Category Archives: What You Can Do

Gunning For Change: Gun Safety in America

Whatever one’s feelings about the 2nd amendment, individuals’ gun rights should not supersede the health and safety of the American people.

I was in middle school when the massacre at Columbine happened. Everyone was devastated and appalled – those kids were only a little bit older than we were! What if it had been us? Our school officials took that reaction to its next logical step and started preparing us for such an eventuality with “lockdown” drills. We turned off the lights, closed the shades, and hid – scrunching along the wall that bordered the classroom door to avoid scrutiny from the door’s window. We were told not to let anyone in, regardless of who they were or how much they begged and pleaded. Anybody could be a potential shooter or hostage. The exercise was equal parts terrifying and surreal.

That was 17 years ago and what scares me more than the possibility of my own demise is how commonplace such carnage has become in our country. The actions that shocked us in their gruesomeness have now become almost banal in their regularity. Reports on the number of mass shootings vary depending on sources’ definitions and available information, but tend to agree that that number has increased in recent years. The American Journal for Public Health (AJPH) published a report on the matter:

By most estimates, there were fewer than 200 mass shootings reported in the United States often defined as crimes in which four or more people are shot in an event, or related series of events between 1982 and 2012. [27, 28] Recent reports suggest that 160 of these events occurred after the year 2000 [29] and that mass shootings rose particularly in 2013 and 2014. [28]

As frightening as such occurrences are, people killed in mass shootings make up less than half of 1 percent of the people shot to death in the United States. Gun violence, including suicide, kills some 30,000 Americans every year. According to Snopes, toddlers actually kill more people (accidentally) than potential or suspected Islamic terrorists within the US. And yet, the frenzy of fear surrounding the latter group has fueled infinitely more federal and state action.

Vivek Murthy, served as the 19th and 21st Surgeon General of the United States under President Obama and President Biden. was clear in his opinion that guns have become a public health issue. In fact, many cite the NRA’s lobbying efforts against him as the reason his nomination took over a year to receive approval. It makes sense, though, that he would be concerned about something that has such a profound effect on the safety of the American people.

“Guns are a consumer product. We’ve taken a public health approach to reducing product-related injury for every other product, from automobiles, to toys, to airplanes. Every product is regulated from a health and safety perspective with the goal of reducing accident and injury. The only exception is guns,” said Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Violence Policy Center.

 Comic relief: SNL’s take on the safety of consumer products.

 

Certain politicians enjoy passing this off as a mental health issue, reasoning that it’s not the guns, but the crazy people holding them that we have to control. It’s not actually that simple – most people who have mental illnesses pose no harm to themselves or others.

… surprisingly little population-level evidence supports the notion that individuals diagnosed with mental illness are more likely than anyone else to commit gun crimes. According to Appelbaum, [25] less than 3% to 5% of US crimes involve people with mental illness, and the percentages of crimes that involve guns are lower than the national average for persons not diagnosed with mental illness. Databases that track gun homicides, such as the National Center for Health Statistics, similarly show that fewer than 5% of the 120 000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness. 26 (AJPH)

Believe it or not, you don’t actually have to be “crazy” to want to hurt someone (or act on that thought). Not only that, but the same politicians who use the mentally ill as scapegoats refuse to pass legislation that would actually benefit their wellbeing. Yes, we do need reform on how we treat people with mental illness, but that’s not the question at hand.

The real issue here is that we need to get serious about reforming our gun control laws. This isn’t even a radical idea – the vast majority of Americans agree that at the least, we need more background checks and enforcement of existing regulation.

Chris Rock has famously said that we would be better served regulating bullets (pricing them at $5,000 each) than guns. Maybe he’s right. In any case, we need to start looking into creative and common sense ways to fix this problem.

