Doug Stone

Stone has been a journalist for print and broadcast, a U.S. Senate press secretary, a college relations director, a journalism teacher and a freelance writer and consultant. He's currently a communications and media consultant and a freelance writer. Read more about Doug Stone.

Let's not back off gun control now

Posted by: Doug Stone Updated: March 7, 2013 - 9:36 PM
Apparently the supporters of a watered-down gun control bill introduced at the Capitol Wednesday (March 6) with “bipartisan” and National Rifle Association (NRA) support have not seen two recent polls on this hot-button issue. The proposed bill does not include universal background checks as does a stronger bill by Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul.
 
Both  polls (StarTribune and KSTP-TV/Survey USA) found 70 percent or more support for universal background checks on most sales of firearms. Even gun owners, according to the StarTribune survey, support the idea that if you are going to buy a weapon in a private sale or at a gun show or a gun store, you need to be subject to a background check.
 
Nationally, polls since the Newtown massacre are showing the same thing. Will a background check stop all these mass killings, suicides, domestic homicides or street crimes? No, they won’t stop everything and we know that. But isn’t it worth taking the time to craft common-sense laws that try to ensure that people purchasing guns are law abiding and mentally fit citizens?
 
What the polls show and what many of us feel is that we have watched this gun violence go on for too long without doing something to stop it. We’ve watched Presidents and people running for President being shot. We’ve watched students in schools being killed. We’ve watched people at a movie theater cut down. We’ve watched a Congresswoman survive a mass shooting in her home state and live to tell about it.
 
In a January Senate hearing, former Congresswoman Gabriel Giffords said in her halting but heartfelt way: “Violence is a big problem. Too many children are dying. Too many children. We must do something. It will be hard, but the time is now. You must act. Be bold, be courageous, Americans are counting on you.”
 
When I heard her testify, I had tears in my eyes.  How could any Congress person or state legislator listen to Giffords talk and not be moved to action? How could anyone who listened to Giffords not want to do something to stop the violence?
 
The people who oppose universal background checks in Minnesota, including gun rights groups, many rural legislators, and the NRA, argue that the such checks would infringe on gun owners’ 2nd Amendment rights. How is that, I wonder? No one is suggesting taking guns away from anyone or preventing a law abiding citizen from purchasing a gun. Every time we have had this debate in recent years, the anti-gun control people argue that any restriction on guns is a violation of the 2nd Amendment and will become a “slippery slope,”  leading eventually to government confiscation of weapons. There is absolutely no proof of that.
 
Let’s get some things straight:
 The 2nd Amendment is not absolute. Even Conservative Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia said in a 2008 opinion that there can be reasonable regulation of gun ownership. Scalia said: “Nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.”
 
Most Americans recognize the right of citizens to own weapons for hunting or for self-protection and are not advocating confiscation of weapons.
 
A gun is not a religious object. It is a piece of steel that can be used for sport or for killing.
 
In many cases, it’s easier to purchase a gun with fewer restrictions than citizens face applying for a driver’s license, a license for a car (for which you need proof of insurance) or for private health insurance for that matter, for which you have to supply extensive medical records.
 
I’m a strong believer in the 1st Amendment right to free speech. But you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded theater. The 2nd Amendment shouldn’t enable a gunman to fire his weapon in a crowded theater either.
 
I hope that our state legislators and our Congress people in Washington, D.C., pay more attention to what Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly are saying, as well as to what the polls are saying, and less attention to the NRA and its supporters. We need to reign in gun violence. Certainly a universal background check is not an undue burden on gun purchasers. Listen to what Kelly, himself a gun owner, said at that same hearing in Washington:
 
“Our rights are paramount, but our responsibilities are serious and as a nation we are not taking responsibility for the gun rights our founding fathers conferred upon us.”
 
 

While Congress goes home for the holidays, unemployed face their own cliff

Posted by: Doug Stone Updated: December 24, 2012 - 12:23 PM
Congress has gone home of the holidays, each member taking his or her $174,000 salary, full health care benefits, full travel benefits, and a host of other benefits with them as they enjoy their time off with their families. They didn’t solve the so-called “fiscal cliff” problem, largely because Tea Party die-hards in the U.S. House are unwilling to compromise on raising taxes even for those making $1 million a year or more and even though President Obama, who by the way won the election, has been willing to compromise on his proposals. So unless the President and Congress can reach a deal by Dec. 31, all of us will pay higher taxes at the same time significant cuts will be made to social programs and defense spending. It’s a lose-lose situation that can be avoided.
 
