Political Philosophy of the Day: June 27, 2019

Where to start? Let the light in, that’s where I’d start. By that I mean that, in a government of “We the people…”, we the people need to know what is going on. Why should the people who represent us have access to information that we don’t have? Why should people doing public work have meetings that are closed to us? Why should information be classified and withheld from us? Why should our government be doing things in secret? How can we make informed judgments when we are uninformed.

One thing that history teaches us is that the people in positions of leadership can be as ignorant and misguided as any of us. We have elected them to do our business, and we should keep a close eye on them as they do it. For those of us who lived through the sorry mess of the Vietnamese war and for all of us who have watched the quagmires and debacles of the variety of military operations since then, does anyone doubt that “ordinary” citizens could have made better choices than many of those that have been made by our political leadership—whatever the party! And how many of those decisions have been made in secret? And how many of those decisions have been justified with lies and deceptions?

Free and public debate about all issues should be at the heart of our representative democracy. Access to information about what our government does should be open to all.

Randy

Political Philosophy of the Day: June 25, 2019

My favorite and most remembered college course was in political science during summer school. In the course we constructed a country from the ground up, inventing the necessary elements beginning with a name and continuing with everything else that came to mind—governmental structure, monetary system, et cetera. You get the idea. I liked it because we worked cooperatively, got to think creatively, and the course did not require a lot of outside preparation. After all, it was summer school!

I am going to attempt to recreate a portion of this course on my website, randyhd.com. We are living in a time in which our political system is not working too well. Oregon is a good example in which Republican legislators have fled the state in order to deny Democrats a quorum and inhibit the passage of legislation. Depending on your political point of view, this is a brilliant strategy or a violation of duty by scoundrels. I want to invite you to leave all that behind and think creatively in a mini-community.

Given our current governmental structure (read The Constitution if you are unsure what this is https://constitutionus.com), what changes would you make in our current system to see that our government works most effectively. I’ll write a beginning post, which you are free to critique. In the comment section you can make your response or start a completely new idea. Let’s give it a try.

Article of the Day: June 17, 2019, How to be a Logical Person

This article is about ad hominem attacks. I don’t know who the author is but he publishes a blog called https://thelogicofscience.com. Here is how he describes himself: “Because of the vitriol and ad hominem assaults that tend to get hurled at people who take a public stand on these issues, I am disinclined to post much in the way of person details. So I will simply summarize by stating that I have both a B.S. and M.S. in biology, and I am currently working on my Ph.D. I have almost a decade of research experience, and I have published multiple peer-reviewed papers, served as a reviewer for several journals, and presented my research at national, professional conferences. Additionally, I have taught biology as an adjunct professor at a local college. Really though, all that you need to know about me is that I prize logical thought and a careful, rational understanding of the world around us above all else, and this blog is my attempt help people understand both logic and science.

Note: the pseudonym under which I am writing this blog (i.e., Fallacy Man) is a moniker that I adopted based on a character in the hilarious and educational online comic strip, Existential Comics.”

Questions:

1. Who do you know that lies in order to manipulate you?

2. How do you distinguish lies from truths?

3. What are the social consequences of having political leaders who constantly lie?

Stop accusing me of ad hominem fallacies you stupid idiots

Ad hominem fallacies are among the most common logical fallacies, but they are also among the most misunderstood. Indeed, I often see people falsely accusing their opponent of committing an ad hominem fallacy. Therefore, I am going to explain how this fallacy actually works and give you some basic tools to identify it. There are two fundamental points that you need to understand, and I will elaborate on them throughout this post. First, in order for an argument to be ad hominem, it has to actually attack its opponent. Second, not all ad hominem attacks are ad hominem fallacies.

Defining “ad hominem”

“Ad hominem” is Latin for “to the man” or “to the person,” and it simply occurs anytime that you attack your opponent. This is very, very important. In order for an argument to be ad hominem it has to verbally assault its opponent. So, attacks against a person’s intelligence, race, gender, appearance, morality, etc. all count as ad hominem, but attacks against a person’s argument are not ad hominem (even if they are written in a hostile style). This seems very simple, and indeed it is, but somehow, people continuously mess this up and take criticisms of their arguments personally. For example, in a recent debate with someone who opposed GMOs, I asked them to show me their sources, and they responded with a link to an opinion piece written for an online news outlet. When I explained to them that their link was not a valid source of scientific information and was irrelevant to the debate, they responded by accusing me of committing an ad hominem fallacy.

