A Culture Of Corruption.

Trump used his campaign and his first year in office to line his pockets with donors and taxpayers’ money. His businesses have raked in an estimated $15.1 million since he began his presidential campaign and he continues to use campaign contributions as his personal bank account. And he’s only getting started. But Trump is not the only member of the administration to play fast and loose with taxpayer money.

Trump changes cabinet members more often than he changes wives. Yet despite the record-setting turnover within the administration, to date, only one member of the administration has left the job under pressure for corruption and ethics violations leaving us to wonder: Are members of the administration and Trump’s advisers merely following their leader’s example? Or were they chosen for their positions precisely because of their lack of ethics?

Even those who haven’t been caught with their hands in the proverbial cookie jar have committed serious lapses in judgment or have seriously damaged the departments they were chosen to lead.

For example, before being fired via a presidential Tweet, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson virtually dismantled the department. The New Yorker magazine described his time in office this way: “His tenure may well be regarded as the most consequential in postwar American history: not for what he built but for what he destroyed. In only ten months, Tillerson, the former C.E.O. of ExxonMobil, has presided over the near-dismantling of America’s diplomatic corps, chasing out hundreds of State Department employees and scaling back the country’s engagement with the world. Most alarming has been the departure of dozens of the foreign service’s most senior officials—men and women who had spent their careers living and working abroad, who speak several languages and who are experts in their fields.”

The person nominated to replace Tillerson, current CIA Director Mike Pompeo, may be no better as he is known to be virulently anti-Muslim and a denier of Russia’s interference in our elections.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin conveniently failed to disclose $100 million of investments prior to his confirmation. And, since taking office, the billionaire has spent millions of taxpayer money for the personal use of government planes, including one for his honeymoon. In addition, he used a government plane to fly his bride to Fort Knox so they might better view the solar eclipse.

Before becoming Secretary of Commerce, Wilbur Ross was known as the “King of Bankruptcy” for plundering companies before forcing their closure. He repeatedly exaggerated his net worth – a lie that fits right in with those of his new boss.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue displayed a penchant for corruption before assuming his current position. While governor of Georgia, 13 complaints were filed against Perdue with the State Ethics Commission, which on two occasions ruled that he had violated state ethics laws. The commission took the unusual step of fining Mr. Perdue while he was governor. Yet before he was done, Perdue pushed through a bill to give himself a $100,000 tax break.

Billionaire Betsy DeVos used her money to push charter schools in her home state of Michigan for more than 20 years. The result is that the state’s schools failed to keep pace with the academic progress of other states. Indeed, Michigan now ranks near the bottom for fourth- and eighth-grade math and fourth-grade reading on a national test. But in Trump’s mind, that somehow qualified her to become Secretary of Education – public education.

Trump’s original choice for Secretary of Health and Human Services was pushed out of office for spending roughly $1 million on charter jets when commercial flights were readily available. He repaid the department just $60,000 for the travel. But Trump adviser Kellyann Conway, who accompanied him on many of the flights, has not paid a dime. And Price’s replacement, Alex Azar, is accused of gaming the patent system for Eli Lilly’s Cialis by promoting its use for male children who suffer from a rare muscle-wasting disease. The product failed to help, but it allowed the patent to be extended for another six months and another billion dollars of profit.

As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson ordered a dining table for his office at a price of $31,000. Worse, he is reversing the department’s efforts to enforce fair housing laws and sidelining those who are aggressively pursuing civil rights cases.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and her family recently donated $40 million to the Harvard Business School to be used for a building that will bear their name. Interestingly, that the money was withdrawn from an account in an off-shore tax haven. That’s right, a long-time government employee, and the wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, is using an off-shore account to avoid paying taxes!

Not to be outdone, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, treats his job as though he’s either the CEO of a multinational company or royalty. He, too, has spent millions of taxpayers’ money on private charters when he could be flying coach. Worse, he has sold off public lands and national monuments to his friends in the fossil fuel industry. And he’s the one responsible for awarding a $300-million contract to a two-person start-up company in his home state to rebuild Puerto Rico’s electrical grid.

