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US Midterm Elections – A Primer for foreigners

US Midterm elections are on Tuesday, November 6, 2018 and these are very important elections for the country. Many of the readers of this blog may wonder what this election is about. What/who is/are being elected? What is the impact of this on Donald Trump? Why are these called midterms? If you have these questions, you have come to the right place. Let’s get down to it and discuss some terms related to the elections, particularly in comparison to the elections in India.
Election Day
Unlike many other countries, US has a fixed Election Day every year — the first Tuesday after November 1. Almost any government election that needs to be held — be it at national level (President, Senator, Member of the House), state level (Governor, state legislators, etc), local level (school board members, sheriffs, mayors), or simply a referendum on one topic or another — is held on this day. Accordingly the ballot paper looks different for different jurisdictions depending upon what the electorate are asked to decide upon. So, let us see what is at stake in this election.
Presidential Election
There is no Presidential election this year. Presidential elections are held every 4 years. Since this election is in the middle of the president’s term, this is called the midterm election. This is unlike other countries, where governments sometimes fall before their terms end and “midterm elections” are held. The US midterm elections have no direct impact on the president’s continuation in office, even though elections are being held to full lower house and one third of upper house of the federal legislature (US Congress). Contrary to the parliamentary system of democracy elsewhere in the world, the head of the government in the US (the President) is an independent entity from the legislature and does not need to enjoy the confidence of the legislature. Even if both houses of the legislature are won by the opposition, the President keeps his post. However, as is expected, his credibility, popularity, effectivity and capability to govern depend largely on getting support from the legislature. That is what makes this election very important for the current president and the administration. As a peek into recent history, the last President Obama enjoyed the confidence of the legislature only for the first two years of his 8 years in office. Midterm elections in 2010 gave the House and the Senate to the Republicans.
House of Representatives

Elections to the House are held every 2 years (even numbered years) – so they are held in Presidential election years and midterms. This is the lower house (think Lok Sabha) with 435 members, with each state being represented by a number of members roughly based on its population. Currently, the majority (235 of 435) is held by Republican Party, the party that the President belongs to. Some polls indicate that the majority party may change to Democrats as a result of this election.

Senators are elected for 6 year terms, with elections being held to roughly 1/3rd of seats every 2 years (even numbered years), coinciding with elections to the House of Representatives. Thus, the Senate (think Rajya Sabha in India) is a continuous house, with 1/3rd members getting re-elected or replaced every 2 years. The house has 100 members, 2 from each of the 50 states, irrespective of their population. Currently, the majority (51/100) in the Senate is also held by the Republican party. There is a good chance that the Republicans will keep that majority. Since elections to only 1/3rd of the seats are being held each time, the Senate is less vulnerable to changes due to political swings.
State and Local Level Elections
In addition to the above federal (central) level elections, elections are also held on the same day to state level elections. For example, in my state Pennsylvania, the governor post is being filled this year, as are all seats to the lower house of the state legislature, and half of the seats to the upper house. State and Local level elections may also include filling posts like sheriffs, judges, commissioners, school board members, etc., depending on local and state laws applicable. Some state and local level elections are held in “off years”, i.e., odd numbered years, but still on the same day in November.
Ballot Measures
In addition to choosing the representatives for National, State, and Local levels, voters may be asked to vote on a question. For example, should there be a requirement for genetically modified foods to be labeled such, should there be an extra tax on petrol to pay for roads, etc. There can be questions on gay rights, voting rights, etc. Ballot measures may be held any year.
So, all of these questions are asked on one day, in one ballot paper, which looks quite like an examination question paper. Here is a sample ballot paper from 2012 from a random constituency in the country, representing the variety of questions asked.

If this topic interests you, do come back for more on posts related to US elections and other similar topics.

