Are Tighter Gun Control Laws Possible?

The following white paper was written in August 2012 in completion of requirements of the NYU Brademas Center for the Study of Congress, after a stint working for the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg. A PDF version of the paper is available here.

A series of shootings in the summer of 2012 have illuminated yet again the issue of gun control in the United States. Conversations have once again sprung up regarding the need for and constitutionality of restrictions on weapon ownership. However, though debate may continue in newspaper opinion pages and on cable television, no serious discussion of reform has reached the floors of Congress—and none is likely to do so. Tragedies like those that occurred in America this summer continuously fail to reframe the issue or even spark a lasting national conversation. The country is currently in a stalemate on gun control reform, despite indications of public opinion that we need tighter laws.

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The MTA’s Capital Quicksand

This article appeared on The Brooklyn Quarterly May 4, 2015.

Image: Neil Reilly
Image: Neil Reilly

The New York City subway system is one of our city’s defining characteristics. The subway is New York City’s circulatory system; without it, the city’s geography, population, and economy would never have reached today’s magnitudes. But the state government, which overtook the subways when they became insolvent as private enterprise in the 1960s, continues to neglect the needs of the system.

In late April, the New York Times ran an editorial to this effect. As everyone who follows the MTA knows, the agency has a $15 billion gap in its next capital budget. Many don’t know, though, that the MTA carries a $34 billion debt load, which grows every year under increased pressure to make debt service payments. The Times piece, which endorsed the sensible Move New York transportation overhaul plan, was tepid when it came to chastising those responsible for the chronic unmet needs of the system.

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Andrew Cuomo and the Estranged Left

cuomo2Andrew Cuomo, today being re-elected Governor of New York, is admired, feared, respected, hated. In his recent book, All Things Possible, Cuomo writes:

At the end of your career, the only thing that matters is the lasting effect of your actions. Otherwise, what’s the point? You have to be willing to incur opposition if you actually want to get something meaningful done. All the difficult issues are controversial, by definition. But that’s the point of public service and what separates the statesmen from the journeymen in my opinion.

There is no reason to believe this is just idle rhetoric from a future presidential candidate. Coming in the context of eulogizing the political career of a Westchester County executive who helped him early in his career, this statement both reflects and attempts to justify Cuomo’s well-known ruthlessness. And hey, what’s wrong with being ruthless when it’s the only way to get the job done (especially in Albany)? “Be realistic—you can’t please everyone on your way to getting shit done.” That seems to be the motif of All Things Possible and the motto that drives Cuomo’s career. Keep reading →

New Transparency in the NFL?

090201-F-7552L-008The storm of football-related violent crime this year is pushing questions about the sport’s troubled relationship with domestic violence into the national consciousness. Now the National Football League is on its heels after being out-maneuvered by almost everyone in America and risks losing sponsors, which is the only wake-up call it will heed. I will leave the broad-scale social commentary to others, but have noticed several aspects of the league’s response to its players’ behavior that deserve scrutiny. Keep reading →

Police State

MadisonPoliceIn the wake of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri, there has been much discussion of the militarization of law enforcement agencies in the United States. While some reports have focused on the delivery of military-grade equipment to local police departments, TBQ writer Dvora Meyers asked an interesting question: How large are US police forces compared with other nations’ militaries? Keep reading →

Wanted: Fresh Ideas

Even after Newtown, the pro-reform Left runs out of gas on guns.

MAIGpresserOn June 24 I had the pleasure of attending a public discussion on guns featuring Governor Dannel Malloy of Connecticut. John Feinblatt, senior advisor to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the man behind the curtain at Mayors Against Illegal Guns, was his sidekick. Though both men demonstrated their copious passion and knowledge of the issues and hurdles facing gun reform, their words inspired a disappointingly hollow confidence—a sense of fighting the good fight without an appraisal of the likelihood of progress. Keep reading →

Leaving a Gaping Hole

The loss of Frank Lautenberg is bad for the Senate, national politics, and the people of New Jersey.

