Category Archives: Individual rights

Lies, Damn Lies, and CNN Statistics

So, I listened this weekend to some of the speeches in the “March for Our Lives” protest against guns, and heard a lot of criticism of the National Rifle Association for buying votes through its enormous campaign contributions. Then I saw this article published on the CNN website that purports to explain why the NRA holds so much sway in Congress. States CNN:

While large industries such as defense, health care and finance give more to federal candidates, so-called “single-issue” groups have always been a bit different. For them, it’s not necessarily as much about outspending and outflanking other industry powers as it is how they compare with the other side — those advocating the opposite position.

By that measure, the NRA and its allies aren’t just winning, they’ve been dominating for years.

In the 2018 election cycle so far, gun rights groups, including the NRA, have outspent the competition more than 40 to 1.

Gun rights groups have made nearly $600,000 in direct contributions and independent expenditures on behalf of congressional candidates, the data shows. Gun control groups? Barely $14,000.

Graphic credit: CNN

I don’t have a (hunting) dog in this fight. I don’t own a handgun; indeed, I have never shot a gun but once in my life. I don’t have a problem with enacting measures to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals, crazy people and wife beaters. On the other hand, if I felt the need to defend myself, I’d want to make sure that my right to purchase a Dirty Harry-worthy .44 Magnum wasn’t infringed in any way. Call me a middle-of-the-roader on this issue.

So, when I heard the refrain that the “gun lobby” spreads around far more money than gun control advocates do, I had no reason not to believe it. What else would explain their political power?

Then I came across this article published by Radio IQ. Virginia public radio is hardly part of the NRA fan club. But, drawing upon data from the Virginia Public Access Project, Radio IQ drew a radically different conclusion regarding money in Virginia politics.

During last year’s state election, gun rights groups and firearms dealers gave more than $160,000 in campaign contributions. That’s according to an analysis from the Virginia Public Access Project. It’s a good chunk of change, and it was directed largely at members of the General Assembly who sit on committees that routinely stop gun control legislation. But groups that advocate for gun control donated more than $2.4 million, mostly to statewide candidates.

“One of the myths of politics is the idea that NRA money is decisive,” according to Stephen Farnsworth at the University of Mary Washington. He says the real power of the NRA is not the campaign contributions. It’s the activists who show up at rallies and contact lawmakers and are, essentially, single-issue voters.

(Last year wasn’t a fluke, by the way. VPAP records show that gun control advocates have outspent gun rights advocates in Virginia political races since 1996-97 by $8.1 million to $1.3 million.)

Quoting national statistics, CNN says the NRA outspends opponents 40 to 1. Quoting state statistics, Radio IQ says opponents outspend the NRA by 15 to 1. That’s quite a discrepancy.

I consulted the OpenSecrets.org database to see if I could explain the diametrically opposed results. For the 2017-2018 election cycle, OpenSecrets says that gun rights groups contributed $808,000 to federal candidates, parties, and outside groups, while gun control groups contributed a mere $152,000. That’s a spending gap, but closer to 5 to 1 than 40 to 1.

Delving a bit deeper, we see that the Giffords PAC, named after shooting victim Congressman Gabbie Giffords, was the only major contributor listed for the gun control groups. It turns out that the big gun-control groups — Everytown for Gun Safety, the Giffords PAC, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Pride Fund to End Gun Violence, and the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence — contributed heavily to Virginia state races — primarily  Governor Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring, and Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax. I would conjecture that the same groups have spent heavily in other state groups as part of a strategy of influencing state elections rather than federal elections.

In other words, CNN told only part of the story. Its article focused on federal elections exclusively, ignoring the vast sums poured into Virginia and possibly other state elections. I don’t know if CNN was consciously manipulating the truth, or if it was just incredibly sloppy. But I do know this: Far from being “the most trusted name in news,” CNN is rapidly establishing itself as the least trusted name in news.