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asking someone for their sources is not ad hominem

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David G. McAfee

Indeed, this is a frequent occurrence. I try really hard to avoid ad hominem attacks on this blog, and you will rarely see me call someone an “idiot,” “moron,” etc.  Nevertheless, I constantly get accused of ad hominem fallacies, and I see this occurring on other pro-science pages as well. So I want to be explicitly clear about this: pointing out a problem in an opponent’s argument, asking for their sources, criticizing their sources, etc. does not count as ad hominem. You cannot accuse someone of an ad hominem fallacy just because they disagreed with you. Unless they actually attacked you or the authors of your sources, they did not make an ad hominem argument.

Daniel Moyniham quote everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not his own factsWhile we are going down this road, it’s worth mentioning that the same rules apply to “bullying,” “being rude,” etc. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have been accused of “bullying” just because I repeatedly asked someone for their sources and told them that I didn’t care about their opinions. Asking someone to back up their claims with facts and logic is neither rude nor offensive. So please stop being so thin-skinned. Further, you do not have the right to write/say anything without being subject to criticism or ridicule. Yes, you are entitled to an opinion, and yes, we should all be tolerant of other peoples beliefs, but when you are making a factual claim, you are neither expressing an opinion nor belief, and you should be held accountable for the accuracy of that claim. Imagine, for example, how ridiculous it would be if someone who didn’t accept gravity became upset when people ridiculed their absurd views. Even so, when you make factually incorrect statements about vaccines, evolution, climate change, etc. you aren’t expressing an opinion, you’re just wrong, and no one should be tolerant of your nonsense.

Not all ad hominem attacks are fallacies

Having now established what it means for something to be ad hominem, it is important to discuss what makes an ad hominem attack a fallacy. There are three basic uses of ad hominem assaults, only one of which is fallacious. The first is simply name calling for the sake of name calling, and the title to this post was intended to be a sarcastic example of this. It is ad hominem, and it’s certainly in bad taste (at least it would be if it wasn’t sarcasm), but it’s not actually a fallacy because it’s not being used as an argument. In other words, simply insulting someone isn’t enough to make something a fallacy. In order to be an ad hominem fallacy, you have to use an attack on a person as a means of attacking their argument. In the case of my sarcastic title, I got your attention by using hostile language, then proceeded to actually explain the logic of how these fallacies work; therefore, I did not commit an ad hominem fallacy (i.e., my insult was just an insult, not an argument).

The second use of ad hominem arguments is the really problematic one. It occurs when you are presented with an argument, and you respond by criticizing the person making the argument rather than the argument itself. For example, if someone is presented with an argument and simply responds with, “you’d have to be an utter moron to believe that,” then an ad hominen fallacy has been committed, because they simply attacked the people who accept the argument without ever addressing the argument itself. If, however, they said, “you’d have to be an utter moron to believe that because it commits the following logical fallacies (insert names of fallacies) and has been discredited by the following studies (insert citations)” then they would have not committed a fallacy. In other words, their comment is ad hominem, and it’s in bad taste,  but it’s not a fallacy because they did not use the insult as their argument. Rather, they made a logical argument and explained the problems with their opponent’s view, and then they slapped an insult on there for no good reason. To be fallacy, the insult has to actually be part of your argument.

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Amusingly, anti-scientists are generally the ones who I see committing ad hominem fallacies, even though they are also generally the ones who I see falsely accusing others of committing them. For example, the classic “shill gambit” is nearly always an ad hominem fallacy. I get accused of being a shill for Big Pharma or Big Ag almost daily ,when in reality, I receive absolutely no money from them because I support science not big industry (entertainingly no one seems bothered by the fact that I strongly oppose “Big Oil”). Nevertheless, people constantly respond to my posts with comments like, “what a shill” or “how much did Big Pharma pay you to write this?” These responses are ad hominem fallacies, because the people making them generally don’t follow up with logical criticisms of my arguments. Rather, they simply accuse me of being a shill then march off to declare victory to their fellow anti-scientists. In other words, their entire argument can be rephrased as, “you are wrong because you are a shill.” However, unless they can actually provide evidence that I am being paid off (which they can’t, since I’m not), this “argument” is fallacious because it attacks me, not my arguments.