Finally, we come to the man who has become the symbol of the administration’s corruption – the Environmental Protection Agency’s Scott Pruitt. So far, Pruitt has demoted and pushed aside senior EPA officials and scientists who raised concerns about his direction for the agency and his spending habits. He took advantage of a sweetheart deal for a Washington condo co-owned by an energy lobbyist. He brought in two friends from Oklahoma as aides and gave them huge raises taken from a budget intended for environmental emergencies. He has a 24-hour security staff of at least 20 people that accompany him even on personal trips, such as a family trip to Disney World. Like other Trump appointees, he also misuses government planes and charter jets. And, when he does fly commercially, he travels first-class on taxpayer money.

Pruitt spent more than $25,000 on a secure, sound-proof phone booth. And it’s alleged that he uses phones other than his own to deal with some EPA matters so the calls won’t show up in his call log. Further, he has avoided the creation of written records of meetings in order to circumvent FOIA laws and to hide his actions.

Given the incompetence and corruption of Trump’s cabinet, we all should be asking ourselves: Is Trump trying to manage the government? Or is he actually trying to destroy it?

Trump Tower Fire Is A Metaphor For The Trump Presidency.

I’ll begin by stating that the fire at Trump Tower was a tragedy. 200 firefighters and emergency personnel were required to fight the fire, at least four firefighters were injured, and a 67-year-old resident lost his life. Sadly, the man was only living in the apartment because, after the 2016 election, he was unable to sell it. With Secret Service and media camped out at the building, it felt like a prison. And when prospective buyers found out it was in Trump Tower, he couldn’t give it away.

His death didn’t have to happen. After two deadly high-rise fires in the nineties, the City of New York proposed an ordinance to require sprinkler systems in all high-rise buildings. But Trump claimed that sprinklers were not needed and that they would be too expensive. After much whining, bullying and purported bribery, he succeeded in having Trump Tower grandfathered until such time he chooses to make major renovations.

You see, Trump hates regulations no matter how well-intended they are. He only cares about himself and his profits. And he simply doesn’t care about others.

It has been reported that residents weren’t notified to evacuate the building. Not sure what to do, some watched the event on television hoping that the result wouldn’t resemble 9/11. Yet, as always, Trump insiders received special treatment. Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, reportedly called a friend who lives in the building and warned him to leave. Of course, he made no effort to warn others.

Once the fire was finally extinguished, Trump thanked the firefighters for saving his building and took the opportunity to pat himself on the back by mentioning how well the tower is built. He failed to mention the dead and injured.

This event should be a warning for all US citizens about how our government operates under Trump. His primary focus seems to be using taxpayers’ money to enrich himself and his family. He threatens and bullies those who refuse to kowtow to him. He and his cabinet have repealed and undermined regulations designed to protect ordinary citizens while at the same time rewarding his cronies. And, at every opportunity he turns the conversation to talk about himself in the most self-serving, self-aggrandizing way possible.

It’s difficult to see how this presidency will end well. I fully expect to see our government in virtual and, possibly, literal flames.

Are The Latest Russian Sanctions Mere Window-Dressing?

Last year, Congress passed a bipartisan bill calling for stricter sanctions against Russia in response to its meddling with our 2016 election. But, with no explanation given, the Trump administration failed to implement any further sanctions until after the attempted assassination of a former Russian spy in England. Even then, it appeared that the administration was reluctantly responding in support of our closest ally.

Now, months after congressional action, the Trump administration has imposed sanctions designed to harm Russian oligarchs close to Putin. Among others, the oligarchs named include Oleg Deripaska, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s long-time benefactor, and Alexander Torshin, the Russian who gave millions to the NRA to be used to aid GOP candidates during the 2016 campaign. One has to ask why those guys? Why now?

After all, these men would seem to be allies of Trump, the GOP and the NRA. And we know that Trump has never uttered a harsh word about Russia or Putin – quite the opposite. He has repeatedly gone out of his way to praise Putin despite the investigations by Congress and the special prosecutor.

