The importance of narratives

Among the last things I read last night before going to bed were several news feeds coming out of Ferguson, Missouri. Namely, reports that shots had been fired and a nice GIF of President Obama calling for calm split-screen with an image of a burning car. (Insert your own jokes about metaphors for Obama’s presidency here.)

This morning, I read celebratory threads on a lefty site about how the lack of deaths and full-scale race riots meant the minority community had proved that right-wingers are a bunch of evil racists who should never have doubted the calm and collected response.

The whole thing left me scratching my head.

Sarah Hoyt opines occasionally about the importance of storytellers, and by that perspective gave me a view on this I would have otherwise lacked.

In our society, we have more information readily available at our fingertips than ever before. We are not shackled by what the three or four biggest media outlets choose to cover and how they choose to cover it. Alternative viewpoints are easier to find than ever.

And in spite of all that, narrative is more important than truth.

Look at the facts of the situation. 18-year-old Michael Brown stood 6’4″ and weighed nearly 300 pounds. Just prior to the altercation that ended his life, he stole cigarillos from a convenience store and roughed up a store clerk who tried to stop him from leaving. Minutes later he encountered Darren Wilson (who was in his police cruiser). There was an apparent fight over his gun and the firearm discharged inside the officer’s vehicle. Brown immediately fled then, by eyewitness accounts and forensic evidence, had turned around and tried to rush the officer again. He was then fatally shot.

But narrative drove the aftermath. By the narrative Brown was a “gentle giant” and a “child”. The cops were, necessarily, racists who used disproportionate force in the shooting.

And now, after last night, certain people are out suggesting that the average American is racist as well for suggesting that rioting was going to happen last night.

I’ll be the first to admit I was fairly certain there’d be a body count this morning.

On the other hand, this was hardly a peaceful protest, either. A dozen businesses burned or destroyed, looting, and assaults on uniformed police officers. And this peaceful protest narrative also leaves out the presence of National Guard, FBI, and hundreds of additional police in an attempt to contain the violence before it broke out.

Ferguson’s hardly a shining star in civility.

But the narrative will go on. And that’s why it’s important to have writers, reporters, and authors of varying political and social views – to ensure inconvenient facts don’t get swept under the rug because they conflict with the narrative.

The Futility of Gun Control, Part II

Due to life happening, I didn’t get around to writing this in nearly the timely fashion I had planned.

It’s important to remember our laws are not sane.

I just wanted to start with that, because this post is about firearms, aka “lower receivers”.

“Uh, I’ve never heard of a lower receiver. What’s that?”

Let me put on a teacher’s cap for a minute and do my best to explain.

In 1968, the wonderful minds in Congress (yes, that was a joke – it’s alright to laugh) passed the Gun Control Act of 1968. (With a name like that, you’d probably guessed it was passed in 69, which is why I specified the year. That’s just the way our government works.) It created large portions of the mess we have in gun laws today.

It made it a crime to sell a firearm to a convicted criminal, created the ugly FFL system which is required for any cross-state-lines transfer (and de facto banned mail-order firearms, save antique guns – interestingly enough, the first model AR-15s should be hitting antique status very shortly if they haven’t already), restricted firearms imports in a variety of ways, and, of relevance to this post, required all licensed manufacturers to put serial numbers on their firearms.

Staying on topic here, the last point is what’s relevant to “firearms are lower receivers.” The question on serial-numbering firearms is what is the firearm?

To which some of you are saying, “Huh?”

It’s critical to remember that firearms are like any other machine – they’re a combination of parts. Since the Industrial Revolution, firearms are manufactured with enough precision that parts are interchangeable. So, on any given firearm, you have dozens of parts which are all interchangeable and can be replaced as needed. So for the sake of the Gun Control Act of 1968, which component is the “firearm”? Is it the firing pin or hammer? Trigger? Barrel?

In general, it’s considered the weapon’s “frame” or “receiver”, which all other parts fit into. With most firearms, this is an adequate definition, but with the advent of modern sporting rifles, it gets to be ludicrous.

My brother once referred to the famous semiautomatic Ruger 10/22 as a “LEGO gun”. Aftermarket customization kits are available for Ruger 10/22s that can make them all sorts of interesting firearms, from AR clones to gatling guns. They’re easy to work with and anyone with some basic tools can manage such a conversion.