FRLThis isn’t an obituary summarizing his politics or life story, as sufficient pieces in the New York Times or National Journal have taken care of that. However, some reflection is necessary on the day that the U.S. Senate has lost one of its most progressive and genuine members.  Keep reading →

The Expansion vs Maintenance Balance

Smith9thAfter two years of delays and cost overruns on a badly needed renovation, the elevated subway station at Smith and 9th Streets in Brooklyn reopened for use on Friday, April 26. The station is the closest one in the system to the neighborhood of Red Hook, which is otherwise strangled by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The relieved riders of that area will undoubtedly enjoy the restoration of service. But Smith-9th is a microcosm of the constant dilemma that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) faces in its capital planning program: balancing expansion projects like the Second Avenue Subway or East Side Access against maintaining a state of good repair across the system. Keep reading →

Reframe the Guns Debate

guns2On Thursday of this past week, Reid Wilson of theNational Journal wrote an article decrying the lack of a national conversation on guns. My own most recent column discussed the same issue. Articles like those are necessary to highlight a major shortcoming of our society: Americans are not sufficiently moved by tragedies like that in Newtown, Connecticut, to press for real change. The vitriol directed at Wilson’s column—written a day before Friday’s shooting of elementary school children—focused on a mythical grand plan by liberals to destroy the Constitution, starting with the second amendment. When Jason Whitlock wrote an excellent and impassioned article in the wake of an NFL player’s murder-suicide two weeks ago, gun lovers responded with a collective, “Shut up, sports journalist.” Keep reading →

Deadly Silence

gunsIn the town hall-style presidential debate, Mitt Romney claimed it is “illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.” Neither candidate made a claim farther from the truth all night. It is very much legal to own automatic weapons—both semi- and fully automatic— and their ammunition, much like the arsenal that murdered moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado this summer.

What Romney’s statement and the absence of any challenge to it by President Barack Obama demonstrate is a crystallization of America’s gun control dilemma. America utterly lacks the interest and capacity for a national conversation about guns, let alone for progressive reform. Keep reading →

Cuomo’s Casinos: Bad Politics, Bad Economics

cuomoGovernor Andrew Cuomo has put himself in a no-win position. He has embraced the clamor for upstate casinos and the promise of the slot machine as a means of economic development in the state’s depressed regions. Casinos played a prominent role in the development plan he unveiled in his otherwise outstanding 2013 State of the State address. Compounding that error, Cuomo recently declared that he wants to keep politics out of the process of deciding where the casinos will go.

If the plan to sprinkle casinos across upstate New York proceeds, it will be a black mark on Cuomo’s resume. Casinos represent only a mirage of growth. And there is absolutely no way politics can—or should—be removed from the planning process. Keep reading →

Bringing the People Back to American Democracy

ReidMcConnellThe Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans by Mickey Edwards. Yale Press, 2012; 208 pp.

Mickey Edwards served the people of Oklahoma in the U.S. House of Representatives for sixteen years before leaving office in 1993. During his tenure, he held various senior positions—from the chairmanship of the highly visible Appropriations Subcommittee on Foreign Relations to the chairmanship of the back room House Republican Policy Committee. Edwards has remained in the public discourse, teaching at various prestigious universities; appearing on public television and radio; and chairing task forces for the Brookings Institution, the Constitution Project, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In 2008, he also wroteReclaiming Conservatism: How a Great American Political Movement Got Lost—And How It Can Find Its Way Back, which implores Americans to return to valuing the Constitution in the way that the Founding Fathers did. Keep reading →

Zombie City

DetroitCentralStationDriving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City by George Galster. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. 328 pp.

Urbanists across America—likely across the world—are familiar with the woes of the Motor City. Descriptors like “plight,” “blight,” or even “ruin” abound. Detroit itself has less than half the 1.8 million population of its postwar peak. Its anchor industry—the automotive—was only saved from disaster by a government bailout. Symbolic of its misery, the city’s economic core greets visitors with a gigantic bronze fist, a monument to Motown’s heavyweight champion, Joe Louis.

