The Guns of Shandaken
On Monday night, I had the unpleasant experience of witnessing reactionary forces in action. The Town of Shandaken, here in the heart of the beautiful Catskill mountains, passed a resolution “Affirming Support of Second Amendment Rights,” which seems innocuous enough in its heading (though beyond the Town Board’s remit), until one reads the body of its full-page statement, which goes on to challenge the legality of the NY Safe Act as signed into law by Governor Cuomo on January 15. (Read the entire resolution here.)
According to the Shandaken Town Board resolution, such laws are “unnecessary and beyond lawful legislative authority granted to our State representatives, as there is no documented correlation between gun control measures and crime reduction.” Provocative? Indeed, and on many fronts. Depending on perspective, one might even call it offensive. And palpably not true. A large number of residents, caught somewhat on the hop by the resolution, and learning about it only 24 hours before the town board meeting, felt that the resolution spoke only for a sub-set of the town population and that it should not be seen or assumed to represent the town as a whole. Many of those residents attended the meeting to say so in person; others wrote e-mails. The Town Supervisor, Rob Stanley, was himself absent, though he had a statement read out which affirmed his opposition to the resolution on the principle that it didn’t belong at the board table; of the remaining Town Councilors, the three Republicans voted for the resolution, the lone Democrat voted against. (Read a newspaper account of the meeting here.)
I am in an odd position here. Most people would assume by my family’s address, phone number and physical location that we live in Shandaken. The only road access to our house is through Shandaken, all our utilities come from Shandaken, and therefore anything that happens in Shandaken – e.g. when our road was washed away in Hurricane Irene – affects us personally. My local village of Phoenicia, supposedly one of the “coolest small towns in America,” is in Shandaken. And yet we actually live in the town of Woodstock. We may be the furthest west property in that town, and when I go vote on school budgets, I may have the longest journey of anybody in town, but at the end of the day, we are Woodstock residents. And I am glad to note with confidence that pigs will fly before the current Woodstock town board would seriously entertain such a resolution. But that doesn’t mean I’m not deeply ashamed to consider myself so closely attached to a town that can act so irresponsibly, and with such disregard to so many of its residents and the democratic process.
I did attend the meeting to speak out; I felt entitled to do so on many fronts. So did my very good friend Robert Burke Warren who spoke with typical eloquence and kindness and passion, and then topped those qualities with a blog post the following day that perfectly reflects the challenging situation we all find ourselves in in the USA right now. I ask my readers to visit Solitude and Good Company, read Robert’s post, read his letter to the board (or watch the video of him reading it) and perhaps offer some words of support at the foot of his post. I echo those of Judy Whitfield who noted “This country is in the midst of a transformation … thank god! … and what we’re seeing is their last grasp at the power and influence they have enjoyed for too long.”
Shandaken residents (and Shandaken residents only) can follow through and sign a petition calling on the Town Board to repeal the resolution. It is vital to send a message clarifying that such an ill-conceived resolution does not speak for the town as a whole.
What follows now are my own words, as read to the board and delivered both by hand and by e-mail. I stand by them.
Monday, February 4, 2013
To the Shandaken Town Board:
I have never felt the need to personally address you before. I respect that Town Boards are elected by their constituents and that they are, hopefully, the best informed people to make decisions pertaining to the day-to-day running of the town itself.
I have also not come to you before because I am fully occupied with my own work as an elected official. I serve as the Vice President of the Onteora CSD School Board. This last May, when I ran for my second term, against a spirited opposition ticket, my running partner and I received fully 86% of the votes cast in Shandaken. I’d like to thank the people of Shandaken for that overwhelming show of support.
To become an American citizen, I had to take a test on American history and government, demonstrate an attachment to the principles and ideals of the U.S. Constitution, and take an oath of allegiance to the United States. Upon being sworn in to office of the School Board, I took an oath to support the constitution of the United States of America, which I take most seriously
Let me list the reasons I believe you should withdraw resolution 58.
1: The resolution is beyond your remit as a Town Board. The act to which you appear to be referring by its reference to State representatives would be the NY Safe Act, which does not single out Shandaken nor have an adverse effect on the day to day business of the town of Shandaken. If a particular town councilor has a problem with the Act, he should take it up with his State Senator, Assemblyman and Governor. It is not appropriate to bring personal agendas to the Town Board table, and it would not be countenanced on the school board. A year ago, we went through a similar situation pertaining to the school district’s reconfiguration when a neighboring town passed a resolution calling on the school board to choose a particular model. One of the councilors on that particular town board told me in private that they opposed the resolution because it was not their business to get involved, but felt pressured to support it in public. I ask you to be wiser and braver than that.
2: The wording of the resolution does not hold up to scrutiny. As recently as 2008, the Supreme Court of the United States of America upheld the Second Amendment on several counts; the court’s opinion listed no less than six of them. It then went on to note, immediately, that, quote, “Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.” We have always had laws placing restrictions on gun ownership; for example, nobody here is allowed to own a machine gun thanks to the 1934 National Firearms Act. So the suggestion that the enactment of “any” legislation is “unnecessary” and “beyond lawful legislative authority” represents a poor and highly charged choice of words. http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/07-290.ZS.html
3: The wording “there is no documented correlation between gun control measures and crime reduction” is entirely subjective and not one backed in the resolution by fact. This is a debate we could have outside of a Town Board meeting, but it bears noting that of 62 mass shootings since 1982, 25 of them – almost half – have taken place in just the last six years. The option to ‘do nothing’ about guns, which appears to be the aim of this resolution, is not an option that will protect my children or yours. Other countries have reacted to mass shootings with stricter gun control laws and seen the incidents decline or even disappear entirely.
4: Your resolution does not represent the people of Shandaken as proven by the outcry since it was publicized. Indeed, every poll shows that a solid 90% of Americans support universal background checks – and that figure routinely includes around 75% of NRA members. Given that the NY Safe Act will enforce such background checks, among other measures, your resolution would appear to be running counter to public opinion.
5: The resolution is highly provocative and extremely divisive. It will not reflect well on this town if it is passed and may prove to have to an adverse affect on tourism here, which is arguably the town’s sole industry. Additionally, if passed, there will certainly be a town-wide petition coming out in opposition to your resolution which again will only serve to create further negative publicity and further divide a town at a time when people need to come together.
If your primary concern is with the safety of our children, you might wish to discuss actions that will have a positive effect: perhaps supporting the proposal that part of the Ulster County Sales Tax be used to pay for School Resource Officers, the State grant for which disappeared during the recession. You may want support your School District as it disputes how a new calculation has seen Onteora’s High Tax Aid for next year suddenly reduced by seventy per cent, or half a million dollars. That’s a full one per cent of the annual budget. It’s the cost of several teachers, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors – the very people that we rely on to keep our children safe from harm, or causing harm. You could propose a mediated forum that would seek to find common solutions to gun violence, and common ground between those who own guns and use them responsibly and those who do not own guns but support the Constitution. This resolution does none of those things. It only serves to sow division in a town that can ill afford it. I urge you not to even vote on it but to withdraw it from the agenda.