Wednesday, February 28, 2018

MS-13: PBS Program Shows Two Sides of Notorious Gang


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

At 10 p.m. on Tuesday, February 13 I switched from the Winter Olympics to watch a PBS documentary on the Frontline series, narrated in the usually comforting tones of Will Lyman (whose other job is narrating BMW commercials, of all things), who’s done literally hundreds of Frontline videos and whose voice, like Walter Cronkite’s, conveys an air of folksiness and lordly authority at the same time. The show was called The Gang Crackdown and it dealt with the MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha Trece, or “Salvadoran Gang 13”) gang, its hold over several American communities — particularly Long Island, New York, where the show was focused — and the attempts of the Trump administration to combat it by deporting virtually all undocumented Salvadoran immigrants who came in as “unaccompanied youths” against whom a claim of gang affiliation can be made, however tenuous.
The show was a bit disappointing in that it lacked much context about MS-13, including the fact that it was actually formed in the U.S. (in Los Angeles in the 1980’s) and it was then imported into El Salvador as the U.S. caught and deported some of its members. According to the Wikipedia page on MS-13, “Originally the gang's main purpose was to protect Salvadoran immigrants from other, more established gangs of Los Angeles, who were predominantly composed of Mexicans and African-Americans. Many Mara Salvatrucha gang members from the Los Angeles area have been deported after being arrested. For example, Jose Abrego, a high-ranking member, was deported four times. As a result of these deportations, members of MS-13 have recruited more members in their home countries. The Los Angeles Times contends that deportation policies have contributed to the size and influence of the gang both in the United States and in Central America.”
But, as a debunking article posted on, “What Is MS-13?” by Bethania Palma (, from most of the coverage of MS-13 you wouldn’t know that it was originally founded in L.A. and then exported to El Salvador and other Central American countries, not the other way around. Palma published her article largely due to the mention President Donald Trump made of MS-13 in his January 30 State of the Union address, in which he made it sound like MS-13 was his justification for taking a hard line against Latin American immigrants in general and Salvadorans in particular:

Here tonight are two fathers and two mothers: Evelyn Rodriguez, Freddy Cuevas, Elizabeth Alvarado, and Robert Mickens. Their two teenage daughters — Kayla Cuevas and Nisa Mickens — were close friends on Long Island. But in September 2016, on the eve of Nisa’s 16th birthday, neither of them came home. These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown. Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisa’s murders. Many of these gang members took advantage of glaring loopholes in our laws to enter the country as unaccompanied alien minors — and wound up in Kayla and Nisa’s high school.
Evelyn, Elizabeth, Freddy, and Robert: Tonight, everyone in this chamber is praying for you. Everyone in America is grieving for you. And 320 million hearts are breaking for you. We cannot imagine the depth of your sorrow, but we can make sure that other families never have to endure this pain.
Tonight, I am calling on the Congress to finally close the deadly loopholes that have allowed MS-13, and other criminals, to break into our country. We have proposed new legislation that will fix our immigration laws, and support our ICE and Border Patrol Agents, so that this cannot ever happen again.

President Trump’s lurid account of MS-13 in general and two particularly loathsome murders in which the gang is alleged to have taken part is also reflected in the first part of the PBS documentary, which essentially portrays MS-13 as a band of lawless thugs whose only interests are murder and recruiting new members. One of the show’s interviewees, retired detective John Oliva of the Suffolk County Police Department, said, “I’m going to describe them as the most violent gang that we have here on Long Island. They’re killing teenagers. They’re killing our children. It’s just pure violence, and that’s what they thrive on.”
The first half of the PBS program, The Gang Crackdown, is a portrait of MS-13 in general and its “cliques” (the gang’s subdivisions) on Long Island in particular that presents them as such depraved thugs the viewer is led to believe that any action to stop them, however detrimental or offensive to civil liberties or due process, is justified. The narration by Marcela Gaviria, who wrote, produced and directed the program, describes MS-13’s presence in Long Island as having begun “in 2014, when an influx of nearly 9,000 minors, mostly from Central America, started flooding in.” These are called “unaccompanied youth” in immigration-speak, and while some — including a young man identified in the program only as “Junior,” who features prominently in the film’s second half — were joining parents or relatives already in the U.S., others were simply fleeing the war and violence endemic in El Salvador ever since the civil war of the early 1980’s.
One of Gaviria’s interviewees, Michelle Brane of the Women’s Refugee Commission, explained, “What we were seeing [was] a drastic increase in violence in Central America. We were seeing that gangs had really taken over entire neighborhoods. Children were being threatened and forcibly recruited into gangs under the threat of death to themselves or their families.”
Huntington High School in Huntington, New York is one of the schools the new arrivals went to for an education. One of them, the show explained, was Junior, who had come to the U.S. by train to live with his father, George, who’d been in Long Island for a decade. He had emigrated in 2016, at age 14, largely to avoid being recruited into a gang in his native Honduras. In a series of subtitled interviews, Junior describes being scared by the train, overjoyed to see again the father who’d left when Junior was just three — and intimidated when he found that the same gangs he’d fled Honduras to avoid had their hooks into the student body at Huntington High.
“I was scared when they would talk to me about the gangs, and would ask me if I wanted to be one of them,” Junior recalled. “And I would tell them no.”
“The recruitment starts right out at the school,” retired Suffolk County detective Oliva added. “They’ll approach you [and say], ‘Hey, we’re part of the gang.’ A lot of these kids, especially the undocumented ones that came into this country … came here with really no friends … and they were very easily absorbed by these guys. It was almost like they were being given a feeling that they have a family now.”
The show followed another young immigrant, Jésus Lopez from El Salvador, who arrived in Huntington in 2014 — two years before Junior — and also found that the gangs he’d fled his home country to escape were very much present in the U.S. “I started studying in September [2014], after I got in. I started studying at Huntington High School. I didn’t adapt quickly, but I liked it because I was learning things. I got good grades.” He also got an after-school job at a local restaurant, where his co-workers liked him and were impressed by his dedication. “I would go to cook, then go to school, cook, and go to school,” Lopez said. “I was just working so I could send money back to my parents.”
Julia Saltman, one of Lopez’s co-workers at the restaurant, said Lopez and other immigrants told her “they were being hassled at school. If MS wants to find you and wants to start trouble, it’s difficult to avoid. It just terrified them.”
Just what MS-13 wanted new members like Jésus Lopez and Junior to do remained a mystery in the PBS program, which never explained the economics of the gang. It presented them basically as amoral criminal thugs with no concern about anything, including making money from their activities. This is pretty much the standard picture of them; the Wikipedia page on MS-13 claims, “They are notorious for their violence and a subcultural moral code based on merciless retribution.” The Wikipedia page said that they were recruited as security people, enforcers and hit men for the Mexico-based Sinaloa drug cartel because of their cruelty.
Various reports have linked MS-13 to immigrant smuggling and human trafficking, as well as spreading terror among would-be immigrants from Guatemala and other Central American countries on Mexico’s southern border. According to Stephen Dudley, co-director of a think tank called InsightCrime that studies organized crime in the Americas:

They are often painted as an international drug smuggling or human trafficking organization. We get no indication they are deeply involved in anything other than pretty systematic extortion in Central America and other places they’re operational. They’re very much a hand-to-mouth criminal organization — this is not the Sinaloa cartel. …
We found no evidence to indicate the gang itself was paying for anybody to actually come to the U.S. This for us was the key indicator. Of course there’s communication [among members about migration] but these decisions to pick up and leave are very intimate family decisions that we think are determined by the closest inner circle of these individuals. The gang is a very intimate group to be sure but they are not the final determinants of this.
Nor did we find any evidence that they are so sophisticated that they’re finding loopholes in the U.S. system to replenish depleted cells that are in the U.S. They’re finding ways to take advantage of the movement of people that happens organically, through the already-established migrant paths to the places where there are populations of the same nationality really, regardless of whether or not there are any gang members there. It’s a huge leap to say that there is a plan afoot on the part of the gang to move people.
We also found that the gang itself is a very loosely knit organization, especially at the top. There is no single ruling council that controls every piece of the gang. The gang members themselves are more loyal to their particular cliques than they are to the actual gang in most instances.

“What has grabbed recent headlines for the now decades-old gang was a spate of gruesome murders on the East Coast and evidence that some factions of MS-13 are trying to accomplish some of the things they are being accused of doing — if unsuccessfully,” Palma wrote in her Snopes article — for which Dudley of InsightCrime and University of Southern California associate professor of anthropology Thomas Ward were principal sources. Dudley told Palma:

They have tried to establish better means of communication between their different factions, the major factions being West Coast, East Coast and El Salvador. To some extent there is more movement of money and weapons.
There are tendencies that are worrying for sure, and probably the most worrying aspect is their ability to take advantage of the vulnerability of large numbers of youth and incorporate many of them into their ranks and involve them in really macabre criminal acts in places like Maryland, Long Island and the Boston area. But the standard answer of increasing enforcement and vilifying entire communities — with 40 years of experience behind us, we can say that is not going to lead to the end of this gang.

Wald argues that by sensationalizing MS-13 and making them seem like, in the title of a previous (2005) National Geographic special about them, the “World’s Most Dangerous Gang,” politicians like President Trump may actually be helping MS-13 recruit. “The president doesn’t realize it, but he’s doing a disservice to the public [and] a service to the gang because it elevates their reputation,” Wald told Palma. “All gang members and all gangs want to be known as notorious. By mentioning them as this horrendous group of people who are like terrorists, he’s elevating their status. It fuels the flames of crime and violence because it attracts youth who are rebellious and are seeking to belong to some group that will accept them.”

Protecting the Innocent

The second half of the PBS Frontline special on MS-13, “The Gang Crackdown,” does a virtual 180° from the first half. Where the show began by highlighting the savagery of MS-13’s murders in Long Island, mostly of fellow teenage Salvadoran migrants, the second half strongly critiques law enforcement in general and the Trump administration in particular for behaving as if police action against the gang and deportations of its members are going to be enough to solve the problem. Timothy Sini, police commissioner for Suffolk County, Long Island from 2015 to 2017, is shown on the “Gang Crackdown” program saying that “we have promised to eradicate MS-13 from our streets”
Sergio Argueta, an activist with a community anti-gang group called S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth (, replied on the show, saying, “This idea that you’re going to launch this repressive attack and you’re going to annihilate this gang — violence meeting violence is not going to solve the issue.”
In March 2017, Suffolk County law enforcement officers arrested four MS-13 members for the murders of Nisa Mickens and Kayla Cuevas, the two young victims President Trump had mentioned in the State of the Union speech. One month later, on April 11, police found the bodies of four young immigrant men — Mike Lopez, Justin Llivicura, Jefferson Villalobos and Jorge Tigre — in what they described as a “killing field.” The young men had been hacked to death with machetes, a preferred murder method for MS-13, and police believed that girlfriends of MS-13 members had lured them into the woods where they were killed with promises of sex.
Given the history of bad relations between Suffolk County law enforcement and the immigrant communities — “By the simple fact that you are undocumented, they treat you very poorly; there is a lot of arrogance, a lot of racism” one unidentified woman who appeared to be victim Mike Lopez’s mother told Frontline — the boys’ parents and friends of their families organized their own search parties when the boys went missing. “I was worried because Mike always answered my messages,” the woman said. “He always talked to me. He always answered. And that night, he never answered.”
President Trump’s public statements on MS-13 and the Long Island killings showed two of his least attractive qualities: his tendency to demonize entire groups of people and his belief that the way to stop bullies and thugs is to bully them and be thug-like in treating them. He canceled the entire program for helping Salvadoran refugees settle in the U.S. and repeatedly threatened that his answer for dealing with MS-13 was to deport them. In one tweet, Trump said, “The weak illegal immigration policies of the Obama Admin. allowed bad MS-13 gangs to form in cities across [the] U.S. We are removing them fast!”
Trump also openly endorsed police brutality as an appropriate way to deal with MS-13. He picked Long Island as the site of his July 28, 2017 speech advocating that police take a hard line against arrestees and suspects. “When you guys put somebody in the car and you’re protecting their head, you know, the way you put their hand over?” Trump said, miming the physical motion of an officer shielding a suspect’s head to keep it from bumping against the squad car. “Like, don’t hit their head, and they just killed somebody — don’t hit their head,” Trump continued. “I said, you can take the hand away, okay?”
Apparently Trump picked Long Island as the locale for this speech because he believed the Suffolk County Police Department’s experiences with MS-13 would prime them to accept his thug-like advice for how police officers should behave. If so, he was mistaken. Just hours after Trump’s speech, the department responded with an e-mail which read, “The Suffolk County Police Department has strict rules and procedures relating to the handling of prisoners, and violations of those rules and procedures are treated extremely seriously. As a department, we do not and will not tolerate ‘rough[ing]’ up prisoners.”
Though both President Trump and attorney general Jeff Sessions turned down Frontline’s request for interviews for “The Gang Crackdown,” deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein was interviewed — and anyone on the liberal or progressive Left who regards Rosenstein as a hero for his resistance to Trump’s attempts to meddle into the investigation of Russian influence in the 2016 U.S. elections will be sobered by his remarks on the Frontline “Gang Crackdown” program. He gave a full-throated party-line defense of Trump’s law enforcement policies in general and his reliance on deportation as a key front-line weapon against MS-13 in particular:

The reason MS-13 has been our priority this year is because of the unprecedented growth of the gang, and the extraordinary depravity we see in some of the criminal activity it commits. But in terms of the overall objectives of the administration, our goal is to keep out the criminals in the first place. In fact, the majority of the MS-13 members that we prosecute are illegal aliens, and a large proportion of them are unaccompanied minors. And people here unlawfully and [who] pose a danger to American citizens are removed as quickly as possible.

The Crackdown in Practice

The final segment of the Frontline MS-13 documentary “The Gang Crackdown” focuses on the cases of the two young immigrants profiled earlier in the show, “Junior” and Jésus Lopez to show how Suffolk County’s and the feds’ emphasis on apprehension, immigration and a “zero tolerance” policy towards actual or suspected gang-affiliated young men works in practice. It begins with the narrator explaining that in late 2016 local law enforcement in Long Island started focusing on middle schools and high schools, scrutinizing new students to see if they had gang-related clothing or other supposed markers of membership or affiliation.
One anonymous school resource officer — a sworn police officer embedded in a school in part to ferret out suspected gang members —showed Frontline a photo of an old-style MS-13 member with the heavy tattooing and body art that used to be typical of the gang. Then, he explained, “You really don’t see this guy anymore. … It’s going to be the kid in the skinny jeans and the polo shirt and maybe the Chicago Bulls cap.” The reason for the latter is that the bull is a symbol for MS-13 and a lot of members supposedly started wearing gear from the Chicago Bulls basketball team as a way of proclaiming their gang affiliation while seeming to be innocuous sports fans.
Mariana Gil, assistant principal of Bellport Middle School in Long Island, told Frontline that local police visit her school and others in the area to educate school staff about what to look for that might indicate a student has ties to MS-13. “They put on a presentation,” she explained. “They show images of bandanas, or bull’s horns. And they tell us that those are the items that if we see the students wearing or drawing, that we should be on the alert because it’s related to a gang.”
School officials responded to the law-enforcement presentation by calling hundreds of students to principals’ offices, questioning them and often suspending them on flimsy evidence. Some students were harassed and told that they had written “503” in their notebooks. It’s the area code for El Salvador, and it’s a set of numbers police in Long Island apparently regard as a sign of MS-13 affiliation. “Duh, that’s the area code of where they’re from,” said Sergio Argueta of S.T.R.O.N.G. Youth.
Jésus Lopez was one of the students identified early on as an MS-13 affiliate. “The school had sent a paper that said I had written MS-13 on my hand, but I knew it wasn’t true,” he told Frontline. “I had only written the name of my girlfriend on my hand. I didn’t write MS-13.” This sent him into a Kafka-esque situation where the mere existence of a school report that he’d written MS-13 on his hand — with no photograph or other documentation that it wasn’t just the name of a girlfriend — became “truth.” He had no opportunity to defend himself against the allegation; it just stood and was accepted as fact throughout the process.
Junior also got caught up in the Huntington High dragnet. His father George was startled when in March 2017 he received a call from the school to come to campus because his son was in trouble. George’s employer told Frontline, “They said, ‘Look, we want to keep this kind of simple. He’s been accused of making signs of MS-13. Just sign the paper. And we’re going to suspend Junior, and if he wants to come back to school, he can come back to school next year, 2018.’ And George, he signed the paper. And as soon as he signed the paper, it was just a snowball going downhill.”
In late June 2017 — just before President Trump gave his big speech in Long Island urging law enforcement not to worry about injuring people in the course of arresting them — Lopez was apprehended at the restaurant where he worked. “A truck was waiting for him in the back of the restaurant, and when he walked out of work, they picked him up,” recalled his co-worker Julia Saltman. “They took them out so fast.” Concerned that Lopez would be deported, Saltman hired him an attorney — and the attorney, Adam Tavares, told Frontline that the only information the government gave him to support its charges against Lopez was a two-page memo that misidentified his name as “Polanco.”
Neither school officials nor Suffolk County law enforcement would officially describe the criteria they use to determine whether a student is MS-13, an MS-13 wanna-be or merely someone wearing gang colors, Chicago Bulls paraphernalia or the area code of El Salvador without knowing that’s going to get them accused of being part of MS-13. “We don’t publicly disclose the criteria because if we did, when our officers and detectives are attempting to generate intelligence, MS-13 would be one step ahead of us,” former Suffolk County police commissioner Sini said.
But Sini readily acknowledged that he and his department used deportation or the threat of deportation — including extended detention by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) — to go after people they suspect of MS-13 affiliation but haven’t committed any crime:

For example, if we have intelligence that they are a gang member, that’s not necessarily a crime, right? Certainly, being a gang member is not a crime, and the intel that we may have may not indicate a significant state crime. We may have something small on them, but nothing that’s going to keep them in jail. So if we perceive someone as a public safety threat, we utilize all of our tools, which include immigration tools. So we’ll partner with the Department of Homeland Security to target them for detention and removal.

