Margin of Σrror

Margin of Σrror -

No Patriot Act II: Americans choose civil liberties over security laws | Harry J Enten

Unlike 9/11, the Boston attack will not lead to new anti-terror law. But Democrats are now less civil libertarian than Republicans

Terrorist attacks offer lawmakers an ability to react. After 9/11, the American government decided to go to war in Afghanistan and to enact new laws aimed at curbing future attacks. The Patriot Act, for instance, has been regarded by some as a necessary step for safety and by others as an infringement on civil liberties.

Following the Boston Marathon attack, we’ve heard Republicans Lindsey Graham and John McCain, among others, push for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to be handled in a way that many believe would be a violation of his civil liberties. So, has the Boston bombing opened up an avenue for lawmakers to pursue controversial new anti-terrorism measures that may limit civil liberties?

Almost certainly not. The latest CNN/Time/ORC poll finds that 49% of Americans are not willing to give up civil liberties in order curb terrorism, while only 40% are. In fact, 61% of Americans are more fearful that the government will overreact to the Boston bombing, compared to 31% who are worried that the government won’t act strongly enough.

Other polls confirm these findings. Just after the attacks, Fox News found that 43% of Americans were willing to give up “some personal freedom” to reduce the threat of an attack, while 45% were not. A Washington Post poll, from before the bombers were caught, reported that only 41% of Americans were most worried that the government wouldn’t go far enough because of constitutional concerns. Almost half of Americans, 48%, were worried the government would go too far and compromise constitutional rights.

The reaction to Boston has been monumentally different to the polling results after 9/11. Immediately following the attacks on the WTC, 66% of Americans were willing to give up “civil liberties” to stop terrorism – 26pt higher than today. And 39% of Americans were concerned that strong laws wouldn’t be enacted, while 34% were more concerned about restricting civil liberties. That 4pt lead for enacting stronger laws is now a 30pt lead in favor of protecting civil liberties, per the ORC poll. After 9/11, 71% of Americans were willing to give up “personal freedom” to reduce the threat of a terrorist attack per Fox – 28pt higher than today.

Indeed, the party breakdown of new polling means that Graham and McCain have even less chance of getting their way. Democrats at large – who are unlikely to agree with hawkish senators – are now more willing to give up personal freedoms than Republicans. In the CNN/Time/ORC survey, 51% of Democrats were were willing to give up some civil liberties to curb terrorism, while only 41% of Republicans were. Fox found an identical 51% of Democrats were willing to give up “personal freedom”, against just 43% of Republicans. The Washington Post poll found the same 8pt spread between Democrats and Republicans on the question of whether the government might compromise constitutional rights.

Republicans, it seems, have become the standard-bearers of civil liberties due to two factors: who’s in the White House and shifting currents inside each party.

The executive branch, the government’s chief, is currently a Democrat – one who many Republicans believe, for instance, is out to take their guns. After 9/11, a Republican president held office, which likely accounts for the parties switching positions. We already know that a respondent or a politician will often oppose an issue or policy just because of who’s in charge.

Second, the Republican party is increasingly becoming the party of Rand Paul and civil libertarians. You would expect exactly these respondents to be against an intrusion on civil liberties. Many Paulites tend to call themselves independents, which would also explain why, in the CNN/Time/ORC and Fox News, independents were the least likely to give up personal freedoms, at 32% and 29%, respectively.

This puts hawkish Republicans like Graham and McCain in an awkward position within their own party. If there were a Republican in the White House, I think more Republicans would be willing to sacrifice civil liberties to prevent terrorism. At the same time, though, the Republican party simply is in a different place than it was a decade ago.

Overall, the chances of any major, hawkish changes in terrorist policy are significantly hampered by public opinion. Americans did not react to the Boston bombings with anything near the willingness to sacrifice civil liberties they showed after 9/11. That Republicans – usually hawkish on national security issues – are wary of giving power to the Democratic-run executive branch only further weakens the chances that any new law might pass. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Terrorism in the US: what is the real threat level? | Harry J Enten

In perspective, terror attacks are at a historic low. But the picture is more complex: major cities like Boston are still likely targets

Though we know nothing yet about who committed the bombings at the Boston Marathon, or why they did so, the assumption at this point is that these were acts of terror – and, as the president affirmed Tuesday, is being investigated as such.