First Amendment Defense Act: An Assault on the Constitution and Civil Rights

FADA: The Wrong Way to Protect our Rights

Orwell’s 1984 was even more frightening when I reread it during the Bush administration. Amidst freedom fries and the Patriot Act, I saw traces of his infamous doublespeak: War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Now, in the wake of Trump’s win and in a climate of increasing intolerance, those traces seem to be more like guidelines. Latest case in point: the First Amendment Defense Act  (FADA). The First Amendment is specifically meant to guarantee freedom of speech, religion, and the press – among other things. It is perversely fitting, then, that FADA aims to override these protections with a law that restricts civil rights in the name of religious freedom, especially given that it promotes one religion’s values above all others.

More than just eroding the separation of church and state, FADA wants to bore a hole straight through it. Ironically, FADA protects people from government “discrimination” against their “right” to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. It is a direct assault on the landmark Supreme Court marriage equality win. Indeed, the act’s promoters care little for non-Christian beliefs and actively state that it is meant to reassert the enforcement of their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.

As S.E. Smith on Truthout says:

FADA isn’t about protecting people of faith, but about legitimizing discrimination. The question isn’t “can I deny service to someone who doesn’t like same-gender marriage” but “can an employer fire someone for being in a same-gender marriage” or “can I refuse to rent a hotel room to an unmarried heterosexual couple.” The answer, under FADA, could be “yes.”

… That [also] means the government couldn’t revoke tax exempt status from organizations — like churches — that discriminate against LGBQT people. Nor could it set anti-discrimination policies for federal contractors.

Of course, this is not strictly a new development; it is instead a continuation of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (1993), and its more recent follow-up, the Supreme Court’s infamous Hobby Lobby decision which allowed a person (and therefore a corporation) to discriminate against people based on religious beliefs – including letting a Christian company refuse to provide its employees insurance coverage for morning-after pills and birth control methods despite Obamacare’s guarantees.

Unsurprisingly, Trump has pledged to sign FADA should it pass in Congress. Moving forward in the wake of the presidential election, it is vital that we remain vigilant in protecting both the Constitution and the civil rights that our forebears fought so hard to guarantee. We must not slide backwards; halting FADA and everything it stands for is a good place to start.

Fact or Faction

The Sticky Truth

The election is right around the corner and the world is in a tizzy about the outcome. News sites and Facebook feeds are brimming with analyses of the latest Trump gaffe, the panic surrounding the “new” Clinton emails, and what they mean about the polls. But to what extent does new information actually filter through our consciousness to influence our system of beliefs?

I’ve discussed America’s difficult relationship with the truth before. The media certainly shapes the way that the public interprets information – whether or not viewers believe the news being reported is true. Of course, that’s assuming that they actually care if something is true. In the case of Trump, for example, his supporters view him as a truth-teller even though he continues to spout easily disproven lies. Some have actively claimed that they would support him regardless of whether he is telling the truth. Meanwhile, Hillary “enjoys” a persistent aura of untrustworthiness in spite of having lied significantly less than her competitor.

We are in an age where many Americans proudly proclaim their disbelief in science. How do you get through to people who are so enamored of their own convictions that they will not accept anything that proves them wrong? A study in 2010 showed that “misinformed people rarely change their minds when presented with the facts — and often become even more attached to their beliefs.”

Part of the solution is changing tactics. No one likes to be patronized and hitting someone over the head with dull and dry statistics certainly is not a winning strategy. Scientists and communicators have had to tackle these problems when trying to fight the uphill battle against climate change denial. A great blog called Skeptical Science first introduced me to this interesting approach to debunking myths: fight sticky ideas with stickier ideas. Use humor, snappy soundbites and unexpected metaphors to make the truth circulate. Hey – who doesn’t love a good meme?

Client News: ERFA’s New Zoning Plan to Stop Supertowers

East River Fifties Alliance Files New Zoning Plan, Promotes Affordable Housing; Manhattan Borough President Brewer, City Council Members Kallos and Garodnick, and State Senator Krueger Co-Sign

After months of intense preparation, our clients, the East River Fifties Alliance (ERFA), just filed a new zoning plan for Manhattan’s Far East 50s (the area between 52nd Street and 59th Street, east of 1st Avenue) with the Department of City Planning. The new zoning plan would restrict supertowers and out-of-scale development in that neighborhood, while providing for affordable housing. Not only that, but they had an elite list of co-filers: Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, City Council Members Ben Kallos and Dan Garodnick, and State Senator Liz Krueger.