Junior got caught up in a law-enforcement attack on MS-13 called “Operation Matador” — an attempt to turn MS-13’s bull symbol against it by invoking the person who kills the bull in a bullfight — when Suffolk County police got a series of so-called “gang memos” circulated by ICE, many based on information from embedded cops in the schools (“school resource officers”). Frontline obtained copies of several of these “gang memos,” one of which identified Junior as an active MS-13 member. Junior denied it, telling Frontline, “I’m not a gang member. I’m a church-going young man … I don’t even have a criminal record.”
But neither he nor his father and legal guardian, George, would get a chance to contest the “gang memo” in court. Four days after the “gang memo” identifying Junior was drafted, he was followed on his way to church by four black vehicles. Later, George’s employer recalled, “I got a phone call from George and he said that they took Junior. They said, ‘We’re taking the boy. We’re government.’”
Like Julia Saltman with Jésus Lopez, George hired an immigration attorney to represent Junior. The attorney, Dawn Pipek Guidone, was shocked that the government shipped Junior to a detention facility in Shenandoah, Virginia, without any notice either to his father or to her, his official legal counsel. Eventually Guidone helped George and his employer reached out to the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), which was putting together a class-action lawsuit challenging the legality of the crackdown.
“During the summertime [of 2017], I remember our office would get calls almost every Friday or so beginning around June or July where we’d hear from a family saying, ‘Our kid was just taken from us. We don’t know where he is,’” NYCLU attorney Phil Desgranges told Frontline. “And so then we’re calling around, trying to figure out would the immigration attorney know, and the immigration attorney has no idea, as well. And that seemed to be a pattern that happened, you know, weekend after weekend.”
The NYCLU took on Junior’s case and eventually located him. “In Virginia, he was kept in solitary confinement, you know, where all he had in his cell was a bed, a toilet, and no window,” Desgranges said. “It was a really traumatizing experience for him. This is a kid who had never been arrested, never been charged with a crime. There’s no allegation that he committed a crime. But nonetheless, he’s been in detention for four months.”
Junior himself told Frontline, “You can never see the sun or the moon [in detention]. I was desperate. In my desperation, I made a lot of mistakes. I tried to kill myself. I took my shirt off and made a rope. And I put it around my neck, and I started to kill myself. The only thing I thought about was that my dad loves me, and I love him, too. They were trying to revive me and I didn’t respond because I was already dying. After that, they put me on restriction, with no clothes. They took everything away from me. I was suffering through the cold for a week. Here I cut my vein. I stuck in a piece of glass and a lot of blood came out. Here, too. Desperation had taken over me, sadness, solitude, and that’s why I made this mistake.”
The NYCLU was finally able to get Junior transferred from Virginia to a less restrictive facility in New York, and eventually they got him a hearing before a judge — the first sign of due process in his months-long ordeal. Junior’s attorney, Dawn Pipek Guidone, told the judge in the case, “We were served with the memo, very unsubstantiated information, wearing certain colors to school, allegations of throwing gang signs. The allegations are completely general in nature. They don’t indicate anything other than association with gang members, but they provide no identification of these individuals.”
Guidone objected to the use of the gang memo as evidence, and asked the judge to release Junior immediately. The judge said he couldn’t. “What you’re talking about is something I have no authority over,” he said. “Unless I’m mistaken, I can’t order him released from Children’s Village. That is not within the scope of my authority.”
In August 2017, attorney Julia Harumi Mass with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in California filed a class-action lawsuit to release 34 people who had been detained by ICE as suspected gang members without due process. Junior was one of the plaintiffs in her case. Three months later, she won a court order stating that ICE would have to go through judicial hearings on each detainee and let a judge rule on whether the gang allegations were valid or not — and they would have to release the ones against whom there was insufficient evidence or no evidence at all.
Once the hearings started, 28 of the ACLU’s 34 clients — including Junior — were ordered released. But the court ruling in favor of the ACLU applied only to minors, not legal adults. Because he was 18, Lopez stayed in custody until December, when he was deported. “Honestly, it’s really terrible because there are bad criminals here, but they’re treated better than us,” Lopez told Frontline in an interview at the New Jersey detention facility, where he was held until he was deported. “Sometimes they bring us to court with our hands and feet cuffed, whereas they bring the others in with just their hands cuffed to their stomach. So they treat us worse than these big criminals.”
Lopez told Frontline his big fear is that as a deportee back in El Salvador he’ll be suspected of gang ties by rival gangsters, and be murdered. “I’m very scared I’ll get back, and they’ll think I’m a gang member. They can look for me at my house. They can assassinate me. I don’t want to end up like a lot of people who are deported who later end up dead in the streets.”
Frontline’s “The Gang Crackdown” episode ended with some chilling statistics and yet another hard-line statement by President Trump against MS-13. According to the program, 44 of the over 400 people taken into custody under “Operation Matador” have been deported. Suffolk County authorities, working with ICE, have launched a new operation, “Raging Bull,” and made 218 arrests since the murders of Misa Nickens and Kayla Cuevas. “Gang members took advantage of glaring loophole in our laws to enter the country as illegal unaccompanied alien minors,” President Trump says in the clip from his January 30 State of the Union speech that ends the program. “Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives.”

