Thursday, October 22, 2009

Calling All Regulators

Every headline-making mishap in America must generate a disproportionate overreaction on the part of politicos, regulators and other government officials -- it's as predictable as the fall following the summer, the winter following the fall. Our "lawmakers" turned law-manufacturers often seem to be trolling the papers, looking for reasons to legislate. And almost any excuse will do.

So I, in a personal little parlor game, have taken to reading the news in a similar fashion -- trying to predict which stories will most likely generate a legislative overreaction.

This week's pick for news item most likely to result in a legislative "fix" isn't the "balloon boy" story (though some effort could be launched to make it a federal crime to perpetrate a hoax using your child as pawns), but the "Arizona sweat lodge tragedy." It made The New York Times today, virtually assuring that some enterprising politicos in Washington or the Arizona legislature will be stepping in to offer a regulatory response.

Players of my parlor game can earn extra points by naming the bill. I'm betting it will be called the "Safer Sweat Lodges Act of 2010." If Congress seizes on the tragedy to regulate other dubious "new age" healing rituals, it might be called the "Safer Sweat Lodges and Holistic Healing Act of 2010."

Monday, October 19, 2009

Pain Relief

Voters in a number of states have approved medical marijuana laws in recent years, only to find federal drug enforcers effectively nullifying those measures by busting people who tried to prescribe, cultivate or distribute medical marijuana. It was a classic states' rights conflict, in which federal drug laws were being used by Washington to override modest legalization steps taken by states. Voters in many states (including Colorado) seem open to relaxing certain drug prohibitions, if it could do suffering people some good. But the Bush Justice Department held firm to its "zero tolerance" stance, using DEA raids to effectively force federal drug laws on everyone else.

But that (thankfully) is changing under the Obama administration, which is calling-off the DEA raiders (at least for now) as long as the medical marijuana dispensaries adhere to state law. Here's a write-up on the issue in today's Los Angeles Times.

It doesn't mean the DEA isn't monitoring developments in the nascent medical marijuana industry, or that it won't raid operations it thinks are fronts for the non-medical distribution of pot. But the new deference the Justice Department is showing states -- the new reasonableness and respect -- is in my view a positive development, reducing some of the frictions (and injustices) its formerly-hardline stance were creating.

Will this experiment in partial legalization be abused and exploited by bad actors? It would be naive to ignore the possibility. But that's a matter better dealt with at the state and local level than by the U.S. Justice Department. States that have medical marijuana laws are dealing with an analogous issue, as state and local law enforcers, and state and local officials, begin to work through the sometimes-prickly issues and dilemmas this legalization experiment presents. We'll have to wrestle with these issues in Colorado Springs as well.

These difficulties aren't an argument against the experiment -- major changes in longstanding policy always create tensions and gray-area uncertainties. They're just the normal (but temporary) disorientation that occurs when freedom wins out over order, control and reflexive regimentation. I'm just glad that the Obama administration -- for now, at least -- will be giving states the opportunity -- the liberty -- to deal with this themselves.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Federal Agency Could Use More Gun Control

The government expects average Americans to keep close tabs on our personal firearms, lest sloppiness lead to thefts, accidents or guns finding their way into the wrong hands. But how carefully does the federal government keep track of its firearms?

Not very carefully, according to this just-released report by the Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Interior, which identified a number of problems with how the agency stored and accounted for weapons. While investigators didn't identify any specific cases in which federal firearms ended up in the wrong hands, or made their way to the black market, the lax management it describes at some agency weapons caches raises the possibility that this occurs.

Average citizens who handled their personal firearms in this way might be accused of reckless endangerment, or at least be called irresponsible. But when the federal government is involved, it's business as usual.

Here are some key experts from the IG report:

"All bureaus have policies and procedures designed to control and safeguard property that are generally consistent with Department standards and other federal regulations. Despite these policies and procedures, we found that most DOI law enforcement programs could not accurately account for their cached firearms. Inventories were found to be inaccurate and those responsible for firearms accountability did not always follow established procedures for conducting periodic inventories or reporting and investigating missing firearms. We found 373 inventory discrepancies out of the 1,334 firearms we physically handled. These discrepancies include: firearms listed on inventories but not present; firearms present, but not listed on inventories; and administrative errors such as lost and unprocessed paperwork or transposition errors. Consequently, the Department cannot accurately account for the number of law enforcement firearms it has or where those firearms are actually located."