This brings me to my final point and the third usage of ad hominem. There are situations in which you can attack the person instead of their argument without it being a fallacy. For example, let’s imaging a court room scenario where a key witness has identified the murderer, and the defense responds by providing evidence that the witness is a pathological liar. The defense’s argument is ad hominem because the attack is against the person not the person’s argument, but the attack is not fallacious because there is a serious question about this witness’s credibility. If the witness is truly a pathological liar, then they should not be trusted, and their testimony should be viewed as irrelevant. To be clear, the defense has to actually provide compelling evidence that the witness is a pathological liar in order for this argument to be valid. If they cannot back up that claim, then this argument is both an ad hominen fallacy and an ad hoc fallacy (as is the shill gambit).

Similarly, arguing that people like Vani Harri (aka the “Food Babe”), Sherri Tenpenny, Mercola, etc. shouldn’t be trusted because of the truly ludicrous claims that they have made is ad hominem, but it’s not fallacious because it raises serious and completely valid doubts about their credibility. For example, Vani Hari once argued that water crystallizes when you repeatedly say the words “Satan” or “Hitler” around it, and she was concerned that airplanes don’t contain 100% oxygen (the air you breathe is mostly nitrogen, btw). By making these claims, she has demonstrated a terrifying level of scientific ignorance and illiteracy, and she has made it completely clear that she doesn’t know what she is talking about. So, when someone says that you should not trust her because she has frequently been exceedingly wrong, they are making an ad hominem assault, but not an ad hominem fallacy, because her credibility truly is in question. To be clear, however, you do have to be careful when making this type of argument. The fact that her arguments have repeatedly been comically erroneous means that she shouldn’t be trusted, but it does not automatically mean that she is wrong. In other words, if you say, “she is wrong about X because she has repeatedly been wrong in the past,” then you have constructed a logically invalid argument because it is always possible (however unlikely) that she will eventually be right about something. You can, however, say, “she should not be trusted about X and cannot be used as a source because she has repeatedly been wrong in the past,” and there is nothing fallacious about that.

ad hominem flow chart fallacyConclusion

In summary, an argument is only ad hominem when it actually attacks someone. Simply explaining the problems with an argument or asking someone to provide sources does not not count as ad hominem, even if the explanation is given in hostile language. Further, even when an argument is ad hominem, it is only a fallacy if it is attacking the person instead of the person’s argument and if it is not merely pointing out a legitimate, relevant concern about someone’s credibility, morality, etc. So, to test whether or not an argument is an ad hominem fallacy simply follow the guide to the right

Note: originally, this article did not contain the flowchart and instead asked the following three questions:

  1. Is the argument attacking someone?
  2. If #1 is “yes,” is the attack being used as the argument?
  3. If #2 is “yes,” does the attack raise a legitimate, relevant concern about the person’s credibility, morality, etc.?

However, that left out fallacies that are committed by using attacks as proofs, and I think that the actual diagram is easier to follow.

Other posts on logical fallacies

Article of the Day: June 15, 2019, The Death Penalty is Troubling

1. What harm do we do to ourselves as a community when we take a life?

When We Kill

Max Guther

“I hereby sentence you to death.”

The words of Judge Clifford B. Shepard filled the courtroom in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 27, 1976. Shepard was sentencing Clifford Williams Jr., whom a jury had just found guilty of entering a woman’s house with a spare key entrusted to him and then shooting her dead from the foot of her bed.

It was a bizarre verdict, for forensics showed that the shots had been fired from outside the house — through the window, breaking the glass and piercing curtains and a screen. Moreover, at the time of the shooting Williams had been attending a birthday party, an alibi confirmed by many in attendance.

That didn’t matter, for Williams was an indigent black man with a public defender who didn’t call a single witness. The jury didn’t realize that he had an alibi or that the bullets had come from outside the house.

Judge Shepard, who was sometimes mocked in the legal community for harsh rulings and a weak intellect, ordered that “you be put to death in the electric chair by having electrical current passed through your body in such amount and frequency until you are rendered dead.”

The sentence came just three months after the Supreme Court had restored the death penalty in the United States, in the case of Gregg v. Georgia, saying that new safeguards meant that capital punishment would be applied only to the worst of the worst. “No longer can a jury wantonly and freakishly impose the death sentence,” Justice Potter Stewart declared in the majority opinion.