I believe a recent post from a Facebook friend, who is obviously wiser and perhaps even more cynical than I am, offers a possible answer. Could it be that the long delay between the congressional sanctions and the implementation by the Trump administration was designed to allow Putin and his pals to minimize the consequences? Did the delay allow them to transfer their billions out of accounts in the US and other western nations? Did the delay allow Trump to pretend to be tough on Russia, as he now claims, and demonstrate to GOP members of Congress and his right-wing base that he did not conspire with Russia to help his campaign?

More to the point, will the delayed sanctions convince GOP members of Congress to ignore the coming reports from Robert Muller and refuse to impeach Trump? Will they further free Fox News, right-wing radio hosts, and Sinclair Broadcast Group to launch a propaganda campaign to support Trump and portray the Russian investigations as a hoax?

Based on what we’ve seen in the past year and a half, I think the answer to all of those questions is a resounding “yes.”

The Constitutional Crisis That Is Donald Trump.

Russian meddling in the 2016 election has created a crisis the Founders never could have imagined – a greedy, narcissistic con man holding the highest office in the land supported by a sympathetic Congress that likely, too, was elected with the help and interference of a foreign enemy.

The Founding Fathers did put into place a system that provided for the removal of a president from office for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which certainly would apply to a man who conspired with an enemy to attain office, defied the Constitution’s emolument clause to enrich himself and his family, and appointed Cabinet members with the sole purpose of deconstructing the agencies they head – all the while ignoring every established norm of presidential behavior.

What the Founders failed to anticipate was a Congress simultaneously controlled by a party that is equally corrupt – a Congress comprised of members who, themselves, may have been elected with the help of the same foreign enemy and foreign money illegally funneled through the NRA. As a result, the Constitution has no provision for nullifying the results of elections illegally decided by external forces; no way to erase widespread electoral mistakes.

So what happens if (more likely, when) Special Counsel Mueller proves that the president, his campaign, and numerous members of his staff conspired with Russia in order to steal the election? What then? Certainly, the president could be impeached if Republicans finally agree to place country above party. Certainly, those involved could be charged with crimes and brought to trial. But what about the members of the president’s party in Congress who also benefited from the conspiracy? Can they, too, be removed? And what of the many decisions that have been made since January 20, 2017?

If the president was, indeed, put into office as the result of a conspiracy, will his many appointments to the judiciary be allowed to stand? These are appointments that could impact judicial decisions for generations.

If Republicans were found to have gained control of Congress as the result of unconstitutional gerrymandering, voter suppression, illegal campaign contributions, and foreign interference, will the bills they passed without input from the opposition party be allowed to stand? What of the deficit-ballooning corporate tax cuts? What of the changes to the Affordable Care Act? What of the stolen seat on the Supreme Court?

And what of the decisions made by the president’s appointees? What of the deregulation of the nation’s greatest polluters? What of the damage done to our public school system? What of the money squandered on private jets and $31,000 dining sets?

Worst of all, what of the damage done internationally – to our trade agreements, to our strategic defense pacts, to our standing with allies?

If the decisions made by illegally and unconstitutionally elected officials are allowed to stand, what’s to prevent it from happening again? What’s to prevent unscrupulous individuals from a party – either party – from scamming the system to win and, in doing so, ensure that it can ideologically remake America in its image for decades to come?

We need a constitutional amendment to nullify election results – all of the results – if it can be unequivocally proven that an election was stolen.

Revisiting The Second Amendment And Gun Violence.

“A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I draw your attention to the full text of the amendment since the first 12 words are seldom mentioned. In fact, in the NRA headquarters, only the last half of the text is emblazoned on the wall. But, if you believe in the wisdom of the authors of our Constitution, you cannot parse the words to suit your own purposes. You must accept the document in its entirety.