The AR line takes it a step further. They’re designed to be fully customizable from the get-go. Online tools make it easy for people to put together a virtual firearm with all the features they want, then get a parts list and order everything they need to put it together in reality.

ARs are designed to such a degree, in fact, that it actually has two receivers – an upper receiver and a lower receiver. The only part that is serial numbered and tracked by the federal government is the lower receiver. All other parts are just considered “components.”

So, now that we’re this far into our education, let’s take another peek at what the 1968 law did? It required all licensed manufacturers to put serial numbers on their firearms.

Licensed manufacturers.

Something that seems to be often missed is that anyone in the US can manufacture a firearm for themselves. (Caveats apply; basically, anything you can buy without special tax stamps you can build. You can’t build a fully automatic weapon, for example; short-barreled rifles would have to be registered with the Feds. Etc, etc, etc.) Until recently, this was a very niche crowd – people with the specialized tools and knowledge to build a reliable firearm aren’t common. Now, if these unlicensed people build a firearm for themselves (can’t be for resale), they didn’t have to put a serial number on it. It would be impossible to enforce, so the Feds wisely decided to leave it be.

But the Internet changes everything.

Now, manufacturing a lower receiver from scratch isn’t easy. It still requires specialized tools and knowledge. Buuuuuuuut, a number of manufacturers started poking at the edges of the law to find out just where the line between “legal” and “orange jumpsuit” lies.

Enter the 80% lower receiver.

BATF basically states that any receiver that is 80% or less complete is not a firearm under the 1968 law, because it’s too far from usable. So, these 80% receivers can be sold without a serial number, without filing paperwork with the federal government, and without doing background checks.

And the rest of the parts are, again, untracked.

How difficult is it to complete an 80% receiver? There’s a few different ways to go about it. The manual way is most difficult. However, CNC mills are becoming the more popular way to do it. I’ve also read plenty about “AR parties” where a group gets together and someone with the proper knowledge walks newcomers through the process.

End result, a fully-functional AR-15 that the federal government can’t track because they don’t know it exists.

And remember, this is with the technology we readily have available now. Just imagine what it’s going to be like in another twenty years.

Yes, ban “assault rifles” – it’s going to do so much good.

I’m working on part III – 3D printing. It should be fun.

The Morning After

The 2014 elections are over, and it was a bigger rout for the Democrats than expected. A quick look over the election results showed that, not only did a Republican wave materialize, it was larger than expected. had some interesting numbers in their election coverage last night. Most notable was their comparison of pre-election polling to actual results. In short, this year’s polling skewed heavily Democrat, translating to victories where Republicans were thought to be trailing by a few points and tight races where Democrats believed they had large margins. (Average skewing for gubernatorial races: +2 points for Dems; average for Senate: +6 Democrat.)

So, Obama is now in a situation similar to W at this point in his presidency – his popularity with the electorate has fallen off, and he faces a House and Senate controlled by the opposition. What happens now?

Option 1.) We spend the next two years in gridlock with virtually nothing substantial being accomplished. A Republican House and Senate passes multiple bills that Obama is forced to veto – approving the Keystone XL pipeline, repealing Obamacare, etc. These votes are all used to campaign in 2016, with Democrats painting Republicans as pure partisans and the Republicans painting Democrats as obstructionist. (Oh, the irony.) A quick perusal of Democratic pundits this morning shows they believe the field to be stacked in their favor for 2016 for retaking the Senate, so the blue team may take this route with the confidence of electing Hillary in 2016 with control of the Senate on her coattails.

Option 2.) Obama compromises with the Republican-controlled legislature to pass some items on his agenda and get some of his appointments through. Arguably the best situation for the country, but it makes talking-points campaigning harder in 2016. Republicans will likely push for this route to prevent the “party of no” meme from returning – after all, they have control of substantial portions of the government, and now they need to prove they’re willing and able to use it well. Whether they succeed is questionable and can only be answered by the 2016 election.

Here in North Dakota, Republicans won virtually up and down the ticket. Perhaps the most notable thing about the election is the lack of surprises. State government remains in Republican hands with a few seats changing parties, but the State Democrats failed to make serious inroads. The question, then, is “Why?” Personally, I’d say the national party hurts the state party; ND is right-wing enough that the far-left stances from major Dem figures has a negative effect on centrist lefties here. (Personally, I believe if Heidi Heitkamp had been running for office this year, she would have lost, and badly; but by 2018 the political landscape could be entirely different yet again.)

