It’s been forever since I updated this, so a quick pictorial review of things that have happened:

Jailbreak!

I soldered this in.  It pushed the limits of my hammy carpenter fists, but I think I did pretty well.

I soldered this in. It pushed the limits of my hammy carpenter fists, but I think I did pretty well.

I modified our cheapo Turnigy 9x transmitter so that we could flash it with open-source ER9X firmware.  This transmitter uses a fairly generic microcontroller for its “brain,” but the firmware it comes with is clunky at best.  The RC geek community has come up with far better options, some of them pretty specialized.  ER9X does way more than I’ll ever need, and is very intuitive once you get used to it.  Hobby King is now selling a fancier version of the transmitter with the open-source firmware installed, and not giving credit to the community that developed it.  Imagine, a corporation taking open-source code and pretending they own it!  Unheard of!

Don't worry, I'm a professional.  I've owned this Dremel tool since I was about 13.

Don’t worry, I’m a professional. I’ve owned this Dremel tool since I was about thirteen.

An AVR programmer (connects the microcontroller to your USB port) plugs into this funky plug.  I guess the cool kids just build the programmer into the transmitter and have a USB plug on the outside for computer connection.  Ironically, I couldn’t get my AVR programmer to work with Linux, so I had to use the evil Windows to flash the transmitter.  Now, I can actually program parameters for different aircraft (including any sort of multi-copter, etc.) from my computer.  Not that I’ve actually done that.  Seriously, this is powerful stuff, especially for the DIY drone crowd.

Please don’t think that I have more than a vague idea about how this stuff works.  I prowled numerous forums and watched many videos to figure out how to do this.  I was just following the recipe.

Nothing says "craftsmanship" like big globs of hot glue.

Nothing says “craftsmanship” like big globs of hot glue.

 

The final result.  Totally pro, right?

The final result. Totally pro, right?

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Flying
!

So we flew a couple of more times (still just me actually flying), then this happened:

 

Pride goeth before the fall, or some shit like that.

Pride goeth before the fall, or some shit like that.

 

Followed by heroic rescue by Guthrie.  We had to leave the plane overnight and come back the next day with more equipment.

Followed by heroic rescue by Guthrie. We had to leave the plane overnight and come back the next day with more equipment.

 

 

 

 

 

After the successful rescue, we fixed the plane, and finally made it out to fly.  Since the plane would have been a total loss without Guthrie’s rescue efforts, I figure he owns it now.  I nagged him to do some simulator time, which he did, probably an hour total.

The freeware RC plane simulator is dull as church.  It’s not like a fun game with an airplane, but it does help with the basics, especially getting the hang of steering when the plane is coming right at you.  It’s actually in some ways more difficult than flying the real plane, because the simulator plane is hard to see in context.

The weather was perfect for Guthrie’s first flight – very light, fairly steady breeze and lots of sunshine.  I took a couple of circles around the field to trim the airplane up, then managed to snag the landing gear in some blackberries on approach.  The plane was fine, but we lost a wheel in the thicket, so all subsequent flights were hand launched and landed in the grass.  Hand launching is actually much easier than taking off from the ground, just keep your hands well away from the propeller.  Once I was confident the plane was flying straight and level hands-off, I handed the controller to Guthrie and he flew from then on.

Next time, sunglasses.  It's really easy to lose the plane in the sun.

Next time, sunglasses. It’s really easy to lose the plane in the sun.

 

The boring simulator time really paid off.  Guthrie was able to fly in slow circles, and even did a coupld of decent landings.  All his crashes were gentle.  I never touched the controls after he took over.

The boring simulator time really paid off. Guthrie was able to fly in slow circles, and even did some stalls and a couple of decent landings. All his crashes were gentle. I never touched the controls after he took over.

The takeaways from all this are that Guthrie clearly has amazing natural flying talent, and that the simulator really works.  I got a Futaba “transmitter” box with a USB plug from the Goodwill for $8, and there are a few different free software options.  Sadly, I couldn’t get anything to work with Linux (I think it can be done), but it works fine with Windows.

If you’re thinking of doing one of these planes, definitely get a simulator going.  If you can fly the sim, you can fly the actual plane.  Not that there won’t be crashes, but the happiness/frustration ratio will be much better.

Gratuitous Mt. Hood shot.

Gratuitous Mt. Hood shot.

Our original airplane, the Axon, has finally died after several outings since the last update – its final flight ended in a giant hedge of blackberries (downwind stall and spin in a gust), and Guthrie bravely, with a little bloodshed, extracted the wreckage for salvage – he had to yank the plane out by its tail, and it got pretty well shredded.  Now we now know how much wind is too much – 14 gusting to 20 mph is too much wind, at least for my piloting skills.

We actually repaired the Axon after this crash, and flew it a couple of more times.