We once had a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States who believed so. In a 1991 PBS interview, he stated, “The Gun Lobby’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment is one of the greatest pieces of fraud – I repeat the word fraud – on the American people by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime. The real purpose of the 2nd Amendment was to ensure that state armies – the militia – would be maintained for the defense of the state. The very language of the 2nd Amendment refutes any argument that it was intended to guarantee every citizen an unfettered right to any kind of weapon he or she desires.”

The point is that the amendment was written to ensure for the defense of the US against foreign governments at a time when our nation had no standing army, no Navy, no Air Force, no Marine Corps, no Coast Guard. Instead, the nation’s defense relied upon state militias comprised of volunteers…what have, in effect, become our state governed National Guard units.

Now that we have the world’s most effective military, the 2nd Amendment is no longer necessary. Since our government is “of the people, by the people and for the people,” the military serves us. There is no longer a need for citizens to bear arms as part of a well-regulated militia. What about the potential for government tyranny? The current administration aside, that is a remote possibility. And even if the government decided to impose martial law on the land, no disorganized band of civilians armed with an arsenal of AR-15s and AK-47s will prevail against a well-trained government army with tanks, artillery, fighter jets and nuclear weapons.

That said, let’s talk about our gun problem and what can be done to reduce gun violence, including mass shootings.

There are an average of 297 shootings each day in the US – more than 108,000 per year! Those shootings result in 11,000 murders per year and an uncounted number of wounded – many with lifelong debilitating injuries. There are 20,000 suicides from guns each year, resulting in an annual total of 33,000 deaths from guns.

More than 2,600 hundred children are killed by guns each year.

The US averages more than one mass shooting per day (as defined by 4 or more victims per shooting). Since the mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been 1,500 mass shootings resulting in more than 1,700 people killed and more than 6,000 wounded (not counting those who were likely shot and killed today).

If you’re human; if you live in America, those statistics should frighten you! But before you run out and purchase a gun for self-defense, consider this: Guns are not defensive weapons. They are offensive weapons. In a gun fight, the first person to pull their gun usually wins. So, if someone points a gun at you, your own gun will do you little good. In fact, if you have a gun in your house, you’re 80 percent more likely to use it on yourself than any criminal.

To further debunk the “good guy with a gun myth,” consider the FBI analysis of 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, excluding shootings related to gang or drug violence. Those incidents resulted in 1,043 casualties – 486 killed, 557 wounded. The FBI found that 1 in 5 were stopped by a potential victim at the scene and most of those were unarmed! Only 5 were stopped by “good guys with guns.” And, in 21 of 45 incidents that required law enforcement to engage the shooter, 9 officers were killed and 28 were wounded, despite their training and their body armor!

Do you still think arming teachers is the answer to school shootings?

Every independent study shows a clear connection between gun violence and the number of guns. Nevertheless, Americans now own more than 300 million guns. Despite the fact that the number of individuals who own guns is actually declining, the number of gun sales is increasing dramatically. That’s because 6 million Americans – mostly white men -now own 10 or more guns. There are studies that show many of those people have psychological problems. And there are additional studies that show a clear connection between gun violence and domestic violence or violence against animals.

The only apparent answer to our epidemic of gun violence is to treat it as we do other epidemics – with intervention, outreach, and education. We should institute universal background checks and a database of gun ownership. To make the ATF’s job easier, we should institute a waiting period for anyone wanting to purchase a gun. We should ban both open and conceal carry – going back to the policies before the lobbying of the NRA. We should ban all semi-automatics. Not just military-style weapons. That’s because most semi-automatics can be just as deadly. And bolt-action, pump-action and lever-action are perfectly acceptable for most hunters. We should limit magazines to 9 rounds. We should limit the quantities of ammunition sold. And we should take weapons away from violent felons, domestic abusers, animal abusers and the mentally ill who are diagnosed with violent tendencies – toward others or themselves.

It’s time to ignore the NRA and the GOP. It’s time to change!

Imaginary Political Purity Of Independents.