“Moderation in the Protection of Liberty is no Virtue”

UVa police respond to disruption of Hoos for Israel event. Photo credit: Cavalier Daily

Last week members of the Brody Jewish Center and Hoos for Israel at the University of Virginia hosted an event entitled, “Building Bridges” to “promote conversation and respectful dialogue between students of different religious and political backgrounds.” It seems like some Wahoos weren’t interested in respectful dialogue. About 10 protesters entered the event in Clark Hall and began chanting pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli slogans. While no violence was reported, Jewish students felt physically intimidated. The demonstration disbanded peacefully, according to the Cavalier Daily.

There are radicals on every campus who disrupt the rights of others to express and hear views the protesters find objectionable. But not every higher-ed institution responds the same to such outbreaks of intolerance.

To UVa’s credit, Dean of Students Allen Groves sent out a university-wide email noting that the protesters violated several university policies, including those on protests and amplified sounds.

The protest, he wrote, “runs counter to our important shared values of respect and intellectual inquiry, and should be firmly rejected. … We can only learn from each other if space exists to exchange ideas freely and without disruption from those with whom we may disagree.”

But was the email missive enough? Allen’s letter strikes me as a timid response. The protesters are as likely to feel emboldened as chastened by such a wrist slap. The defenders of free speech must be as assertive and forceful as those who would violate it.

Seriously? We Can’t Even Ban Bump Stocks?

Cortney Carroll, survivor of the Las Vegas mass shooting, talks to local media at the General Assembly. Photo credit: Richmond Times-Dispatch

In a 4-to-3, party-line vote, the House Militia, Police and Public Safety subcommittee killed a bill yesterday that would ban bump stocks — a mechanism, made notorious by October 1 mass shooting at a Las Vegas country music concert, which allows semiautomatic weapons to fire more like automatic weapons. 

I’m skeptical of many gun control measures and much of the rhetoric emanating from anti-gun crusaders, but after the Las Vegas massacre, which left 58 people dead and 851 injured, I figured it would be no-brainer to ban bump stocks. I’m not a gun owner — indeed, the only gun I’ve ever shot was a 22-caliber rifle when I was 12 years old — so I’ll confess to a vast depth of ignorance on the subject. But I can see no possible justification for bump stocks, which are clearly meant to circumvent the ban on automatic weapons.

Las Vegas provided a vivid example of how bump stocks can be used to magnify the horror of a mass shooting. A bump stock ban would not have stopped the shooting, but it would’ve given people “time to run and take cover,” argued 40-year-old Cortney Carroll of Henrico County, a survivor of the shooting who testified before the subcommittee, as reported by the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

There’s something to be said for making weapons less deadly, for having fewer people killed in mass shootings.

At the hearing, Del. Thomas C. Wright Jr., R-Lunenburg, said evil can move people to use anything to cause mayhem, “whether they use trucks, cars, box cutters, knives or whatever. … Regardless of what laws we pass, until the evil in men’s hearts change, it’s not going to solve the problem.”

There is some truth in what he says. But, by that logic, why not allow people to own self-propelled grenades, mortars, bazookas, and anti-tank rockets? Why deprive Americans of the entertainment value in going out to an empty field and blowing stuff up? After all, we can’t change the evil in men’s hearts. But, in fact, we don’t allow civilians to play with such toys because the potential for abuse is too horrifying.

It strikes me that the Las Vegas shooter, Stephen Paddock, has raised the bar for all potential maniacs, terrorists, and death-by-coppers. If your goal is to cause as much mayhem as possible, how stupid do you have to be to not add a bump stock to your semi-automatic?

Wright is right to say that determined people will always find a way to commit mass murder. As long as no fundamental freedom is being infringed — and the right to bear bump stocks is not a fundamental freedom — let’s not make it easy for them.

Safeguard Privacy of Student Contact Info

Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke County, has submitted a bill that would exempt college student cellphone numbers and private email addresses from publicly available data. Del. Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg, and Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, have submitted similar bills. Reports the Roanoke Times:

The bills address concerns raised during the 2017 election when NextGen Virginia, a progressive political group, submitted Freedom of Information Act requests for campus directories from all of the state’s public universities.