The eight ND measures boiled down to one simple fact: North Dakotans found it easier to say “No” then “Yes.” Aside from Measure 2 (which I’ll address in a moment), there were plenty of doubt-raising arguments made against each measure, and while I don’t think some of those arguments were valid, a majority of my fellow voters disagreed.

Measure 2 was the sole passing item, and I suspect it passed because a “Yes” meant “No”. For those who aren’t aware, Measure 2 amended the constitution to forbid certain types of taxes (mortgage taxes, property transfer taxes, property sales taxes). Given how flush the ND government currently is with oil money, it’s no surprise how the measure turned out.

Finally, a note on Measure 5. Given the 80/20 drubbing it got, I wonder if there’s going to be some backlash against the conservation groups that supported it. A lot of voters suspected groups like Ducks Unlimited were trying to get their hands in the ND oil cookie jar, and they got their knuckles rapped for it. There could be longer-term consequences.


Voting Day

There’s a lot of bad advice floating around for election day.

Last night, my wife’s school called with an automated message. (We live outside her school district, so I jokingly told her that her school is encouraging her to commit voter fraud.) The message was about a major bond initiative for the school that was on the ballot – money needed for some school improvements and expansions. The message ended with “We are not encouraging you to vote for or against the measure, but please vote!”

Now, I understand why they had that last part in – the school, as a public operation, shouldn’t be taking sides in political issues – but it makes me wonder what kind of message we’re sending about our elections.

It’s the same message Michelle Obama gave recently, just wrapped up differently. (Hat tip to my brother, who provided the link.) In her case, it was, “If you’re black, vote Democrat.”

The common message here? Don’t think, just vote. Vote the way I tell you to, because of your skin color or where you live.

That’s a scary proposition.

You might be too late today, but educate yourself. Study the candidates, study the ballot measures. Learn what those candidates believe, what they’ve done in the past. Examine the ballot measures for consequences; don’t buy into the anti or pro hype at face value.

Consider carefully before party-line voting, too. Remember why places like Chicago are considered so corrupt – single-party rule for a long time means politicians no longer are worried about working for the voters, as they know they have immunity. Speaking personally, North Dakota is a great place to be right now…but will it continue to be so if the local Republicans hang onto power unchallenged?

Division in government is a good thing. Unity in government means a group can do whatever they want.

So go on, vote. But know what you’re voting for.

North Dakota Measure 6: Vote Yes

North Dakota’s measure 6, on the ballot for November, is an interesting bit of text. It’s official description reads: “This initiated measure would amend section 14-09-06.2 of the North Dakota Century Code to create a presumption that each parent is a fit parent and entitled to be awarded equal parental rights and responsibilities by a court unless there is clear and convincing evidence to the contrary; the measure would also provide a definition of equal parenting time.”

The actual amended text of the measure:

1. It is the policy of the State of North Dakota that no requesting biological or adoptive parent shall be denied equal parental rights and responsibilities, equal parenting time, equal primary residential responsibility, and equal decision making responsibility of a child in a custody case. It is the policy of the State of North Dakota to presume
that parents are fit and an award to both parents of equal parental rights and responsibilities, equal parenting time, equal primary residential responsibility, and equal decision making responsibility of a child is in the best interest of the child. The presumption of fitness as a parent shall only be rebutted upon a showing by clear and convincing evidence. The court shall support departures from equal parenting time with written findings of fact and conclusions of law. Fit parents may petition the court for a hearing which the court shall grant to support this statute. The provisions of this section control other provisions of state law that conflict with or are contrary to its provisions…


3. “Equal parenting time” is defined as a rebuttable presumption of approximate and reasonable equal time-sharing of a child with both of the child’s parents or a mutually agreed and signed parenting plan between the parents.

(For space, I clipped all text from the century code that is not being amended. If you’re at all uncertain, I’d recommend reading the entirety of it online.)

In response to the proposed amendment, I haven’t seen anyone argue facts about single parenthood. All I have seen a number of anecdotes about horrible relationships with men and concerns about what this change could mean for kids.

The problem is that the statistics for single parenthood are pretty horrid, unless you’re a feminist who assumes men are evil.

Working off an official government report, here are some stats on single parenthood as it stands. Note that this is nation-wide; if someone has North Dakota specific statistics, I’d love to see them (and be rebutted).