In response to a recent post about the cruelty of the GOP’s plan to cut food stamps, a Facebook friend dismissed my opinion as propaganda and smugly commented, “I’m so glad I’m an independent and don’t get caught up with all this left wing right wing bullshit.” Like many voters who are registered as independents, he obviously feels superior to those of us who have chosen to take sides in our nation’s political discourse.

But, as holocaust survivor and political activist Elie Wiesel once said, “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”

For me, the cruel plans of our current administration have brought us to one such moment.

Moreover, I would point out that those who claim superiority by refusing to takes sides are cloaking themselves with a false sense of political purity. Though refusing to participate in our two-party system is certainly one’s right, those who refuse to register as a member of a political party are seldom truly independent and very few are moderate. Most consistently lean toward one party’s candidates, have their own political agendas or simply refuse to participate in our electoral process. For example, in Arizona, a large percentage of so-called independents are libertarians who dislike the federal government. And some are part of the Sovereign Citizen movement which refuses to acknowledge any government.

I can attest to that from my own experience.

For most of my life, I was an independent who was fiscally conservative and socially liberal. I had chosen not to take sides because neither party fully represented my views. Moreover, I disdained the business of party politics…the precinct meetings, the caucuses, the state meetings, the platform discussions, the primary battles, the get-out-the-vote efforts. Finally, in 2006, I changed my registration when I realized that I could never again vote for a candidate that represented a political party that led us into a war on false pretenses. A party committed to robbing from the poor to give to the rich. A party that discriminates against minorities, obstructs opposition voters and despises the very government it wants to lead. A party I now consider morally and ethically bankrupt – the GOP.

It was only after I registered as a Democrat that I realized that, far from staking out a position of purity and superiority, being an independent is really a cop-out. As an independent, I was not fully participating in our democracy. By merely voting in the general elections, often griping about the poor quality of candidates put forward by the two parties, and by occasionally voicing my opinion in the media, I was in essence, letting others control our political process, and by default, our government.

The flaw of being independent should have been made abundantly clear during the 2016 election cycle. Sen. Bernie Sanders may have enjoyed the most widespread support of all the presidential candidates. He was supported by many Democrats (myself included) and a great many independents. Yet he overwhelming lost the Democratic primaries. Why? He was a Democrat only for the sake of his presidential run. Though he has always caucused with Democrats in the Senate, he is an independent. That meant that he had not established a great deal of support within the party he hoped to represent. On the other hand, Clinton was a long-time Democrat who had cultivated close relationships with leaders at every level of the party. More important, the independents who supported Sanders could not vote for him in many of the state primaries without first registering as a Democrat. Then, when Sanders lost, many of the independents refused to vote or voted for minority party candidates.

As a result, we have a person in the Oval Office who is the very opposite of Sanders. One who is dismantling almost everything Sen. Sanders has supported during his entire tenure in office!

Now, you may want to fault the system for that. But you should also look in the mirror. The system is the system. And it’s all but impossible to change the system from the outside. You have to be part of it. You have to get your hands dirty to change it. You have to build coalitions. You have to rally others to your cause. You have to make phone calls. You have to connect on social media. You have to walk the neighborhoods and knock on doors.

If you think that’s asking too much, consider the students of Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. By reaching out, even as they are hurting; by speaking out through their tears; by refusing to take no for an answer; by organizing, they have accomplished in a few days what many of us adults have failed to do in a lifetime. If they are willing to stay the course as they promise, they can not only reduce gun violence. They can change the world.

False Patriotism.

A few years ago, a local chapter of the VFW asked me to judge a group of essays written by middle schoolers on the subject of patriotism. As a writer and former teacher, I was honored to do so. But, after reading them, I realized that none of the students knew the real meaning of patriotism. To all of them, patriotism revolved around the military, military hardware, the flag and the national anthem. Not the Constitution. Not the ideals established by the Founders. Not the American dream. Not exercising our right – our responsibility – to vote. Not affording equal rights to our fellow Americans – all of our fellow Americans.

Of course, the students were only parroting what they had been taught by their teachers and parents.