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We call BS – Arguments for Gun Control, Part 2

This is a continuation from my yesterday’s article, in which I countered “Virtual President” Bill Whittle’s arguments against gun control. Here are my counter arguments against some more common anti-regulation arguments.
1. People kill people, guns don’t.
Let us together examine the logical validity of this very common argument that come from gun advocates. Yes, of course. People kill people. Bad people kill people. But bad people without a gun are just bad people. With a gun they are murderers. A gun, by itself, is just an inanimate object. But it is the tool of choice that is used by people who want to kill other people. It is the most efficient and default choice. You can do your job of killing someone most efficiently using a gun. No contact needed; you can do your job from a distance, with very little skill. You can fire multiple shots. Success is guaranteed to a much larger extent. Faster the weapon, more the harm. The job gets done so quickly that the victim has no way to run or hide, most likely giving the murderer in most cases a chance to run. You say, guns are not the only way. Let’s address that now.
For that matter, even bombs and grenades don’t kill people, people kill people. Should even bombs be allowed in private hands?
2. Even cars can be used to kill people, you don’t ban them.
Gun control activists say you can kill with a car, a knife, a hammer, etc. and it is impossible to ban or regulate them, so why are guns being singled out. Now, let us look at the comparison.
If some crazy person wants to use a car as his weapon, first of all he cannot go into a classroom with a car. He cannot go into any building, any playground, any theater. That limits his choice to the road, and makes many places intrinsically safe against this “murderous weapon”. Even on the road, once he begins his attack, it is much easier for the crowd to save itself by getting out of his way; just going on the sidewalk can save you, something you can’t do when faced with a gun-toting criminal. Yes, there will be some casualties, but nowhere as close to those possible if the attacker used guns. If you look at the list of vehicle ramming attacks on this page, you will see that the number of dead is much lower and the chances of injured people surviving is much higher.
Similarly, with knives and hammers, one has to have physical contact with the victim, one at a time, and the number of people an attacker can kill remains limited. It will be much easier to overpower and stop a knife wielding person than it will be a gun wielding person. In the often cited China knife attack, an anomaly rather than a rule, it took a group of eight terrorists in a coordinated attack to kill 31 people. Imagine what havoc they could have created, had they been armed with guns.
Another thing some people conveniently gloss over is that the only purpose of a gun is to kill, whereas automobiles, knives, hammers, are tools of convenience without which life is not possible. You may say the gun has other purposes (self defense, hunting, target shooting, etc.), and I am addressing those below. Also see my last article.
Last but not the least, if you really want to compare guns with automobiles, think of how much regulation is in force in use of automobiles. A new driver has to take a written test, a vision test, take safety classes, drive under a learner’s permit for 6 – 9 months, then take a driving test; only then is she allowed to drive an automobile. In addition of all that she is required to buy liability insurance, to cover for the possibility of her car hurting someone. Are you ready to apply similar rules to use of guns? I have heard an argument against this one too. “Driving is a privilege, gun owning is a right.” Well, rights come with responsibilities, and some restrictions; don’t they.
3. But I need it for my self defense and self preservation.
I also talked about it in my last article. It is a myth born out of paranoia that guns are a tool of self defense and self preservation. In any responsible home that needs to be defended, you will need to keep your guns locked away, most likely unloaded, just so that kids don’t get to them. That need for keeping the kids safe also renders the gun useless in an emergency. On the other hand, as documented on this website,

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 130,557 deaths in 2013 from unintentional injuries, the 4th ranking cause of death in 2013 overall. From 2005-2010, almost 3,800 people in the U.S. died from unintentional shootings.

  • Accidental gun deaths occur mainly in those under 25 years old. Over 1,300 victims of unintentional shootings for the period 2005–2010 were under 25 years of age. Adolescents are particularly susceptible to accidental shootings due to specific behavioral characteristics associated with adolescence, such as impulsivity, feelings of invincibility, and curiosity about firearms.

  • Miller, Azrael, and Hemenway reported in a 2001 study that regardless of age, people are significantly more likely to die from unintentional firearm injuries when they live in states with more guns, relative to states with fewer guns. On average, states with the highest gun levels had nine times the rate of unintentional firearms deaths compared to states with the lowest gun levels.

  • statistically significant association exists between gun availability and the rates of unintentional firearm deaths, homicides, and suicides. In the United States, over 1.69 million kids age 18 and under are living in households with loaded and unlocked firearms, setting the scene for possible tragedy if firearms are not locked and stored properly. A study from 1991-2000 showed that twice as many people died from unintentional firearm injuries in states in the U.S. where firearm owners were more likely to store their firearms loaded.

