Monday, November 23, 2015

#378, in which enough is enough

I consider myself to be pretty politically aware, if not especially politically active. I read blogs, follow the news, listen to the radio, and have at least a solid understanding of the events of the day. When things happen and leaders make decisions I don't agree with, I tend to roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders, and forget about it. What am I going to do, right? I'm only one person, after all.

I figured the shooting at Umpqua Community College was going to be something else like that. We heard the President issue another call to action, we heard Congress decry him for politicizing a tragedy, and that seemed to be that. Only something stuck with me a little more this time. I'm not sure if it was the fact that Roseburg was so much closer to home than other shootings have been, or if it was just the straw that broke the camel's back, but I was upset, and I wanted to do something about it.

So I decided to write my congressmen.


I live north of Nashville, TN, so I knew this was going to be an uphill battle. My representative and both of my senators are strongly pro-gun rights, so just saying "we need to fix this" wasn't going to get me anywhere. So I did my best to support my letters with facts. I told them that a little over 10,000 Americans die every year as a result of gun homicides, good for about 35 per day. I told them that of those 10,000 people, a little less than 4% of them die in mass shootings like the one in Roseburg. I knew they were going to tell me that they supported mental health reform, since shooters tend to turn out to be mentally ill in those sorts of cases. Solving mental health problems is great, but if that only prevents 4% of our gun deaths, then we're hardly even scratching the surface of the problem.

I told them that the majority of gun homicides are the result of arguments. The problem isn't that crazy people are getting guns, it's that angry people already have them. I admitted that legislating a kinder, gentler culture is probably beyond the scope of what they can do, but they could certainly find a way to restrict access to guns so that they aren't the easiest and most readily accessible solution to a fight. I put together a letter that detailed all of this, and I sent it to Representative Diane Black, Senator Bob Corker, and Senator Lamar Alexander, all Republicans of Tennessee.

I received answers from all three of them within two weeks. I'll quote Sen. Alexander's letter here, but understand that all three were virtually identical:


Dear Sam,

Thank you for sharing your feelings regarding gun violence. I am saddened by the tragic and senseless attack at Umpqua Community College in Oregon. My thoughts and prayers are with the victim’s families, loved ones, and the Roseburg community.

As we learn more about these tragic shootings across the country, I think we must look closely at the behavior of isolated young men who develop an obsession with violence and often suffer from mental health issues.  We should ask the leaders of the entertainment industry whether they would want their children--or those who might harm their children--to watch the increasingly violent video games and movies that they pour into our culture.  This is not the only cause of violence in our society but it is one important cause. The problem is not with the gun but with the person pulling the trigger.

On June 29, 2015, I introduced the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act, which would reauthorize and improve programs dealing with awareness, prevention, and early identification of mental health problems. I also introduced similar legislation last Congress, which was passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.The legislation was later approved as an amendment by the full Senate with 95 votes but did not become law. I will continue to work on this issue because it is an important step in responding to the cause of these disturbing incidents of mass violence.

People with good mental health are not causing these incidents, so if we can find ways to diagnose and treat people with mental health issues, that will be an actual solution to the problem. These are terrible events for our nation and we must find appropriate ways to respond. I’m grateful you’ve shared your reactions with me and will keep them in mind as we move forward.

Sincerely,

Lamar

As I expected, all three of them told me what a great job they have been doing solving mental health problems. I was a little disappointed that I'd gone to the trouble of addressing that concern first and that all three of them chose to ignore what I'd written, but I wasn't deterred. I promised I would write letters weekly until I saw a substantive change, which in my mind is either me changing their mind or them changing mine.

Weeks went on. I only got the one response from Rep. Black and Sen. Corker. I received three more letters from Sen. Alexander, though (or, more accurately, one of his aides, no doubt). Last week, in the wake of the Paris attacks, I wrote a letter telling him, well, pretty much this:


I told them that attacks like the one we saw in Paris are horrifying and sensational, but that here in the United States, we would outstrip that death toll in about half a week. I hoped that would spur them to action, or at least give them a sense the magnitude of the problem.

Senator Alexander, however, saw only the words "Paris attacks" and chose to respond with the following.


Dear Mr. Orme:

Thanks very much for getting in touch with me and letting me know what’s on your mind regarding the terrorist attacks in Paris and the Syrian refugee crisis. The horrific and evil acts in Paris were a reminder of the dangerous world in which we live. Americans stand with the people of France against this outrage. Our prayers are with the families of all those hurt by these murderers.

Five years of incessant fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s government forces, U.S.-backed opposition forces and the insurgent terrorist group, the Islamist State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has driven more than 4 million innocent Syrians into neighboring countries in search of humanitarian assistance.

In response to the Syrian refugee crisis, the Obama administration announced that they will increase the total number of refugees allowed into the United States each year. For 2015, President Obama set the limit of refugees allowed into the United States at 70,000, including 1,200 refugees from Syria. On September 20, 2015, the Obama administration announced that next year the United States will allow 85,000 total refugees, including 10,000 refugees from Syria.

On November 16, 2015, Governor Haslam asked the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation to suspend the placement of refugees in Tennessee until states can participate in the vetting process. I believe the federal government should respect the wishes of states in placing refugees. But the real focus should be for the United States to work with Europe and our allies to defeat ISIS and stabilize Syria so millions of Syrians won’t have to leave their homes.

As the United States allows refugees from the Syrian conflict to enter our country, we must ensure militants don’t slip in by impersonating refugees fleeing persecution. We cannot afford for the administration to take any shortcuts with our refugee process that could jeopardize American lives.

I’m grateful you took the time to voice your concerns about balancing national security and protecting human rights, and I’ll be sure to keep your comments in mind as these issues are discussed and debated in Washington and in Tennessee.