In Driving Detroit: The Quest for Respect in the Motor City, author George Galster combines historical anecdotes with sociological hypotheses in an attempt to explain its woes. He does not hammer on the statistical indicators of Detroit’s depression. Instead, he pounds relentlessly on what he sees as the city’s dual historical conflicts: labor versus capital and white versus black. Keep reading →

Known Unknowns in Policing

NYPDshieldThe City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control by Franklin E. Zimring. Oxford Press, 2011. 257 pp.

Police are nothing new in America, but the national discussion regarding their role in society is growing. The past year has witnessed mass protests spring up in several cities. These have been nearly uniformly handled awkwardly, commonly with asymmetric violence. The spotlight has turned to the officers who forcefully disperse protests as well as the administrators and elected officials who are responsible for their actions and for public safety.

After peaking in 1990, crime in the United States declined tremendously. The drop in crime in New York City, however, dwarfs this improvement. America’s largest city has enjoyed a fall in crime more than twice as long in duration and steeper than the national average. The statistics are no secret, yet a policy-relevant explanation for this anomalous shift eludes scholars. Frank Zimring gives it a try with The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control. Unfortunately, in this book he falls short. He does not deal sufficiently with the New York Police Department’s (NYPD) stop-and-frisk tactic and his own reasoning leaves his conclusion on shaky footing. Keep reading →

The Powerlessness of the Powerful

jackhammerA Governor’s Story: The Fight For Jobs And America’s Economic Future by Jennifer M. Granholm and Dan Mulhern. PublicAffairs, 2011. 312 pp.

Many Americans who follow national affairs superimpose the plight of Detroit – once the symbol of American manufacturing and exporting prowess – on the state of Michigan. After the adoption of neo-liberal free trade agreements in the 1990s, jobs began to leak out through the cracks of an antiquated industrial framework that had not adapted to new technologies or management theories. Jennifer Granholm was elected to Michigan’s highest office as this leak burst into an outright flood. Keep reading →

Policy Without Politics

windfarmBack to Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong Recovery by Bill Clinton. Knopf, 2011. 196 pp.

In a November 2011 interview, Bill Clinton declared that the midterm election one year prior was “devoid of fact.” He thus set out to inform Americans how we arrived in our current state of economic distress and political morass. Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government For A Strong Recovery is his succinct and accurate treatment of these issues and a compilation of policy prescriptions to – as the book clearly hammers home – “get America back in the future business.” Keep reading →

Civil Justice in Crisis

SCOTUSRebuilding Justice: Civil Courts in Jeopardy and Why You Should Careby Rebecca Love Kourlis and Dirk Olin; Fulcrum Publishing, 2011; 230 pp.

The independent judiciary is one of the crowning achievements of American government. Alexis de Tocqueville declared it “at once most favorable to liberty and to public order.” Courts form the third pillar of government, upholding our liberty. Sadly, this pillar is cracking under the massive weight of a poorly functioning justice system. Our system, in which judges believe that they have failed their duty if a case goes to trial, has gone off the rails, achieving expediency at the expense of justice. Keep reading →

Railways to Nowhere

railroad-1930-300x231Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White; Norton, 2011; 660 pp.

The locomotive is an essential symbol of that famous idea of American expansionism, “Manifest Destiny.” This doctrine declared that American society would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was held with such religious fervor that it became the subject of allegorical works of art. Tellingly, the railroads were not viewed so reverently at the time. Indeed, they were popularly depicted as an octopus strangling the United States legal, economic, and political systems.

With Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White has contributed a coherent and deeply thoughtful account of the rapid growth, rampant mismanagement, and swift decline of the railroads that reached the Pacific coast. White provides his reader trenchant insights to the myriad industries that found themselves intertwined, for better or worse, with the railroads. At times, he also offers criticism of the policies that facilitated the robbery of public (and Indian) lands, abuse of natural resources, and crippling of America’s economy. Keep reading →