Taking Aim at the Cult of the Gun Historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz explores the deep roots and grave consequences of America’s ‘gun love’ in a Luskin Lecture Series event

By Mary Braswell

The story of America is a story of guns — from the earliest days of expansion to the political divide of 2020 — and every chapter reveals thorny questions about nation building, race and whose rights most deserve to be protected.

That premise guided a UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Lecture Series event that explored what historian, author and educator Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz called the “gun love” ingrained in U.S. culture.

The 390 million privately owned guns in the United States — most of which are semiautomatic or high-caliber sidearms and rifles — account for half the worldwide total, Dunbar-Ortiz said, even though Americans make up just 4% of the global population. Of American adults who own guns, 61% are white men.

The numbers tell part of the story, but society “cannot make sense of gun hoarding and the cult of the gun if we don’t deal with white nationalism,” she added. “And we can’t deal with white nationalism without dealing with United States history.”

Dunbar-Ortiz, author of “Loaded: A Disarming History of the Second Amendment,” interspersed her keynote address with insights from her own deep involvement with firearms as a young woman. Held at UCLA’s Luskin Conference and Guest Center, the Feb. 11 event included a panel discussion with Dunbar-Ortiz; Adam Winkler, a gun policy expert and professor of law at UCLA School of Law; Ismael Ileto, an activist fighting against gun violence and hate crimes; and moderator Brad Rowe, a lecturer at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and expert in criminal justice policy.

“What seems clear to me is that we cannot depend on the rush of adrenaline, the indignation, the inspiration that we feel after a tragic event to carry us through the hard work of policy reform,” Rowe said.

The panelists related personal tales of loss, debated how to best effect change and discussed arguments over the reach of the Second Amendment.

Some gun control advocates believe the amendment was never intended to guarantee an individual’s right to bear arms.

Dunbar-Ortiz offered a darker view of the founders’ intent: “The violent appropriation of native land by white settlers was seen as an individual right in the Second Amendment” — one of several points in U.S. history when the right to bear arms was invoked to secure white privilege.

“That long, intergenerational, violent struggle to take the land is why descendants of those mostly Anglo and Scots-Irish settlers today believe they are the authentic lords of the United States and should govern — a kind of blood right,” she said.

Even as she delivered blunt appraisals of modern-day policing, the National Rifle Association, Republican leaders and the Junior ROTC — a program that she believes is responsible for the “normalization of militarism for children” — Dunbar-Ortiz shared stories of her own immersion in gun culture. She grew up around firearms in rural Oklahoma, and in her 30s, she joined an armed radical-left group that amassed a huge arsenal.

“A firearm slung over your shoulder or a 9 mm Browning tucked under your belt creates a sense of amplified power, without which you feel naked and vulnerable,” she said. “Guns are awesome. They are also beautiful objects that are addictive.”

In addition to the mass shootings that capture headlines, access to guns is linked to alarming rates of suicide and domestic violence, and the evening’s panelists grappled with how to stem the public health crisis.

“It always boils down to who’s in office,” said Ileto, whose brother Joseph was shot to death in 1999 by a white supremacist who had also attacked children at a Jewish community center in Granada Hills.

“We can march and march, we can do all these panels, we can do all the conferences we want, and nothing will be changed. Nothing will move [us] forward to a safer society until we change the ones who can change the law,” Ileto said.

Winkler pointed to the divide between U.S. lawmakers — some of whom are beginning to champion gun safety reforms, which were once taboo — and U.S. courts, which appear on the verge of expanding gun rights.

“I think many people who follow this area feel that the Supreme Court is likely to step back into the Second Amendment fray … maybe even to outlaw bans on military-style rifles or to outlaw bans on high-capacity magazines or to say it’s a constitutional requirement for cities like Los Angeles to allow people to carry guns on our streets,” Winkler said.

Rowe invited those who would preserve or expand gun rights to join the conversation.

“If we do hope to develop long-lasting gun reform, it cannot be done in a vacuum and without consideration for the legitimate claims of gun advocates,” he said.

Dunbar-Ortiz offered a counterpoint. Invoking her extensive experience with gun communities, she said, “I don’t think it’s worth your time to try to convert them, frankly.”