There’s an old saying that “when elephants fight, the grass gets trampled.” When the full resources of the federal government are turned on a vicious, reprehensible criminal organization like MS-13, the blades of grass that get trampled are the innocent victims of MS-13’s depradations and brutalities — and the innocent immigrants trying to work themselves up and live the American dream, who get accused of gang affiliations and are deported on the flimsiest of evidence. President Trump didn’t start the Right-wing ideology on crime — that any attack on suspected “criminals,” whether or not they’ve actually done anything illegal, is warranted and those pesky guarantees of “due process” in the Fourth and Fifth Amendments just get in the way of law enforcement — but, as with so much of the rest of the ideology of the American Right, he’s put his own spin of bigotry, hatred and brutality on it.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Another Mass Shooting


Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It’s indicative of how inured we’ve become to mass shootings that one of the most salient comments on the one in Parkland, Florida February 14 was that after its death toll of 17 people Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, perpetrators of the Columbine High mass shooting in 1999, are no longer on the list of the top ten most lethal school shooters in the U.S. It’s an issue that has totally paralyzed American politics; so completely have we outsourced our whole public policy on firearms to the National Rifle Association (NRA) that any restriction on the “right” of people to keep and bear virtually any arms they wish, short of nuclear weapons or tank-mounted cannons, has become politically unimaginable.
I’ll state right up front: as a born-and-bred West Coaster, a lifelong Californian who’s lived his entire life either in the San Francisco Bay Area or San Diego, I don’t get “gun culture.” I have never in my life even held an actual gun (as opposed to the toy pistols and BB guns I remember playing with as a kid), much less fired one. Indeed, I’m so prone to bouts of depression that if I did own a gun, quite frankly the person I’d be most likely to shoot with it is myself. I don’t “get” guns. I don’t know why anyone would want to own one. Though I eat meat, and therefore I’m complicit in the killing of animals for their food, I fail to see the entertainment value in hunting, especially for people sufficiently economically well situated that they don’t need to bring down game in the morning in order to have dinner that evening.
But I’m also an American, and therefore I have lived my entire life in a country that ironically has internalized Mao Zedong’s famous observation that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Our founding myths as a nation involve guns: guns supposedly “tamed the West” and enabled a handful of white people who had them to steal this country from a whole lot of Natives who didn’t. Indeed, not long after I wrote the above I read an article, “Settler Colonialism and the Second Amendment,” by Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz in the January 2018 Monthly Review, which argued that the whole reason American rebels wanted to be free of British domination in the 1770’s was not only was the British government setting limits on the colonists’ “right” to kill Natives and take their land, but they were imposing the Stamp Act and other taxes on the colonists to pay the British soldiers who were protecting the Natives against them.
Our entertainment is full of stories in which the moral is he who has the gun, or the biggest gun, or the most guns, wins. For years, “Westerns” — stories of supposedly “heroic” acts of genocide white Americans committed against Native populations — were the U.S.’s most popular form of mass entertainment. Westerns have gradually faded in popularity but the whole idea that guns are the right way for people to stand up for their rights and get rid of the other people in their way is at the heart of much of our dramatic entertainment. The U.S. movie ratings board is notoriously easier on violence and harder on sex than its counterparts in Europe. As the late comedian Lenny Bruce put it, “Well, if the kids want to watch killing, that’s fine, but if they want to watch schtupping [Yiddish for ‘screwing’], they may want to do it some day.”
In a commentary in the February 19 Los Angeles Times (, University of Washington political science professor Scott Lemieux explains the factors that make sensible gun regulation impossible in the U.S. “The relatively recent radicalization of the National Rifle Association and its capture of the Republican Party makes even modest gun control measures impossible at the federal level and in most states,” he writes. “And while public opinion supports most specific gun control measures, including bans on assault-style weapons, opponents of gun control tend to be better mobilized and organized. At the national level, there’s an additional structural problem, which is that both houses of Congress over-represent rural jurisdictions where support for gun control is relatively weak and opposition is particularly intense.”
At least part of that is built into the U.S. Constitution. The framers were openly hostile to democracy and so they created a republican structure under which no one in the general public would vote directly for any office higher than member of the House of Representatives. The President would be chosen by an Electoral College and the U.S. Senate by state legislators. What’s more, each state would get two Senators, regardless of its population — an imbalance the framers may have figured they could live with because when the U.S. Constitution was adopted the most populous state, Virginia, had nine times as many people as the least populous, Rhode Island. Today the most populous state, California, has 250 times as many people as the least populous, Wyoming.