We actually repaired the Axon after this crash, and flew it a couple of more times.  It’s wing, tail, and landing gear will be salvageable.  The electronics are all fine.

Meanwhile, I’ve been chipping away at a plane of my own design.  I’m calling this new plane the Bee (original, I know).  It has a shorter, wider, thicker wing with quite a bit more area (7 x 48 inch Armin wing for you geeks).  I also built the wing with about 5 degrees of dihedral, for better stability.  The idea is that this would be a slower, gentler plane, that we could possibly fly at a vacant lot within walking distance of the house.  The Bee was built with the same basic methods and materials as the Axon, (Dollar Tree foam board, hot glue, packing tape, duct tape) -

 http://www.youtube.com/user/ExperimentalAirlines

- I can’t give enough credit to youtube cult hero Ed for developing this method.  I did use carbon fiber rod for the wing spar and landing gear.  I used about $4 worth in the plane, and it should be reusable, barring a truly catastrophic crash, so total airframe cost is probably still in the $10 range, not counting the $6 wheels.   In spite of my overbuilding and over taping, the Bee started out about 100 grams lighter than the Axon at 950g.  It has a slower-turning motor, which is theoretically less powerful, but actually seems to produce about the same amount of static thrust, which I measured at 800g by holding the plane nose-down on the kitchen scale and opening the throttle.  I have much to learn about electric motors and propeller sizing, but the Bee will have plenty of oomph.  I mounted the motor high to protect the propeller and motor in crashes, but forward of the wing to concentrate the mass toward the nose.  The Axon was really designed to carry a camera and extra radio gear  in its nose for FPV flying, whereas the Bee is strictly intended as a line-of-sight RC plane, and concentrating the heavy parts should reduce the pendulum effect.  I tapered the fuselage sections for looks and to reduce weight.

The Bee under construction.  The idea was to mate the upper and lower fueselages in such a way as to achieve the correct (ish) center of gravity.  Didn't really work out.

The Bee under construction. The idea was to mate the upper and lower fuselages in such a way as to achieve the correct (ish) center of gravity. Sound concept, though my execution proved lacking.

The winds have been relentless in Portland for the last week (no doubt related to the creepily warm temperatures), but the Bee finally flew on Friday, May 3, at our usual undisclosed location.  We had driven to the spot a few days before, but I was scared to fly in the high winds, especially after the death of the Axon.  On Friday, the winds were light, with occasional gusts.  On the first flight, the Bee shot into the air and quickly climbed to about 75′.  I turned it downwind, and realized that the plane was crazy twitchy in pitch and roll.  I tried to steer it back, but soon gave up and just shut off the power to let it glide into a farm field.  I’ve learned that the gentle crash is preferable to the hard “landing.”  My decision to crash-land came after Guthrie said “um, Dad, the plane is upside down.”  Oh, yeah.  No damage in the crash, just let it sort of flutter into the weeds.

PreFlight

Glamour shot before the maiden flight. Note the big ol’ barn door ailerons.

Realizing that we were seriously tail-heavy, I moved the battery as far forward as possible, put a small rock in the nose, and turned the ailerons down to 75% throws.  Much better.  Landed and put a couple of more small rocks in the nose.  Beautiful.  When we got home I weighed the rocks at 30g.  When building the plane, I did all sorts of research about where to put the CG, but I was still a bit off.  If I rebuild this plane or build another like it, I’ll know to put the lower fuselage further forward, with room to move the battery back and forth for fine tuning.

With nose weight, the Bee flew really well.  It generally went where I pointed it, and kept its trim with power on or off.  It quickly self-recovers from stalls, just let go of the sticks. Unlike our Axon, the Bee rolls without losing much altitude, which makes turns really easy.  Very aerobatic, at least by my newb standards.  The winds were really starting to gust by the end of our flying session, and the Bee did really well.  It wants to float (and float, and float) on landing, even more than the Axon, so some sort of flaperons may be in the works.

I’m not sure that I can fly it in our local vacant lot, at least with my current skills.  It’s a bit more forgiving and not quite as fast as the Axon, but the Bee covers a lot of ground quickly, and flies quite fast under power.  It would be easy to lose it in a tree or on somebody’s roof.  But maybe with more practice…

Takeoff

Takeoff!

LowPass

Low pass. Note the actual airplane on the right. We avoided collision by mere miles.

 

With a close eye on the weather radar, Guthrie and I decided to go flying this afternoon.  We spent about twenty minutes repairing and reinforcing the plane with hot glue, bamboo skewers, duct tape, and some popsicle sticks and headed out around 2:30.  After a fairly sunny morning and forcast for a decent afternoon, we drove through rain and hail to our flying spot.  We sat in the truck through some more hail, then discovered that the electronic speed controller had come loose from the plane.  We fixed it with some double-sided tape, then sat in the truck through still more rain, hail, and gusty winds.  Finally, the dark cloud passed and it was time to fly.