Instead, she called on passionate grassroots organizers to fight for gun control laws at the state and local levels.

“I think the social movements are going to be more important than candidacy to change things,” she said. But, she cautioned, “I doubt that any common-sense firearms regulation can be enacted until the Second Amendment is understood to represent white supremacy and genocide.”

The event, which was covered by C-SPAN, was part of UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs’ 25th anniversary commemoration. Gary Segura, dean of the Luskin School, said the evening’s topic was chosen to stimulate conversation and turn research and critical thinking into action — the core mission of the Luskin Lecture Series.

“Whether it is immigration, whether it’s crime, incarceration, violence against women, mental health issues, suicide prevention and many, many other issues, guns are deeply connected to the work and the challenges that we try to address at the Luskin School,” Segura explained during his welcoming remarks.

The widespread impact of gun culture was reflected in the event’s numerous sponsors, which included the nonprofit Women Against Gun Violence, David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Sciences, the Health Equity Network of the Americas, the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, UCLA Law, and the Social Welfare and Public Policy programs at the Luskin School.

View a video and more photos of the “Cult of the Gun” event.

Cult of the Gun LLS

Rowe on California’s Struggle to Regulate Cannabis


 

Incisive, Loyal, Droll: Remembering Mark Kleiman

Colleagues, students and friends of Mark A.R. Kleiman, professor emeritus of public policy, gathered to remember the noted educator, author and expert on drug and crime policy at a Sept. 23 memorial at the UCLA Faculty Club. Kleiman, who helped build UCLA Luskin’s Public Policy program when he joined the faculty in 1996, died over the summer after a long illness. In his 17 years with the program, Kleiman was intellectually aggressive, incredibly loyal and deeply dedicated to teaching policy analysis to the next generation, said JR DeShazo, chair of Public Policy. Kleiman was remembered as a sometimes intimidating presence known for his sly humor and ability to turn complicated ideas into “beautiful pearls.” His incisive questions cut to the heart of any issue and enlivened discourse in the classroom and at faculty gatherings, his colleagues and students recalled. “He loved learning, he loved knowing, and he loved arguing,” said Barbara Nelson, former dean of the Luskin School and professor emerita of public policy, social welfare, urban planning and political science. Brad Rowe, MPP ’13 and a lecturer in public policy, knew Kleiman as a professor, then a colleague at the drug policy consulting firm Kleiman founded. “I don’t use this term lightly,” Rowe said, “but I had a front-row seat at witnessing genius for a period of my life and I’m very thankful for that.”

A memoriam to Kleiman’s life and career can be found here.

View a Flickr album of the memorial.

Remembering Mark Kleiman

Rowe on Public Health Concerns of Growing Cannabis Market

Public Policy lecturer Brad Rowe discussed the future of cannabis regulation with other research and policy experts at the North American Cannabis Summit in Los Angeles, featured in an article and video broadcast on ABC 7. The decriminalization and legalization of cannabis in various states across the country has prompted public health and safety concerns. Rowe commented, “It is important for us to think about insecticides, pesticides, metals, molds, other things we don’t want in our products, and this new regulated regime will help get better quality to the consumers.” Despite efforts to establish a safer market and ensure higher quality, over-regulation of the cannabis market has resulted in a growing black market. Experts at the summit concluded that, while legalization should lower production and distribution costs, over-regulation serves as fuel to the black market.


In the Weeds of Legalized Pot Recreational cannabis raises pressing questions for California officials, citizens and UCLA faculty experts seeking to devise common-sense policies

By Mary Braswell

When Californians voted in 2016 to bring the cannabis industry out of the shadows, the aim was to create an environment where marijuana was safe, controlled and taxed. This has not been a simple undertaking.

Legalization of recreational pot has raised pressing questions from public health officials, local law enforcement, state regulators, city planners and citizens hungry for common-sense policies — not to mention the growers, retailers and users who drive California’s multibillion-dollar weed industry.

What will the city-by-city patchwork of laws look like? How can marijuana cultivators safely introduce pesticides into a neighborhood? When will communities see the benefits of tax revenues? How will lifting the stigma on pot use affect adolescents?