America’s smaller states tend to be more rural, living as farmers or ranchers along large stretches of land, and therefore more accustomed to the idea of needing guns for “protection” whether they ever have occasion to use them or not. Indeed, I’ve met people from even relatively cosmopolitan Western or Midwestern states like Washington and Ohio who’ve described growing up with guns as a rite of passage: one way you knew you were finally accepted as an adult was your dad took you to the back yards and taught you to shoot. The idea that any government should tell you that you can’t own a gun, or that you have to submit to a “background check” and thereby ask the government’s permission to buy one, is anathema to many Americans who don’t live on the East or West Coast and believe that citizens have a right to “protect” themselves instead of relying on police or other government agencies to do it for them.
Lemieux’ observation that those opposing gun regulation “tend to be better mobilized and organized” is pretty obvious when you look at the war chest of the NRA versus that of any gun-regulation organization. But it also hints at a deeper reason why the Right has consistently defeating the Left in American politics over the last 40 years or so even though polls show large reservoirs of public support for “liberal” policy agendas like sensible gun legislation, women’s right to reproductive choice and equal rights for Queer people. The American Right’s coalition consists largely of single-issue constituencies: groups of voters who will base their entire decision whom to vote for on their position on one issue.
The Republican Party has come to dominate American politics not only by successfully exploiting the anti-democratic features of the U.S. Constitution but by assembling a coalition of voters who won’t support anyone who isn’t an absolutist on the Second Amendment, voters who won’t support anyone who doesn’t want to ban all (or almost all) abortion, voters who won’t support anyone who doesn’t take a hard line against immigration (especially immigration, “legal” or not, by people of color), voters who won’t support anyone who endorses same-sex marriage or anti-discrimination laws protecting Queers, and voters who won’t support anyone who backs regulations to protect workers, consumers and the environment.
By contrast, Left-wing voters tend to have a wider range of issues and are less likely to ignore the rest of what a candidate stands for to focus on one issue and base their voting decision on that. Too often, progressive Americans won’t vote for a candidate unless he or she supports gun regulation and reproductive choice and liberal immigration policies and Queer rights and reduction in U.S. military spending and intervention in other countries and criminal justice reform and replacing private health insurance with single-payer and an end to the “War on Drugs” and making rich people pay more in taxes and aggressively addressing the human causes of climate change. Miss one of those checkpoints on the Left’s all too common litmus tests and you’ve lost the votes of a lot of so-called progressives (“alt-Leftists,” I call them) who in practice help the Republicans by voting against Democrats they see as wanting on one issue on the alt-Left’s laundry lists.
So it doesn’t matter how many outraged moms march in the streets demanding that their government do something to protect their kids from being massacred by deranged or thrill-seeking misfits armed with lethal assault weapons. It doesn’t matter how hard it gets for the NRA to continue arguing that this or that particular mass killing wouldn’t have been prevented by this or that proposed gun control bill. The virtually absolute freedom of Americans under the Second Amendment to own as many guns as they like, of virtually whatever type they like (aside from a few categories, like fully automatic machine guns, that were made illegal decades ago before the issue became so polarized and the NRA so absolutist) is as settled a political issue in this country as anything ever gets.
Indeed, one could argue that it was definitively settled back in 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote for President but lost in the Electoral College to George W. Bush. Gore was not defeated by the partisan Republican Secretary of State in Florida, nor by the U.S. Supreme Court, nor by Ralph Nader splitting the progressive vote. He was defeated by the NRA, which launched independent campaigns against him in the swing states of Tennessee and West Virginia and thus swung those states to Bush. In an election that was otherwise razor-close, Gore became the first major-party Presidential nominee to lose his home state, Tennessee. Had Gore carried Tennessee, he would have won the Electoral College and Florida wouldn’t have mattered a bit. Instead he lost his home state, he lost the Presidency, and Democrats throughout the U.S. got the message loud and clear: “Don’t fuck with the NRA.”
And that history repeated itself in 2016, when another Republican Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, enthusiastically embraced the NRA’s pro-gun agenda, got an early endorsement from them, and won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote largely because his opponent was widely seen as “anti-gun.” A number of voters interviewed during the 2016 campaign told reporters that they were aware of all Trump’s negatives but were going to vote for him anyway because “if Hillary gets in, she’s going to take my guns away.”
Americans — not all Americans, not even a majority, but enough highly dedicated and committed people to decide the issue — have decided that mass shootings are a small price to pay for the “freedom” to bear arms. They have decided to remain the most heavily armed country in the world, both in terms of their official military and weapons in private hands, because they believe it gives them “security” and “protection.” They vote according to the NRA’s wishes and repeat the mantra, “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun.”