Hacked together and ready to go!

Hacked together and ready to go!

The first flight ended fairly quickly in a relatively gentle crash, and this was the only crash of the day.  The many other flights ended with actual landings on the “runway,” though some landings were far prettier than others.

In the crash, the battery mount came loose, so we fixed it with double sided tape and duct tape.

In the crash, the battery mount came loose, so we fixed it with double sided tape and duct tape.

I  got fairly comfortable flying the plane around, doing some low passes, and even a couple of loops and rolls (intentional this time).  Guthrie wanted me to do a roll during a low pass so he could take a picture – uh, no.  While it wasn’t super windy, there was a light breeze and some gusts (maybe 5-7 mph, according to wunderground.com), and the plane handled them really well.  It’s smallish as RC airplanes go, but it’s big enough and stable enough to handle some wind, even with its long wing.  A common beginner mistake is to get a teensy little airplane – a bigger plane is actually much easier to fly, and easier to see at a distance, which is important.

LowPass

Low pass for the camera!

 While I still have a long way to go as an RC pilot, I think we had a really productive outing today.  We actually depleted the battery to the point where the electronic speed controller (ESC) started reducing power – LiPo batteries don’t like to be discharged beyond about 80% of capacity, so the ESC lets you know when to quit.  There were many takeoffs and landings, and lots of controlled flying around.  I got out of several hairy situations without panicking or over-correcting.  There are some issues to fix.  The plane pitches up under power, even though it glides really well with power off.  I think I need to adjust the thrust angle of the motor mount, and maybe move the CG forward a tad.  The pitching up isn’t all bad, since if I hit the power, the plane will climb, but it makes low passes and fast flying difficult.

This was not one of the pretty landings, though I did get it straightened out a bit.  I honestly never noticed how the color scheme of the plane matches my truck.  Draw your own conclusions.

This was not one of the pretty landings, though I did get it straightened out a bit. I honestly never noticed how the color scheme of the plane matches my truck. Draw your own conclusions.

Guthrie is getting pretty annoyed that I won’t let him fly the plane yet.  I was once eleven, and I feel his pain, but I’ve tried to explain that the experience will be frustrating for him, and result in the total, final destruction of the plane.  While anyone can learn to fly an RC plane, the initial learning curve is very, very steep.  I’ve found that I can get a cable to connect our transmitter to a computer and use any number of free RC simulators, so I’ve ordered the cable (from Hong Kong, of course), and I’ll let the kids have some simulator time before they get to destroy the plane.

DSC_7010

This is Very Serious.

 

For the past couple of weeks, we’ve been slowly building a radio controlled airplane, primarily out of foam board from Dollar Tree, packing tape, plastic gift cards, and lots and lots of hot glue. You can use plain old clear packing tape, but I ordered some colored 3M tape to make things more fun. There’s also a fair amount of duct tape on the airplane (more to come, no doubt), and a bit of double sided tape and sticky Velcro for mounting things. We used super cheap Chinese electronics (is “Chinese electronics” redundant?) from Hobby King, which are way nicer than the high-end stuff from my youth. The actual airframe probably cost less than $10, and the more expensive stuff will likely survive to be reused in the next airplane. Having built one of these, I bet I could knock one out in a couple of evenings if I really focused. It’s fun, crafty work and the kids helped, especially Tape Meister Guthrie.

 

I didn’t come up with this scheme myself, but followed the techniques of Ed of http://www.youtube.com/user/ExperimentalAirlines . Ed is a crazy mad genius cheapskate geek of RC airplanes, and his how-to videos are well-organized and exhaustive. Our plane is a slightly modified version of his “Axon.” We made the wing a couple of inches longer, and our fuselage three inches shorter than his specs. We also put on some pretty beefy landing gear, because taking off and landing is fun, and it helped balance the airplane. I really appreciate the open-source approach that Ed promotes. Just dive in and build it.

1stFlightHydrant

The very first flight. Amazing precision to hit such a small target.

 

Today, we went flying. Well, I went flying, Guthrie watched and took some pictures, and Sayer wandered off into a swamp. Flying an RC airplane is not easy, and we built this plane with the understanding that it might not survive its first flight. That’s the whole point of the cheap airplane. I hadn’t flown for well over twenty years, and I never flew enough to get very good at it back in the day. In spite of the “disposable” airplane, I was really nervous. My hands were literally shaking on the first few flights, which certainly didn’t help. The very first flight, I crashed right into a fire hydrant, the only solid object within fifty feet (gotta use the rudder on takeoff). After the first “real” flight and crash, I moved the battery way forward, and programmed the transmitter for 70% control throws, which made things much less twitchy. Roll, especially, was very responsive (there was one accidental barrel roll). Several crashes later, some semi-controlled, I finally got my nerves settled (the plane was damaged enough that I didn’t care anymore), and actually started to fly. With minimal trim the plane would basically fly hands-off. Most problems were caused by my interventions and over-correction. I used the controls to make “suggestions” to the plane, and it worked really well. I made three decent landings (four if you count the one after the big bounce). The hardest part about landing is that this plane glides like crazy. At around 1050g, by the kitchen scale, I thought we were a bit heavy, but after shutting off the power, the plane just goes and goes. The battery was never depleted, and I decided to quit while I was ahead, though the plane was still quite flyable. After some hot glue, bamboo skewers and duct tape, I’ll be back for more.