The shadow cast by the 9/11 attack means that every such incident now tends to be seen as a new episode in a distinct and frightening era of terrorism in the mainland United States. But does this picture actually fit the historical record?

Let’s put Boston in the context of the history of terrorist attacks in the United States over the past 40 years. One graph that tries to do this, posted by the Washington Post on Tuesday morning, is this:

It’s taken from the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland (pdf), and it plots the number of terrorist attacks in the 50 states. It’s difficult not to be immediately struck by the peak on the left hand side of the graph: no other year comes close to the near 500 attacks that occurred in 1970. In fact, only two other years even surpass 100 attacks, and both of those were also in the 1970s. But this graph doesn’t tell the whole story.

First, let’s start with the fact that most terrorist attacks occur in major metropolitan areas. Manhattan and Los Angeles are two of the most at-risk targets for major terrorist attacks throughout the period: 13.1% of all terrorist attacks from 1970 to 2008 occurred in Manhattan, New York alone; 6.0% were in Los Angeles County, California. Combined, that’s nearly a fifth of all terrorist attacks.

Other areas were less consistent at registering in the terrorism chart. San Francisco was a center of leftist terrorism in the 1970s, but has since cooled off. Maricopa County, Arizona has seen more attacks in the 2000s as “single-issue terrorism” (such as animal rights or hate crime) has become more dominant.

Second, over the last decade, very few terrorist attacks have occurred across the central swath of the country. When you look at a heat map of terrorist attacks over the last 40 years, you see terrorism occurring in many different states. That, however, shows where attacks have been most likely to occur by decade.

Only five of the terrorist attacks coded by type by University of Maryland occurred in the center of the country during the 2000s. Almost all the attacks that took place in that region were during the 1980s and 1990s, when rightwing and religious groups were the most likely to carry out attacks.

Third, terrorism attacks are most likely to be in places where crime is high. There’s not a perfect correspondence, to be sure; but the correlation between high crime rates and terrorist attacks is highly significant at 0.25.

Fourth, terrorist attacks tend to occur in areas that are most ethnically diverse. Even when taking into account population density, you are more likely to see a terrorist attack in an area where many languages are spoken. You are also more likely to see a terrorist attack in a city where people live with less residential stability. Poverty and inequality, however, are not a factor: you are more likely to see a terrorist attack in cities with a lower degree of concentrated disadvantage.

A key point, however, is that the percentage of foreign-born residents is not a significant predictor of terrorist attacks. The same goes for racial identity: a city with more black or Hispanic residents is no more likely to see a terrorist attack than a majority white city. Language likely differs from these factors because you usually see different languages in cities with foreign business interests or government interests, which is exactly where terrorist attacks are more likely to occur.

Fifth, the chance of surviving a terrorist attack is the same as it has always been. Deadly terrorist attacks may be down, but the the percentage of those attacks that are deadly is the same. In 1970, only about 5% of terrorist attacks were deadly. That spiked to 41% in 1973, but it has mostly hovered between zero and 20% in the years since. The two years with the biggest spikes were 2001 and 2006, when 25% of attacks were deadly.

Sadly, most of these factors tend to make the events that occurred in Boston predictable or likely, compared to other places. Boston is among the top ten major metropolitan areas, and it’s on the coast. It’s in the top third for United States cities by violent crime rate. A number of the places within the metropolitan area have high population densities, including the city of Boston itself. The city ranks highly for non-English speaking households (pdf). Finally, the attack had a fatal outcome.

About the only characteristic that perhaps doesn’t fit the conventional pattern is that it occurred at a sports event, rather than the target being a government building or business. Indeed, the targeting of ordinary civilian members of the public is the truly scary part of the Boston Marathon bombing: with the exception of the Atlanta Olympics bombing of 1996, the idea of attacking a sports event in the United States is novel and unusual.

In other ways, Boston is typical: from a statistical point of view, it’s not all that surprising that nearly 2% of all US terror attacks occurred in the Boston metropolitan area between 1970 and 2008. This week’s tragic incident sadly matches the pattern. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

How far can President Obama go with an executive order on gun control? | Harry J Enten

Since any gun safety law would face opposition in a Republican-controlled Congress, the president must weigh public opinion

Vice-President Joe Biden’s gun panel is set to report to President Barack Obama next Tuesday. The common view is that any legislation that is at all controversial would have a difficult time getting passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Now, Biden has raised the possibility of getting gun control measures by executive order.