Trump’s Feints Toward Reason

President Trump’s typical spew of often contradictory words and ideas about guns in the 13 days (as I’m writing this section of my article) since the Parkland shooting is all too accurate a reflection of the confusion and gridlock that has kept America’s lax gun policies in place throughout my lifetime and even before. If you don’t believe that, seek out the book The Real Bonnie and Clyde, published in 1967 by an author who thought the then-current film had glamorized them, and read the editorials from newspapers in 1934 that questioned just how the real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had acquired the huge arsenal they were found with when they were killed by Louisiana police, and dared suggest that maybe the government should do something to make it harder for outlaws to get guns.
As Los Angeles Times reporter David Lauter wrote on February 23 (, in the aftermath of Parkland President Trump offered four different policies aimed at preventing future mass murders at schools. “The first three of those ideas could put him in conflict with gun rights supporters,” Lauter wrote. “The fourth is the only one Trump has talked about at any length.”
The first three Lauter referred to are raising the legal age for buying assault weapons from 18 to 21, improving the background check system to make sure people with mental illnesses have a harder time buying guns, and banning the so-called “bump stocks” that turn legal semi-automatic assault rifles like the AR-15 used at Parkland into fully automatic machine-gun style weapons. Alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz didn’t use bump stocks, but Stephen Paddock, identified by Las Vegas police as the gunman who opened fire at a country-music festival there October 1, 2017 and killed 58 people by shooting down on them from a hotel window, did.
Lauter and fellow Los Angeles Times reporter Christi Parsons, noted that any attempts to regulate who can buy firearms and under what conditions is going to crash into the usual wall of opposition from gun owners who regard any restrictions on gun ownership as the beginning of a slippery slope that will lead to repeal of the Second Amendment. (Frankly, repealing the Second Amendment is looking like a better and better idea every day. Without that troublesome and obsolete part of the Constitution defining gun ownership as a “right,” we could at least regulate firearms the way we do cars: you can own one, but first you have to pass a government-administered test to show you know how to use it properly and safely.)
In an article ( whose headline, at least in the Los Angeles Times’ print edition, used an odd gun metaphor and called Trump’s gun policy “scattershot,” Parsons and co-author Cathleen Decker quoted Michael Hammond, executive director of Gun Owners of America — a gun rights group founded in 1975 by people who thought the NRA was too willing to compromise on gun regulations — as saying proposals to end background check loopholes, outlaw bump stocks or expand the use of protective orders to take guns from mentally ill civilians would be tantamount to “the 2nd Amendment Repeal Act.”
It’s not surprising that in later statements, Trump has backed away from at least one of the sensible gun regulations he sorta-kinda endorsed earlier: raising the age for buying an assault weapon from 18 to 21. (If you ask me, it should be zero; there is utterly no justification for private individuals, even “sportsmen” who like to go out in the woods and shoot animals, to own military-grade firearms.) Instead, he’s offered a preposterous claim that if he’d been on the scene in Parkland he’d have been willing to go in there to stop the shooting, “even if I didn’t have a weapon.” And he’s doubled down on the fourth proposal Lauter referred to, the one that’s long been on the NRA’s wish list: “solving” the problem of gun violence at schools by arming teachers.
“Last Thursday (February 22), when Donald Trump proposed arming teachers as a response to the Parkland gun massacre, his suggestion was met with widespread horror and ridicule,” New Yorker reporter Jay Cassidy wrote on the magazine’s Web site February 27. “Teachers dismissed it. Lawmakers shied away from it. And critics pointed out that the idea had originally been proposed by the N.R.A. in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting, in 2012.
“Yet Trump is nothing if not stubborn. During a meeting at the White House with a number of governors on Monday (February 26), he defended his proposal even in the face of strong opposition from one of his guests, Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state. In initial news reports, the exchanges between Trump, Inslee, and several other governors were overshadowed by the President’s laughable claim that even unarmed, he would have tackled the Parkland school shooter. But the discussion of the merits and demerits of arming teachers is well worth revisiting.”
Inslee, a long-time advocate of gun regulation serving his second term, told Trump, “I have listened to the biology teachers, and they don’t want to do that in any percentage. I have listened to the first-grade teachers that don’t want to be pistol-packing first-grade teachers. I have listened to law enforcement who have said they don’t want to have to train teachers as law-enforcement agents, which takes about six months. Now, I just think this is a circumstance where we need to listen — that educators should be educators and shouldn’t have foisted onto them the responsibility of packing heat in first-grade classes. I just suggest we need a little less tweeting and little more listening, and let’s just take that off the table and move forward.”
Trump didn’t respond to Inslee — instead he called on several other governors from more gun-friendly states who said they liked the idea of arming teachers — but, as Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz argued in the Monthly Review piece I cited earlier, and at greater length in a recently published book called Loaded: A Disarming Look at the Second Amendment, the NRA’s dream of a totally armed citizenry of good guys with guns at the ready to blow away bad guys with guns has deep roots in American history. She points out that those “well-regulated militias” referenced in the Second Amendment had at least two important functions in pre-Revolutionary America that carried over after independence and well into the 19th Century. One was to keep Native Americans from retaking the land white settlers had driven them off of, and the other was to enforce slavery by capturing and, if necessary, killing fugitive slaves.
At the time the Second Amendment was ratified as part of the Bill of Rights, Dunbar Ortiz states, not only did most states have similar guarantees of the right to bear arms, some states had laws requiring all able-bodied males to own guns and to carry them whenever they left home. A few states even offered financial assistance so people who otherwise couldn’t afford weapons could buy them. The end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 and the effective end of Native American resistance to white occupation, which Dunbar Ortiz dates to the killing of chief Crazy Horse in 1877, meant that these two purposes for a well-armed citizenry no longer applied — but the whole “pioneer spirit” and the idea that a responsible citizen is one who owns a gun, knows how to use it and is willing to do so lingers to this day among many Americans.
So is the idea that only “certain” — i.e., white — people should own guns. In D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, a piece of racist propaganda glorifying the Ku Klux Klan and also artistically one of the finest movies ever made, the climax occurs when the Klan successfully not only drives Southern Blacks from the political power they’d achieved during Reconstruction but, even more importantly for the forces of white supremacy, takes away their guns. In a much less well-known film, Tim McCoy’s 1932 pro-Native Western End of the Trail, McCoy plays an U.S. Army officer who’s dishonorably discharged from the service for allegedly selling guns to the Natives; he denies the charges but says that since the U.S. has broken every treaty it has ever made with Native Americans, he can understand and sympathize with their armed resistance.
The Parkland shooting laid bare the contradictions within Donald Trump — and within a lot of Americans, including the minority who, because of where they were distributed within the country, were able to make him President. Trump is a coward who hates the sight of blood — on his February 26 MS-NBC program, Lawrence O’Donnell recounted an incident from 2008 in which Trump was confronted by an 80-year-old man who collapsed and nearly died at an event at Mar-a-Lago, and Trump’s main concern was this man was shedding all that disgusting red blood all over his resort’s marble floors — who styles himself a superhero. Not only did he say he would have personally intervened to stop the mass shooting at Parkland if he’d been there, but on New Year’s Day 2018 he triumphantly proclaimed that because of his leadership, there had been no fatal plane crashes in the U.S. in 2017.
When he’s not fantasizing himself so literally as Superman — intervening in active shootings because bullets will bounce off him, and magically keeping planes from killing their passengers — Trump is enthralled by the NRA’s vision of returning to the frontier days in which people trusted themselves, not law enforcement, to protect them and the public peace. The idea of a dog-eat-dog culture in which people at least figuratively, if not literally, have to kill each other in order to survive is very much a part of Donald Trump’s psyche. It’s how he ran his businesses; he was the sort of boss who hired people without giving them a clear idea of what he wanted them to do, then had them fight each other for his favor so he could reward the ones who flattered him the most and made him the most money.
This was also the role he played on the TV series The Apprentice, which was all-important to his success as a politician because it convinced millions of Americans that Trump — in real life a mediocre businessman with as many losses as wins in his track record — was a financial and business authority of perfect intelligence and sagacity. And it’s the way he’s run his White House as well, with shifting lines of authority and a clear preference for those who will flatter him instead of those who will actually tell him what he needs to know and get the job done.
Trump wants a country whose citizens are always at the ready, fingers on triggers, to fight each other for what they want — and the fact that he’s a physical coward who’s been protected from that sort of existence by his family’s money and has seriously compared risking getting STD’s from all the women he slept with to facing combat in Viet Nam makes his whole pretension that he would do well in the Hunger Games-style arena he’d like the rest of us to live in all the more bizarre. Of course, in his scattershot comments on post-Parkland policy he’s thrown out some of the Right’s usual targets — it’s all the fault of Hollywood and the media, all those violent movies and video games (which, as I argued at the start of this piece, really reflect America’s love affairs with guns and a dog-eat-dog view of the world) — but Parkland has really given us a Rorschach-like view of Donald Trump … and of ourselves.