Takeoff!

Takeoff!

Final Approach

Turning on to final approach.

Landing

Gliding in to landing. Really, this one was pretty good.

Recovery

Recovery crew. He was pretty busy.

NoseAfter

The nose after many crashes – this was after the last flight. I fixed it once with red duct tape. I was worried about the battery being way out there (to keep the center of gravity forward). These batteries tend to catch fire when abused (ala Boeing 787). This plane took an amazing amount of abuse, and it will fly again.

I’ve promised the kids that once I learn to consistently fly and land, I’ll give them a go at it. We’d probably better build a back-up airplane first.

Just a quicky, here, after listening to Monday’s DemocracyNow! http://www.democracynow.org/shows/2013/3/4 , which covered the 2013 Freedom to Connect conference, a gathering to promote Internet freedom and universal connectivity. Freedom-loving geeks among us will know that the late, lamented Aaron Swartz (a man I was admittedly only vaguely aware of before his death) was the keynote speaker at last year’s conference; here’s his excellent speech – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PG-faBBotZI regarding the infamous PIPA/SOPA machinations of 2010. In a nutshell, Swartz was a victim of incredibly zealous prosecution by the Feds for copyright infringement, in spite of the fact that JSTOR, the alleged victim of his crime, declined to press charges and subsequently made the material he had “stolen” universally available. Under this pressure and the threat of decades in prison, Aaron Swartz took his own life. The efforts of the FBI and Federal prosecutors to destroy the lives of lefty/freedom activists are nothing new (MLK, cough, cough), and something I plan to explore frequently in this blog.

I will further recommend listening to this interview with Derek Khanna , a free-market Republican and former Congressional staffer, regarding possible jail time for “jailbreaking” your phone. You think you own your phone, but you might not if this goes through. Every Liberal, Conservative, Libertarian and Anarchist should be outraged. Mindless subservient drones will not notice the change.

The NRA is not the only group calling for armed cops in every school.  http://www.schoolsafety911.org/ the School Safety Advocacy Council is a group looking for more law enforcement in our schools.  Find an excellent debate between Sean Burke of SSAC and Damon Hewitt of the NAACP here http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/16/debate_on_armed_police_in_schools .  The basic issue is, cops in schools tend to arrest kids for things that kids (especially boys) do – fistfights, abusive language, low-hanging pants, etc.  As you might guess, this does not happen much at suburban, predominately white schools.  Consider the case of Meridian, Mississippi;  http://colorlines.com/archives/2012/11/school_prison_pipeline_meridian.html .

A recent photo of Hogg Middle School, now, it seems, a much better place than in my day.  While the neighborhood has certainly gentrified, I hope the system has improved, as well.

A recent photo of Hogg Middle School. Now, it seems like a much better place than in my day. While the neighborhood has certainly gentrified, I hope the system has improved, as well.

I attended Hogg Middle School in Houston, Texas, a notoriously rough school back in 1984ish.  The year before I went there, a kid had been stabbed to death on school grounds.  It was by all accounts a horrible school, though I certainly got a good education (and I don’t just mean academically) there.  Back then, corporal punishment was the norm in Houston schools.  Every Assistant Principal (never the Principal, of course) had some sort of wicked stick, referred to as a “board,” often a modified baseball bat or similar, with which to hit children on the legs or bottom.  Many teachers had their own boards, each one unique – if there were district standards for these devices, I was not aware of them.  My mother signed a thing saying that she should be called instead of me being paddled, but when it came time for the “pops,” as they were called, I was always given a choice.  I could take my licks or they would call my mom at work.  No-brainer, especially since ducking out of the pops would make my shaky relationship with the tough Chicano kids (who assumed, correctly, that the teachers favored me) even worse.  I took my licks like a mannish boy.  They hurt quite a bit, but not for very long.  Some of the best, kindest teachers I had employed this practice, because that was just what was expected, and they wanted the kids to respect them.  Some teachers pointedly refused to engage in corporal punishment.  The worst, most psycho teacher I had at Hogg bragged about how he never used a board, because he didn’t need to.  He did far more damage in other ways.  Needless to say, corporal punishment was completely ineffective as a disciplinary tool.  The tough kids just sneered about the whole thing.

