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Archive for January, 2015

More Guns Do Not Make Us Safer – posted 1/25/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 2/4/2015

January 25, 2015 3 comments

This piece appeared in the Concord Monitor on 2/4/2015 under the title “Culture of Fear”.

In the debate that recently allowed concealed carry in the New Hampshire House, there was one quote that grabbed my attention.

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

The Republican legislator who made that statement appeared to encapsulate the majority view. In this view, guns prevent violence and the more guns, the better. Safety would be all legislators, armed.

But I guess it is not just legislators. From all appearances, gun proponents think the world would be a safer place if everybody was armed, everywhere. This must be the dream of gun manufacturers. In this dream, if you do not have a gun, you are a sitting duck.

The crazy thing is we are not living in some 19th century Wild West. You would think civil society is a war zone like Syria. Why would legislators be expecting a shootout in the New Hampshire House in 2015? Are legislators that scared and insecure that they need a gun in their possession at all times?

Apparently they are.

We live in a culture of fear-mongering. There are many fears to catalogue. There is fear of terrorism, foreign and domestic. Then there are mass shootings at colleges, schools, movie theaters, religious sites, and malls. There are serial killers, drug lords, gangs, and just common criminals. The list is long.

We have a 24/7 media spin cycle that thrives on sensationalism. Shootings, especially mass shootings, grab large audiences so they are featured by many cable outlets. Politics are secondary. Whether it is Fox News or MSNBC, they all cover it for the ratings.

I would submit that fear-mongering has damaged our collective lives. All the sensationalist coverage has led us to expect Charlie Hebdo-type episodes. Even in sleepy, backroads New Hampshire, we are not immune. The local history of no such carnage does not seem to reassure.

I think this is sad because the New Hampshire reality is so much more about neighbors helping neighbors as we move through our daily lives. That has certainly been my experience living in Wilmot for the last 25 years. We actually depend on each other to get through.

All the fear from TV promotes paranoia, wariness of others, and a more Hobbesian view of the world. I am afraid there is something of a crossover where mass media infects real life expectations. Some people respond by stockpiling weapons, turning their homes into bunkers, and expecting the worst as an imminent event.

So now seems like a good time to address the view that more guns make us safer. That view is both false and dangerous. Whatever security all the guns have brought is outweighed by so many needless and senseless deaths they have caused. Gun proponents have a blind spot about the harm.

The United States is awash in guns. It now has by far the largest number of privately owned firearms in the developed world. I have seen the number estimated at between 200 to 300 million guns.

Every year there are more than 30,000 firearm deaths in the United States. That works out to over 85 a day. And that does not even get to the many hundreds of daily nonfatal injuries. While the United States is not more violent than other high income, industrialized nations, it has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country.

How can we not see this is a public health emergency? Just as we dealt with tuberculosis, tobacco, and auto safety, we need to see gun violence as equivalent to an epidemic. The lethality of guns so often has death as an end result.

David Hemenway, a professor of health policy at Harvard and the author of Private Guns Public Health has persuasively argued a harm reduction strategy. He says that scientific evidence shows a substantial number of murders, suicides, and unintentional firearm fatalities can be prevented with reasonable gun policies. Public health is not about banning guns – it is about creating policies that prevent violence and injuries.

Unfortunately, the gun lobby has been successful in framing the debate as only a matter of the right to own and bear arms. They have tried to narrow options: either citizens have the right to keep their guns or not. Other concerns are extraneous. That is a disservice because the public health approach asks how we reduce gun violence accepting that the millions of guns are already out there.

Just browsing the news over the last couple weeks, there was the Idaho story about the two year old who accidentally shot and killed his mother, a nuclear scientist, in Walmart. The mother kept a loaded handgun in her purse. When she was not paying attention, her two year old reached in and grabbed the gun with tragic results.

Then there was the nine year old in Arizona who accidentally shot and killed her instructor at a gun range. The child was firing an Uzi submachine gun while the instructor stood by her side. She was apparently unable to control the gun’s recoil.