Now you decide if guns are a good tool for self preservation or self destruction.
4. It’s the culture, the video games, the movies, not guns.
The next excuse that is given by people who don’t want any blame to be placed on guns is to curse the perceived cultural changes in America. Supposedly violent video games and violent movies are numbing people’s minds against violence. Well, I personally am not a big fan of video games, so by all means go after them too. But still, I don’t think a clear link has been shown that indicates that a particular murderer was an avid video game player or a violent movie watcher. No evidence to support link between violent video games and behavior, says this research report from University of York researchers.
The complaint of kids being undisciplined is ages old. My personal opinion is that overall, a majority of children today are more morally grounded than previous generations.  They are less likely to support hateful ideologies like racism, slavery, homophobia, and misogyny than their previous generations. There are some bad apples, as always, and what makes them put their evil designs into action are guns. So, keep them away from guns.
Then there are these memes circulated that we are not allowing God into schools, that is why these murders are happening. I don’t understand how an omnipotent and omnipresent God can be “pushed out” of schools, and how the all-compassionate can be so cruel as to punish innocent students, who had nothing to do with this.
There is so much more on this “culture” front. People are missing the ability to punish their kids. They want to arm the teachers with tasers and guns. The craziness just does not stop.
In order to keep a weird version of 2nd amendment unchecked, they want to kill the first amendment which separates religion from state and allows freedom of expression.
5. AR-15 is not an assault rifle.
Very often people will argue that we are unnecessarily targeting the AR-15 and “AR” does not even stand for Assault Rifle. I think there is a need to understand each other here. We, the ordinary non-gun-owners may not be fully knowledgeable about gun classifications, bore sizes, bullet types, attachments, etc. and most of us do not have a desire to get educated. What we are concerned is is the speed at which a gun or device discharges bullets. If a gun or a gun with an attachment is capable of discharging 45 bullets in one minute, making it easy for a killer to kill without reloading, then we feel it should not be required by people who need a gun for hunting or self defense. If there are other guns that can do this, those should be regulated too.
6. Bad guys will get guns anyway.
Another very common argument is that bad guys will get guns anyway, and by introducing gun regulation we are stripping law abiding citizens of guns. Well, nobody is proposing to strip law abiding citizens of guns. What we are proposing is that it should be harder for criminals and mentally ill people to get guns. Also, the argument that “bad guys will do bad things anyway, so we shouldn’t have regulation” is a very disingenuous argument. There are thousands of arguments against it. We can’t buy prescription medicines without a doctor’s prescription, but bad guys get them anyway, so should we do away with the requirement of a prescription? Murders are against the law but people kill anyway, so should we no longer make murders against the law.
If the law dissuades even one of ten attackers, that will mean many lives saved.
7. Good guy with a gun vs Bad guy with a gun
The final argument is that a good guy is needed to stop a bad guy with a gun. This is also usually proven to be a myth. Yes, in case of law enforcement officers whose job is to enforce law, it is true. But for the ordinary people, it is hard to be armed all the time with a gun ready to shoot. More often than not, the gun proposed to be used for self defense stays locked at home or in a car or in a holster when the situation happens.


We Call BS – Arguments for Gun Control, Part 1

17 victims of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida
17 victims of Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida | Source