At Hogg, we did have a resident armed cop, Mr. Roberts.  He was a mustachioed black guy who proudly drove a Corvette and favored three-piece suits (usually brown), under which he wore a .45 auto in a shoulder holster.  I’m not sure what Mr. Roberts did to get in trouble with the Houston cops and therefore be sent to police Hogg, but he was, from my standpoint, a friendly and benign presence in the hallways.  He would calmly intervene in fights, and seemed to be always talking to the “bad” kids, trying to prevent trouble before it started.  I never heard of him pulling his gun, but I guess that would have been kept on the DL, if it happened.

The one time I witnessed Mr. Roberts in his law-enforcement capacity, it was my doing.  There was this kid, Patrick, who bullied me relentlessly in gym.  Nothing too overt, just looked like boys horsing around, but he was much bigger and stronger than I was, and a master of the headlock Dutch rub, the twisted arm, and the rabbit punch to the solar plexus.  I tried to steer clear, but he sought me out.  One day at lunch he approached a group of us and pulled a joint out of his sock with a flourish “Check it out, votto!”  He carefully tucked the joint back down into the top of his Chuck Taylor high top and swaggered off.  I worked in the counselors’ office next period (yeah, I know), and somehow let it slip that I’d seen a kid with a joint.  The counselor insisted I go tell the assistant principal, which I none-too-reluctantly did.  I didn’t care one way or the other about pot, I’d certainly been exposed to it plenty as a kid, but I wanted Patrick to suffer.  As we were changing after gym (Patrick had left me alone for once, probably because he didn’t want any extra adult scrutiny), Mr. Roberts came in and took Patrick aside.  The contraband was soon discovered and Patrick lead away.  I was trying to feel righteous, and not having much luck.

As I was heading home after school, Patrick saw me and trotted up.  I did my best not to cringe.  “Somebody narced on me!  You know who it was, man?”  His look was completely guileless.  It didn’t even occur to him that it might have been me.  I told him I had no idea.  “Man, when I find that pendejo….” he smacked his fist into his palm for emphasis.

Turns out Patrick’s “joint” was a hand-rolled cigarette he’d filched from his dad, and he didn’t get in any real trouble.  But what if it had been a joint?  This was at the height of the Nancy Reagan drug hysteria.  Would Patrick have gone “downtown?”  Patrick wasn’t really a tough kid, he just happened to be higher in the pecking order than I was, which is not saying much.  I’m sure other kids picked on him.  The real thugs didn’t even come to school half the time, and when they did, nobody messed with them.  Keep your eyes down, prison yard rules.  Their drug of choice was sliver spray paint, their pusher the neighborhood auto parts store.

My problems with Patrick sorted themselves out.  Maybe I got tougher, maybe he just got bored with beating up on me.  We were never friends, but we got along.  I actually saw him when I was home from college years later, behind the counter at the auto parts store where the bad kids bought their spray paint, which had since been locked in a glass case and required I.D.  I don’t think he recognized me.

With a lot of Democrats getting on board with the idea of a cop in every school, we’d better think very carefully about all of the implications.  A lot of schools already have a police presence, and maybe it’s not always a bad thing, but in a lot of poor, urban neighborhoods, the cops are viewed, with very good reason, as an unwelcome occupier.  Having an armed officer on campus may improve the physical safety of some kids, but sending marginal kids into the “System” for offenses that could be dealt with by school officials does incredible long-term damage, to individuals and ultimately society.  In a lot of states, juvenile detention facilities are privately run institutions, rife with physical and sexual abuse.  Kids who end up in the juvenile system are likely to end up in the adult system.  It truly is a school-to-prison pipeline.

Also consider that police are expensive – decent salaries, super benefits, high workers’ comp costs, early pensions.  For the cost of each cop, I bet you could have a child psychologist and a social worker, people with whom kids could speak confidentially.  Having these visits mandated for kids with problems gives the kids cover for any stigma attached to seeing the shrink.  “Dude, I gotta go see Ms. Shrinky Pants again…”

Schools have made a lot of progress since I was at Hogg.  Bullying is recognized as a problem.  I don’t think teacher enforcement alone can solve the problem, but it creates a lot of social pressure.  Kids can get together and tell the offender that it’s really not cool.  This seems to be how it works at my daughter’s school.  The bully can only pick on individuals, so if kids have the awareness to unite, the bully is kept in check.  At Hogg, kids were left to their own devices in these matters, unless it really went to fist city, in which case the paddle came out, hardly a good moral lesson.  I got in trouble a couple of times because I lost it and went ballistic on a much bigger kid who had been steadily messing with me for days.  It was my reaction, not the bullying, that brought the attention.  I was bullied a lot, for being small, for being white, for being the smart kid.  I also had access to guns at home.  It never in a million years would have crossed my mind to bring a gun to school.  My vengeful fantasies were unarmed, though martial arts prowess may have come into play.  Now, it’s different, or maybe not so much.  I had friends.  I was sometimes miserable, but I had people to listen to me.  It seems that most of the boys and young men who go completely off the rails are “loners.”  Nobody’s listening.  I think a professional listener would do a lot more for those would-be school shooters than a cop.