But there’s another cliff looming that will have even more dramatic impact on those least able to weather the coming financial storm. It’s been dubbed the “human cliff” and, as described by Strib staff writers Adam Belz and Steve Alexander (StarTribune Dec. 24: http://www.startribune.com/local/184634671.html?page=all&prepage=1&c=y#continue ) involves two million Americans, including about 12,000 Minnesotans, who will lose their unemployment benefits Dec. 29 unless Congress extends them. Another one million workers would lose their benefits in early 2013.
 
As anyone who has ever been on unemployment knows, these are basic benefits that help pay the rent or mortgage, help buy groceries and other essentials. Average benefits are about $300 a week, hardly an extravagance, according to the National Employment Law Project.
 
The Law Project has found that job loss often leads to increased credit card debt and loss of credit rating for the unemployed, making their transition back to work even more difficult.
 
Extending unemployment insurance for those who have been out of work for six months or longer would cost $30 billion. But that money would actually provide a stimulus to the economy because, economists point out, it would be spent quickly on rent, food, clothing and other items.
 
But more important, it is the moral thing to do. Unemployment, while falling, is still at 7.7 percent.  A recent Congressional Research Service report says that unemployment insurance kept 2.3 million people above the poverty line, including 620,000 children, according to the New York Times.
 
As the National Employment Law Project argues: “The breadth and depth of the financial pain suffered by unemployed families as a result of the Great Recession cannot be overstated. Federal unemployment benefits provide a critical lifeline for families struggling to make ends meet, avoid falling deeper in debt, and get back on their feet working and supporting the economic recovery.”
 
As our Senators and Congress people enjoy the holidays with their families, they should consider that statement. They should consider how different their lives are this holiday season from the millions of unemployed Americans. They should consider the difference in the impact on the lives of the unemployed that extending unemployment insurance would mean vs. the impact of a slight increase in taxes on families making over $400,000 or $1 million a year. It is not a close call.
 
This is the richest country on earth. Don’t we owe the least fortunate among us, some consideration? These are our fellow citizens, the vast majority of whom want to work and support their families.
 
The political campaign just ended was all about jobs and the unemployed and how we were going to do everything we can to help them and help the country climb out of the recession. Extending unemployment insurance to the long-term unemployed has to be part of that effort. It’s the right thing to do.

Marriage debate comes down to a question of freedom

Posted by: Doug Stone Updated: October 27, 2012 - 9:24 PM
Much of the purported concern of the pro-marriage amendment (defining marriage as between one man and one woman) community seems to revolve around the impact same-sex marriage will have on children. How will we explain two moms or two dads to our children? A marriage ought to be between the biological mom and the biological dad, they argue. Once there’s same-sex marriage, they’ll teach our kids about it in school. And so on. The closer to the election, the more emphasis on scare tactics.
 
But the facts and our experiences in everyday life belie these concerns. I know a half dozen neighbors, acquaintances and friends who are same-sex couples raising children. The children go to school and play on athletic teams with my children. From everything I observe about these families and their children, I am hard pressed to argue their parenting skills aren’t as good or better than the dozens of heterosexual couples I know. I can in no way say their love for their children is not as great. I can’t tell you that their children somehow are suffering or not developing or maturing.
That’s my anecdotal observation. But there is also strong medical and scientific research that says that children raised in same -sex households are not adversely affected.  
 
Dr. Alan Goldbloom, president and CEO of the Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota, recently wrote on the Strib op-ed page that “more than 25 years of research have documented that there is no relationship between parents' sexual orientation and any adverse measure of a child's emotional, psychosocial and behavioral adjustment. It is on the basis of this quarter-century of research that the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) announced its opposition to the amendment.”
 
Those are pretty strong words from a well-respected medical professional. And they certainly back up what I have observed among my neighbors and friends.
 
I find the constant harping by the pro-amendment side about “biological” parents insulting. My wife and I and thousands of other Minnesota couples are parents to adopted children. Are we less than adequate because we aren’t the biological parents? Are gay parents who adopt children less than adequate for the same reason? I think not. In fact, people who adopt, whether gay or straight, are enriching their lives and the lives of their children, many of whom would have fewer opportunities in life had not these new families been created.
 
As for this fear about teaching about gay marriage in school, I would argue that we want our children to know about life, love and the variety of families who live in our community. I have news for those concerned about gay marriage: our kids are way ahead of us. It is not a big issue for them. They have friends and classmates who are gay. If this vote were taken five or 10 years from now, it wouldn’t be a close call.
 
