Gunfight In The Capital Corral

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

A familiar scene will unfold today in a Washington, D.C., federal courtroom. One well-funded legal team will portray guns as the gravest criminal menace in the nation and the folks who would dare oppose reasonable controls on weapons as fanatics. An equally moneyed bunch of lawyers will counter that law-abiding citizens use most guns and that the worrywarts who want to restrict gun sales have violated gun owners’ constitutional rights.

The issue before the court: whether the FBI has the right to maintain, if only temporarily, the information it collects on the backgrounds of Americans who buy guns.

The case, filed by the National Rifle Association against the Justice Department, is the latest salvo in a gun-control debate that stretches back to the 1981 assassination attempt on then-President Ronald Reagan and, more recently, to the enactment of the so-called Brady Bill. President Clinton signed the Brady bill, which imposed a waiting period on the purchase of handguns and background checks on gun buyers, into law in the pre-Thanksgiving rush to congressional adjournment in 1993, and the acrimonious debate over the merits of the law has continued ever since.

Closing the ‘loopholes’
Much of the squabbling has occurred in the background. With the crime rate on a six-year decline and gun-related crimes on an even steeper decline than overall crime, gun foes have struggled to win the attention of lawmakers and a public tuned to other issues — Social Security, health care, tobacco and, of course, impeachment.

But the battle moved to the fore again Nov. 30, the five-year anniversary of the Brady bill’s enactment. Until then, the law required that handgun buyers wait five days to get their weapons. Now, as stipulated by the law, buyers no longer must wait five days, but most buyers, including those who purchase rifles and shotguns, must undergo a background check via the new National Instant Check System.


Managing An Evolving Medium

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Governments of the industrial world, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come fromcyberspace, the new home of mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leaveus alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

So wrote John Perry Barlow — former cattle rancher and lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and currently the founder/vice chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation — in a Feb. 8, 1996, manifesto he dubbed “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace.” And so began the passionate defense of Internet liberty that echoes still today.

But in Internet time, 1996 was a lifetime ago. Internet population numbered a mere 37 million people older than 16 in the United States and Canada at the end of 1996, according to CommerceNet; as of June 1998, that total stood at an estimated 79 million.

As the size of the Internet community has snowballed, new voices have questioned the libertarian bent of Barlow and those of his ilk. The Internet has issues that maybe its residents alone cannot solve, the voices argue, so maybe governments should play a role after all.

A full policy plate
The issues before policymakers are many, and chief among them is obscenity. Pornography may have been at the heart of Barlow’s anti-government diatribe in 1996. He penned his declaration the day President Clinton signed the so-called Communications Decency Act as part of the broader Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The CDA language made it illegal to post to the Internet any material “that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards, sexual or excretory activities or organs.” And although the Supreme Court ruled that language unconstitutional on June 26, 1997, the right of the government to punish people who publish obscene material on the Internet or to restrict access to such material remains a point of contention.

Congress since has revisited the issue. It cleared legislation this year that would require website operators to limit children’s access to pornography and other material deemed “harmful to minors.” Free-speech advocates have dubbed the legislation CDA II and have challenged its constitutionality in court.

The Censure Of Andrew Jackson

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

A congressional censure of President Clinton, says House Minority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, would be both “a terrible precedent” and a violation of House rules. Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer calls the idea, “an affront to the Constitution.”

The Post editorial board, on the other hand, shares the prevailing view among Clinton’s defenders that censure, and perhaps a fine, is a better punishment than impeachment for Clinton’s lies about sexual relations with Monica Lewinsky. “Tough censure is not the perfect outcome. There isn’t a perfect outcome to this miserable case,” the newspaper editorialized Dec. 6. “But censure beats impeachment.”

As the latest presidential scandal inches toward its zenith, this national discourse on the merits of congressional censure of a president calls to mind a similar debate. One-hundred sixty-five years ago this month, the Senate began just such a debate that ultimately led to the censure, albeit a temporary one, of President Andrew Jackson for “assum[ing] upon himself authority and power not conferred by the Constitution and the laws, but in derogation of both.”

Breaking with presidential tradition
In hindsight, the constitutional confrontation between Jackson, the first Democrat elected president, and a Senate divided equally among Democrats (some of whom disliked Jackson) and National Republicans was inevitable. Although at times politically cautious in exerting his authority, Jackson claimed presidential prerogatives that even men as revered as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson invoked only reluctantly while serving as chief executive.

The clearest example: Jackson’s use of the veto. Six men occupied the presidency over the 40 years before Jackson took office in 1829, and among them, they vetoed only nine bills. Jackson vetoed 12 bills in eight years — a pittance by modern-day standards but still more than the combined total of his predecessors. He also was the first president to “pocket veto” legislation.

Jackson’s willingness to challenge the will of Congress was most evident in his mission to run the Second Bank of the United States out of business. Congress authorized the national bank under a 20-year charter in 1816. Its policies were blamed for the heightening of an economic depression in 1819, an event that helped shape Jackson’s opinion of the bank as a monopoly with special privileges and little regulation, according to Jackson biographer Robert V. Remini.

Impeachment And The Internet

Originally published at
By K. Daniel Glover

Traditional media, particularly the newspapers of old that feel so threatened by their latest competitor, paint a disturbing picture of the Internet. If we are to believe the curmudgeons who long for the days of manual typewriters, green eye-shades and smoke-filled newsrooms, cyberspace is a haven for criminals — hackers, pornographers, swindlers, you name it.

Don’t get me wrong. I am a curmudgeon myself, and I miss my all-too-brief days as a newspaperman. I also am quick to condemn the excesses of the Internet and, unlike many of my new-media colleagues, am not at all averse to regulation — either self-imposed or governmental — designed to curb those excesses.

But I am a fan of the Internet, too, and I hate to see its vices — the study that says extensive use causes depression, the hacker who posted nude photos on The New York Times Web site, Matt Drudge, Salon magazine’s defense of “ugly tactics” — hyped and its virtues ignored.

A Web-based Andrew Johnson library
Consider this my attempt to help balance the scales by offering an example of what is good online, namely, The Impeachment of Andrew Johnson, a Web site that debuted early last month.

Published by HarpWeek, the virtual library summarizes the arguments for and against the 1868 impeachment of Johnson, the only president ever to have been impeached by the House and to have faced a Senate impeachment trial, and it brings context to the current debate about President Bill Clinton’s offenses. Even better, it showcases one of the greatest assets of the Internet — scholarship at your fingertips.