Why fireworks are safer than the Supreme Court.

Notes from the political sidelines.
July 8 2008 9:51 AM

Great American Pyro

Why fireworks are safer than the Supreme Court.

80_thehasbeen

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Make My Day: What a difference a month makes. At its June meeting, the D.C. City Council debated Mayor Adrian Fenty's emergency legislation to ban sparklers. After the Supreme Court struck down the city's gun ban, the Council spent last week's July meeting debating emergency legislation to let residents own handguns. Here in the District, we couldn't shoot off firecrackers over the Fourth because they're too dangerous, but we can now keep a loaded pistol by our bedside, ready to shoot down prowlers in self-defense.

Like most D.C. residents, I have no plans to stockpile guns in the wake of the Supreme Court decision. But if the city wants to take away my sparklers, they'll have to pry them from my cold, dead, slightly charred hands.

When I was growing up, the rights to keep and bear firearms and fireworks went hand in hand. My grandmother used a revolver to shoot garter snakes in her garden. Well into her eighties, however, her greatest pleasure in life was to spend the Fourth setting off massive strings of firecrackers, 200 at a time. When she came to visit, she'd step off the airplane with a suitcase full of firecrackers purchased on an Indian reservation. As soon as we got home, she'd light the fuse with her cigarette, then squeal with delight as serial explosions made the gravel in our driveway dance.

In recent years, firearm regulation and firework regulation have gone their separate ways. The National Rifle Association has successfully opposed most gun laws, even ones aimed primarily at criminals. Armed with Justice Scalia's maddeningly unhelpful ruling on the D.C. ban, the NRA already has begun to target the rest.

By contrast, although fireworks aren't nearly as deadly as guns, the government treats them like what they are – a widely popular, sometimes dangerous American tradition. The federal government long ago banned once-commonplace explosives like cherry bombs. Most states – even the libertarian bastion of Idaho – have banned or restricted the use of firecrackers. According to the website AmericanPyro, five states, including Iowa and Illinois, permit only sparklers and snakes. Five others, including New York and Massachusetts, allow no consumer fireworks whatsoever. In general, states insist that fireworks must be "safe and sane" – a balance that has been all but impossible to strike with firearms.

Thanks to the enduring power of pyromania, sales haven't suffered. Since 1976, fireworks consumption has increased ten-fold, while fireworks-related injuries have dropped. Fireworks manufacturers can take heart in knowing that this year's survivors are next year's customers.

Because there is no Second Amendment right to keep and bear sparklers, fireworks law is a straightforward balancing test – between the individual right to burn a hole in the back porch and the mutual responsibility not to burn entire communities to the ground, the personal freedom to pyromaniacal self-expression and the personal responsibility not to harm oneself and others. These days, the fireworks industry has more to fear from climate change than from the authorities. This summer, the threat of wildfires led Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask Californians to boycott fireworks. Drought forced John McCain to forego fireworks at his annual Independence Day barbecue in Arizona.

The trouble with the Supreme Court ruling in the Heller case is not that it interprets the Second Amendment as an individual right. The Second Amendment is the constitutional equivalent of the grammatical paradox Eats Shoots & Leaves, but whatever the Founders meant by its muddy wording and punctuation, most Americans now take it for granted. The real problem with the Court's decision is that the balancing test for gun rights and responsibilities is even less clear than before. Scalia's opinion devotes 30 pages to a grammatical history of the Second Amendment and a single sentence to how the courts should apply it to most other gun laws already on the books.

Alongside such vast imprecision, the Court went out of its way to strike down the requirement for trigger locks – an extraordinarily modest attempt to balance freedom and safety. Trigger locks can help prevent gun accidents and keep guns out of the hands of children. Far from impeding self-defense, new trigger locks can be unlocked with a fingerprint or a special ring on the gun owner's finger. That means today's gun owner can arm himself to shoot an intruder in an instant – compared to the 30 seconds or more it took to load a pistol or musket in the 18th Century.

Over the long term, it's not clear how much of a boon the Heller decision will be for gun rights advocates. In winning the case, the gun lobby lost its most potent argument – the threat that at any moment, the government will knock on the door and take your guns away. With that bogeyman out of the way, the case for common-sense gun safety measures is stronger than ever. Perhaps now the gun debate will revolve around more practical and less incendiary issues, like what can be done to reduce illegal gun trafficking and trace guns used in crimes.

If it's any small consolation, the real winners in Heller may turn out to be the sparkler lobby. If cities have trouble banning handguns, they will be hard-pressed to take away sparklers. Of course, as with guns, the threat to sparklers may well have been exaggerated. The D.C. Council rejected Mayor Fenty's sparkler ban by a vote of 11-2, as members nostalgically recalled playing with them in their youth. Councilman and former mayor Marion Barry voted no "with a bang." As Barry knows, there are worse things in life to light than a sparkler. ... 9:51 A.M. (link)

Friday, June 6, 2008

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The Fight of Her Life:Ten years ago, at a White House farewell for a favorite staff member, Hillary Clinton described the two kinds of people in the world: born optimists like her husband who see the glass as half-full, and born realists like herself who can see the glass is half-empty.