"We discovered inconsistencies in the diligence paid to firearms inventories at most National Wildlife Refuge System (NWRS) locations we visited. During a review of the NWRS armory at FLETC, where approximately 400 weapons were stored, we found that the NWRS had not conducted an official inventory for over two years. NWRS belatedly conducted an inventory of those weapons in response to our data request. When questioned about the lack of annual inventories, the NWRS official responsible for those firearms said “you’re not going to like what I’m about to say” and confessed that he has refused to conduct the required inventories because of inaccurate inventory reports he received from NWRS headquarters. We learned that prior to his assignment to FLETC, a paid student intern had been given responsibility for firearms after a past firearms custodian had been relieved of his responsibilities.

When we compared the NWRS armory firearms inventory that was certified on April 2, 2009, to our April 20, 2009 physical inventory of those firearms, we discovered over 100 firearms that were not in the armory as indicated in the official inventory records. We also found several firearms on the inventory were listed as assigned to personnel who had retired in 2004, as well as other firearms that had been assigned to personnel who had resigned and now works for the Department of Homeland Security. Firearms that had been documented elsewhere as destroyed were still listed on current inventories."

What the IG found at New York Field Office of the U.S. Park Police was troubling.

"Our findings at the U.S. Park Police (USPP) New York Field Office (NYFO) further highlighted our concerns over disconcerting attitudes towards firearms accountability and security. Original property receipts were stored in a plastic bag, abandoned and personal weapons were intermixed with government-owned firearms, and gun safes containing a silenced machine gun and other firearms were unlocked. An unknown number of keys had been issued to the firearms storage area, firearms custodians were unaware of the number of guns in their inventory or their origin, and guns physically present were not listed on the inventory.

Three weapons originally purchased in 1993 (two of which were never used), and which are now obsolete, were reported as missing. They were subsequently discovered at the abandoned USPP firearms range during the course of our assessment. USPP could not tell us when those guns were last inventoried or had been physically seen.arms.

Upon discovering the physical conditions of the NYFO armory and the management of their firearms, we notified the USPP Chief about our observations. The chief subsequently ordered an investigation be conducted regarding the three missing weapons. He also ordered the armory moved to a more appropriate location under new supervision, a complete audit of the firearms property management function, and inventory of all weapons. The deputy chief confirmed that these tasks had been completed . . ."

. . . Two assault weapons located in NYFO firearms storage closet.

A senior law enforcement executive who has spent 30 years in NWRS told us he knows that refuges “squirrel” away firearms. In another case, we discovered two assault weapons stored in the NYFO firearms storage closet that were not listed on the official inventory. Both weapons were labeled “safe keeping private owner abandoned.” We received two conflicting accounts about how these weapons came into USPP custody when we questioned the office’s firearms custodians about those weapons. One explained that they had been turned in approximately 18 years ago by a private citizen after the assault weapons ban went into effect. The other told us that the weapons had been seized as evidence during a criminal investigation but were no longer needed. Neither firearms custodian could tell us why the weapons were still being stored."

Not every weapons cache the IG visited was badly managed, thankfully. But enough were to make one wonder whether similar conditions exist inside other federal agencies -- and to make one think that there's a good deal of hypocrisy in the constant lecturing about firearm safety that average citizens get from government officials. Government officials often are leading the cheers for more gun control for the rest of us. Maybe they need a little more of their own.

Here's a final salvo from the IG's report:

All Departmental law enforcement programs require that missing or stolen assigned firearms be immediately reported and investigated. The Department also requires that all missing firearms be reported to the Office of Law Enforcement and Security (OLES) through Serious Incident Reporting procedures. Despite these requirements, we found that weapons missing from firearms caches are handled differently and are less likely to be reported as missing or investigated. Instead of handling missing cache firearms the same as a missing assigned firearm, in most cases, missing cache firearms discovered during annual property inventories are simply treated as inventory discrepancies or paperwork errors. It is not until the firearms inventory is completed and supporting documents are reviewed, sometimes days or months later, that a weapon may be considered missing and reported as such.

How missing firearms are reported varies among bureaus and their individual office locations. In most cases, the person responsible for maintaining the firearms inventory is also the person responsible for reporting missing weapons. Many individuals we interviewed could only describe procedures used to investigate missing weapons in general terms. Concerns over the inherit dangers that these missing firearms pose to public safety should necessitate a sense of urgency for bureaus to make every effort to locate missing weapons; however, we found some cases where bureaus did not always report, or report in a timely manner, missing firearms. We found that in some cases, missing weapons are merely reported to a Board of Survey with little or no documentation and then requested to be removed from an office’s inventory. In other cases, criminal or administrative investigations of the missing firearm are conducted depending on the circumstances of the loss. In many cases nothing is done, and the weapons remain on the inventory for weeks or even years without any action being taken. The Department’s inventory process exacerbates this problem by failing to provide a mechanism for more frequent inventories or timely entries into property management systems."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Who Lost California?

