals.

Even if one believes that the number of lives ruined through this unintended effect is worth the number of lives saved by a ban, one must take it into account.

(via Stephen Green)

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Rhode Island Senate Leaders Declare Representative Democracy Dead in Rhode Island

To the Rhode Island Senate’s shame, it has filed legislation for what is likely the first-ever expulsion of a state senator, and it was done, as the bill states, based on some now-resolved campaign finance problems, “unwanted media coverage,” and some allegations and criminal charges for which Coventry Republican Senator Nicholas Kettle has not yet gone to trial.

As argued in this space, yesterday, whatever one thinks of Kettle’s moral standing to claim continuing political support, this extreme measure by the Senate goes beyond attacking his rights to attacking the rights of Rhode Island voters.  It isn’t up to voters to find a candidate whom the insiders in the State House can accept; it’s up to the legislators to accept whomever the voters send.

The fact that the lead sponsor of the bill is Democrat Senate President Dominick Ruggerio — who was himself arrested in 2012 and brought “unwanted media coverage” to the chamber — puts an exclamation point on the political nature of this move.  The involvement of Senate Majority Leader Dennis Algiere does not alleviate this problem, especially after recent revelations that he played a role attempting to broker peace at an initially secret meeting between Ruggerio and Democrat Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello.

Moreover, the fact that the legislation includes detailed documentation of the allegations, as attachments or evidence, suggests that there’s more going on here than a desire to resolve a legislative problem.  I’ve never seen external documents appended as part of a bill before, and I’ve read thousands of bills in the past few years.

One needn’t come to the defense of Senator Kettle or his alleged actions to suggest that this is a step too far and moves Rhode Island governance to another level of intrinsic corruption.  If Kettle is no longer acceptable to his constituents, then they should remove him.  The other politicians in the state Senate shouldn’t take it upon themselves to ensure that a district goes without representation for an entire legislative session.  Discomfort with the subject matter of the allegations shouldn’t lead Rhode Islanders to give over their basic rights as voters to a small group of political elites.

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A Word on Maintaining Calm (And Rights) in the Face of Tragedy

Horrible events like the school shooting in Florida yesterday are painful to contemplate, but contemplate them we must.  However, “contemplation” entails attention to details and balancing of considerations.  Unfortunately, emotions run high when it comes to safety on school grounds, so facts become easy to discard.  Also unfortunately, activists rev up the outrage before facts are even known.

From what we know — and it’s still not much — authorities had multiple signals that the shooter merited scrutiny.  The Daily Mail reports that, when a student, he wasn’t permitted to carry a backpack.  The New York Daily News reports that the shooter was flagged to the FBI months ago for a school-shooting comment on YouTube.  His Instagram account was a chilling, easy-to-find signal.

Of course, the warning about waiting for more information covers all directions in which this investigation may go, and it’s possibly understandable that a few reports to different agencies wouldn’t combine to bring real attention to a potential threat.  Even if there is no fault to assign on this count, though, it remains true that authorities did not protect the public from somebody whom others had identified as dangerous.  It is not obvious, therefore, that the appropriate response to the government’s inability to protect people is to further curtail Americans’ ability to protect themselves.

So let’s tone down the rhetoric and try to avoid making emotional decisions that remove other people’s rights and might have unintended consequences.  Consider, for example, that one of the supposed 18 school shootings that are being hyped actually involved a student’s pulling the trigger of a police officer’s gun while it was still in the holster, and others are also a stretch to put on the list.

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