I have been impressed by the stand many in the business community have taken on this issue, arguing that passage of the marriage amendment would send the wrong signal not only to potential employees from out of state who are gay, but to straight ones as well. When the state is concerned about the business climate, it makes no sense to present ourselves as narrow-minded and anti-freedom.
 
And some of the courageous testimonials in interviews and advertisements from parents whose children are gay and involved in committed relationships have been heart-warming.
 
At the end of a long, drawn-out campaign, it really comes down to a question of freedom. Should people who love each other and who are in a committed relationship be able to marry and raise a family? Should the government discriminate against same-sex couples who want to marry? Should the strongly held religious beliefs of some determine for the rest of the community who can marry and who can’t?
 
In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Loving case, outlawed the ban on interracial marriage that existed in a number of states including Virginia. That was hailed as a landmark ruling.
 
Minnesotans can make a similar statement on Nov. 6 by voting against the so-called marriage amendment and sending a signal to the rest of the country that here on the prairie freedom still matters.

Ryan's speech: Whose freedom are we talking about?

Posted by: Doug Stone Updated: August 30, 2012 - 12:34 AM

 

I switched over from watching a rare Twins blowout so I could get a prime-time glimpse of the youthful and energetic Republican vice presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan. He seemed earnest, sincere, engaging, a decent man and an articulate spokesman for his cause. I’ll let the fact-checkers critique his criticisms of the Obama administration and his claims that his and Mitt Romney’s plans for lower taxes for the wealthy and a voucher system for Medicare will put people back to work and balance the federal budget in a few years.

But the underlying theme of Ryan's speech and much Republican rhetoric these days is the notion that government, particularly the federal government, is the biggest obstacle in our time to individual freedom and liberty. Lower taxes, get rid of regulations that may protect the public interest, allow oil drilling in environmentally sensitive areas, unshackle corporations and wealthy individuals, allow them, under the guise of free speech, to make unlimited campaign contributions with little or no transparency and so on. That is freedom by this definition, in which government is the enemy rather than an expression of the common good.

And so when President Obama tries to point out, correctly in my view, that successful business people had help along the way in the form of a good teacher or a public transportation or road system, he is crucified for “attacking” small business owners and entrepreneurs. I salute small businessmen and women. I am one myself.  But I have no illusion that whatever success I achieve is totally of my own doing. I received an excellent education at the University of Minnesota, which for the last several years has been underfunded in the name of smaller government. My children have received terrific support from many fine educators in the St. Paul Public Schools, whose budgets have been squeezed in recent years.

It is an odd time in American history to be calling for a kind of economic free-for-all in which we all make our way in the world and the strongest survive. Income disparity in America is at its greatest level in decades with the wealthiest Americans doing quite well and the middle and lower economic classes not so much. A PEW research study out earlier this month says that in 1970, the share of total household incomes that went to the middle class was 62 percent vs. 29 percent for upper class homes. By 2010, only 45 percent of the income went to the middle class while the upper class received 46 percent. Lower income households had 10 percent of income in 1970 and nine percent in 2010.

These are startling numbers. The middle class is the backbone of the country. It provides the workers and the consumers who drive the economy. Discussing these numbers is not class warfare, but a matter of economic freedom. Decreasing incomes for the middle class and increasing income disparity needs to be taken into account when we talk about even more tax cuts for the wealthiest among us and cutting programs that help the middle and lower income citizens.

Look at health care. Ryan and his Republican colleagues want to dismantle Obamacare because it insults their sense of freedom and liberty. But seen another way, a person with no health insurance has little economic freedom. A serious illness can wipe out his or her life savings. And yet with the high cost of premiums for many people outside employer sponsored programs, many people simply cannot afford to purchase insurance. Is the health care plan, which provides coverage to an additional 30 million people, an assault on freedom or a way to liberate the uninsured?

For Ryan and many Republicans, the government is the enemy except when it comes to using the government to enforce their views on social and political issues. Think of the voter i.d. amendment in Minnesota and other states. We have one of the best and cleanest voting systems in the country and yet the Republicans in the Legislature want to impose a photo i.d. requirement that critics say will make it more difficult for seniors, people of color and the disabled to vote. Is that a freedom-promoting agenda?

The same goes for the constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Shouldn’t gay couples have the same freedom to marry and raise a family as heterosexual couples? Ryan and his colleagues who oppose same sex marriage have deep-seated religious beliefs to support their position, I’m sure. But do they have the right to deny the freedom of two individuals who love each other? And can they tell government to stand down in a host of other areas, but use the weight of the government in the most private and personal decision two people can make?

And finally, on abortion, birth control and family planning, Ryan and his allies want to use the government to deny women their freedom to make choices that are personal, private and between them and their families.