As she ends her campaign and throws her support behind Barack Obama's remarkable quest, Hillary could be forgiven for seeing her glass as, quite literally, half-empty. The two candidates traded primary after primary down the stretch, two titans matching each other vote for vote. In the closest race in the modern era, she and Obama split the Democratic wishbone nearly right down the middle, but she's not the one who got her wish.

Yet for Hillary and the 18 million of us who supported her, there is no shame in one historic campaign coming up just short against another. History is a great deal wiser than Chris Matthews, and will be kinder, too. The 2008 contest has been one for the ages, and the annals will show that Hillary Clinton has gained far more than she lost.

The Obama-Clinton match will go down as the longest, closest, most exciting, most exhausting ever. Obama ran an inspired campaign and seized the moment. Clinton came close, and by putting up a tough fight now, helped fortify him for the fight ahead.

Our campaign made plenty of mistakes, none of which has gone unreported. But Hillary is right not to dwell on "woulda, coulda, shoulda." From New Hampshire to South Dakota, the race she ran earned its own place in the history books.

While the way we elect presidents leaves a lot to be desired, it has one redeeming virtue, as the greatest means ever invented to test what those who seek the job are made of. In our lifetimes, we'll be hard-pressed to find a candidate made of tougher stuff than Hillary Clinton. Most candidates leave a race diminished by it. Hillary is like tempered steel: the more intense the heat, the tougher she gets.

And has any candidate had to face fiercer, more sustained heat? As a frontrunner, she expected a tough ride, and as Hillary Clinton, she was accustomed to it. But if she was used to the scrutiny, she could not have anticipated – and did not deserve – the transparent hostility behind it. In much the same way the right wing came unglued when her husband refused to die in the '90s, the media lost its bearings when she defied and survived them. Slate at least held off on its noxious Hillary Deathwatch until March; most of the press corps began a breathless Clinton Deathwatch last Thanksgiving. The question that turned her campaign around in New Hampshire – "How do you do it?" – brought Hillary to tears out of sheer gratitude that someone out there had noticed.

For a few searing days in New Hampshire, we watched her stare into the abyss. Any other candidate forced to read her own obituary so often would have come to believe it. But as she went on to demonstrate throughout this campaign, Hillary had faith that there is life after political death, and the wherewithal to prove it.

In New Hampshire, she discarded the frontrunner mantle and found her voice. For a race that was largely won or lost in Iowa, the discovery came a few days too late. But the grit Clinton showed with her back to the wall all those months will make her a force with a following for years to come.

The chief hurdle for Clinton's presidential bid wasn't whether she could do the job; Democrats never doubted she would make a good president. Ironically, the biggest question she faced for much of the race is one she answered clearly by the time she left it: whether America was ready for a woman president. No one asks that question any longer. For all the sexism she encountered as the first woman with a serious shot at the White House, voters themselves made clear they were ready. The longer the race went on, the more formidable she looked in the general election. In this week's CBS News poll, she was beating John McCain by nine points, even as she was losing the Democratic nomination.

Last year, the press and other campaigns insisted that Clinton was too polarizing and that half the country was united against her. Now, a woman who was supposed to be one of the most polarizing figures in America leaves the race with handsome leads over McCain in places like North Carolina, a state her husband never carried.

When her campaign started, aides often described Hillary as the least known, least understood famous person in America. During this campaign, it became clear that in certain quarters she's the most deliberately misunderstood person as well. The recent RFK flap was yet another attempt to suggest that her every miscue was part of some diabolical master plan.

Yet while talking heads imagined the evils of Hillary Clinton, voters finally came to know and understand her. They saw someone who knew what they were going through, who would stick with them, fight for them, and get back up when she got knocked down. The phony, consultant-driven shadow boxing of the last few years has dulled Democrats to the party's historic mission – to defend the values and stand up for the interests of ordinary people who are doing all they can just to get ahead. For those voters, Hillary Clinton was the champion they've been looking for, a fighter they can count on, win or lose, not to let them down.

That's a fight she'll never quit. Like the woman in New Hampshire, we still wonder how Hillary does it, but this time, the tears are on us. As we wish her well, our hopes are high, our hearts are full – and if our glass is empty, it was worth every drop. ... 11:58 P.M. (link)

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Adventures of Bobble-Foot: For enough money, any McClellan or Stephanopoulos in Washington will write a kiss-and-tell book these days. But the memoir Larry Craig just announced he's writing could launch a whole new genre: don't-kiss, don't-tell.

Craig revealed his plans on Boise television during Tuesday's coverage of the Senate primary to choose his potential successors. For the senator, if not his viewers, it was a poignant moment, one last point of no return in a three-decade-long political career.

