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May 27, 2007


A weblog about the politics and affairs of the old and glorious City of Albany, New York, USA. Articles written and disseminated from Albany's beautiful and historic South End by Daniel Van Riper. If you wish to make a response, have anything to add or would like to make an empty threat, please contact me.

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**UPDATE** Len Morgenbesser has a lengthy response to this article, also others respond. Also posted is Len's database of gun violence incidents in Albany, which he painstakingly put together. (We have to put up a separate page because the Webmistress has not provided interactive comments yet. Which she promised. Some time ago.)

May 27, 2007

Blind Shots At A Moving Target

A call for talk but no solutions to gun violence in Albany

Len Morgenbesser wants to get illegal guns off the streets of Albany. People are dying, remove the cause. Simple, a no-brainer. Right?

As far as Len is concerned (or Dr. Leonard I Morgenbesser Ph.D., as he often signs his name) illegal guns are not merely criminal. They are a public health issue, an epidemic. And like any contagion that causes an epidemic, guns on the street must be contained and ultimately destroyed.

“If we had a disease causing as much harm and death,” he told a public gathering over a year ago, “we’d have a public health emergency.”

Len Morgenbesser, Gun Fighter
Len Morgenbesser,
Gun Fighter

Dr. Morgenbesser has turned this into a one man crusade. Many public officials in Albany have grown accustomed to his endless emails. Civic groups of every description have listened to his presentations. Chief of Police Turley grimaces at the mention of his name. Everybody in town who is involved with public life knows Len, the gun violence guy.

No one seriously argues with Len’s message. After all, he is right. The problem is that he isn’t offering any direction toward a solution to the problem.

Since essential police data is kept secret from the public, he has painstakingly surveyed media reports of gun incidents in the City. He calculates about 90 incidents a year, or one every four days. “And since not all incidents get into the media,” he told me, “this is underestimating.”

What Len wants is to start a public dialogue, one that involves all parties. He wants everyone in one room, politicians, law enforcement, neighborhood associations, clergy, public health advocates and ordinary citizens of every stripe, rich and poor. He wants everybody to start talking, to work together to unravel this pressing problem, and above all, find a workable set of solutions.

Everyone agrees that Something Ought To Be Done. But to Dr. Morgenbesser’s endless puzzlement, no one wants to do anything. With one notable exception, no elected officials have done more than provide lip service.

Custom Colt Commander
Custom Colt Commander

Indeed, The Mayor and police officials have reacted negatively to this idea. No surprise here, both the police and City Hall are famous for excluding the public as much as they can in all things. They see what Len is doing as a challenge to their turf, a public encroachment on their monopoly of information.

And, the authorities see an encroachment on their personal power, particularly their monopoly on legal violence. They see his proposals as an indictment, an exposure of their continuing failure to control gun violence in the City.

But what about everybody else? Why is Dr. Morgenbesser alone? He does not understand why an outraged public is not rising up with one voice and demanding that public officials get off their fat butts and deal with this crisis. Back in September he vented his frustration to me in an email:

Dan, is a community wide meeting a good idea? Who would call this meeting? Would there be competing and even conflicting claims as to whom has jurisdiction to call the meeting, or are WE THE PEOPLE in the end the ones with the jurisdiction to call the meeting? And where oh where are reverend clergy and lay leadership of the faith communities? Why do I sense that they are not stepping forward?

As much as I hate to say this, I think that Dr. Morgenbesser’s worthy efforts are going nowhere. The way he approaches the problem of gun violence is doomed to failure.

Or, to be more precise, the way he stands aloof from the issues at the center of gun violence is self defeating. Let me try to explain.

Honorable Dominick Calsolaro
Dominick Calsolaro

There is one politician who has tried to jump start Len Morgenbesser’s crusade, the inimitable First Ward Common Council member Dominick Calsolaro. Back in 2003, Dom introduced a measure in the Common Council calling for public dialogue on gun violence. After The Mayor’s minions on the Council sidelined the proposal, he took matters into his own hands and organized a conference which was held at First Lutheran Church.

Well, word got out to the out-of-town pro-gun people, who showed up in force. A majority of the participants of the conference were the locals, Albany residents who wanted an end to guns on the street. We sat in the front and middle of the hall. The gun people populated the back rows.

It seems strange to say this, but I believe that I was the only participant who crossed the invisible line and talked to the visitors in the back. All the other locals appeared to have the attitude that the pro gun people were intruders on their scene. But guess what? I discovered that they were human beings interested in preserving their essential rights and liberties.

My main purpose in crossing the line that day was to talk about the so-called “Patriot” Act, which at that time had been sneaked through Congress and was little known by the public at large. I was delighted to discover that the these gun folks already knew about this threat to our collective well-being, particularly as concerns the Second Amendment. I wanted them to join the fight against this unconstitutional assault on our inherent rights by our politicians.