Kathleen Parker, who is a conservative columnist, wrote critically in Newsweek about how the Republican Party is handling these social issues, particularly abortion and birth control:

“How tragically ironic that the party of small government and individual liberty may have orchestrated its own defeat by insisting on some of the most invasive state policies in the history of man. Perhaps it is time for a new kind of history.”

 

Amid the legal wrangling, where was the concern for individual health care?

Posted by: Doug Stone Updated: March 28, 2012 - 3:47 PM
I’ll let the legal experts sort out the arguments about the health care law before the U.S. Supreme Court this week. But what seems to be missing in all the discussion about the so-called individual mandate is the practical impact of the bill on the lives of everyday people and the complete lack of a Plan B if the court overturns part or all of the law.
 
For years I was covered by my employers’ health plans. They even took out my share of the premium so I never had to write a check. And the deductibles were small. Like most people on company or organization plans, I didn’t think much more about it.
 
And that’s the problem with our medical insurance system. If you have a job where your employer provides health insurance, you’re ok. But what happens when you lose a job or change jobs or your employer changes plans? And what happens with all those people who work for small businesses or who can’t afford coverage or who work part-time and the like?
 
I faced this reality a couple years ago when I set up my own business. For approximately $8,000 a year, I purchased a $7,000 annual deductible policy. That means that I spend $15,000 per year before my kids or I received any coverage (other than an annual physical). That’s pretty standard. A Health Savings Account mitigates some of the cost.
 
I almost was refused that policy because I had heart surgery several years ago to repair a defective valve and was forced temporarily to get high-risk insurance. I appealed and my doctors proved to the insurance company that I was in good shape and my heart worked fine.
 
So now I am extremely conscious of every medical bill. An ambulance ride for my daughter, injured in a basketball game, costs $1,800, and that’s without the siren. A dislocated finger I suffered coaching softball, pulled back in by an urgent care doctor, cost $800 (I appealed that one). An MRI for my daughter’s injured back cost $1,200 and so on.
Some would argue that it’s good that as a consumer I’m well aware of the cost of each medical procedure. But having such a high deductible policy makes you reluctant and overly cautious about seeking care unless it’s clearly an emergency.
 
But more important, I wonder what thousands of other people who simply can’t afford these premiums or these deductibles do. Most apparently don’t buy insurance. If they get really sick or injured, they go to the emergency room, where it costs five times as much to care for them. And the rest of us who pay for coverage pay more to cover them.
There are an estimated 50 million uninsured people in America, nearly 500,000 in Minnesota. That’s a big problem and it is an embarrassment in the richest country in the world.
 
By extending coverage to as many as 30 million uninsured, the health care bill tried to enlarge the insurance pool and spread the risk. It says insurance companies can no longer (beginning in 2014) refuse to cover someone with a pre-existing condition (like a repaired heart valve). It prohibits insurance companies from limiting your lifetime coverage. It says that you can keep your kids on your policy until they are 26. It provides for insurance exchanges in each state so if you don’t have a company plan, you can purchase a reasonably priced plan with reasonable benefits and, if you make under certain income, you can get a subsidy. It helps narrow the so-called donut hole for seniors’ drug coverage. It also begins to try to control costs.
 
The tradeoff for all these benefits and more is the so-called individual mandate. Each person is required to buy insurance or pay a relatively small fine.
 
That requirement is what has Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail so incensed. It’s an attack on our individual freedom, they say, conveniently forgetting that it was originally a Republican idea.
But look at it another way. If you cannot afford insurance or you have a pre-existing condition or your child has a pre-existing condition and you are refused insurance, isn’t that an attack on your freedom? A serious medical problem can ruin a middle-class or poor family. Is that not a greater loss of freedom than the requirement to purchase an insurance policy? After all, if you drive you have to have auto insurance. Why not health insurance?
 
As I listened to the Supreme Court Justices ask questions during the arguments this week, I wondered how much they thought about those millions of uninsured people or even insured people with medical problems who either can’t get adequate coverage or can’t afford it. After all, the justices have pretty good government health insurance policies.
 
And I wondered what the plan B is if the health care law is struck down. That’s not really the Justices’ job, but I haven’t heard much from opponents including the Republican presidential candidates on what they would do as an alternative to the health plan. Saying we should go back to the current system and tinker with it is not an option. We will remain the only industrialized country in the world including Western Europe, Japan, Israel, New Zealand, Australia and our neighbor Canada without some form of universal coverage. We will still be spending the most per person on health care with the 37th best health outcomes. And we will still have 50 million uninsured.
 
 
 

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