With a touch of empathy, the local reporter told Craig, "You're looking forward now to a much different life for yourself." Alas, the life Craig described isn't much different from any other retiring pol's, nor does he sound like he's looking forward to it. He hinted that he is entertaining a number of lobbying offers. Because of ethics rules, he explains, "There are some one-way conversations going on, 'cause I've said I can't talk, but I certainly can listen." Perhaps they can figure out some kind of code.

These are heady times for the Idaho senator. Last Sunday, on National Tap Dance Day, the first-place St. Paul Saints, a minor league baseball team, drew their biggest crowd of the year with a special promotion in Craig's honor: a bobble-foot doll commemorating the bathroom stall at Minneapolis-St.Paul airport. The team website reported, "Saints Have Toe-Tapping Good Time, Win 9-3."

The bobble-foot promotion gave Craig a way to test his market value even beyond the lobbying and book worlds. Scores of Craig bobble-feet are now available on eBay, selling for upwards of $75 apiece. You'd better hurry: Like successful appeals of uncoerced confessions, supplies are limited.

The upcoming memoir may be the last we ever hear from the man, so it's worth asking: What kind of book will Larry Craig write? Consider the possibilities:

  • The Broken Branch: Left to his own devices (never a good idea), Craig seems likely to write an insiders' version of the woe-is-gridlock lament popularized most recently by political scientists Norm Ornstein and Tom Mann. "The thing that's important for someone with my experience to talk about is the state of politics in Washington," Craig said Tuesday. "It's created what I call a extremely dysfunctional, hyperpartisan Senate. We're getting little to nothing done." Craig cites immigration and energy policy. As his agent and editor will surely tell him, this sober approach is not the way for Craig to put his best foot forward. No one wants to read the case for decisive action written by a man who claimed his innocence after pleading guilty and remained in office after promising to quit. Then again, Craig might not be a household word if he had listened to the advice of Ornstein and Mann, who urged members to bring their families to live with them in Washington.
  • The Packwood Diaries: With slight modifications, Craig has modeled his entire Senate career after his friend, former Oregon Sen. Bob Packwood. Craig sobbed on the Senate floor the day Packwood resigned. Packwood dug in his heels and remained in office for three years after his sex scandal became public. Craig has done the same, and is only leaving because his term is up. Considering how much Packwood served as his role model, it's possible that Craig tried to emulate another part of the Oregonian's legacy: the Packwood diaries. Packwood kept a meticulous journal of all his exploits, with an eye to history and none on the lookout for satire or federal prosecution. We can only hope Craig has done the same.
  • What Happened: Every publisher is looking for the next Scott McClellan, who told lies for a living but was scared straight after his escape. Craig could play this role with gusto. The pitch: It wasn't his idea to stand up in front of the press time after time and insist he wasn't gay. Karl Rove made him do it, in a deliberate cover-up to protect the Republican brand – and he'll never forgive Rove for it.
  • If I Did It: O.J. Simpson never got to keep a dime of his controversial book, If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer. Craig, on the other hand, could hypothesize all the way to the bank. Senators love to write loosely autobiographical fiction. Gary Hart and Bill Cohen wrote The Double Man about a politician who wanted to be president. Barbara Boxer wrote A Time to Runabout a woman who becomes a liberal senator from California. Craig could write a great book about an imaginary conservative senator who happens to be gay. His hypothetical musings would wow the critics and sell like crazy. Besides, what does Craig have to lose? Hinting he did it would be no more an admission of guilt than the misdemeanor plea he was just kidding us about last June. ... 8:48 P.M. (link)

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

John McCain and Mitt Romney. Click image to expand.
John McCain (left) and Mitt Romney.

Mr. Romney's Neighborhoods: Mitt Romney has a new motto: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. In the past two months, he has transformed himself from John McCain's sharpest critic to one of his most active surrogates. For more than a year, Romney traveled the country talking up his chances of becoming president. Now he coyly downplays any chance of gaining the vice-presidential nod.

On Saturday, we learned of another surprising reversal. In mid-May, the state Supreme Court voted to allow same-sex marriage in California. This weekend, news leaked that Romney has decided to buy a house there. With property in Massachusetts and California as well as New Hampshire and Utah, the crusader who once warned his son that Democrats would usher in same-sex marriage now owns homes in two of the eight jurisdictions on earth that allow it.

Diane Bell of the San Diego Union-Tribunewho began her column Saturday with the immortal words " Mitt Romney is in escrow"—sparked a rush of rumors by asking: "Could Romney be planning to establish residency in California with an eye on the governor's seat? Gov. Schwarzenegger is forced out by term limits in 2010. Stay tuned ..."

If Romney wanted to buy into a slumping market, his timing couldn't be better. San Diego real estate prices are down 18 percent from a year ago, making even La Jolla beachfront a bargain. When Schwarzenegger's term runs out, the California Republican Party will likewise be the political equivalent of a vacant lot.

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