Unfortunately, none of the gun folks I talked to were themselves able to cross the invisible line in the room, either. My impression was that they felt that what I was asking them to participate in was too “off message” for them.

Custom Springfield Armory
Custom Springfield Armory

Around that time, some of us alarmed and terrified citizens had organized an Albany chapter of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee (BORDC) with the specific aim of getting the Albany Common Council to pass some sort of measure in opposition to the so-called “Patriot” Act. Also, we were trying to work around the corporate media’s ban on information about this issue and educate our community. Eventually, we succeeded with both goals, as did hundreds of communities across the country.

It’s hard to remember this today in 2007, but opposing the so-called "Patriot" Act was a hard sell back then. Corrupt corporate politicians from both major parties were trying to quietly shut down the Bill of Rights. Meanwhile, the corrupt corporate media actively colluded in this effort by suppressing vital information about this fascistic scam.

Let’s not forget that we are still living with many of the same politicians who tried to do this to us, and we are still infected with the same lying corporate media.

Anyway... my fellow co-conspirators at the Albany BORDC, an excellent group of patriots, had an astonishing blind spot. Whenever we discussed finding allies for our effort, I would suggest talking to the gun advocates who were concerned about the Second Amendment. “We don’t have to agree with them,” I said. “They don’t have to agree with us. We have a common cause, and that’s what’s important.”

I was met each time with cold stares. No one even wanted to discuss talking to “those people.”

It was these two experiences, along with other observations, that brought me to understand a very basic point about who wants guns and who doesn’t. We’re not talking rocket science here, but a consideration so simple and obvious that no one bothers to think about it.

In urban areas, and in the inner suburbs, there is no reason or opportunity to discharge a gun, thus there is no reason to own one. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of people in densely populated areas consider guns to be a nuisance. No one would fire a gun in the city except to cause havoc or commit a crime.

Custom Kimber
Custom Kimber

In the outer suburbs (exurbs) in farm country or in wilderness areas, the majority of people consider guns to be necessary tools. Guns are used for pest control, and they are used for collecting food, specifically animal protein. Very importantly, guns are used for defense. In places where law enforcement is distant, perhaps hours away in some cases, that shotgun or rifle in the closet is the only way to defend your family and your property from marauders.

I consider this the key to the whole discussion, the starting point for any solution. We are seeing two world views, two cultures that are not based on something as artificial and crude as “liberal” vs. “conservative,” state boundaries, political parties, or even regions of the country. There is an invisible line between the inner suburbs and the exurbs, and on either side is a different attitude toward gun ownership and use.

I’m not addressing the merits of either view, and by no means do I claim that the prevailing view on both sides of the line is unanimous. I know several people in my neighborhood who have guns in their homes and are strong advocates of gun ownership. But I hasten to add that that these neighbors of mine a) have never discharged their firearms inside the City, and b) always take their firearms out to firing ranges or wilderness areas far from the City to use them.

One of my neighbors told me how he confronted a would be burglar who had busted through his back door. He stood in his hallway with a loaded handgun aimed at the burglar's face. After a few seconds that seemed like a few hours, the burglar very very slowly backed up and fled out the back door.

I asked my neighbor, “When he started to move, why didn’t you pull the trigger?” He looked at me like I was the most mentally deficient person he had ever met, and shook his head. In any case, he was able to provide police with a precise description of the burglar, and despite the police denial of service in my neighborhood at the time of this incident, they eventually caught the guy.

Here is the problem that Len Morgenbesser presumes to address. It is not gun ownership that is the problem. The problem is that the “wrong kind of people” are in possession of guns and using them in what is considered an irresponsible manner. And the “wrong kind of people” are using guns that are not legal.

And who exactly are these “wrong kind of people?” For the most part, BLACK, POOR, MALE and YOUNG.

Custom Springfield Armory 1911-A1
Custom Springfield Armory 1911-A1

It’s what Michael Parenti calls The Holy Triumvirate: race, class and gender. With age thrown in to stir the pot. In Albany, most gun violence is committed by young black guys who belong to street gangs shooting each other. Only rarely is the line crossed, and we almost never hear about someone white, middle class, older than 30 or female stopping a bullet except by accident.

I suspect that Dr. Morgenbesser, like so many other people, is simply afraid to address the subject of racial and class divisions as a central factor in gun violence. Especially race. But nothing can be done about the problem until we all look these scary monsters square on.