 

Those of you who know me know that I am generally opposed to increased gun control.   I find the status quo acceptable, though certainly imperfect. I have examined my views in the wake of yet another mass shooting, and I haven’t changed my mind. I’ll try to look at the inevitable slew of legislative proposals at the state and Federal levels with an open mind, but I’ll remain cynical.  I believe gun control will remain primarily a cultural issue (rednecks vs. urbanites), and a distraction from a real Leftist agenda.  I suspect some sort of Federal law will be passed, and I doubt it will do anything to make us safer, but it will increase the price of some guns, and benefit those who had the foresight (or crazy compulsion) to horde away whatever weapons or magazines are grandfathered in.  I’m not making a pro-gun argument here, though I may do that in the future.  I’m making an anti-gun-control argument.  This issue is interesting in terms of role reversal – usually it is the Right asking for authoritarian solutions to social problems and defending the erosion of individual civil rights.

True advocates of gun control want to ban all, or nearly all of the tens of millions of guns that are currently in circulation. Ain’t gonna happen, at least not in the next  few decades. The more incrementalist advocates want to ban “Assault Weapons.” This is a nebulous category. The previous Assault Weapons Ban focused primarily on cosmetic features http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federal_Assault_Weapons_Ban . This resulted in the sale of dorky looking rifles which could legally accept large magazines, as long as those magazines were manufactured before the ban took effect. People on both sides of the issue generally agree that the 1994 AWB was a farce.  I’m trying to avoid statistics in making this argument, but I will say that “Assault Weapons” are used in a very small percentage of crimes and murders, and that the U.S. murder rate has generally declined before and after the AWB.  I will not deny that they seem to be a weapon of choice for mass shootings, which constitute a very small percentage of gun murders overall, but are especially horrible and newsworthy.

We also have the Title 18, Chapter 44, Section 922(r) law, which I can’t even begin to fully explain, but which basically outlaws imported “Assault Weapons” unless they have a certain number of U.S. made parts.  This was primarily a measure to protect domestic gun makers from cheap imports, disguised as gun control.  The argument was made that “gangs” (we know what that’s code for) were buying these cheap guns.  Under 922(r), many people unknowingly own guns which may actually constitute a felony, because a certain part is imported, rather than U.S. made, though that part makes no functional difference.  Naturally, these laws aren’t really enforced, but what if they were?  In addition to these Federal laws, many states, including Connecticut,  have more restrictive regulations on magazine capacity, mandatory registration, etc.

A Chinese variant of the Soviet AK-47 rifle, manufactured to comply with the AWB.  This gun was sold with a 5 or 10-round magazine, but was capable of using widely available and legally grandfathered 30 and 40 round magazines.

The Mak-90, a Chinese variant of the Soviet AK-47 type rifle, manufactured to comply with the 1994 AWB. This gun was sold with a 5 or 10-round magazine, but was capable of using widely available and legally grandfathered 30 and 40 round magazines.  Now, it is somewhat collectible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The most prominent current legislative proposal for gun control comes from California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who was also the author of the original 1994 AWB  – http://www.diannefeinstein2012.com/news/2012/07/feinstein-presses-for-assault-weapons-ban/ .  In fairness to Feinstein, she experienced the murders of George Moscone and Harvey Milk in San Francisco.  However, as Chair of the  Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, she has been a steadfast supporter of the Patriot Act, FISA, all sorts of domestic surveillance, indefinite detention without due process, Extraordinary Rendition, as well as all of the constitutionally and morally dubious CIA drone strikes, and probably other bad stuff that we don’t want to know about.  Dianne Feinstein is no pacifist hippie nor friend of civil rights, but a super-wealthy authoritarian national security hawk.  Interestingly, she also, at least at one time, legally carried a concealed handgun in San Francisco.  Her new proposal would go much further than her previous one, banning the transfer of existing magazines and weapons that fall into the chosen categories, which might include most semi-automatic handguns, as well.  Presumably, those individuals who have these weapons and magazines can keep them until they die, at which point they will be turned over to the authorities, or something.  Sort of a very long-term “cold, dead hands” policy.  Of course, person-to-person transfers of firearms or magazines are impossible to regulate, so it will be impossible to say whether a person had a certain item before the ban went into effect, or whether he purchased it from someone in a cash transaction the day before, unless you catch him in the act of the transaction. For this reason, her proposal would require registration and conditional licensing of all existing “Assault Weapons” and a fingerprint database of their owners, as is currently required for fully-automatic machine guns (yes, they are legal, just very expensive and difficult to obtain). She has apparently proposed increased funding for the BATFE for this purpose.  Ultimately, however, to be effective, any gun control policy will have to be confiscatory.