My advice for the president as someone who reads polls: go for it, if it’s what you want to do. There is much discussion that acting by executive order would be seen as a “totalitarian” action and provoke a backlash. Nonsense, so long as the order is supporting a measure the public favors.

Consider that in June 2012 Obama took executive action on a “mini-Dream Act” that provided a path to avoid deportation for some undocumented immigrants who came to the country before the age of 16, had a high school education (or were attending school) or had served in the military, and had no criminal background. He did so administratively because he couldn’t get a law passed by Congress.

There was heavy public support before the order was signed. Back in late 2010, Gallup found that 54% of Americans would vote for a bill that would allow for undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country in their youth to have a pathway to citizenship. A late 2011, a Fox Poll put support for such a law at 63%.

After Obama made the new policy instruction, the public held to its position. Five polls taken between the June announcement and now found that anywhere from 54% to 64% of Americans still believe that young undocumented immigrants should not be sent packing. This includes three questions that specifically mentioned Obama’s name, and that his administration had “announced” the policy change (in other words, the measure specifically didn’t pass through Congress).

You might argue that the gun debate is different because the powerful gun rights lobby would be able to convince the public otherwise. The flaw in that statement is that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is just not that popular these days: only 42% of Americans have a favorable view of the NRA per Public Policy Polling, which is down from 48% just a few weeks ago.

The president is also dealing with a public that’s seen its support for gun control climb higher since the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. I count five pollsters (ABC/Washington Post, CBS News, Gallup, CNN/ORC, and YouGov) that asked a question about whether gun control should be stricter before and after Newtown. Before the massacre, the weaker “stay the same” position on gun control beat the stricter position by an average of 3.8 percentage points. Afterward, stricter led by 11.4pt – a 15.2pt turn-around.

Past history suggests that the president can’t wait around until he gets a Congress that is willing to cooperate. After the Columbine shooting in 1999, Americans’ support for stricter gun laws jumped by 5-10pt. After a year or two, the spike had abated and appetite for stricter gun laws continued its slow decline to the minority position it held just before Newtown.

So what policies should the president consider, as long as he thinks courts will uphold his orders?

• He should end the “gun show loophole” to force people who buy guns at a gun show or through private sales and online shopping to have a background check: 92% of Americans favor this position per Gallup, while PPP puts support at 76%.

• Obama should seek to ban high-capacity ammunition clips that contain more than 10 bullets: CNN/ORC, Gallup, Pew, PPP, and YouGov all show at least 53% of Americans in favor of this policy.

• He should seek ways to ensure that people with poor mental health records do not get a gun: CNN/ORC found that 92% Americans did not want Americans with mental health problems to be in possession of a gun; PPP took it one step farther and discovered that 63% of Americans want people to be required to take a health exam before buying a gun.

• Obama should obviously prevent felons convicted of a violent crime from owning a gun: 94% and 92% approve of that measure, per PPP and CNN/ORC respectively.

• He should try to make sure that guns, even if not recently purchased, would be registered with a government or law enforcement agency: CNN/ORC finds 78% agree with that policy.

• Obama should look to ban outright bullets that explode or are designed to break through a bullet-proof vest: Pew found that 56% favor this position.

• Obama should try to make it more difficult to buy ammunition and/or guns over the internet: 69% of Americans wanted to ban these practices, according to PPP.

You’ll note I don’t include an assault weapons ban. The reason is that pollsters are split: Gallup and Pew signal that a majority is opposed to banning assault or semi-automatic weapons, while ABC/Washington Post, CNN/ORC, PPP, and YouGov show the reverse. It seems to me that, politically speaking, an executive order would be the wrong course on an issue that apparently splits the country down the middle.

Further, the president would almost certainly be better-off passing any law through Congress. It not only looks better, but it lessens the chance of any political blowback I may be underestimating. The danger, of course, is that if a bill fails to get through Congress, it would look like awfully sour grapes then to obtain gun control measures through executive orders. It’s quite possible that the public would see that as executive over-reach.

Also, I am by no means a constitutional scholar: while there are plenty of people arguing in favor of executive action, others argue that some of these proposals, if put into action by executive order, would be unconstitutional and would be ruled so.

That said, if the president is sensitive to public opinion and reading the polls, there are a number of gun control policies he can obtain by executive order without fear of a backlash. But the lesson of Columbine is that he has a narrow window of opportunity, in the wake of Newtown, in which to act. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds