What if Congress Accidentally Killed Obamacare? Unpacking the two recent Obamacare decisions in Plain(ish) English.

CapitalAs you may have seen, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals and the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals recently handed down decisions which alternately crippled or saved the tax credit system that powers the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA/Obamacare) insurance exchanges.  The cases center around whether or not the ACA limited the availability of refundable tax credits to state-run (as opposed to federally-run) insurance exchanges by calculating the credits based on months covered under a policy “enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State.”  Really, the heat of the entire debate centers around one the letter “S.”  How so?  Well, I’ll explain it in more detail below, but the short answer is that “State” is a defined term explicitly meaning the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, while “State Exchange” or even “Exchange established by the state” would be a more ambiguous term that could have a broader meaning, and it turns out that a little ambiguity is as valuable as gold for the Executive Branch’s position.  In the end, I think we’re left in the rather curious position where Congress fairly clearly meant to give credits to eligible individuals enrolled in any Exchange, but Congress also pretty clearly actually wrote the law in a way that does not extend those credits to individuals in federally-run Exchanges.  So what do we do?  How do we balance things out?  Our answer to that will end up saying a lot about the way that we view the operation of government, and I think that answer also opens up a serious strategic opportunity for Republican lawmakers.

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Can Gun Control Stop Mass Shootings? (Part 2)

After a bit of a break for vacation.  I’m returning with Part 2 of my consideration of whether or not gun control can stop mass shootings (Read Part 1 Here).

Before we dive into the question, we first need to add some precision to our vocabulary. What constitutes a “school shooting” can be a very broad class, and when the term conjures visions of Columbine, that image doesn’t exactly fit the data points that were used by Everytown.  Many of the incidents were simply shootings that took place at or near a school.  That is, the school was not itself a target, and the violent altercation simply happened to take place there (such as a drug-related altercation or a suicide outside of school hours).  In fact, of the 74 events cited as school shootings since Sandy Hook, fact-checking website PolitiFact found 10 that conjured up images of Columbine (although even then, their list include events like the would-be shooter at UCF who committed suicide instead.) While all of the events cited by Everytown are shootings that took place at school, the appellation “school shooting” seems misleading.  To avoid confusion like this, rather than argue the semantics of defining “school shooting,” we might need to alter our vocabulary.

If it’s the Columbines, Virginia Techs, and Sandy Hooks we’re primarily concerned with, it may be more useful to look to criminology, which refers to these incidents as mass murders (or mass shootings).  While mass murder is not a technical legal term, it is used by the FBI and others to describe a multiple homicide involving four or more victims which take place all in one incident.  This is different from other terms which you may have heard, such as a serial killer or a spree killer (see below).  In contrast to the other classifications, a mass shooting will take place largely in one location, and it is an endgame scenario which the shooter(s) knows will almost always end in their death or arrest.

Diff murder

With this definition in place then, we can finally address the question posed by the title of these two blog posts: Can Gun Control Stop Mass Shootings?  At first glance, the answer seems to be yes.  Mother Jones flatly asserts that more guns equals more mass shootings (correlation as causation, anyone?).  Slate also puts it bluntly:  when Australia passed strict gun control laws in the wake of a mass shooting in 1996, they saw a massive drop in gun violence and there have been no further mass shootings.  So isn’t that all we have to do?  Cut down on guns and we cut down on violence?  That seems to be the logic behind groups like Everytown and many parents grieved in the wake of various mass shootings.  Of course, when Slate goes on to describe the laws Australia passed, the measures taken seem to go far beyond the ones that have so much trouble passing here:

“At the heart of the push was a massive buyback of more than 600,000 semi-automatic shotguns and rifles, or about one-fifth of all firearms in circulation in Australia. The country’s new gun laws prohibited private sales, required that all weapons be individually registered to their owners, and required that gun buyers present a “genuine reason” for needing each weapon at the time of the purchase. (Self-defense did not count.)”  – Slate, Dec. 16 2012

Given our Constitutional framework in the wake of Dist. of Columbia v. Heller (holding that the right to bear arms for self-defense is a fundamental constitutional right), these types of measures could only pass with a significant Constitutional Amendment, one that I think we can all agree is unlikely to happen anytime soon.  Furthermore, as Heller ties its holding to a natural right of self-defense, pistols will remain the most difficult firearm to significantly regulate, and since a Texas State University found that a pistol was the most powerful weapon used in 60% of the mass shootings that occurred between 2000-2010, it’s difficult to imagine regulations that could be passed in the current framework that would fully achieve the desired result of keeping guns out of the hands of potential killers.

So do mass shootings just have to be accepted as a cost of the Second Amendment?  For the reasons I’ll discuss below, I don’t believe this to be true. Continue reading

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Can Gun Control Stop Mass Shootings? (Part 1)

In the wake of another outbreak of individuals deciding to make some sort of statement by attacking strangers in a public place, many people are again asking, “why?”  Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg and his organization, Everytown, cataloged all shootings (not all mass or even school-related) that have occurred on or near school campuses since Sandy Hook, which naturally implies that there’s something we failed to do in response to that tragedy which could have prevented subsequent tragedies.  This connection was explicitly made by fathers of victims of both Sandy Hook and the recent stabbings/shootings near UCSB.  Many point to the failure of gun control reform efforts in the wake of Sandy Hook as exactly the failure that led to recent events.  But is the solution to the problem of mass shootings simply, as some claim, increased gun regulation?  I think there are several reasons to be skeptical of this conclusion.

In this post, I will address the issue of gun violence generally, along with some thoughts on how aligning response with our understanding of the motivation of offenders can help us address the problem; then, in Part 2, I will look at how addressing the problem of mass shootings is different than the problem of gun violence, why there are some sociological reasons to be particularly concerned, and I will close by discussing some solutions to that problem. Continue reading

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In Defense of Dabbling

I have an admittedly broad range of interests.  I teach in two almost wholly unrelated fields: criminal justice and business (although I have joked that I can keep my job by training criminals on one hand and training people to catch them on the other), and I also teach a course in the Core curriculum that focuses on worldview and discipleship formation.  When I was interviewing for my job, I cited systematic theology as a hobby of mine.  You could almost call my interests schizophrenic, and, if I may abuse the comparison to a serious condition a little, all the different disciplinary voices in my head make me think a little differently at times.  But is knowing a little bit about a lot of different things really a worthwhile endeavor?

When I was first interviewed by the now president of my institution, he asked me if I would be comfortable being “a bit of a jack of all trades,” leaving the “master of none” bit unsaid.  The world today values expertise, and expertise means an acute focus on an amazingly small piece of the world.  When I worked in the legal field, I knew of tax experts who built their entire careers around their intimate knowledge of a single tax code provision.  Otherwise, just Google for dissertation titles, like this biology one that popped up when I searched “biology dissertation” : Host-specific Plasmacytoid Dendritic Cell Defenses In The Presence of Human and Macaque Skin Cells Infected with B virus by Nicole Brock at Georgia State University.  I have no idea what about half of those words mean, other than that we’re doing something to Human and monkey skin.  Matt Might, a professor in Computer Science at the University of Utah, explains this phenomenon brilliantly in a series of images in The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.

 Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.

Matt has licensed the guide for sharing with special terms under the Creative Commons license.

The diagram above clearly shows the problem with being a jack of all trades.  Sure, I’ve got a law degree and a master’s in tax law, but at best that makes me a happy little amoeba, maybe a slightly bumpier paint splotch, but miles from adding anything to the sum of human knowledge.  When conceived of in these terms, progress is about an ocean of these tiny little needle pricks slowly expanding the size of the circle of human knowledge.  There is certainly significant value in this illustration, and I acknowledge that Dr. Might was seeking to be descriptive, rather than prescriptive, but this perception can also help explain some distortions in terms of the way we value and pursue knowledge.

I don’t know how many students I’ve talked to or advised in the last few years who are looking to do anything they can to “get the Gen Eds out of the way.”  Students in the sciences can barely put up with courses in the humanities, and humanities students hate that they have to take lab science courses.  In the end, the most popular general courses are often whichever ones are deemed easiest, and everyone is primarily concerned with the bottom-line question: “will this be useful in the real world?”  When the world looks like the diagram above, it’s only natural to conclude in the vast majority of cases that these general education courses are essentially worthless, something to get out of the way before getting down to real learning in a major or minor discipline.  In many (not all) careers, a college education is merely a way to check the box that you have some ability to read and write, while the near totality of the knowledge needed in a career will be developed and delivered on the job.  This all leads us to view college as a sort of remedial primary school with some technical training.  With this view of the world, developing genuinely broad individual knowledge is seen as largely irrelevant or even counter-productive (there are only so many hours in the day, after all!).

Where this perception falls short is in the assumption that it’s the radius of knowledge that counts.  If you’re out at the bleeding edge of human understanding, then you can really genuinely contribute something with that tiny focused push out on the bubble.  You’ve increased the radius of the circle, making the breadth of human knowledge a little bigger, and bigger, as they say, is always better.

I won’t dispute that there’s real value in that type of pursuit, but perhaps the analogy is limiting. Maybe we should think of this giant circle instead in terms of a giant brain.  Most of us assume that a bigger brain equals a smarter person, so obviously these little radial pushes (increasing the size of the brain) are the way to make humanity smarter.  However, science is unsure about the size/smarts correlation, and they’re sure that growth in brain size does not correlate with creativity or innovation.  Perhaps, to tweak the adage, it’s not about the size of your brain so much as how you use it.  Neuroscientists studying Albert Einstein’s brain have noted its unusual complexity and interconnection, while the size and general shape is ordinary.  To incorporate this to the metaphor, big leaps in innovation and creativity (the application of knowledge) may have more to do with making internal connections than with having a subatomic understanding of something.  Sometimes a needle-like focus is exactly what the situation needs, but that can also create tunnel vision, and in other situations innovation and progress may come through realizing that two disparate things are actually connected or that the understanding of one can advance the understanding of the other.

So this is my defense of dabbling: maybe it’s a good thing to be a happy little amoeba on the diagram.  You may not have any one extension that pushes out the radius of human understanding, but you might see connections or instructive analogies that those with more rigid focus will miss out on, and helping to make some of these connections, if it can’t expand the radius of human knowledge, can at least increase the depth of human understanding.

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