Two Letters to President Obama About Gun Control

The battle over gun control is really about fear.

 Dear President Obama,


            I respectfully ask that you take no action to further limit Americans’ right to own firearms. I make this request not so much to protect my right to own guns, but because, like millions of my fellow Americans, I am afraid. I am afraid of the seemingly endless ways the government tells me what I can and can’t do. I am afraid of the increasingly frequent ways that, in the name of "government" and "democracy," it feels like the religious beliefs and moral values I share with millions of Americans are being trampled on. I am afraid of living in a nation, a great nation, that is moving in directions with which I disagree, but over which I have no control.

            On top of all these factors, I am afraid for my future and my kids’ future. Not from climate change or terrorism, but because my wife and I are losing the financial ability to provide for the comfort and safety of our family. We work hard, but costs are rising and wages aren’t keeping pace. My wife just had to take a second job, but we still can’t save much anymore; for our kids’ college education, or to buy a home of our own, or even for a nice vacation. Like tens of millions of our fellow Americans, it feels like, economically, the bright American Dream future we were raised to look forward to and work toward is getting further and further out of reach, and it feels like we can’t do anything about that either.

            I guess what all this boils down to is how scary it feels not to be in control of how our lives are going, or of our future. Not economically. Not in terms of how we’d like to live according to our values and beliefs, but society is telling us we can’t. Not in terms of something as simple as owning a gun to protect ourselves, something that could give us at least a little feeling of control against these scary times. I am sure you can understand, Mr. President, as a person and as a father, how profoundly threatening it is to feel like we can’t control how our own lives are going.

            I understand that this fear is hard to accept for people who are concerned about gun violence, as all responsible gun owners are. I respect that some people might even be somewhat worried that they will be a victim of such violence. But our fears run far deeper. They are a constant corrosive presence in our daily lives. Not being able to live your life the way you want to, or shape your future, is far more threatening than how worried people might be about being shot, which most people know is highly unlikely, despite occasional high profile shootings that get lots of attention in the news.

Our deep fear is why we are fighting so passionately on this issue, to assert control somehow, some way, over our lives. Restrictions on a constitutional right feed our fears, and that will make a fight that is already dividing America even worse, which no president should want.

                                                                                                Respectfully,

                                                                                                A. K. Fortisevn

                                                                                                Taunton, Massachusetts

Dear President Obama,

I write to encourage you to expand government controls on guns. While there are many intellectual arguments in favor of such controls, my plea is more emotional. I’m afraid. I’m afraid when I think about my kids in school. I’m afraid when I go to a store and see someone with a handgun on their waist that it seems like anybody could grab. I’m afraid when I read about the latest shooting. I’m afraid I might be shot and killed.

I am also afraid of the way the Supreme Court seems like it’s taking over the law to advance a conservative agenda. (I am not a member of either political party.) It’s frightening how Justice [Antonin] Scalia twisted the language of the Second Amendment, which clearly says that allowing people to own guns was so that a young nation that didn’t have an army yet could put together a militia to protect itself, to give everybody the right to own guns. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State...” is the reason people should be allowed to “bear arms.” I tried to read his ruling in the Heller case, but confess I got lost in the tortured grammatical argument he made to get the ruling he wanted to get to. It’s scary to think that the ultimate arbiters of disputes over what the law says aren’t being impartial, the way judges are supposed to be, and that they’re interpreting the Constitution so that America works they way they want it to. That feels like they are hijacking democracy itself.

And I’m afraid of the leaders of the NRA, a small group of extremist libertarians who lie and tell people that the government is coming to take their guns away and scare millions of voters into threatening to kick their government representatives out of office if they support any kind of reasonable gun control, even though the vast majority of Americans — including many gun owners and even many NRA members — want such controls.

But mostly I’m afraid that there are so many guns around, and that they are so easy to get, that the chance of being shot is becoming increasingly real. The basic job of government is to pool society’s resources and protect us from threats that we can’t protect ourselves from as individuals. I don’t feel protected. I feel unsafe. I feel scared, for my kids and myself and my friends and neighbors, and for America, if the values of a few can put the lives of the majority at risk.

Please do your job, Mr. President, and expand controls on guns.

                                                                                                               Respectfully,

                                                                                                               Nan Violenza

                                                                                                               Amarillo, Texas

image: Getty Images, Andrew Burton

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.