There's a thoughtful piece in today's Wall Street Journal that poses a somewhat parochial, California-centric question, which nonetheless has relevance for other states, like Colorado, where citizen initiatives and referenda have gained popularity as governing mechanisms.

California is a basket case, obviously. But who's responsible? Some people blame the state's fondness for citizen initiatives and so-called "ballot-box budgeting" -- an accusation we hear in Colorado as well. Others (like the writers of the piece) argue that the state's notoriously free-spending politicians, in tandem with a smothering regulatory climate, are responsible for killing the California dream. "The Golden State's problem is not overly controlling voters," the authors conclude, "but out-of-control politicians."

I sometimes worry about the implications of ballot-box governance, even while supporting some ballot measures that, while not flawless, are in my view beneficial on balance -- our city and state TABOR being a good case in point. My preference is that citizen initiatives be used carefully, narrowly and sparingly, as a last resort. I sometimes think they are becoming seen as a first resort, and that's a problem.

It often comes down to a lesser-of-evils calculation. Which does one fear more: the danger of direct democracy, or elected officials who have a tendency to run wild if left to their own devices? Initiatives might be thought of as a "governor" placed on the engine of a rental vehicle, which keeps it from being driven recklessly. The vehicle still can be steered where the drivers (the politicians) want it to go. But it can't go there at any speed the driver's desire. The drivers retain some discretion, but are also constrained by the vehicle's owner (the people), in order to discourage crashes.

It's not a perfect analogy, I know, or the perfect governing model. But there is no perfect analogy, or perfect governing model. At least our system affords us the freedom to experiment.

Friday, October 2, 2009

"Roadless" Radicals Have Gone Around the Bend

Just how extreme are the environmentalists who rallied in Denver yesterday for a restoration of the Clinton era-"roadless rule," and who reject a Colorado-tailored alternative that made some sensible modifications to the original? They're this extreme"

The Denver Post (italics added):

"Groups at a rally in downtown Denver on Thursday called for strong protection of Colorado's roadless areas. Critics argue the state proposal would leave the areas the least protected nationwide, because it would allow temporary roads for wildfire prevention, expansion of existing coal-mining and some utility infrastructure.

Some ski-area terrain would be permanently removed from the inventory of roadless areas."

These people don't even want temporary roads built in order to prevent wildfires.

They want to permanently put millions of acres of public land -- our land -- off limits to pipelines, transmission lines, etc. -- the infrastructure a growing West will need in order to thrive.

They want to close roads running to existing, operating, perfectly-legal mining operations -- which is a roundabout way of shutting these operations down.

They won't even make accommodation for the future expansion of ski resorts -- major job generators and economic engines for the state, which have long been accepted as a legitimate use of national forests.

And they want to impose these ironclad prohibitions and access limits on 4.4 million acres of federal forest in Colorado -- federal forests that are dying from beetle blight and prone to catastrophic wildfire. These are forests that need active management, aggressive management, not more benign neglect. This argues for more public access, not less.

But the roadless radicals are so far around the bend, and so blinkered by their fervor for access restrictions, that they can't see the forest for the trees. They have no common sense. They suffer from a psychological condition I call "environmental retardation."

Thursday, October 1, 2009

It's the Schools, Stupid.

Is it the school? Or is it the student? That's a frequently-heard debate when we talk about the failures of public education.

No one's simplistic enough to say it's all one or all the other. But this recent story in the Denver Post may help shine a little more light on the subject. It strongly suggests that freeing kids from failing schools can boost their performance, which doesn't exonerate lazy parents but does point an accusing finger back in the direction of lousy schools.

Here's the Post:

"Students from schools in Denver that were closed two years ago in a reform effort are performing better academically in their new schools, according to a district analysis.
In 2007, Denver Public Schools shut down eight elementary schools and announced the revamping of programs at five schools in a sweeping reform meant to reduce facility costs and improve student achievement.

The analysis of individual student scores from the 2008-09 Colorado Student Assessment Program shows that, at least initially, the effort is working.

The 2,000 affected students made more academic growth in their new schools in reading, writing and math than they did in the schools they left behind, according to DPS."

"Closing and reconfiguring schools is very difficult and a very painful process; we must keep our focus on what is best for the students," DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg told the Post. "Here, it is very clear that the students benefited from these changes."

This won't end the schools vs. students (and parents) debate, of course. But it does mean that the public education establishment can't convincingly argue that they are blameless when children fall through the cracks. The quality of the school obviously matters. And we're doing kids a great disservice when we don't ruthlessly eliminate those schools that aren't making the grade.