Hubert Nathan Myers, left, hugging his uncle, Clifford Williams Jr., during a news conference after their 1976 murder convictions were overturned In March.Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press

Hubert Nathan Myers, left, hugging his uncle, Clifford Williams Jr., during a news conference after their 1976 murder convictions were overturned In March.Will Dickey/The Florida Times-Union, via Associated Press

Fast forward four decades. Williams, now 76, was freed in March along with his co-defendant and nephew, Hubert Nathan Myers; as they emerged from prison, two frail and elderly men, Myers knelt and kissed the ground. They had each spent 42 years in prison for a murder they did not commit — spanning the entire period of the modern death penalty and its supposed safeguards.

Williams survived because the Florida Supreme Court had overturned his death sentence by a single vote, in a 4-to-3 decision, back in 1980, effectively giving him life in prison instead. Then in 2016 Jacksonville elected a reformist prosecutor who reviewed this old case and concluded, “There is no credible evidence of guilt, and likewise there is substantial credible evidence to find these men are innocent.” A judge, noting that she had been only 3 years old at the time of the convictions, finally released the men from a justice system that had treated them wantonly and freakishly.

Support for the Death Penalty

Percentage of Americans responding to this question: “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?”

President Trump is now calling for expanding the death penalty so it would apply to drug dealers and those who kill police officers, with an expedited trial and quick execution. A majority of Americans (56 percent,according to Gallup) favor capital punishment, believing that it will deter offenders or save money and presuming that it will apply only to the vilest criminals and that mistakes are not a serious risk.

All these assumptions are wrong.

My interest in the death penalty arises partly from a mistake of my own. At the beginning of 2000, I spoke to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, who told me about a white man on death row in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham, whom he believed to be innocent. I discussed with editors the possibility of doing a deep dive into the case but let myself be lured away by the sirens of that year’s Iowa caucuses instead. I never wrote about Willingham, and he was executed in 2004.

Subsequent evidencestrongly suggests that not only was Willingham innocent but that no crime was even committed. He had been convicted of splashing gasoline around his house and then setting it on fire to murder his three little children. But experts later showed that there was no gasoline and that the fire was simply an accident that probably started with faulty wiring.

Imagine what it would be like to lose the people you loved most, then be convicted of murdering them and finally be strapped to a gurney and executed by lethal injection. A powerful new movie, “Trial by Fire,” with Laura Dern, tells the story of the Willingham case, and I hope it will prick the national conscience.

A photo of Cameron Todd Willingham when he was on death row.Michael Stravato

A photo of Cameron Todd Willingham when he was on death row.Michael Stravato

Partly because I failed to investigate Willingham’s story, I have thrown myself into the case of Kevin Cooper, a black man on death row in California whose case reeks of prosecutorial misconduct. Cooper was convicted of the 1983 home invasion and murder of four white people in Chino Hills, Calif. After an extensive investigation, I argued last year that the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department may have framed Cooper.

Nicholas Kristof on Kevin Cooper.

Republican and Democratic politicians alike — including the state’s former attorney general Kamala Harris, now running for president — refused for years to allow advanced DNA testing in Cooper’s case, even though his lawyers would have paid for it. (Harris has apologized and says she now favors testing.) This summer crucial evidence from Cooper’s case is finally being subjected to that testing, 36 years after the murders. We may know the results by September.

DNA testing accounts for many of the 165 exonerations and prison releases because of dubious evidence since 1973, by the count of the Death Penalty Information Center.

Usually, though, there isn’t DNA availablethat can be tested to determine guilt or innocence. As in the Clifford Williams case, it’s more murky. The crucial evidence in his conviction came from an eyewitness who may have been a pathological liar.

But let’s be clear:The great majority of people executed are guilty. They have frequently killed with the utmost savagery.

Scotty Morrow, a black man from Georgia, indisputably committed a brutal murder in 1994. He fought with his ex-girlfriend, Barbara Ann Young, and, as her 5-year-old son watched, shot her in the headand killed her.

Morrow also shot dead another woman in the house, Tonya Woods, and shot a third woman, LaToya Horne, in the face. Horne was able to stagger down the road before collapsing. She suffered permanent injuries.

Not surprisingly, Morrow was sentenced to die — but let me throw in a bit of complexity.

Morrow grew up in a violent home where he was raped and beaten as a child, and he never received mental health support to deal with his trauma; that justifies nothing but may help explain something. He desperately wanted to reconcile with Young, and when told that she had been exploiting him for money while she waited for her “real man” to return from prison, he “just snapped,” as he put it. After the murders, he prepared to commit suicide but was arrested; he then prayed daily for 25 years for the families of the women he had killed.