I mention these stories simply because they are typical. Stories like this seem to get reported everyday. Reaction seems to be utterly muted.

Human beings make an infinite number of mistakes. It is not because they are good or bad. Legislators who fantasize self-defense gun use are kidding themselves. They have watched too many cop shows on TV. They are more likely to shoot themselves or each other than any criminal or terrorist. What might go wrong usually does go wrong.

Professor Hemenway says that one of his goals is to help create a society in which it is harder to make fatal blunders. He says that fairly small tweaks in design and engineering could save countless lives. I would also mention that suicides make up a huge percentage of gun fatalities. They are typically impulsive acts made easier by ready access to firearms. It is wrong-headed to assume all these deaths are inevitable.

To those who say more guns will make us safer, I say we have already tried that and the results are too apparent. We need to figure other ways to cut the death toll. It is not pro-gun or anti-gun to say that.

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Roe at 42: An Unapologetically Pro-Abortion Rights View – posted 1/18/2015

January 18, 2015 4 comments

January 22 marks the 42nd anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision. It has to be one of the most controversial opinions ever released by the U.S. Supreme Court. As someone who is unapologetically pro-choice, I wanted to offer a few comments on the occasion.

I think the Court basically got it right on Roe. Justice Harry Blackmun, the author of Roe, did what a good judge should do. He carefully weighed the competing interests. While many quibble about the grounds he used to decide the case, the Court ruled abortion was legal until viability which was defined as 24 weeks.

Most importantly, Roe established abortion as a decision protected by a right to personal privacy. The decision prevented states from subjecting women and their doctors to criminal sanctions in the first trimester. While restrictions on abortion could be imposed later, states could not ever jeopardize a woman’s life or health.

Justice Blackmun saw the case as necessary for the emancipation of women in America. He knew because he had lived through the era of coathanger and back alley abortions.

While there has always been opposition to abortion rights especially from fundamentalist Christians and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, in the last four years, the anti-abortion movement has stepped it up. Their chip away strategy has been effective.

The strategy is multi-pronged. Try and ban abortion after 20 weeks; lengthen waiting periods; force clinics to close by admitting privileges law and burdensome regulations; attack Planned Parenthood and contraception;use religious exemptions to fight insurance coverage; and use ballot initiatives to try and add personhood amendments to state constitutions.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, in the last four years, states have enacted 231 abortion restrictions. Contrary to the spirit of Roe, in parts of the country, especially the South, it has become increasingly difficult to find an abortion provider. In this connection, the names Dr. Barnet Slepian and Dr. George Tiller come to mind. The murder campaign against abortion providers by extreme elements of the pro-life movement would, at the least, cause pause for doctors who might consider performing abortions.

I probably come at this issue from a different angle than many. Before I became a judge, I spent my professional life representing poor people in civil matters as a legal aid attorney. For 25 years, I represented, among others, unemployed workers, disability claimants, debtors facing bankruptcy, domestic violence victims and tenants facing eviction. These experiences educated me about the extent of poverty. I wish I could say we are doing better than we are. I think our efforts to lessen poverty have been dismally inadequate. We have been going backwards for a long time now.

In this context, I find all the concern about the unborn as phony sanctimony. We don’t even care about the born. It is hard to take seriously any concern for the unborn when, as a society, we treat those that make it into this world in such a trashy way. Take a good look around. There is no shortage of homelessness, hunger, lack of access to health care, child abuse and child neglect. The traumas visited upon millions of born children in America are daily and significant.

We have tons of people who are falling through our shredded safety net who are living on almost nothing, maybe food stamps. Unfortunately, they are invisible. Invariably, the same politicians who cry crocodile tears about the unborn are the first to cut needed social programs.

In my opinion, the person with the clearest view of these matters was not a lawyer or a judge. It was the late comedian, George Carlin. To quote Carlin:

“Boy, these conservatives are really something aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neonatal care, no daycare, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If your’re preborn, you’re fine; if you’re preschool, you’re f—ed”.