Like many Americans, they did not understand that, though admirable, military service is only one way to show patriotism toward their country. They did not understand that displaying a flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, and placing a hand over their heart for the national anthem are only a show of patriotism – mere symbols. (It’s good to remember that the flag was not adopted until more than a year after the beginning of the Revolution, that our nation did not have a standing army until 1789 – 12 years after the United States became a country, and that the Star-Spangled Banner did not become the national anthem until 1931 – more than 150 years after the shots were fired on Bunker Hill!)

The students did not understand that, in certain circumstances, it can be an act of patriotism to refuse military service; to stand up to government leaders by refusing to fight in an ill-conceived and illegal war. Were the soldiers who refused to follow orders and reported the war crimes at My Lai not more patriotic than those who murdered innocent men, women and children? Was not Daniel Ellsberg, who exposed the lies of the Vietnam War, more patriotic than the politicians and generals who expanded the war based on false information? Were the Americans who protested and demonstrated against our pre-emptive invasion of Iraq not more patriotic than the administration who led us into it on false pretenses?

Of course they were!

If the kids’ definition of patriotism has become the accepted version, it’s not difficult to understand why our nation is perpetually at war. It’s not difficult to understand why our military budget dwarfs those of other nations. And if we honor the flag and the anthem without embracing the ideals they represent, is it any wonder so many Americans are willing to deny equal rights to those who look different; to those who love someone of the same sex; to those of a different faith, or those of no faith?

If we become outraged at football players who refuse to stand for the national anthem as a means of protest in order to draw attention to injustice while we praise the flag-waving bullies who threaten them, we have failed to grasp the Founders’ vision for our democracy. One in which it is as patriotic to call attention to our nation’s failings as it is to celebrate its successes. Indeed, it may well be more patriotic!

So what is patriotism?

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” It’s fitting that the definition is so expansive. After all, there are many ways to love. And that definition is especially fitting for Americans, since the vision of our nation’s Founding Fathers was equally expansive. It’s why the Constitution they created has served us so well for so many years.

Tax Secrets Of The Wealthy.

Most Americans fear being audited by the IRS based on the knowledge that, if it is deemed that they have not paid their fair share, they could face penalties, garnishment of wages and/or possible imprisonment. Yet some of the wealthiest Americans and multinational corporations apparently have no such fear. It’s not enough that these people and organizations have used their wealth to lobby Congress to create a myriad of tax write-offs and corporate welfare schemes. Many find tax shelters to avoid paying taxes altogether.

According to the Financial Secrecy Index created by the Tax Justice Network, “An estimated $21 to $32 trillion of private financial wealth is located, untaxed or lightly taxed, in secrecy jurisdictions around the world.” The organization uses the term “secrecy jurisdictions” rather than the more common “tax havens” because the secrecy provided by these jurisdictions does more than aid tax avoidance. The secrecy is key to such illicit activities as fraud, money laundering, insider trading, and avoidance of regulations. Moreover, it allows the wealthy to hide their assets while forcing those less fortunate to subsidize their needs and to shoulder their nations’ resulting debt.

In other words, most of us are making up for the taxes that the wealthy refuse to pay.

Even some of those at the highest levels of the US government have taken advantage of secrecy jurisdictions. For example, in the Panama Papers (a list of the wealthy who used the services of a Panamanian law firm to set up tax shelters) Donald Trump’s name shows up 3,450 times. And, recently, The Intercept published a story revealing the use of one of the world’s most secret tax havens by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and his wife, Elaine Chao, both of whom have avoided taxes while cashing US government paychecks! Former Massachusetts governor, GOP presidential candidate and current Utah senate candidate Mitt Romney also has reportedly taken advantage of multiple tax havens.

Many of the wealthy don’t even have to send their money offshore to evade taxes. Some of the most active tax shelters are right here in the United States! As reported by The Washington Post, “Contrary to popular belief, notorious tax havens such as the Cayman Islands, Jersey and the Bahamas were far less permissive in offering the researchers shell companies than states such as Nevada, Delaware, Montana, South Dakota, Wyoming and New York…” Indeed, The Washington Post found that US regulations for setting up shell companies are more lax than any country in the world, except Kenya!