The need for facts, evidence and clear thinking has never been greater. Fortunately, UCLA Luskin researchers and policy experts are on the case, among them Public Policy lecturer Brad Rowe MPP ’13.

‘A REALLY TRICKY BUSINESS’

Proposition 64, the ballot measure that legalized recreational pot, gave each of California’s 482 cities and 58 counties the authority to license cultivation, manufacturing and sales. So far, most have declined to do so.

The more than 160 cities and unincorporated areas that decided to move forward face a labyrinth of policy questions, said Rowe, who launched his own research firm, Rowe Policy + Media, in 2017. He also serves on the faculty of UCLA’s Cannabis Research Initiative, teaches a Public Policy class on drugs and crime, and advises municipalities that are venturing into the marijuana fray.

“Cannabis is a really tricky business, and it’s one that is probably going to have more volatility than most of the other licensing areas,” Rowe said.

In many cases, he said, communities have overestimated the financial gains and underestimated the complications.

“Expectations have been set so high for tax revenues. Common claims from city representatives are, ‘We’re going to build libraries and parks and football programs for the kids,’ ” Rowe said. “The truth is that you’ve got to get your system up and running, and realistically expect that that store that you just licensed may only generate tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands in tax revenue for you this year. … It’s hard to pay for your new inspector and the new police officer you just hired, and your financial department has to figure out how to handle the cash.”

Cannabis commerce requires cities to create systems for licensing, taxation, financial compliance and the delicate matter of handling deposits from a largely cash business, Rowe said. They must keep up with evolving regulations from the state’s Bureau of Cannabis Control and shifting signals from the federal government, which strictly prohibits pot.

They will have to consider whether growing outdoors will create a nuisance and how to safeguard first responders against new threats. Firefighters arriving at a site that uses pesticides or volatile solvents for terpene extraction “shouldn’t be inhaling that stuff,” Rowe said.

Some of the policy debates veer toward the high end. Sonoma, he said, is considering whether to permit tastings of cannabis products, just as it does for viognier and pinot noir. “So then we’re getting into on-site consumption, event permits, more cannabis cops,” Rowe said.

On the whole, he said, “it can be a big hairy hassle for the cities, and that’s one of the reasons a lot of them have said we’re going to kick the can down the road and see how these other cities do.”

SEEKING JUSTICE, EQUITY AND FACTS

Rowe’s work with the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative focuses on criminal and juvenile justice as drug offenses are reclassified.

“Are we even moving away from the war on drugs? That is the intent but in practice it’s a trickier thing, so we’re looking at equity considerations,” he said.

The health and well-being of young people must be a top policy priority, he argues.

“The one thing I am super concerned about is cannabis use disorder among adolescents,” Rowe said, citing brain research as well as recent studies measuring the toll that compulsive pot consumption takes on test scores and analytical skills.

“We just don’t know enough about the plant,” he said. “We don’t know enough about its addictive properties; we don’t really know what will happen as it becomes de-stigmatized and easily available.”

Legalization has led to new funding for research aimed at answering these questions. Proposition 64 earmarks $10 million a year for public universities to evaluate the impact of the law and make recommendations to the state.

Rowe has visited cities up and down the state as a consultant with MuniServices, which helps local governments manage their affairs. He has hosted forums for potential pot licensees, family and faith-based groups, and other stakeholders and says, “There have been some really heartfelt, interesting conversations. Some are opposed and some just want this to be done with caution.”

Many simply want reliable information, he said.

“There’s a lot of room for reasonable conversation; there’s a lot of room for public policy people to come into this area,” Rowe said. “It’s only going to get bigger. It’s going to be a very big industry.”

Rowe Weighs In on Still-Thriving Illegal Market for Pot

In a Vice story about the black market for pot, which in many ways is more profitable than the now-legalized marijuana industry, UCLA Luskin Public Policy lecturer Brad Rowe commented that Los Angeles has made cannabis regulation too complicated. Rowe said there should be rewards for compliant businesses, such as fewer inspections and reduced fees. He added that the city must work harder to identify illegal shops and attempt to get them permitted. “It’s been whack-a-mole in the city of L.A. for forever,” said Rowe, who is also affiliated with the university’s Cannabis Research Initiative.