This proposal, created via a partnership between the community (through ERFA) and city planners, is one of the most sweeping community residential re-zoning plans in City history, and the first plan of its kind to include affordable housing as a component.

Currently, the Far East Fifties is vulnerable to gigantic megatower development because its zoning is left over from the 1960s and sets no specific height limits on apartment buildings. It’s the last residential-only segment of the city that remains without such protections. (The same zoning is generally limited to busy commercial or mixed use avenues in Manhattan.)  In fact, one developer has already proposed a wildly oversized 1,000 foot megatower on East 58th Street between First Avenue and Sutton Place that would dwarf the entire neighborhood. ERFA is working to prevent not only that project but all others like it.

Affordable Housing

As Mayor de Blasio has voiced repeatedly, NYC needs affordable housing badly. ERFA not only agrees, but the neighborhood is welcoming such opportunities with open arms. This new zone would urge developers to devote at least 25% of new units to affordable housing in the neighborhood.

As it stands, the East River Fifties’ R10 zone and equivalent zones throughout the city only create about 4-5% affordable units with each new development. If fully implemented, the ERFA plan would nearly quadruple the amount of affordable housing in new developments in our neighborhood. The details of how that goal could be best met – whether by making the affordable housing component mandatory, voluntary, or by some other formulation – will be determined in ERFA’s negotiations with City Planning. it will enter a review process that moves through the various levels of New York City’s government for approval. You can learn more about ERFA and its new zoning plan at www.erfa.nyc

The media is already excited and we’ve received a slew of stories. Here are a few: City Land (New York Law School), Crain’s New York Business, Curbed, DNA Info, Manhattan Express, New York Daily News, Our Town Press, Realty Today, and The Real Deal.

Climate Change Scientists Take Nantucket Sleighride

Take Your Own Nantucket Sleighride: How Old Whaling Ships Are Helping in the Fight to Stop Climate Change

In the wake of the recent UN climate change conference in Paris, there’s lots of discussion about the subject. Some argue that the accord that was reached is historic and a huge step in the right direction, while others argue that the accord doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Meanwhile, there are scientists and others who get up every day and fight the battle against climate change as best they can, accord or not.

And so, one on-the-ground tidbit that got very little attention in all the hubbub about the Paris conference was this, as reported by the Associated Press: “Maritime historians, climate scientists and ordinary citizens are coming together on a project to study the logbooks of 19th-century whaling ships to better understand modern-day climate change and Arctic weather patterns.”

This fascinating project called Old Weather: Whaling will comb through approximately 2600 whaling logbooks, dating from 1756 – 1965, because they can yield valuable information about longitude and latitude measurements, weather conditions, the presence of icebergs and the edge of the ice shelf. This can help climate scientists compare weather and ice conditions, then and now, and can also help create advanced computer models that, based on the information from the logs, might be able to predict future conditions.

According to the AP story, Kevin Wood, a climate scientist with NOAA’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Ocean and Atmosphere at the University of Washington and a lead researcher on the project calls this a “virtual time-traveling weather satellite.”

“We can build an enormously detailed reconstruction of the conditions at the time … and we can we can understand how the climate has been changing over a longer period of time,” Wood said.

The Old Weather: Whaling project is led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The New Bedford Whaling Museum (Massachusetts) is, “transcribing and digitizing its own logbooks, as well as original data sources from the Nantucket Historical Association, Martha’s Vineyard Museum, Mystic Seaport in Connecticut, and the New Bedford Free Public Library.”

The digitized logbooks are being placed online and the public is asked to help sift through the thousands and thousands of pages of material. There are already 20 whalers’ logbooks online.

So here’s something you can “do” about climate change. You can actually participate in a project that will advance climate research. Check out Old Weather: Whaling to learn more. Meanwhile, have yourself a good Nantucket sleighride! (While you’re at it, go ahead and listen to Mountain’s “Nantucket Sleighride.”)