The Stoneman Douglas High School shooting last week has left 17 students and faculty dead, 15 injured, and the whole country arguing on social media about gun control. I spent a lot of time myself this weekend arguing with people on Facebook, pushing the same arguments over and over. Now I decided to compile my arguments on commonsense gun control in one place, divided into two articles. The title of this article comes from the #WeCallBS hashtag inspired by Florida student Emma Gonzalez’s speech.
So, dear gun owner and anti-gun control activist, to start with I don’t want you to give up your gun. I don’t want any laws that make the government take away your gun. Sorry, I take that back. I actually would prefer a gun free society, where nobody (or a small percentage of the population) owns any guns. Believe me, such societies exist around the world and they are as safe, if not safer than, the society that we live in. But I also understand that dreaming of such a society is unrealistic in this country. So, let us make peace with the fact that the US has more guns than it has people, and that fact is not going to change. At 101 guns per 100 people, US is way above the runner up Serbia (58 per 100). Most probably, you are thinking of buying another gun, or two, to add to your cache in the next month or next year. But let us just think about how we can make our society safer in spite of that.
I started with this Facebook video (embedded below) posted by a friend. The video was framed with the text “This is the best and smartest gun argument I have heard yet” and was widely shared. It had 29+ million views on Facebook when I started writing this, and had crossed 30 million views by the time I finished. It is an easy watch, all of 7 minutes. It had some logical sounding arguments, I watched it, and started to research the subject. I propose you watch it too before reading my views on it.

I generally concentrate on the message and try to not attack the messenger, and so I watched the whole video in right earnest, with an open mind, trying to once again understand the logic against gun regulation. This guy was addressing the Congress, so there was no reason for me to doubt his credentials. The speaker starts amid an applause and in the first 30 seconds of the video you see Paul Ryan listening attentively, later in the video you see Chuck Schumer smiling approvingly, Lindsay Graham, John Kerry, and Eric Holder looking on, and other distinguished members of the Congress and the Obama government, listening, interacting with each other. Well, you get the point that this is a little older video and the speaker is addressing the Congress in the Obama era. The guy’s name, shown in the description of the video, is Bill Whittle. So, I researched him a little for this post and wanted to look for a YouTube video instead, in the hopes that it will be without the “frame” (I hate these frames that reduce the quality of the video, and are generally someone else’s copy of the original video). And I did find one. But what I also discovered there and on his website was that he was calling himself the “Virtual President of the United States”. Remember, this was Obama’s presidency, so you see the need for the Right to create a virtual president. Very soon you realize that this is a fake video interspersed with visuals of these dignitaries appearing as listening to him, when he perhaps was standing in his living room filming this video. So, he gets a 10 on 10 on phoniness and duplicity. The applause, the attentive audience, are all fake.
Let us now turn to his message.
1. Mr. Whittle starts with comparing gun violence with a leopard chasing a gazelle. He says violence is built into human psyche, always will be, and some of us are predators and others are preys. So, the bad guys are like leopards and the good guys are gazelles, and the guns are the latter’s horns. And gun control activists are basically cutting off the gazelle’s horns and making it easy for the predator. Now I don’t know how often the gazelle wins against a leopard in the jungle, but the problem with his argument is that gun regulation aiming to disarm the prey is preposterous. Gun regulation is trying to disarm the predator, making it harder for bad guys to get guns. We are with you, we are okay with good guys to have guns, but help us make it harder for the bad guys and insane people to do so. The only way to do so is to make background checks and mental health checks compulsory for gun purchases. So the gazelle-leopard analogy is nonsensical. It may have made sense if anyone was proposing to disarm everyone but the bad guys.
2. Then our Virtual President reels out some funky numbers, using the predictably asinine tactic of comparing guns with automobiles, knives, hammers, even doctors, and concludes that “studies show” 800,000 to 2 million lives are saved by guns every year. What studies? What is the basis for this claim? Is he saying that many people would have been killed in the country without guns in private hands. Which country bears witness to this data? Read this article, based on actual studies reported by David Hemenway, a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and director of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center. Please read the short article, but here is an excerpt:

Almost two-thirds of the people in the U.S. population live in homes without guns, and there is no evidence that the inhabitants of these homes are at greater risk of being robbed, injured or killed by criminals compared with citizens in homes with guns. Instead, the evidence is overwhelming that a gun in the home increases the likelihood not only that a household member will be shot accidentally, but also that someone in the home will die in a suicide or homicide.