The group sought student cellphone numbers in order to seek to drive up voter turnout for Democratic candidates.

In Virginia’s House of Delegates Wednesday, Del. Steve Landes, R-Augusta, highlighted protecting student data as one of the House Republican Caucus’s top education priorities this session.

Disgusted by the “unseemly practice” that progressive political groups took during campaign season, Landes praised legislation from Del. Tony Wilt, R-Rockingham, that also restricts student data, but takes a different route than Suetterlein and Hurst. Wilt’s bill is broader and changes the current “opt-out” system so students have to “opt-in” for their data to be released. … 

“When students and parents provide their personal information to colleges and universities of the commonwealth, they don’t expect that that information would be available to political activist groups and campaigns,” Landes said.

Bacon’s bottom line: Normally, I’m a big fan of open access to government data. But open access needs to be balanced against the right to privacy.

I work at home, and I’m bedeviled all day long by unsolicited calls from telemarketers. I can’t remember the last time I got a phone call from someone whose telephone number I did not provide either personally, by posting on this blog, or by including in the directory of our homeowners association. I’ve signed up for the do-not-call list — while I was typing this sentence I literally got a robo-call from “Greg with the Health Care Enrollment Center” — but it hasn’t stopped the inundation of calls. Accordingly, I have become a big fan of restricting access to personal contact information.

Judging by the Roanoke Times article, students have an opt-out option already. They can prohibit the release of their contact data. It would be interesting to know if that option was honored in the dissemination of data to NextGen Virginia. If it was, that provision arguably is protection enough. But changing the “opt out” provision to an “opt in” strikes me as a justifiable change. Students who want their data to be public still can allow it to be so. At the same time the measure protects those who might carelessly skip over the opt-out box or be oblivious to the ways in which their personal data might be abused.

Campus Speech Is Free… As Long As It Isn’t “Biased”

Longwood University where campus speech is free... as long as it isn't biased.

Longwood University, site of the 2016 vice presidential debate, where campus speech is free… as long as it isn’t biased.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has published its 2016 ratings of free speech in U.S. college campuses. Despite all the publicity given “safe spaces” and microagressions,” formal campus speech policies are getting somewhat less restrictive nationally, FIRE reports. Three Virginia universities stand among a small minority of institutions that do not threaten free speech. The rest are problematic.

Red Light (policies that clearly restrict free speech):
Norfolk State University

Yellow Light (policies that can be interpreted as restricting free speech):
Christopher Newport University
James Madison University
Longwood University
Mary Washington University
Old Dominion University
Radford University
Virginia Tech
Virginia State University

Green Light (policies do not seriously threaten free speech):
College of William & Mary
George Mason University
University of Virginia

While some universities are shifting away from restrictive speech codes, many have begun implementing “bias reporting” systems that encourage students to report one one another, and faculty members, whenever they subjectively perceive that someone’s speech or expression is biased. The FIRE report gave Longwood as an example:

Bias response systems, adopted by hundreds of institutions across the country, solicit reports of bias, which most universities explicitly define to encompass speech protected by the First Amendment. In some cases, the university realizes that it cannot impose speech codes, yet does so under the guise of providing “education” to offending speakers—through administrators.

Longwood University in Virginia, for example, recognized that “courts have not upheld … overly broad” speech codes. Instead, Longwood created a bias response system with a broad definition of bias: “a tendency or inclination; irrational preference or behavior that prevents unprejudiced consideration of people, events, or situations”—including “political or social affiliation.”

In an attempt to avoid the problem of unconstitutionality that Longwood recognizes, the policy provides that while “specific prohibitions” related to bias may be constitutionally problematic, the university will “include appropriate education sanctions when a student is found responsible.” Moreover, the policy leaves open the possibility that bias incidents could be subject to more severe sanctions under the university’s conduct policies, noting that bias incidents “may fall under the ‘Abuse to Persons’ violation” of Longwood’s conduct code.