Ironically, all of this is aided by a financial industry taxpayers saved from bankruptcy after the financial crash of 2008. According to the Tax Justice Network, “A global industry has developed involving the world’s biggest banks, law practices, accounting firms and specialist providers who design and market secretive offshore structures for their tax- and law-dodging clients.”

It’s not unlikely that such tax evasion will eventually have disastrous economic consequences for the US. But, when it does, the wealthy will simply pull up roots and relocate to another country where they can resume their form of legalized larceny leaving the rest of us to clean up their mess.

The Reality Of Gun Violence In America.

As a long-time self-defense instructor, I taught students that the first rule of self-defense is situational awareness. I encouraged them to be aware of the world around them. In the US, that means being aware of guns.

So here’s the uncomfortable reality: Guns are everywhere in our country. One can assume that anyone you meet is potentially armed. There are guns concealed in waistbands, guns concealed in shoulder holsters, guns concealed in purses and guns concealed in cars. But most gun owners (and I used to be among them) never use their guns for anything other than hunting or target shooting. However, there are a few people who are compelled to harm others. It may be that they have been bullied and pushed to a point where they seek revenge. It may be that they have been filled with hate by some of our vile propagandists and political ideologues. Most are mentally unstable. But few are truly mentally ill.

With more than 33,000 gun deaths in the US each year, it’s clear that we don’t just have a gun problem. We have a political problem.

For example, the vast majority of gun deaths in this country are the result of white men…many of them with a history of domestic abuse. Yet we do little to track home-grown terrorists and domestic abusers still have ready access to guns. A substantial majority of gun owners in the US are right-wing conservatives – people who fear our government. They have been convinced that they need military-style weapons to defend freedom. Many of the most fervent gun owners are white supremacists who believe “the others” are coming for them.

Following the script provided by the NRA, GOP politicians say that guns are not the problem, the real problem is mental illness. But those same politicians have cut the funding for mental health programs and mental health institutions. Indeed, one of the current Congress’s first acts was to pass a law repealing a measure that made it easier to prohibit the sale of firearms to people deemed “mentally defective.”

The NRA and the GOP say, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Yet, according to an FBI report which analyzed 160 mass shooting events between 2000 and 2013, only 1 in 5 active shooting incidents were stopped by a potential victim at the scene, and most of those were stopped by someone who was unarmed! Only 3 percent were stopped by “good guys with guns.” Further, the Violence Policy Center found that, over a 5-year period, guns were used by civilians to stop fewer than 1 percent of crimes.

In fact, those who carry concealed guns are highly unlikely to use their weapons to defend themselves or anyone else. They are far more likely to have their guns stolen or to have the guns used against themselves.

After each mass shooting, GOP politicians offer “thoughts and prayers” and say, “Now is not the time to talk about guns.” Then they do nothing. For example, after the Las Vegas mass murder, Congress proposed a ban on “bump stocks” to prevent gun owners from giving a semi-automatic rifle the capability of a machine gun. But the GOP blocked the bill in the Senate. And, in the days before the school shooting in Parkland, the GOP was pushing a universal gun bill that would negate state gun laws and allow owners to legally carry guns – even banned guns – across state lines.

NRA-backed politicians say that strict firearm legislation doesn’t work. Yet a study by Boston’s Children’s Hospital found that states with the most firearm legislation had a 42 percent lower overall firearm-associated mortality rate than states with the least legislation. In fact, after Connecticut passed the nation’s strictest gun laws in 1994, gun killings dropped by 40 percent!

The NRA says it stands between us and tyranny. Yet, allegedly, much of the millions it contributed to GOP candidates in the 2016 election was laundered for Russian oligarchs. How does helping a foreign enemy meddle in our elections protect our democracy?