Only a black sense of humor can appreciate the irony of so much concern for xygotes and early fetuses. And yet, many anti-abortion advocates see an equivalence between fully grown adults and the potential life of a tiny clump of cells.

This is no exaggeration. Consider the Alabama law which forces pregnant teens seeking an abortion to first receive parental consent. If the teen cannot get parental consent, the teen is put on trial and the state appoints counsel to defend the unborn fetus. Alabama has no statewide public defender program. So there fetuses get counsel but adults who need constitutionally guaranteed legal representation do not.

I am hardly alone in submitting that only the women facing the abortion decision should make that choice. No one else, not the spouse or boyfriend, not the state, not the anti-abortion advocate, has to live with the decision. It is the woman’s life and it is the height of presumption for others to force their values on the prospective mother. They do not live her life.

I also did want to say: enough with the stupid attacks on Planned Parenthood. Anti-women health legislators in many states, including New Hampshire, have tried to eliminate funding for family planning. This jihad needs to stop. Planned Parenthood has provided absolutely critical health services which have reduced unintended pregnancy and teen pregnancy. So much of the work of Planned Parenthood is focused on things like cancer screening, breast exams, birth control and sex education, stuff that is unrelated to abortion. Yet that seems to be lost.

Sometimes it seems like the anti-abortion movement is motivated by an asexual 1950’s world view that wants to turn back the clock to a time before birth control and candid sex education. I find it shocking that such an anti-modern, religious-based perspective can gain so much ground in a pluralist and secular democracy.

To my pro-choice brothers and sisters out there and to the many who seem to take rights for granted, I say “wake up”. The anti-abortion movement is nothing if not persistent. Rights that are here today could be gone tomorrow.

Exposing All The Harm: Football Players and Head Damage – posted 1/1/2015 and published in the Concord Monitor on 1/9/2015

January 1, 2015 6 comments

This article appeared in the Concord Monitor on January 9, 2015 under the title “The Offseason”.

I think there is plenty of room to disagree about the most compelling football or football-related story of 2014. Locally some might pick the New England Patriots’ surprising run which may lead to a Super Bowl appearance. As I recall, part of the fan base was ready to unload the quarterback and the coach early in the season.

Then there was the Washington Redskins’ name controversy which threatened to reach critical mass. In November, thousands of Native Americans in Minnesota protested the racist name saying, “We don’t want to be your mascot.”

I also would mention the Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson stories. They unintentionally shed light on some typically hidden realities.

The saddest story was the suicide of Ohio State football player, Kosta Karageorge.The police found Karageorge’s body, along with a handgun, in a dumpster. They ruled Karageorge died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Karageorge’s mother told police her son had sustained several concussions and he suffered from “confusion spells”. Shortly before he died Karageorge sent his mother the following text message: “I am sorry if I am an embarrassment but these concussions have my head all fucked up.”

The concussion/brain injury story must remain at the top of the football story list. The NFL itself announced this fall that it expects a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems. That could be Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, or dementia.

Just to spell it out a bit more, the NFL’s own actuarials show that players who live to age 50-59 develop Alzheimer’s and dementia at a rate 14 to 23 times higher than the general population of the same age group. For the age group 60-64, the rate is 35 times higher.

NFL players can expect to die 20 years earlier than the average American male. Research from Harvard initiated by the NFL Players’ Association concluded that the average life expectancy for NFL players is in the mid to late 50’s.

The health consequences of football is a still unravelling mystery although pieces of the puzzle have become clear. The American people need the whole picture, unvarnished. It is a matter of public health. The issues touch players and their families from Pop Warner to high school to college to the pros.

The ongoing federal court lawsuit filed by thousands of retired players against the NFL is a treasure trove of revealing information. Many of the affidavits and declarations filed in this case show the terrible physical and psychological harm experienced by former players. The suffering and tragedies recounted are overwhelming.