3. At about 3:00 minutes in the video, Bill Whittle gives the example of Amanda Collins, who was walking to her car in a University parking garage after an evening class at University of Nevada in Reno. She was attacked and raped, and later on her rapist also murdered another woman. Now the point being made is that had Amanda been armed, the rape and the murder would not have happened — and the reason she was not armed was because guns are not allowed on the campus, something that must be changed. I think this is a very tall claim. First of all how many gun owners carry their guns all the time, to work, to school, to church, to a theater, to a restaurant? Do you, the gun owner reading this article, do so? Yes? OK, let us say she did carry her gun, what are the chances that when she was suddenly surprised by the attacker she would have been able to get her gun before he overpowered her. I looked her up and read about her horrific ordeal, which is very tragic. Listen to her describing her ordeal in this video on the “NRA Women” website. The criminal was hiding behind a pickup truck in the garage, jumped her, and overpowered her. So, yes, there was a small possibility that had the school not been a gun free zone, had she carried her gun all the time, had she been able to outwit and outpower the attacker, the tragedy may not have happened. But to take it for granted in the face of so many ifs is to be disingenuous. Not to speak of the other adverse impact people routinely carrying guns in the class, office, theater, restaurant, can have. Also, the assumption here is that had Amanda been armed, she would not only have saved herself she would also have killed the criminal, so that he would not have lived to commit another crime. At this point, the “Virtual President” directs the “Virtual Attorney General” to challenge any gun control laws, blah, blah, blah (you should watch the video –  it is hilarious when you realize the audience is fake). I should have caught on the “Virtual” bit in my first watching of the video.
4. With the real Attorney General Eric Holder “attentively listening to his boss”, next Mr. Whittle talks about how the Second Amendment is about saving people from tyranny of the politicians “like us”(ha ha!). At this point, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Chuck Schumer “nod their approval”. Obviously, Whittle and the audience are shown together in none of the frames, and the camera never pans from him to the audience. This facade is so funny, it is not funny. He goes on to say that by proposing gun regulation, we are ignoring the constitution and have no legal authority to do so. Even if we ignore the vague nature of the 2nd amendment, there is nothing in it that prevents us from ensuring that proper public safety provisions are built into gun ownership. If the first amendment comes with riders and responsibilities, so does the second. So, how is commonsense regulation negating the constitution in any way?
5. Lastly he takes us around the world and explains how atrocities were committed by governments around the world. The assumption is that if the populations of those countries had been armed, the atrocities would not have happened, or the results would have been different. There is no proof, no precedent of such a happening anywhere. In fact, local militia in most countries he has named have turned on the local population. Just try to imagine the scenario. Nobody knows what chaos will arise if there is a tyrannical government and the population rises in arms against it. Will the public fight the US Army? The police? Who will organize such a revolt? Then, don’t you think our shotguns and AR-15s may not be enough against the “tyrannical” government’s tanks, air power, and nuclear weapons? We seem to be pretending to be living in the civil war era mindset and weaponry. The limited likelihood of this happening is also something that makes this argument the final go-to argument for gun advocates (never gonna happen, so why not use this argument!). But even if we take this argument of protection against tyrannical governments on face value, how will commonsense regulation that prevents criminals and mentally unstable people from having guns weaken the public’s protection against tyranny? If anything, we will be stronger with no guns in the hands of crazies and criminals; won’t we?
So, that is the end of my analysis of Our Virtual President’s anti-gun control speech. If this was the best ever pro-gun argument you had ever heard, try again. If nothing else, think of the duplicity, the cunningness in creating this video with the intention of creating such false impressions and a false narrative. In the meantime, in this era of fake news, whoever uploaded this video to Facebook is laughing all the way to the bank, as millions more watch and share the video and lap up his “speech to the Congress” like simpletons.
Since this was a short 7 minute video, Mr. Bill Whittle didn’t have time to go through some other frequently used arguments in favor of gun ownership or against gun control. For example:
1. People kill people, guns don’t.
2. It’s the culture, the video games, the movies, not guns.
3. But I need it for my self defense and self preservation.
4. AR-15 is not an assault rifle.
5. I need it for hunting.
6. Good guy with a gun vs Bad guy with a gun
7. Bad guys will get guns anyway
Let us take a look at these in Part 2 of this series. Feel free to share this article, and share your views about it. Thanks for your time. Click here to read Part 2 of this series.