I asked a certain Albany activist (a white middle class guy who shall remain nameless) about the lack of response to Dr. Morgenbesser’s calls for a solution to gun violence. After some back and forth discussion, he had this to say:

Dan, obviously, you are right about race and class, and the fact that none of my white friends are really upset about this just goes to show that we've all figured out that it's basically black kids killing each other and all we really have to worry about is poor aim. Cynical, I know, but I think it's a fact that there really isn't much concern about anything in the ghetto — just keep it there.

So that brought me to consider what exactly would happen if several nice, middle class, middle aged white Albanians were shot and killed by economically disadvantaged young black fellows. For whatever reason, robbery, anger, insanity, fun and thrills.

It follows that the nice rich white old people would almost certainly demand institutional violence against the nasty poor young black guys. There would be an open and insistent demand that The Police get rid of the problem and clean up the town. There would be a call for total war against the underclass.

Custom Springfield Armory Champion
Custom Springfield Armory Champion

Is that what we want? Should we sacrifice our liberties for a little temporary security... from Them?

But if the dreaded underclass had no access to illegal guns, then the race and class war simmering in the ghettos would have no firepower. Right? Unfortunately, that’s also not a simple problem to solve.

Dr. Morgenbesser is not willing to confront the corporate machine that markets illegal guns through illegal channels. Legal gun ownership has dropped by some 20 per cent in the last thirty-five years, yet gun production by gun manufacturers is at an all time high. Somebody is buying these guns, and the only possible conclusion is that these overproduced guns are sold illegally and owned illegally to serve the god of corporate profit.

There is much talk about cutting off the flow of firearms into New York State from such places as Georgia, where almost anybody can purchase guns. But even supposing such channels can be suppressed, as long as guns are being manufactured by the gun corporations there will be channels for their distribution to those who want them.

We live in a society where corporations decide for us what we want, and what we get. Thus, if we want to stop the flow of illegal guns we have to confront the ideological justification for corporate power in our society. Personally, I’m all in favor of overthrowing corporate control and reestablishing the rule of law and the Bill of Rights. But that is certainly a tall order.

And that brings us back to the Second Amendment, which Dr. Morgenbesser refuses to directly confront. As we all know too well, the gun manufacturers hide their behavior behind popular support for the badly misunderstood “right to bear arms.”

It’s a variation of the highly effective divide and rule political technique, and it works really well. For example, look at how the Second Amendment has been used to divide people who want to defend the Bill of Rights from the so-called "Patriot" Act.

Gun ownership under the Second Amendment is a limited right. Freedom of speech, of religion, a free press and a fair trial are universal, rights of conscience that cannot be restricted. Not so gun ownership, which depends upon whether or not the individual is capable of making the right decisions about using a firearm. Like my neighbor, who would not shoot the burglar backing out of his hallway.

Custom Glock Model 20
Custom Glock Model 20 With Matching Knife

I could go on and on about this. The more I study the Second Amendment the more my head spins.

But I will say one thing that I have learned. Universal gun ownership is the last thing intended by the Founding Fathers who wrote The Constitution and the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Those rich white men were trying to become the new nobility of the new nation. They did not want the citizens to have unrestricted firearms and compete with their power.

That being said, there is a consistent belief among the American populace, primarily country folk, that all citizens have a right to access to firearms. This belief, or tradition, is not expressed by the Second Amendment, but it is a legitimate point of view and has a long pedigree.

This sort of clash between popular tradition and the legal wording of the Bill of Rights has happened before, notably individual freedom of speech and the individual’s right to a fair trial. These two freedoms, which we almost take for granted, had to be clarified by the Civil War and subsequently by the 14th Amendment in 1866.

So this clash of ideas about guns needs to be hashed out in public, and brought to an agreeable public conclusion. Instead, we have both sides in the gun control debate spouting jingoistic sound bites and periodically retreating into sullen silence. No one seems to want to talk to the hated other. This refusal to confront reality can only lead to a violent conclusion, sooner or later.

So then. Len Morgenbesser wants guns off the streets of Albany. He needs to look at race and class (etc.) in our society, right outside his door. He needs to look at corporate power and irresponsibility. He needs to look at fundamental law issues that strike at the heart of American identity. And he has to understand who wants guns and who doesn’t, and why.

He won’t do it. He has repeatedly told me that he refuses to seriously examine any of these things. He will not choose a position and take a stand on any of them, he will not work to resolve any of these fundamental problems at the heart of the gun violence issue. Instead, he wants everybody to get together and figure out a magical solution to a problem that he refuses to properly define.


Getting everyone to talk is not a bad thing, nor is it a novel idea. Dominick Calsolaro continues to pursue the idea. It's a start. But talking without direction will lead to exactly nowhere.

Len Morgenbesser wants somebody to do something. In the end, no one knows what to do, and nothing gets done. And he offers no constructive suggestions.


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