Monday, November 30, 2020

The stock market is surging. The economy is not.

 All eyes are on the stock market. The Dow topped 30,000 last week for the first time in history before slipping back and is on track for its best month since 1987, more than three decades ago. The bull market is powered by good news about Coronavirus vaccines and the prospect of an end to the trade wars, but so far that optimism is not reflected in the greater economy.

COVID-19 is still raging and despite the fact that the election is over, some jurisdictions are enacting new restrictions to combat the winter wave of infections. If you live in CaliforniaNew Jersey, or even red states like Oklahoma and Texas, you may have been subject to new social distancing guidelines aimed at slowing the spread of Coronavirus over the Thanksgiving holiday.

While your 401k is probably looking really good these days, you may have taken a pay cut or lost hours due to the pandemic. You may also be on the cusp of a layoff as many parts of the economy slow once again. Conversely, you may be one of the many unemployed or underemployed Americans watching the stock market enviously, having already cashed in your retirement accounts to make ends meet.

The viral surge that is spawning these new restrictions is also responsible for economic data that indicates a slowing economy. For example, personal disposable income fell by a whopping $134.8 billion (0.8 percent) while personal expenditures rose by $70.9 billion (0.5 percent) per the Bureau of Economic Analysis‘s report last Wednesday. Similarly, a Department of Labor release from the same day indicated that unemployment filings have risen for the past two weeks. This is the first time since July that unemployment has increased over consecutive weeks. Although unemployment is down from the highs of last spring, the reports indicate that the jobs recovery is losing steam.

The slowing jobs market can be blamed on both the surging virus and the expiration of the CARES Act. Passed in March, many aspects of the COVID relief bill expired in September. The popular Paycheck Protection Program, which provided federal funding of payrolls for companies that did not lay off workers, was one of the first programs to lapse. Many of my friends who work in the airline industry got their furlough notices shortly after and are now being laid off.

Unless Congress acts to pass a new relief bill, there are several other federal programs that will expire at the end of the year, just as more workers are likely to be finding themselves unemployed as seasonal jobs come to an end and the winter virus surge forces more shutdowns. These include:

  • An extra $300 added to weekly payments by presidential Executive Order expires Dec. 27
  • An extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits (for a total of 39 weeks) under the CARES Act expires Jan. 1
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance for people who wouldn’t normally qualify for unemployment benefits expires Dec. 31
  • A CDC moratorium on evictions for renters expires Dec. 31
  • A federal student loan deferment under the CARES Act and extended by President Trump expires Dec. 31

You may notice that I use the term “relief” instead of “stimulus.” That’s because the CARES Act and any follow-on bill would be designed to prevent an economic crash by providing relief to affected Americans rather than trying to stimulate the economy. For example, if Americans become unemployed due to the COVID crisis and burn through their savings, it may lead to a real estate crisis as they get behind in rent and mortgage payments. If you remember 2008, you remember how a collapsing real estate bubble can cascade throughout the economy.

Further, the middle of a pandemic is not a good time to lose a job that provides your medical insurance. While many COVID patients are asymptomatic, about 15 percent require hospitalization. Patients with health insurance can be faced with bills totaling thousands of dollars. Patients without insurance could face financial disaster. COBRA insurance is available for people who lose their jobs but the cost is often prohibitive.

To be fair, not all of the economic news is bad. Like the stock market, consumer confidence is still high, owing largely to good news about upcoming vaccines.

And therein lies the rub. As I’ve said from the beginning, repairing the economy depends on defeating COVID. We won’t get back to normal until the virus is defeated.

We are getting very close to a victory over the Coronavirus, but it will take several months before a vaccine can be fully deployed. Until that time, we need to maintain social distancing and other mitigations such as staying home when you display symptoms and quarantining if you’ve been exposed.

In order to make that financially possible, many American businesses and citizens are going to need assistance to make it through the winter. The difference in having a relief package and going without may be the difference between the status quo and a much deeper recession with many more failed businesses and unemployed Americans.

Originally published on The First TV

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Christian ethicists ‘bless’ two leading COVID vaccines (but not the third)

 After eight months of pandemic, it now seems that not one, but three, vaccines are nearing approval. The question is how many Americans will be willing to take the vaccines. There seems to be a growing anti-vaccination movement, but even people who don’t oppose vaccines in general might be skeptical about the COVID vaccines for political reasons. At least one objection, the question of whether the vaccines used stem cells from aborted babies, is now being addressed by Christian ethicists.

Anti-vaccination activists have a variety of rationales for their position, but one that I have heard frequently from Christians is that some vaccines were made using fetal tissue from surgically aborted babies. This presents an ethical dilemma for those of us who oppose abortion on moral grounds.

The good news is that this objection does not apply to all vaccines. Further good news is that two of the three leading vaccines are ethically sourced and do not use fetal tissue from elective abortions.

Doctors at the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute have investigated the most advanced vaccine research efforts and categorized them as ethical or unethical.

“While some may see no ethical problem, for many a straight line can be drawn from the ending of a human life in an abortion to a vaccine or drug created using cells derived from the harvesting of the fetal tissue,” the author’s of the institute’s assessment state. “Even if the cells have been propagated for years in the laboratory far removed from the abortion, that connection line remains.  Thus, use of such cells for vaccine production raises problems of conscience for anyone who might be offered that vaccine and is aware of its lineage.  Moreover, the possibility of conscientious objection by those to whom a vaccine is offered creates ethical demands on the policymakers, healthcare officials, scientists, vaccine creators and funders, whether or not they themselves have an ethical concern, because of the question of access to the vaccine by the entire citizenry in good conscience.”

Of the three most promising vaccines, Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, two are rated by the institute as “ethically uncontroversial.” These are the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, both of which are more than 90 percent effective. However, the AstraZeneca vaccine, which is being developed in partnership with the University of Oxford, is considered unethical because it uses the HEK293 line of embryonic kidney cells, which may have come from an elective abortion in the 1960s. The identity of the unborn baby and the circumstances of its abortion are not publicly known.

While some other vaccines may also use fetal stem cells, points out that not all use of fetal tissue is ethically questionable. The Bioethics Observatory points out that fetal tissue that was obtained from spontaneous miscarriages or medically necessary abortions can be ethically used provided there is “consent from the parents and the fetus should be treated with the utmost respect.”

In a recent memo reported in America Magazine, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann the US Council of Catholic Bishops point out, “Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development, or production.”

The memo explains that the Catholic Church’s view is that Christians should not use stem cells obtained from aborted babies, but the Church understands that there are different levels of responsibility at different points in the chain that brings vaccines to market. Vaccine creators have different culpability from patients who will receive the vaccine.

The bishops take the practical view that “it is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health.”

In other words, unethically-produced medicines can still be used to save lives in emergencies. This loophole is not needed for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, however.

“In terms of the moral principles of being concerned about the use of any pharmaceuticals that were developed from aborted fetuses, that is certainly an issue that we all want to be cognizant of and try to avoid their use,” said Brian Kane, the senior director of ethics for the Catholic Health Association of the United States. “With that in mind, the Pfizer and Moderna Covid vaccines that are coming out are not even tainted with that moral problem.”

Others, such as Megan Best of the Gospel Coalition, argue that even using fetal tissue from elective abortions is not unethical provided that the abortion was not carried out for the specific purpose of harvesting the cells.

If “the abortion was carried out for other reasons, and the tissue was acquired after the child’s death for the purpose medical research,” she writes, “The use of the vaccine now will not promote further abortions for this particular purpose. It can therefore be argued that we are not morally complicit with the original abortion.”

“While never condoning evil acts so that good may result, the Bible teaches of a loving God who seeks to make good out of evil,” Best continues. “Though linked, participation in the good does not endorse the evil.”

Regardless of which view you take on fetal tissue research, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines present no ethical problems. However, even knowing that Coronavirus vaccines were not based on aborted fetal tissue, many people still will not want to take one. That brings up another ethical quandary, the question of whether refusing to take a vaccine that will enable us to end a pandemic that has already resulted in more than a million deaths around the world reflects the love that God wants us to show for our fellow man.

Originally published on The First TV

Friday, November 27, 2020

SCOTUS gets it right on COVID restrictions for churches

 The Supreme Court decision invalidating portions of an Executive Order by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo earlier this week was a triumph for religious liberty. It is also a good example of why fears that pandemic restrictions will lead to broader tyranny are unfounded.

The ruling in the case of Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, New York v. Andrew M. Cuomo came the day before Thanksgiving and was a response to two requests for relief by the Roman Catholic Diocese and Agudath Israel of America. At issue was Gov. Cuomo’s Executive Order that established “red” and “orange” zones where attendance at religious services was limited to no more than 10 and 25 people respectively.

One problem with Cuomo’s Order was that businesses deemed “essential” had no limit on crowd sizes. Additionally, the definition of “essential” included “acupuncture facilities, campgrounds, garages, as well as many whose services are not limited to those that can be regarded as essential, such as all plants manufacturing chemicals and microelectronics and all transportation facilities.”

Further, both religious groups had complied with public health guidelines as well as implementing additional preventive measures. Both groups noted that they had conducted services at 25 to 33 percent capacity for months and had no outbreaks.

In a 5-4 decision, the majority concurred with the unsigned order that ruled in favor of the religious groups. Justices Neal Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh, and Chief Justice John Roberts wrote separate concurring opinions while Justices Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan joined in a dissent.

The opinion is brief and strikes a balanced tone, first establishing the rules on which the relief was ordered. The ruling states that ” because the challenged restrictions are not ‘neutral’ and of ‘general applicability,’ they must satisfy ‘strict scrutiny,’ and this means that they must be ‘narrowly tailored’ to serve a ‘compelling’ state interest.”

The Court agreed that “stemming the spread of COVID–19 is unquestionably a compelling interest,” but noted that the Executive Order was “far more restrictive than any COVID–related regulations that have previously come before the Court, much tighter than those adopted by many other jurisdictions hard-hit by the pandemic, and far more severe than has been shown to be required to prevent the spread of the virus at the applicants’ services.”

The Court further noted that New York admitted that department stores, which were not subject to the crowd-size restrictions could “literally
have hundreds of people shopping there on any given day” and that “the Governor has stated that factories and schools have contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but they are treated less harshly” than religious organizations.

Unlike many churches around the country, the Court found that the Diocese and Agudath Israel had taken more stringent safety measures than were required by the state. These precautions gave both groups an admirable safety record and helped to sway the Court that Cuomo’s Order was too restrictive.

“Not only is there no evidence that the applicants have
contributed to the spread of COVID–19 but there are many
other less restrictive rules that could be adopted to minimize the risk to those attending religious services,” the decision stated.

The majority found that Cuomo’s restrictions on churches would result in irreparable harm to the First Amendment and were not in the public interest, quoting precedent that held, “The loss of First Amendment freedoms, for even minimal periods of time, unquestionably constitutes irreparable injury.”

However, the Court did not give religious groups carte blanche to claim persecution when their activities are restricted. The ruling pointed out that pandemic restrictions are not unconstitutional on their face, but rather that health and the public interest must be balanced with the Constitution.

“Members of this Court are not public health experts, and we should respect the judgment of those with special expertise and responsibility in this area,” the decision stated. “But even in a pandemic, the Constitution cannot be put away and forgotten. The restrictions at issue here, by effectively barring many from attending religious services, strike at the very heart of the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious liberty. Before allowing this to occur, we have a duty to conduct a serious examination of the need for such a drastic measure.”

So what should we, as church members and constitutionalists take from this ruling? The most important takeaway is that temporary public health restrictions in a pandemic are not unconstitutional but they must be evenhanded and defensible based on the local situation. The Court will allow emergency orders to combat the spread of the virus but it will strike down broad overreach. This is good news for those who have worried for the past eight months that Coronavirus restrictions would usher in permanent tyranny.

Second, governments cannot single out religious organizations for stricter limitations than secular businesses and groups unless the rules are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. The First Amendment offers protection for the exercise of religion, but this protection is not unlimited.

I believe that if the New York churches had been shown to be superspreaders in the community that the Court might have handed down a very different ruling. Unfortunately, many churches around the country are not able to meet the safety standards of the Brooklyn Diocese and Agudath Israel. Many religious organizations around the country have been shown to be hotspots for viral outbreaks. These churches might find that targeted restrictions on their services would be upheld by courts that look at the facts of the situation and find a compelling public interest in slowing the outbreak.

If you’re are a pastor or are on the governing body of your church, you should absolutely take the Coronavirus pandemic seriously. You should exercise caution to protect both your members and your community. If your local government places draconian restrictions on your church, you can challenge those restrictions in court and you’ll have a better chance of winning if your church has not been the source of a COVID cluster.

Originally published on The First TV

Thursday, November 26, 2020

Giving thanks in a pandemic year

 This holiday season is going to be unlike most of us have ever experienced. No matter what your opinion on politics and the virus, the fact remains that America is undergoing more adversity this year than at any other time in many of our lives. Even 2001 after the terrorist attacks and 2008 amid the financial crisis pale in comparison to what we’ve experienced this year. For many of us, it is hard to be thankful in the midst of such strife, but, for those of us who are Christian, that is exactly what we are commanded to do. Despite all the bad news, when I look around me I can see a lot of things to be thankful for.

In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

1 Thessalonians 5:18

The most obvious is that, if you are alive and able to read this, you should be thankful. As the old saying goes, any day above the ground is a good one. Whether you haven’t contracted COVID or you’ve survived it, you have a great reason to be thankful.

We should also be thankful for the health of our friends and families. The Coronavirus has not touched my immediate family. I’ve had numerous friends and more distant family members contract the disease but most have recovered.

For those who haven’t recovered, I am thankful that we have a forgiving God. I am hopeful that they are removed from their pain and suffering and that we will be reunited in a better place someday.

My mom told me this week that their pastor, the man who performed my wedding, and his wife both have Coronavirus. Their church closed for two weeks in an attempt to limit the outbreak. My dad has respiratory issues and my mom is a cancer and chemotherapy survivor so I’m very thankful that they elected to continue attending church virtually rather than going to in-person services where they could have been exposed.

I’m thankful for the technology that makes social-distancing bearable. We can order groceries, meals, and toilet paper online and have them delivered or ready for pickup without putting our health at risk. I’m very thankful that toilet paper exists in general.

I’m thankful that we decided to put our children in virtual school this year and thankful that our school district offered the option. With several Coronavirus cases being announced in our local schools each week, that decision seems to have been validated. Even if my kids weren’t infected, I’m thankful that we don’t have to deal with a quarantine. On that score, I’m also thankful that virtual school means I get to sleep until 8 a.m. rather than waking up at six to get the kids ready to go to brick-and-mortar school.

I’m thankful for the time with my family that the pandemic has given me. We have seen much more of each other this year than we would have if we were going our separate ways to work and school. With my kids getting older, that extra time has been a precious gift.

I’m also thankful for the frontline medical workers and researchers who have spent the past several months fighting the virus. These people have risked their own health and lives for their neighbors. Many have died or lost their own health as a result.

Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

John 15:13

We should also be thankful for medical knowledge. Hundreds of years of accumulated expertise as well as more recent research have shown us that protecting ourselves and our families is as simple as:

  • Maintaining a six-foot distance
  • Avoiding crowds
  • Avoiding confined spaces
  • Wearing a mask if you can’t follow the first three rules
  • Washing and/or sanitizing your hands frequently

I’m thankful for people around the country who will practice self-sacrifice on Thanksgiving and throughout the holiday season to protect the lives of their loved ones. Sometimes love is better expressed by staying away than by holding someone close.

The simplicity of protecting ourselves reminds me of the story of Naaman in the Bible, who was instructed by Elisha to wash in the Jordan River seven times to cure his leprosy. Naaman became angry at the simple and seemingly senseless command. Naaman almost didn’t do as he was told, but in the end, his servants convinced him to follow Elisha’s simple advice and he was healed. Sometimes following simple instructions leads to great rewards.

I’m thankful for our advanced medical research. It hit me last night that we had never heard of COVID-19 at this time last year. The virus has been a factor in our lives for less than a year, but we have already been able to create at least three very effective vaccines that are almost ready for mass distribution. That is an unprecedented accomplishment. I’m extremely thankful for the brilliant minds that chose to spend their lives researching and curing diseases.

Previous pandemics often lasted three years or longer. As bad as Coronavirus has been, the introduction of vaccines will cut this pandemic short, saving hundreds of thousands of lives and billions of dollars. That is truly something to be thankful for.

Those of us who still have jobs should be thankful for the steady paychecks that are still coming, even if they might be at a reduced level. We should be thankful that the CARES Act reduced the number of layoffs in the first months of the pandemic recession.

It can be difficult to thankful in the midst of unemployment and pay cuts. I know because I’ve been there. But those people can be thankful for safety net programs, for charities, and for other people who lend a hand in their moment of need.

I get by with a little help from my friends.

The Beatles

I’m thankful that, despite the angst about public health restrictions, Americans really don’t know what tyranny is. Some jurisdictions have gone too far in anti-virus regulation. Others haven’t gone far enough. None reach the level of tyranny, however. It isn’t tyranny to say “no shirt, no shoes, no service” and it isn’t tyranny to ask folks to wear a mask and social distance in the midst of a pandemic caused by a dangerous virus that is spread through the air by close contact.

Tyranny is the killing and imprisonment of dissidents and journalists in Russia, North Korea, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. Tyranny is the confiscation of private land in Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Tyranny is the Chinese government imprisoning pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong.

America has problems but we don’t have tyranny. I’ll get pushback for saying that, but we should really be thankful that our freedom has survived 200 years of encroaching government rather than making our problems seem worse than they are. We can also be thankful that the restrictions made necessary by the pandemic will be going away in a few months as vaccines are distributed.

Finally, and this will also be controversial, I’m thankful that a peaceful transfer of power looks more and more likely. If Joe Biden had lost, I am sure that there would have been violence. I’m thankful that did not happen.

However, as I wrote before the election, I’ve long been concerned that President Trump’s allegations of election fraud could lead to violence from the right. I’m thankful that has not happened and hopeful that it won’t.

Most of all, I’m thankful that this too shall pass. Our adversity is temporary. We can look forward to a return to normalcy next year as vaccines end the pandemic and the economy surges back. Next year at Thanksgiving, masks and social distancing will be a distant memory. We just have to stay healthy until then.

Have a safe and happy Thanksgiving.

Originally published on The First TV

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Who is Antony Blinken?

 President Trump authorized his Administration to begin working with the incoming Biden Administration’s transition team earlier this week, but even before the formal announcement from the president, Joe Biden had begun to name the picks for his cabinet. Some of these names are familiar. Some, if you’re like me, you’ve probably never heard of. One of those names is Antony Blinken.

We will definitely be hearing more about Blinken, Biden’s choice for Secretary of State, over the next few years. Although he’s not a household name, Antony Blinken has been around Washington for quite a while. In fact, Blinken has spent over two decades in Foggy Bottom.

Born in New York City in 1962, Antony Blinken is a long-time centrist Democrat. He graduated from Harvard and Columbia Law School before working for the Dukakis campaign in 1988. After that failed effort, he practiced law and wrote about foreign policy for numerous publications including the New York Times, the New Republic, and Foreign Affairs.

Blinken got his start in Washington as a staffer on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, per his State Department bio. From 1999 through 2001, he acted as President Clinton’s senior advisor on relations with Europe, the European Union, and NATO. He also served as Clinton’s principal foreign policy speechwriter. During the Bush years, Blinken served as the Democratic Staff Director for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 2002 through 2008.

When Barack Obama was elected president, Blinken returned to the White House as Deputy Assistant to the president and National Security Advisor to Vice President Biden. In 2014, he was confirmed as Deputy Secretary of State, a position that he held until Donald Trump succeeded Obama as president.

After the Obama Administration, Blinken entered the private sector as co-founder of WestExec Advisors, a consulting group whose clients include “the defense industry, private equity firms, and hedge funds” per Foreign Policy. He has also served as a partner in the private equity firm, Pine Island Capital Partners, a position that he left to join the Biden campaign as a senior foreign policy advisor.

How conservatives view Blinken will largely depend on which side of the conservative foreign policy schism you fall on. Traditional national security conservatives like me will find a lot to like while America-first conservatives won’t be as happy.

For starters, Blinken favored the Iraq War, a difficult stance for Democrats in 2003. Blinken reportedly advised Biden to vote to approve the Iraqi invasion as well as criticizing the Obama Administration for not sending enough troops to Syria, per the Ricochet. CNN also notes that Blinken had a central role in Obama’s foreign policy initiatives such as the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the sanctions that targeted Vladimir Putin’s inner circle after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea, and building a coalition against ISIS. He also reportedly backed the interventions in Libya and Yemen. Blinken is also an outspoken critic of China who can be expected to criticize the communist nation for human rights abuses as well as its military expansion into the South China Sea and trade issues.

A downside for most Republicans is that Blinken is a strong supporter of the nuclear deal with Iran. Likewise, Blinken was a vocal critic of Trump’s North Korea policy. The Biden Administration is likely to reverse Trump’s course on both fronts, re-entering the Iran deal and pursuing multi-lateral talks with North Korea rather than engaging with Kim Jong Un on a one-on-one basis. Nevertheless, Blinken also voiced support in the Jewish Insider for continuing “non-nuclear sanctions as a strong hedge against Iranian misbehavior in other areas.” 

With respect to Israel, Blinken is a strong ally of the Jewish state, who is being welcomed by Israelis. The Times of Israel reports that Blinken and Biden have promised to continue aid to Israel without policy conditions, keep the US embassy in Jerusalem, and support Israel in the United Nations. The pair also reject the far-left Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

In fact, Blinken’s foreign policy views are so centrist that he may well draw criticism from progressives, especially for his past support of military interventions and his support of Israel. “Squad” member Rashida Tlaib responded to the news of Blinken’s appointment by tweeting she hoped he would not “suppress my First Amendment right” to oppose Israeli policies in Palestine. The tweet was considered anti-Semitic by many since Blinken is Jewish and his stepfather was a survivor of the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.

Blinken may well have a contentious confirmation hearing, especially if Republicans retain control of the Senate. He had a dustup with Marco Rubio over Obama’s Cuba policy in 2014 that is likely to be revisited. In the end, he is a solid pick, however, and will almost certainly be confirmed. Blinken may not be the perfect Secretary of State but Biden could have done much, much worse.

Originally published on The First TV

Here's the deal on Biden's gun tax

 One of the new stories making the rounds in recent days is the claim that Joe Biden plans to enact a $200 tax on assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. There are several reasons why we should not be alarmed by these claims that Democrats will impose a heavy tax burden on gun owners.

The gun tax claim is rooted in a proposal on Joe Biden’s campaign website for a “buyback” of “assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.” Biden’s proposal, the website says, “will give individuals who now possess assault weapons or high-capacity magazines two options: sell the weapons to the government, or register them under the National Firearms Act.”

I’m a gun owner myself with an AR-15 among the firearms in my collection so the claims about the gun tax quickly caught my attention. Does Joe Biden really favor a tax on gun ownership since his website makes no mention of such a policy? Where is the evidence for the claim?

Americans for Tax Reform points to the registration requirement and then links to an ATF form. The anti-tax group claims that registration “triggers the $200 tax,” which it notes would be a “violation of Joe Biden’s pledge against any tax increase on anyone making less than $400,000 a year.”

It is true that the ATF form contains three options for “type of application.” The first is “tax paid,” which requires a payment of $200 with the application. The other two options are “tax-exempt” but these require the firearm to be “made” on behalf of either the US government or the government of a US state or possession. At this point, it looks bad for gun owners.

But then I looked more closely at the ATF form. The form cites Sections 5821(b), 5822, and 5841 of Title 26, Chapter 53 of the US Code. These sections of the law are easily accessible through the internet. When I looked them up, here is what I found.

Section 5821 specifies that the $200 tax is for “each firearm made” and is to be paid “by the person making the firearm.”

Section 5822 deals with “making” firearms. Among the requirements are that the maker must submit an application and pay applicable taxes.

Section 5841 addresses registration requirements under the National Firearms Act. The National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record records the owners of certain applicable firearms under the NFA, particularly “machineguns,” but you can see the full definition of “firearms” under the Act here.

In my mind, the big question here is what “making” a firearm means under the law. I’m no lawyer, but I do know that laws and legal contracts normally contain definitions of important terms. The National Firearms Act is no different. Just as the law defines “firearms,” it also defines the word “make:”

The term “make”, and the various derivatives of such word, shall include manufacturing (other than by one qualified to engage in such business under this chapter), putting together, altering, any combination of these, or otherwise producing a firearm.

26 U.S. Code § 5845.Definitions

You may notice that the definition of “make” does include “putting together” and “altering” to produce a firearm. Under that definition, a gun owner who builds his own AR-15 from parts purchased from dealers could reasonably be considered to have “made” a gun. What about other alterations? Adding a scope, a sling, other accessories, or even changing out a barrel or receiver would arguably not produce a firearm. At this point, it’s all speculation because the law has not yet been passed. If the registration does become law, it will ultimately be up to the courts to determine which changes constitute “making” a firearm and which do not.

If we put all this together, we see that the ATF registration form does require a $200 tax, but the law specifies that the tax is for people who “make” firearms rather than for registering or transferring them. Indeed, if we look at the title of the form cited by Americans for Tax Reform, it is an “Application to Make and Register a Firearm,” not an application to register or transfer an existing gun. It seems that ATR and others concerned about the gun tax have cited the wrong form and jumped to conclusions.

I searched for ATF gun registration forms and found the “Firearms Transaction Record.” If you’ve ever bought a gun, this form should be familiar. I’ll point out that it does not require a tax or application fee.

Because the law would have to be changed to require Americans to register their “assault weapons,” the new Congress could make changes to the current law. So, you might ask, couldn’t Congress and the Biden Administration impose a $200 tax when they mandate registration of the guns?

Changing the law to tax “assault weapons and high-capacity magazines” would be theoretically possible, but there are two problems with this theory. The first and most obvious difficulty is that Biden has not made any such proposal. The entire tax discussion is centered on an apparently erroneous assumption that Republicans read into Biden’s platform.

The second problem is getting such a hypothetical tax through Congress. Assuming an unlikely Democratic sweep of the Georgia races, the Senate would be at a 50-50 tie. Joe Manchin of West Virginia has already said that he would not back radical progressive moves if Democrats won control of the Senate. It’s safe to assume that the pro-gun senator from a pro-gun state who won re-election by less than one percent in 2018 would put the brakes on any plan to tax guns. Manchin, who has a record of opposing bans on “assault weapons” and high-capacity magazines, might even kill the Biden gun buyback.

Launching a frontal assault on gun ownership would represent a massive strategic error for Democrats, who no doubt hope to expand their congressional delegations in 2022 and return Mr. Biden or some other Democrat to the White House in 2024. The best way to destroy those hopes would be to overreach with a divisive and controversial initiative that angers voters in red and purple states. That doesn’t mean that the more radical wing of the party wouldn’t push for it, however.

The good news is that the moderates are in charge. President-elect Biden has shown many signs that his Administration will not take a radical direction but will seek a bipartisan course. As a long-time creature of the Senate, Biden must realize that a gun tax would be doomed to fail while simultaneously poisoning the well for future cooperation with Republicans and endangering Democratic electoral chances in rural states.

This does not mean that Biden is a friend to gun owners, but it does mean that any attempts at gun control are more likely to be small and measured. Biden gun control proposals may include his “buyback” plan, more background checks, waiting periods, or a national database of people prohibited from owning guns, such as the one proposed by Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) in 2018, but we are unlikely to see serious proposals for gun bans, confiscations, or taxes.

And don’t forget that there is an additional line of defense for gun owners. The pro-gun balance on the Supreme Court is now assumed to be 6-3 with the addition of Amy Coney Barrett. Even before the addition of President Trump’s appointees, the Supreme Court handed down several friendly decisions friendly to the Second Amendment in recent years.

Joe Biden and the Democrats are definitely not pro-gun, but that does not mean that they will have carte blanche to impose their will on gun owners. Even if Republicans lose the two Georgia Senate races, there will be little, if any, gun control legislation from the Biden Administration.

Originally published on The First

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The lowdown on the Georgia Senate runoffs

 Control of the Senate will hinge on the outcome of two runoff races in Georgia. Republicans have a historical advantage in these runoffs but this year’s races are looking very competitive. After a narrow Democratic victory in the presidential race in Georgia, the controversy over alleged election fraud may tip the balance of the race.

Georgia requires candidates to win with more than 50 percent of the vote and incumbent Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler both fell below that margin on November 3, forcing a runoff election on January 5 against their respective Democratic challengers, Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. In the November election, Perdue bested Ossoff by 1.7 points but finished with 49.7 percent of the vote. Warnock led a crowded field in the special election but won only 32 percent of the vote. Polling has been sparse so far in the runoffs but both races appear to be very close.

The races have been dirty since the end of the primary. Perdue and Loeffler have been attacked for their pre-pandemic stock trades while Ossoff, who is Jewish, has been targeted for payments his documentary film company received from Al Jazeera. For his part, Warnock has been linked to Barack Obama’s pastor, Jeremiah Wright, and questioned about a 2002 arrest for obstructing an investigation, charges which were later dropped. One of the highlights of the muddy campaign was a Warnock ad in which he attacked Loeffler’s negative ads with a satirical ad that accused him of hating puppies.

With the current balance of power in next year’s Senate at 50 Republicans and 48 Democrats, the races have drawn national interest. Money is pouring in from around the country for both sides. The aid includes manpower. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that California Democrats are manning phone banks and coming to Georgia to campaign for Ossoff and Warnock.

There are reports that some Democrats are even considering moving to Georgia in order to vote in the runoff since voters are not required to have voted in the general election and new voters have until December 7 to register. The Peach State has no length of residency requirement for new voters.

Democratic carpetbaggers aren’t the only curveball being thrown in Georgia runoffs. President Trump’s attacks on the integrity of Georgia’s presidential election are making the race unpredictable as well.

On November 9, Perdue and Loeffler issued a joint statement calling for the resignation of Georgia’s secretary of state, Brian Raffensperger, who oversees elections. Citing unspecified “failures in Georgia elections” but providing no evidence, the pair attacked Raffensperger, who is also a Republican. Since then, a hand recount of Georgia’s paper ballots confirmed the election results and turned up some uncounted ballots but no fraud. Likewise, an audit of the state’s voting machines turned up no evidence that the devices had been tampered with or that vote totals were manipulated.

But that is not enough for some supporters of the president, who still doubt Mr. Trump’s loss. There are reports from Parler that some Trump supporters are considering a boycott of the runoff because of doubts about the integrity of the election. Lin Wood, an attorney who sued the State of Georgia on behalf of the Trump campaign, accused the state’s Republican incumbent senators, as well as Gov. Brian Kemp, of doing “little or nothing… to address unlawful election” and said that if the trio did not take action he would not vote in the runoff.

All this puts Perdue and Loeffler in a tight spot. Back in October, I described how Kelly Loeffler was forced to move far to the right to thwart an intraparty challenge by Rep. Doug Collins. Loeffler, who had been assumed to be a relative moderate was thrust into what seemed to be the uncomfortable role of a MAGA firebreather as she tried to convince voters that Collins was too liberal. The strategy turned off many moderate Trump skeptics but served well enough to get Loeffler into the runoff.

A similar dynamic is now at play in both races thanks to the election fraud controversy. With both races very tight, Perdue and Loeffler cannot afford to alienate President Trump’s base. Therefore, they must back the president’s challenges to the election to ensure that the Parler Republicans don’t stay home. A recent Monmouth poll that found 77 percent of Trump supporters believe Biden’s victory was due to fraud is only one of several polls that show a majority of Republicans doubt the results of the election.

The Catch-22 is that moderates and independents don’t believe the fraud claims. The same poll found that most Americans believe the election was free and fair by a two-to-one margin.

If Loeffler and Perdue are perceived as trying to help Trump unfairly overturn the election results, their strategy could backfire with voters. Angry Democrats and anti-Trump voters who turned the state blue for the first time since 1992 might be motivated to turn out in droves to protect their win.

An analysis of Georgia’s electorate by Nate Cohn of the New York Times found that the largest blue shifts in the state came among high-income voters, college graduates, the suburbs, older voters, and Obama-Trump voters. Dave Wasserman of Cook Political tweeted the counties with the largest anti-Trump shifts from 2016. With the exception of Augusta’s Columbia County, the remaining counties are all Atlanta suburbs.

Interestingly, the share of black voters was down from both 2012 and 2016, even though the total number of voters increased. Many pundits have credited Stacey Abrams with the surge in Democratic voters. Groups founded by the former gubernatorial candidate have registered more than a million new voters over the past two years. This helped Biden eke out a win despite the fact that the black share of the electorate declined from 30 percent in 2012, to 27.7 percent in 2016, to 27 percent this year.

The best path forward for the Democrats is to hope that Republicans become disillusioned with the electoral process and stay home while encouraging Democratic voters in the cities and suburbs to turn out in order to make sure that the Trump Administration does not get a reprieve.

The Republicans must walk a tightrope. They cannot afford to alienate President Trump’s base but they also cannot lose many moderate and independent voters. Perdue and Loeffler no doubt hope that the presidential election will be resolved well before early voting starts for the runoff on December 14 so they can spend the last few weeks before Election Day talking about something else. Anything else.

A quick resolution seems likely. The Trump campaign has requested a second recount in the race but this is not expected to change the result. The Trump campaign’s lawsuit attempting to delay certification of Georgia’s results was dismissed last week and Joe Biden’s win was certified on Friday. Gov. Kemp called for an audit of absentee ballot signatures but has said that he will follow the law, which ultimately requires that the state’s electors be assigned to Biden. Exactly what happens and how the president reacts will determine whether Perdue and Loeffler can extricate themselves from between the rock and the hard place where they currently reside.

The big question at this point is whether President Trump’s supporters will turn out for Republicans when Donald Trump is not on the ballot. That question is especially relevant when many Trump supporters suspect that Georgia Republicans have somehow betrayed the president and were complicit in the fraud that they believe contributed to his loss.

History and the dynamics of the Georgia runoffs favor the Republican incumbents, but both races could go either way. If Donald Trump’s voters are primarily Trump supporters and not Republicans, the Peach State could go blue again in one or both races.

Originally published on The First TV