This is where I have a real problem.  How will these laws be enforced?  They will be enforced by law enforcement, of course.  We’ll need more law enforcement, a lot more law enforcement.  At the Federal level, we’re looking at the BATFE.  They’ll need more funding, more everything.  There will be sting operations and entrapment (look at how the FBI catches “terrorists”).  At which communities will these efforts be targeted?  Probably not rich white folks.  Local law enforcement will doubtless get in on the game, too.  They’ll need more toys, more people, more money, and they’ll get them, because giving money to local law enforcement is bipartisan Nirvana in D.C., especially after 9/11.   It’s tough-on-crime and pro-government-employee-union all at the same time. Every police department will need a heavily armed “Assault Weapons Task Force.”

For some idea of how the Feds might deal with illegal firearms, consider the Waco Siege of 1993 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waco_siege .  I’ll certainly not defend sociopathic cult leader David Koresh, but I will condemn the ATF and FBI who initiated a militaristic siege of the compound, resulting in the deaths of 76  people, many of them children.  This, of course, was part of the rationale behind Tim McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing (19 children under the age of six killed). McVeigh may well have bombed something anyway, but you see my point.

We have a bad history with prohibition.  Our current War On Drugs has resulted in entrenched interests on both sides.  We have the huge, heavily militarized DEA  and ICE bureaucracies on one side, and we have the heavily militarized cartels on the other side.  It’s a horrible symbiotic relationship.  Prohibition keeps prices high, and ensures jobs for all sorts of federal and local cops.  HSBC, one of the largest banks in the world,  just got a little slap on the wrist for blatantly laundering money for the Sinaloa Cartel, arguably one of the most violent criminal organizations in the world.  The violence in Mexico is out of control.  The money goes to Wall Street, pretty much unhindered.  Our politicians are happy to pass laws regulating the private behavior of  individuals, but refuse to enforce laws regulating nakedly criminal behavior by large financial institutions.

We incarcerate black and brown people at a far, far higher rate than white people for crimes that white people commit just as often.  Our criminal “justice” system is completely out of control.  We have by far the highest incarceration rate in the world.  Many of our prisons, including juvenile facilities, are now private, for-profit operations.  This is a vast, cruel, expensive, and irredeemably racist system.  Of course, many people caught in this system, especially children, suffer from mental illness which goes untreated or poorly treated.  This system puts broken, hopeless, unemployable young people back on our streets every day.  It is completely indefensible.

We also have a bad history with violence.  The U.S. was basically founded upon a genocide (how many children?), and hasn’t backed away from its policy of violent world domination since.  We accept all sorts of state-sponsored violence as some sort of unfortunate accident.  In December of 2008, most U.S. politicians were steadfast in their support of Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza, one of the most densely populated areas in the world.  According to the conservative estimate of the Israeli Defense Force, 89 children were killed in the space of three weeks.  Other estimates of child deaths are far higher.  The U.S. supplied many of the weapons for this attack, and replaced the ones that were expended.  White phosphorus, a horrendous (and illegal under international law)  incendiary chemical weapon was used on civilians, including children.  Going back further, we have Madeline Albright’s notorious 60-Minutes interview on 1990s U.S. sanctions against Iraq, which were estimated to have resulted in the deaths of 500,000 children    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x4PgpbQfxgo    (see FAIR’s take on it here   http://www.fair.org/extra-online-articles/we-think-the-price-is-worth-it/   ).  Where was the wall-to-wall angst then?  Where was the “Something Must Be Done!”?  The catalog of international horrors is endless, and goes back centuries, so please don’t think I don’t care about the ones I haven’t mentioned.  The Vietnam War, for instance, was pretty tough on the wee ones.

I believe that people on both sides of the gun debate are primarily motivated by fear.  Those on the pro-gun, mostly right-wing side are afraid of social disorder and want to protect themselves with guns.  Those on the anti-gun, mostly left-wing side are afraid of social disorder and want to be protected from people with guns, especially when horrific violence occurs in suburban enclaves that are supposed to be safe.  The NRA’s asinine call for two federally-mandated armed guards in every school may permanently cement their irrelevance in any sort of national debate.  The Right has little to offer here.  They love to harp about individual freedom, but we threw the Constitution out the window after 9/11, if not before that, and we heard hardly a peep, until the recent Libertarian, Ron Paul surge.  The Constitution is marginally relevant, at best.  Most gun rights advocates are opposed to true health care reform, and aren’t really interested in discussing mental health care.  They support virtually any overseas military adventure to “defend our freedom,”  and could give a damn about the 4th Amendment until somebody comes looking for their guns. We have become a nation of small, fearful people, and we accept the slow, steady erosion of our rights.

Perhaps the largest irony of the current gun-control climate is that pretty much every new “Assault Weapon” and high capacity magazine has been snapped up by panic buyers.  Prices on used guns and magazines are at completely absurd levels.  Untold thousands of these guns and magazines are suddenly gone from warehouses and are loose among us, along with millions of rounds of ammunition.

So here’s what I, as a lefty populist (with increasing anarchist tendencies), think we should do instead of focusing on gun control:

I want real universal, single payer health care, including universal access to mental health care and drug/alcohol treatment.  Those of us who have dealt with public schools, trying to get an IEP, trying to get basic mental health support for our kids, know how difficult this is.  Rather than two armed guards in every school, I want two mental health professionals and/or social workers armed with masters’ degrees or better (these people have largely been cut from our neighborhood school).  There are millions of “Assault Weapons” in this country, but very few mass shootings (I know, one is too many).  Most of the shooters are young white males with documented mental health issues, some of whom were literally begging for help.  I’m open to some sort of measure that prevents mentally ill people from legally buying weapons, but we’ll have to be really careful.  Some recent veterans who sought mental health services from the VA found themselves unable to buy a deer rifle, even though they posed no threat, because the VA, being a Federal agency, shared their list with the NICS people who do the firearms background checks.

Let’s end the War on Drugs to help pay for some of that mental health care.

I want to hear more kicking and screaming about the murder of children everywhere.  I’m sure we’re all against the murder of children, and it’s happening every day, all the time, all over the world, often funded by our tax dollars.  If we can take some message from the unfathomable darkness of the Newtown massacre, I hope it is this.  Every life matters, not just American, suburban white kids.  Some kids may have made the poor choice to be born in bad places, but we should still care about them.  People on the Right tend to use words like “evil” and “monster” when discussing the Adam Lanzas of the world, but what do we call those who calmly weigh the deaths of thousands of innocents against their geopolitical ambitions?

Toward this end, I want to dismantle the American Empire.  We spend more on our military (which is to say guns, really big guns) than most of the rest of the world combined.  We have eleven hideously expensive Carrier Strike Groups, each one of which is the match of most small countries’ entire armies and air forces.  I think we could maybe get by with two or three Carrier Strike Groups.  We can continue to back off of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We can start slowly closing down the hundreds of bases all over the world.  We can tell everyone that we’re really sorry about the last 150 years or so.  We can stop consuming so much oil and other resources.  Hell, we could even reduce the ole’ nuclear weapons stockpile.

If we could get half of this stuff done, I would grudgingly turn in my deer rifle (sadly, I don’t have an “Assault Weapon,” by current definitions) and arm myself with a musket or perhaps a sharp stick.

My inner Noam Chomsky tells me in his gravelly old-man voice that I’m full of shit, I’m dreaming.  Maybe so.  But those of you who are eagerly jumping on the gun control bandwagon are also dreaming.  You ask the government to make you safer, but look at that government! Look at how they made us “safe” after 9/11.  We cannot be safe.  But we can be better people.  Better individuals.  A better society.  When we ask for gun control, we ask for yet more authoritarian enforcement, more bureaucracy, more police, more prisons.  I’m asking for a more compassionate, but more difficult approach.  As those of us who live in Portland are well aware, we have made mental health a law enforcement problem with tragic results. Mental health care is everybody’s problem.  I challenge you to find a person who’s life hasn’t been touched in some way by mental illness.  Democrats have a lot of political capital right now, and they should spend it wisely.

Again, I suspect that some sort of gun legislation will be passed, because it’s easy to do, and politicians love an easy win with a lot of opportunities for grandstanding.  The NRA will complain, but, ultimately, the gun industry will survive largely unscathed, and this, not individual rights, is the NRA’s real concern.  A ton of media attention will be focused on the issue, Climate Change will continue to be ignored, Wall Street will continue to run amok, the social contract of the New Deal and the Great Society will continue to die by a thousand little cuts.  Likely this legislation will be ineffective in reducing violence, and if it is actually effective in removing guns from circulation, it will require Draconian and expensive enforcement measures, money that could save more lives elsewhere. Mental health care will get some lip service and not much else.  A lot of (mostly) white, working class men will have even more reason to vote against their economic interests.

Maybe you really hate guns.  Maybe you’d really like to poke those rednecks in the eye.  Understood.  I’m asking you to consider the costs, and the alternatives.  If you do feel strongly enough to call your representatives in support of gun control, please also call them regarding mental health care, endless war, increasing wealth inequality, and all the other issues that continue to make us such a troubled and violent society.