The breakdown: 82% of single parents are mothers; 18% are fathers. Single households are more likely to be headed by a mother than a father at a rate of 4.5 to 1. This single statistic is the reason why so many North Dakotans support Measure 6 right now – virtually everyone knows at least one man who doesn’t get a say in his kids’ lives, doesn’t get to see them regularly, but is paying child support, but how many know a woman in the same situation?

Employment: 76% of single mothers are gainfully employed. 85% of single fathers are gainfully employed. Which ties into…

Poverty: 14.3% of the US population lives in poverty; 30.4% of single mother households, and 18.8% of single father households. But also, tie into…

Welfare: 41% of these single mothers received some form of welfare benefits; 21% of single fathers did the same.

If our goal is to give kids their best chance to succeed (and studies show childhood poverty is a big factor in outcomes), supporting Measure 6 to get more fathers a chance to be involved with their kids is pretty straightforward.

Yes, there are plenty of emotional stories floating around on the subject of Measure 6, but legislation based on anecdote is a poor way to run a state.


The Futility of Gun Control, Part I

This is the first in what’s intended to be a series of posts on the futility of gun control in the United States. The reasons I’ll be exploring are largely technological, with a bit of social commentary thrown in. These posts should be weekly. Prepare to be amazed at the absurdity of what will be exposed.

Please remember that I Am Not A Lawyer. I’m writing as a layperson, albeit one who reads voraciously. As someone who enjoys shooting sports and does not own an “assault weapon” (*spits*), I still find much of the firearm law in our country to be ridiculous – probably because it’s written by people who, by and large, don’t know anything about guns.

The subject of gun control has been bothering me for quite awhile, in part because of the vast misrepresentation of basic facts by mass media.

This isn’t a surprise, really – I’ve long since concluded that the media isn’t capable of presenting unvarnished reality. (That goes for pretty much every media channel in existence.) Why? I’ve been involved in activities and events that were later reported on by newspapers, and found myself saying, “Huh? Is that what they got out of it?” Heck, even reading reporting on me publishing my own books made me wince at inaccuracies stemming from interview questions asked of me.

I don’t attribute this misreporting to malice. Rather, I think it’s a function of human nature. Anyone examining a situation brings his own biases and assumptions, which can radically affect how he views a situation. For media, it’s even worse, because they report on huge varieties of topics, and lack comprehensive understanding if most (if not all) of them. Ignorance + biases + assumptions = slant, even if they have no intention of doing so.

(Sometime this week, I’m hoping to write a post on the popular Internet meme of “Fox News sued in the Supreme Court for the right to lie to its viewers.” It’s so wildly incorrect it makes my head spin, but I understand how people can buy into it because that’s how it was reported at the time by the local papers.)

A big focus of this series is going to focus on the technological advancements that have made gun control ineffective, but I want to start with the infamous “gun show loophole.”

Key terminology to know here: FFL, or Federal Firearms License. It’s the certificate from the federal government indicating that you, as the holder, are permitted to commercially manufacture arms or ammunition, or engage commercially in the interstate or intrastate sale of firearms.

Currently, federal law prohibits the sale of weapons across state lines without an FFL.

For example, if you’re a private citizen, Jake Buck, living in Fargo, ND, you cannot sell your old 30-06 rifle to your best friend, John Doe, residing across the state line in Moorhead, MN, without using an FFL as a transfer. However, you could sell it to his sister, Jane Doe, who resides in Grand Forks, ND, without involving an FFL, because it didn’t cross state lines.

How does a transfer with an FFL work? In the case of a face-to-face transfer, the FFL records the pertinent information on the firearm and calls into NICS for a background check. (NICS is the National Instant Background Check System, and is not available for private use for gun sales – only FFLs.) Assuming it comes back immediately clean, he transfers the firearm and pockets a fee for himself charged (usually) to the buyer. Finally, he files the filled-out-form in his private records, which he has to retain forever – and should he go out of business, his records must be sent to BATF. Here in North Dakota, that fee seems to range from $20-$30.

If the check comes back with a denied, there is an appeals process. I have been witness to this secondhand (not involved in either end of the transfer) – in that case, after two weeks of appeals, his transfer was approved.

So, let’s back up a bit and talk about the “gun show loophole.”

It’s important to note that there is no “gun show loophole,” just as there is no “Internet sales loophole.” Both of these refer to private sales.