The NRA says that, if guns weren’t available, the killers would find another weapon of choice, perhaps knives. But guns, especially military-style guns and semi-automatic pistols, allow murderers to kill more people in less time. How many people do you think would have died in the Parkland school, if the killer was armed with a knife or a six-shot revolver? How many of those who attended the Las Vegas concert would have been killed with a knife, a shotgun or a large caliber, bolt-action hunting rifle?

The fact is, firepower matters. And, in countries that have fewer guns, there are fewer gun deaths!

With 33,000 gun deaths in the US each year and at least 25 mass shootings already this year, it’s not hyperbole to say that the NRA leaders and the gun manufacturers they represent are accomplices to murder. So, too, are the politicians who receive large sums of money from the NRA.

Here’s another sad reality of gun violence: After each mass shooting, the sales of guns – particularly assault weapons – go up. A reality that only encourages NRA-backed politicians to continue to block common sense gun legislation.

America’s Legal Drug Cartel.

A couple of newspaper stories recently caught my attention. The Arizona Republic reported that, in 2016, Mojave County had more opioid prescriptions than people – 127.5 prescriptions for every 100 residents. In another story, The Arizona Republic reported that four Mojave County doctors prescribed 6 million opioid pills in a single year!

Yet another newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, reported that, over a two-year period, out-of-state drug companies shipped 9 million hydrocodone pills to one pharmacy in Mingo County, West Virginia – a county with a population of about 33,000 people. The newspaper also found that, over a six-year period, drug wholesalers shipped 780 million painkillers to West Virginia pharmacies – more than 400 for every man, woman and child in the state. Further, a congressional committee discovered that, over a decade, out-of-state drug companies shipped 20.8 million prescription painkillers to a West Virginia town with a population of just 2,900 people.

That may explain why the top four counties in the US for prescription opioid drug overdose deaths are all in West Virginia. Yet the problem isn’t limited to West Virginia and Arizona.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported, “In 2016, the five states with the highest rates of death due to drug overdose were West Virginia (52.0 per 100,000), Ohio (39.1 per 100,000), New Hampshire (39.0 per 100,000), Pennsylvania (37.9 per 100,000) and (Kentucky (33.5 per 100,000). Significant increases in drug overdose death rates from 2015 to 2016 were seen in the Northeast, Midwest and South Census Regions. States with statistically significant increases in drug overdose death rates included Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.”

According to the CDC, “Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than 1999, and sales of these prescription drugs have quadrupled. From 1999 to 2016, more than 200,000 people have died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids.” Overdoses from prescription opioids killed more than 50,000 Americans in 2015 – more than car accidents.

To put that into perspective, Americans seem more fearful of seeing a loved one murdered than of seeing a loved one die from opioid overdose. Yet there were only 15,000 homicides in the US in 2015 – a third as many died from violence as from opioids. And remember the Ebola panic of 2014? Only two Americans actually died of the disease.

A more interesting comparison is to the crack cocaine crisis of the late 1980s. At its height, there were 7,000 deaths a year in the US (14 percent as many as we see from prescription opioids today). In response, we rounded up the dealers and users resulting in dramatic increases of incarceration, particularly among black Americans. But the opioid epidemic mostly involves white people. And the prescription opioid cartel involves doctors, pharmacists, drug wholesalers and large pharmaceutical corporations. So there has been little response from law enforcement.

Only when the prescriptions are stolen or the abusers have turned to illegal drugs, has law enforcement taken action. And, in reality, law enforcement is not the answer. The decades-long War on Drugs has failed. In part, that’s because of our society’s attitude toward drug abusers: that they’re losers incapable of dealing with reality; that they deserve to be punished.

In reality, punishment, fear and loathing are never the answers for drug abuse. Instead, we should be treating abusers as victims. We should be offering them help and non-addictive alternatives to opioid painkillers. We should be offering physicians better education in treating pain. And we should be regulating the distribution of prescription painkillers.

Instead, the Trump Department of Justice has threatened a new crackdown on marijuana, one of the few substances known to offer pain relief without addiction. And despite the fact that the number of known deaths from overdoses of weed is zero!