Robert Stern Ph.D., a foremost expert and very experienced clinical neuropsychologist with a specialty in the evaluation and diagnosis of neurodegenerative diseases, has studied the mid-to-late life changes in the cognitive, mood, and behavior of former pro football players. In his lawsuit Declaration, Dr. Stern writes that the head impacts do not simply reduce to cognitive impairment like dementia. He stated:

“…it is my scientific opinion that many former NFL players have significant changes in mood and behavior (e.g. depression, hopelessness, impulsivity, explosiveness, rage, aggression), resulting, in part, from their repetitive head impacts in the NFL, that have, in turn, led to significant financial, personal, and medical changes, including but not limited to: the inability to maintain employment, homelessness, social isolation, domestic abuse, divorce, substance abuse, excessive gambling, poor financial decision-making and death from accidental drug overdose or suicide.”

While there are many very sad stories to choose from, I will mention two. Kevin Turner played in the NFL for 8 years as a fullback with the Patriots and the Eagles. He is now 45. In 2010, he received the diagnosis of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This was 11 years after he stopped playing football. Turner is a named plaintiff in the players’ lawsuit against the NFL.

Turner now gets oxygen through a port in his neck and he obtains nutrition through a tube to his stomach. He spends most days in bed. He has gone from his playing weight of 250 pounds down to 150. His mind remains sound but he has lost control of everything above his waist. After a bout with severe dehydration and pneumonia, which led to respiratory failure, he went on a ventilator.

He earned about $8 million during his playing career but he had to file bankruptcy in 2009. He has 3 kids and he is still fighting hard for his family.

Dale Meinhart was a former Pro Bowler who played middle linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1958 to 1968. He was known as a ferocious tackler. At age 48, he started experiencing symptoms of chronic traumatic encephalopathy. He could no longer fulfill job duties. He became nonverbal, aggressive, and he suffered memory lapses. He refused to see a doctor. He was angry and he spent days in a chair at home or driving aimlessly.

When Dale finally visited a family physician, he was prescribed tranquillizers. In 1986, his family initiated court proceedings to have him committed in order to seek adequate medical care. Doctors diagnosed Alzheimer’s Disease.

Meinhart had 2 children, ages 10 and 15, at the time. The family was surviving on his wife’s $20,000 a year teacher’s salary. Meinhart’s wife contacted the NFL and explained Dale’s situation. She asked if any other retired NFL players were experiencing similar dementia and personality issues. The NFL staff gave her a firm “No” for an answer.

Also, the NFL advised Mrs. Meinhart that Dale could not receive disability benefits because she could not prove his dementia was caused by playing football. One can only wonder how many former players’ families made similar calls and received the same response.

After Meinhart spent time at an Oklahoma State Mental Hospital, the family found a nursing home with a locked Alzheimer’s wing. Meinhart spent the next 17 years there until he died in 2004. There was no good place to put a cognitively impaired 6’2″ 250 pound physically active male who was unable to care for himself and who would unwittingly walk off if not restrained.

Stories like Turner and Meinhart are all too common but awareness about the number of players affected and the scope of the harm is dim. The NFL has tried for a generation to obscure, mislead and deny the truth about concussions and brain injury. Contrary to appearances and the league’s public relations efforts, the NFL is still fighting as hard as possible in the lawsuit to deny the scope of relief to many players who have been devastated by their injuries or who have died.

I do think we need to ask: is this acceptable? Should we as a society accept the harm as an unfortunate but inescapable part of the game? I will offer a tentative answer. No.

When a person is 20, it is a rare person who will dwell on how they expect to function at age 50 or 60. As you age, the question takes on more substance.

I do want to say I love football as much as anyone. I remember going to my first Philadelphia Eagles’ game when I was 6 years old. My dad and I had Eagles’ season’s tickets at Franklin Field for a number of years and we saw the Eagles beat the Packers for the NFL Championship in 1960. I played 105 pound and 120 pound football as well as playing in countless pickup touch football games. I have been a lifelong fan.

However, I still think the whole truth should come out. We are far from that happening. There are no shortage of good questions still outstanding about the effects of hits to the head.