Under federal law, any person can transfer a firearm to another person without a background check or FFL involvement if the firearm does not cross state lines. Hence, in our example above, Jack Buck can sell his rifle to Jane Doe without a problem.

The “gun show loophole” and the “Internet sales loophole”, therefore, are about private sellers working with a buyer to sell a firearm.

However, an FFL must run background checks and file paperwork for all sales, regardless of interstate or intrastate transfers. A large majority of the sellers at gun shows are FFLs, as it’s a great way to get product in front of buyers without trying to lure them to a shop. All these FFL transfers at a gun show proceed through normal channels, including background checks and paperwork.

So, the “loophole” refers to people who aren’t in the business of buying and selling firearms for a living.

I can’t find my reference right now, but it’s also illegal to sell a firearm to someone you believe cannot legally acquire one. (E.g. if you’re selling a gun to a private individual, and he mentions he just got out of prison, you have a legal responsibility to end the transaction. I believe – as I said, I can’t find a reference at the moment.)

FFLs also cannot complete a transaction legally if they believe it’s a “straw purchase” – a buyer who is purchasing the gun specifically to sell to someone else. As far as the ATF is considered, that is perjury on the form 4473, since it specifically asks who the firearm is for.

Various states have attempted to close this “loophole” with more or less success, depending on the locale. If in doubt, check your state laws – there’s no uniformity.

In decades past, while gun-grabbers weren’t happy about private sales, they were easier to ignore; print media for classified ads limited the reach of transactions. Then the wild world of the Internet came along and made all sorts of connections possible that previously weren’t. Facebook is the most obvious example, with an unknown number of groups available for people to buy, sell, and trade guns. Dedicated sites like and popped up and prospered, specifically dedicated to brokering transactions. And suddenly the world got a lot smaller and a lot easier to find any particular gun.

So what are “universal background checks”? In short, it means that even private sales would need to involve an FFL. You want to sell your old Glock 9mm to your brother? Go visit a dealer, pay the fees, and get the background check.

Final food for thought:

Are universal background checks on private transfers constitutional? This is not a question I’ve ever seen posed (which is interesting, given the number of legal sites I read regularly), and I don’t know of any court cases on the subject, but it may be worth considering:

Let’s start with noting that our rights to keep and bear arms are guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment. Now remember that, under any background check scheme for private sellers, we would have to pay an FFL to run a background check and complete the appropriate paperwork for the federal government.

By contrast, compare the right to vote. The 14th Amendment first established a right to vote, the 15th established race could not be a factor, the 19th said the same for sex, the 24th nixed poll taxes, and the 26th lowered the voting age to 18. Note the big one? No poll taxes! You can’t have to pay to vote.

But Casey, you protest, the 24th Amendment specifically nixed poll taxes! It’s not comparable!

Ah yes, but the 24th Amendment only applies to federal elections – not state elections. In fact, the Supreme Court ruled poll taxes were unconstitutional under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause! (Which does raise the question of whether the 14th Amendment was actually necessary; the Supreme Court appears to do whatever the hell it wants anyway.)

Under this logic, laws against voter ID have been challenged repeatedly in federal court. In broad strokes, unless voter ID was available fairly easily and at no cost to an interested voter, such laws are struck down; if the state government bends over backward to make it available, it’s constitutional and not considered a poll tax.

That seems pretty weak, you might say. I mean, I see your point, but it seems a stretch.

That’s okay, because I’ve got a second example.


Under the 1st Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof[…]”. Philosophically speaking, taxation has been recognized as the power to destroy; until the 1950s, churches were tax-exempt, but in the 50s their status was codified in IRS code. (This is based on a loose and fast reading of history; finding something unbiased on the subject is difficult at best.)

In general, the Supreme Court has used a three-part determination:
1.) Does the statute have a secular purpose?
2.) Does its principle effect inhibit or advance religion?
3.) Does it foster excessive government entanglement with religion?

In general, most lawmakers steer wide of taxing churches for reasons 2 and 3. (Plus, the bad PR.)

Would universal background checks to constitutional? Are background checks on any private transfers constitutional? After all, it involved the inconvenience of travel, plus paying private fees, all to exercise a constitutional right!

As I’ll note in all of these posts, ‘I Am Not A Lawyer.” (IANAL for future reference.) Take this with a grain of salt. If nothing else, it’s fun food for thought.