Sincerely,

Lamar

I am not making this up. This is an actual response I received from a sitting Senator to an email about gun violence. I pointed out that 35 people a day die from gun homicides in the United States, and he answered by telling me that he was fighting to keep Syrian refugees out of Tennessee. Setting aside my feelings on Syrian refugees (I think it's despicable to fight to keep them out; the attackers in Paris were neither Syrian nor refugees), I was floored to see that not only was he not reading what I was writing, but he was deliberately misinterpreting what I had written and was just shoehorning a completely unrelated issue into his response.

So I wrote to him again, and I don't mind telling you that I was much less civil this time. I used words like "despicable" and "cowardly" to describe his actions. I told him how displeased I was that he very clearly was not paying attention to what this constituent felt and took the time to research and write to him about eight times. (It will be nine this week.) I understand that I'm almost certainly in the minority on this issue here in deep red rural Tennessee, but willfully misinterpreting my complaint and call to action seemed a little beyond the pale to me.

Guess what? The Senator wrote back to me, less than 24 hours later!

Dear Mr. Orme:

Thank you for sharing your feelings regarding gun violence.  I responded to your letter about the tragic shootings in Paris with my thoughts and concerns regarding that developing situation. I am always happy to hear from Tennesseans on the important issues facing our country.

As we learn more about these tragic shootings across the country, I think we must look closely at the behavior of isolated young men who develop an obsession with violence and often suffer from mental health issues.  We should ask the leaders of the entertainment industry whether they would want their children--or those who might harm their children--to watch the increasingly violent video games and movies that they pour into our culture.  This is not the only cause of violence in our society but it is one important cause. The problem is not with the gun but with the person pulling the trigger.

On June 29, 2015, I introduced the Mental Health Awareness and Improvement Act, which would reauthorize and improve programs dealing with awareness, prevention, and early identification of mental health problems. I also introduced similar legislation last Congress, which was passed by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. The legislation was later approved as an amendment by the full Senate with 95 votes but did not become law. I will continue to work on this issue because it is an important step in responding to the cause of these disturbing incidents of mass violence.

People with good mental health are not causing these incidents, so if we can find ways to diagnose and treat people with mental health issues, that will be an actual solution to the problem. These are terrible events for our nation and we must find appropriate ways to respond. I’m grateful you’ve shared your reactions with me and will keep them in mind as we move forward.

Sincerely,

Lamar

Take a good, close look. That's right: it's nearly identical to the first letter that I received. The last four paragraphs are word-for-word the same as the first letter that I got, and the first one is only slightly changed to be about Paris instead of about Roseburg.

I get that he probably receives a lot of letters about a lot of issues, and that he certainly can't read them all himself. And I get that it's worth his time to search for key words to help him answer these emails more quickly and accurately. But this is the eighth time that I've written to him about the same issue, and it's absolutely galling to me that he seems to be intentionally misunderstanding me. This is, to me, more insulting than what I've heard from Rep. Black and Sen. Corker, which is to say, one token letter about their efforts to help the state of mental health care in the United States, and then seven weeks of silence.

But I told you that I had received four letters from Sen. Alexander, and so I have. After about a month of writing, I got this:


Dear Mr. Orme:

Thanks for getting in touch with me.

I’m glad you received my response to your comments on gun violence. Although in many cases I have taken a position on an issue long before a vote, I pride myself on being open to new ideas and arguments. Even in cases where we may disagree on issues, I do weigh carefully the opinions of Tennesseans on both sides of an issue before casting a vote in the Senate. Your comments help me to know where the people of Tennessee stand on this issue, and they are very helpful to me in making decisions.

I’m glad you’ve taken the time to respond to my letter with additional information and questions, and I’ll be sure to keep these in mind as I continue to consider this issue.

Sincerely,

Lamar

The other emails were signed with some variation of "LA/ld," indicating that while he was signing his name to the email, it was actually written by an aide. There was no such tag at the end of this one, so perhaps he wrote it himself? If so, then that means the one email he wrote himself to me, the one time he took the trouble to tell me what he, personally, thought and felt on the issue, he effectively told me, "Eh, I've already made up my mind on this, but thanks anyway."

This after I told him about how many people are dying daily in this country from handguns. This after I told him that it's very clearly not exclusively crazy people pulling the trigger. This after I warned him about the cost of militarizing the police, and the danger of a culture in which people feel that they have to carry a weapon everywhere they go in order to feel safe.

So, if I'm reading correctly, Sen. Alexander has already made up his mind on the issue, and he feels that 35 handgun deaths daily are an acceptable cost to pay, but he's glad that I've taken the time to respond with additional information and questions.

I've had it, and what's even more frustrating is that despite my efforts, I feel like I'm not getting anywhere. I'm not getting through to my Congressmen, who are either ignoring me or making a mockery of my letters and opinions. So here I am, writing in an effort to shame them publicly so that maybe, just maybe, they'll answer me seriously. Maybe it will work. Maybe it won't. After all, I'm only one man.

I end every one of my letters with the phrase "I will continue to write until I see substantive action." Rep. Black and Sen. Corker seem content to wait me out. Sen. Alexander seems content to insult me into giving up. But I promised myself and my 30 or so non-pornbot Twitter followers that I would write every week until we got some sort of worthwhile gun control legislation. We're not there yet. So yes, Congressmen. I will continue to write.

3 comments:

Isaac said...

Thank you sam. I am inspired.

Lisa B. said...

Proud to know you, sir.

diane orme said...

Way to go, Sam. I have always deeply admired your determination to base your deeply rooted principles on fact and proof. I also admire your drive to hold fast to what you believe. Write on!