The Left’s Sacred Cow

The Parkland shootings hooked one of the Right’s sacred cows — the belief that despite the thin veneer of civilization, and the military and law-enforcement institutions we’ve set up in the belief that they can protect us, ultimately it’s the individual’s responsibility to protect himself, and to arm himself so he can do so. But it’s also hooked one of the Left’s sacred cows: the long-established principle of the American judicial system that people can only be punished for the crimes they’ve actually committed, not those they might commit in the future; and the related idea that even when charged with a crime and put on trial, accused people are innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
President Trump tweeted at 8:08 p.m. February 17, “Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign — there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!” This statement was widely interpreted as an attack on the FBI and Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller for continuing to investigate whether Russian agents tried to influence the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and Trump’s campaign helped them. But it was more than that: in its plea that the FBI should have responded to “all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter” by incarcerating or otherwise punishing him in advance is a direct assault on the whole idea that people are presumed innocent and can only be punished for crimes they have actually done, not simply those they might do.
The presumption of innocence and the idea of punishing people only for their actual crimes have worn down in practice over the last few decades. Virtually everyone in prison today didn’t get there by a jury conviction; instead, they accepted a plea bargain with prosecutors and took a shorter sentence rather than running the risk of a longer one at trial. Indeed, many of the “tough-on-crime” laws of the 1970’s and 1980’s were designed to add more offenses with which an alleged criminal could be charged from the same set of facts, to give prosecutors more leverage in plea deals. And at the height of the early-1990’s mania over sexual abuse of children by adults — some of it real, some way overblown and some existing only in the minds of prosecutors and so-called “therapists” who asked kids leading questions in settings reminiscent of the Salem witch trials — Washington state passed a pioneering law, which other states later copied.
This allowed adults convicted of sex crimes against children to be kept in prison longer than their original sentences, until psychotherapists decided that they were “no longer in danger” of re-offending. The idea that people who committed crimes and served out their sentences could be kept behind bars, either in prisons or mental institutions, for crimes they might commit in the future flat-out contradicted the whole idea that Americans can only be punished for crimes they’ve actually done. But because of the heinous nature of the offenses, a lot of people — even those ordinarily supportive of due process and the presumption of innocence — supported such laws.
What Trump is suggesting is that people who merely fit the “profile” of someone law-enforcement and mental-health officials think may commit a crime in the future should be intercepted and incarcerated before they can do so. It’s an idea that has a lot of support in this country, not only from the Right but the Left as well. Indeed, many people who back this concept don’t even realize they’re doing so; they look at the pre-murder background of an alleged mass killer and ask, “Why didn’t we do something to stop it?,” when in fact there’s precious little we can do without violating the civil liberties not only of people who would go on to commit mass murders but also of a lot of people who won’t.
Certainly the profile of alleged Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz by Los Angeles Times reporters Matt Pearce and Jenny Jarvie ( seems so totally to fit the checklist of what, in the popular imagination, a nascent school shooter looks like one can imagine producers at Lifetime giving it to their writers as a guide for creating a fictional mass-killer character. Product of a broken home? Check. Adoptee who never really fit in? Check. “Pale and slight”? Check. Torture of animals? Check: “Cruz killed squirrels [and] poked sticks down rabbit holes,” Pearce and Jarvie reported. “Cruz would take his dog across the street to attack their neighbors’ pot-bellied pigs.” Perpetrator of minor acts of violence against neighbors and other kids? Check:

Pale and slight, Cruz caused alarm among neighbors not long after he moved in. A neighbor complained that he bit their young son’s ear, said Shelby Speno, a 48-year-old videographer who lives two doors down from the family’s former home. When Cruz was a little older, a neighbor accused him of stealing a check from a mailbox. In middle school, she said, he threw eggs at her husband’s car. Other neighbors complained that Cruz … picked fights with other children. One day, Speno said, she provided a statement to police after her daughter spotted him shooting their backyard neighbors’ chickens with a BB gun.

The problem with these categories is that a lot of children are adopted, have adjustment problems, hurt animals and pick fights with other kids without growing up to be mass murderers. Some even make bravado posts on social media, the way Cruz did, announcing that they’re “going to be a professional school shooter” and shooting selfies of themselves holding guns without ever planning to use them to mow down their former classmates and teachers. Too often, the call to “do something” about kids like Nikolas Cruz turns into treating alienation and being “different” as crimes — and as a kid who was bullied through much of my school career (though, interestingly, less so in high school than I’d been earlier because high school was bigger and there were enough people like me I could make friends and we essentially assembled our own Island of Misfit Toys), I’m especially sensitive to that.
If we want to stop school shootings before they happen, don’t pick on the kids who are “different” and make them feel even worse about who we are. (If any psychological intervention could  have helped Nikolas Cruz, I suspect it would have to have happened long before high school, while his age was still in single digits.) Get rid of the Goddamned guns! Get this country over its long love affair with its “pioneer” past of genocide against Native Americans and enslaving African-Americans, which according to Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz is why we have a Second Amendment in the first place.

I didn’t grow up to be a school shooter partly because I had a certain basic level of decency that made me express my differences from others in journalism and political activism rather than violence, but also because I didn’t grow up around guns, I didn’t know anyone who had guns, I never owned a gun and I’ve never wanted to own a gun. Only when we stop idolizing guns, and tell the National Rifle Association and Gun Owners of America that it’s time to put them alongside the advocates for slavery in America’s Hall of Shame, will we stop having people who think they can solve the brokenness inside them by shooting a whole lot of other people.