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Civic Engagement, Guns, Constitutional Rights and ASPA

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Don Klingner
September 30, 2016

The recent shootings of black men by police officers and of Dallas police officers at a “Black Lives Matter” rally present profound threats to U.S. civil society.

protest-1567028_640Professional public administration and public service require informed and engaged citizens, and cooperation between public administrators and elected officials. Democracy requires citizens to articulate their policy preferences (backed by facts or personal experience), genuinely consider others’ preferences, work together to develop public policies and make sure these are implemented correctly and fairly. At present, American society does not meet these standards. Media sound bites, political attack ads and web-based misinformation – all funded by dark money and shadow organizations – fuel an increasingly shallow, self-congratulatory and ideologically driven shouting match. Growing income disparities, continued racial and ethnic discrimination and unfocused anger at social change and economic uncertainty all stir the pot.

The U.S. Constitution is short and riddled with dilemmas that the judicial branch must resolve. The Dallas shootings highlight the conflict between the First Amendment right to peacefully assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances, and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. Supporters of “Black Lives Matter” had assembled to protest earlier police shootings. Dallas police were providing crowd control and ensuring public safety. Then a disturbed and disgruntled black Army Reservist, targeting white police officers, killed five and wounded others before being killed. Under Texas law, open carry of long guns is legal and many people at this event carried assault rifles. But once the shooting started and given the initial assumption that several coordinated shooters were in place, how were officers who had been trained to react to the presence of a weapon expected to distinguish shooters from gun-carrying bystanders?

Open carry laws also present a broader threat to U.S. society. Their underlying assumption is that public-spirited and trained civilians who carry can help maintain public safety. Those who carry assume they meet these qualifications. Those who don’t carry may disagree, and feel less (rather than more) safe when others around them have guns.

We must respond to these events by continuing to teach and model civic engagement, social justice and inclusion. However, these are not a sufficient response to the danger of living in a country where shooting others is becoming an acceptable alternative to public dialog. Why not just fund shooting ranges instead of public universities?

We can stop this devolution to an armed society by adopting laws and policies that limit the corrosive effect of openly carried weapons on citizens’ First Amendment rights without unconstitutionally abridging their Second Amendment rights:

  • Prohibit the sale of military-grade assault weapons and high capacity magazines. These are intended to kill the maximum number of people possible, not self-defense, target shooting or hunting.
  • Require gun owners to carry liability insurance policies for their guns. This would encourage them to store guns safely and to report gun thefts quickly, as with cars.
  • Require fingerprint identification so that guns intended and sold for civilian use can only be fired by their registered owners. This would reduce accidental deaths, gun thefts and illicit arms trafficking. Many cell phones have this feature; why not guns?

protest-1567063_640However, the killing of young black men by law enforcement officers requires different responses. We should accept the validity of objective data and public perceptions that blacks are more likely than whites to be the subjects of police interest as citizens or as drivers and more likely to be subjected to force during these encounters. We should also accept that the expectations placed on law enforcement have toughened considerably due to a social safety net weakened by years of budget cuts, and may not be realistic. Of course “all lives matter,” but those who say this should acknowledge that this may deflect legitimate demands to address institutional racism.

ASPA is a “big tent.” Our professional staff, volunteer leaders and members “walk the talk” of civic engagement by working together with mutual trust and shared values. But supporting and modeling civic engagement as part of our wider mission to support professional public administration and public service is not enough. We as ASPA must also support open discussion of these policy issues, and add our policy recommendations to the national dialog:

  • President Gooden can select speakers and direct the program committee to use the 2017 annual conference in Atlanta to highlight these issues. How about U.S. Rep. John Lewis or Dallas Police Chief David Brown as speakers? How about Founders’ Forums or other panels focused on the social justice, civil engagement and guns?
  • The National Council and president can create an advisory group to consider whether ASPA is really walking the talk on social equity, social justice and accountability issues, and make policy recommendations for consideration by the National Council.
  • Past presidents can lend their individual support to these efforts. We may choose to make recommendations as a body to the president and National Council, particularly if asked.
  • Public Administration Review could commission a symposium on these issues, encouraging research articles (co)written by leaders of community-based organizations and law enforcement; and academic experts in criminal justice, program evaluation, leadership and ethics. Other ASPA journals can do likewise.
  • With the approval of the president and the National Council, ASPA could advocate policies and programs, and aggregate and articulate shared interests with counterpart associations like NAPA, NASPAA and ICMA.

Author: Don Klingner is a distinguished professor and director of the MPA program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He was president of ASPA (2008-2009) and is an elected NAPA fellow (2007).

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One Response to Civic Engagement, Guns, Constitutional Rights and ASPA

  1. James Nordin Reply

    September 30, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Outstanding article, Don. As you know, I am in favor of your suggestions and also would add an examination of implicit associations (biases) that every member of ASPA and the greater community carry with them. We will not become a civil society until we recognize that the “problem” is not with others – it begins with us. And ASPA could provide the model for such an examination.

    Well done!!

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