An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An undated booking photo from the Georgia Department of Corrections shows Scotty Morrow, a death row inmate.Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Rarely in my career as a prosecutor and a judge did I witness this level of remorse and acceptance of responsibility,” reflected Judge Wendy Shoob, one of the judges who dealt with Morrow’s appeals over two decades. The only disciplinary report against him in a quarter-century in prison was for intervening in a fight to protect an inmate who was being stabbed with a shank. Several correctional officers wrote letters appealing that his life be spared.

“Scotty Morrow is literally the only inmate I would do this for,” said a correctional officer with 16 years in law enforcement, Nathan Adkerson. Sgt. Tajuana Burns described him as “just a really nice man.” Lindsey Veal Jr., a mental health counselor, said Morrow “actually makes the prison safer,” and added: “There are very few inmates I can call fully rehabilitated. But, without question, Scotty is one of them.”

William L. Buchanan, a psychologist who worked with Morrow, recalled that one correctional officer “looked me straight in the eyes and stated to me, ‘This is the best man in the world.’”

Yet in the end the State of Georgia did with meticulous planning what Morrow had done impulsively in a spasm of fury. It executed him last month by lethal injection. In his last moments in the execution chamber, Morrow apologized again to the families of the women he had killed, adding to the 20 witnesses: “I’m truly sorry for all that happened. I hope that you all recover and have healing.”

Was the man strapped down on a gurney truly the same person as the enraged brute who had shot dead Young and Woods 25 years earlier?

The death penalty has been applied to at least 222 crimesin the Anglo-American legal system, including marrying a Jew and stealing a rabbit. For a time in America, stealing grapes was punishable by death. So was witchcraft, as we know from the Salem trials.

For centuries executions were public affairs. The last public execution in the United States was in August 1936 in Owensboro, Ky. Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to see a black man, Rainey Bethea, 22, hanged for the rape and murder of a white woman. The carnival atmosphere and “hanging parties” led Kentucky to ban public executions, although public lynchings continued.

Rainey Bethea with Sheriff’s deputies as they escort him from Louisville, Ky., to his public execution in Owensboro, Ky, in 1936.The Messenger-Inquirer, via Associated Press
Perhaps 20,000 people gathered to witness the hanging of Rainey Bethea in Owensboro, Ky., in 1936.Newsmakers/Getty Images

The argument for public punishment was that it deters crime, and even today a common argument in favor of executions is that through deterrence they save the lives of innocent people. Is that true?

One 2003 studypurported to find that each execution deterred five murders, while opponents of the death penalty sometimes argue the opposite, that executions brutalize society and lead to additional murders. Statisticians and criminologists have studied this issue carefully for decades, and the general conclusion is that executions have no greater deterrent effect than long prison sentences.

Murder rates are actually lower in states without the death penalty than in those with it. Some jurisdictions have periodically banned the death penalty and then brought it back, and this back-and-forth seems to have zero impact on homicide rates. Scholars have also examined whether there is a decline in homicides after well-publicized death verdicts or executions; there is not.

One rigorous 2012 study published by the American Economic Review found no clear deterrent effect and noted that depending on the statistical model used, one could conclude that each execution saves 21 lives or causes an additional 63 murders. Note also that a 2008 poll of leading criminologists found that only 5 percent believed that capital punishment was an effective deterrent; 88 percent believed the opposite.

Meanwhile, the experts polled in that survey agreed that death penalty debates distract legislatures from policies that actually would reduce crime — like lead removal, early childhood programs, career academies, job training, gang violence initiatives like Cure Violence, and programs for at-risk young people like Becoming a Man.

Let’s also examine another argument of death penalty proponents: that it’s not worth spending hundreds of thousands of dollars supporting brutal killers for the rest of their lives: Execute them and use the savings for better purposes!

This argument, too, is groundless: Capital punishment is far more expensive than life prison terms. This is because pretrial preparations, jury selection and appeals are all more expensive in capital cases, and death row confinement is more costly than incarceration for the general prison population. One 2017 study by several criminologists found that on average, each death sentence costs taxpayers $700,000 more than life imprisonment.

“It is a simple fact that seeking the death penalty is more expensive,” concluded that inquiry, by Peter A. Collins of Seattle University and colleagues. “There is not one credible study, to our knowledge, that presents evidence to the contrary.”

One reason death penalty cases are expensive is that the defense is given more time and resources to prepare the case, and appeals are automatic. So you would think that innocent people are less likely to be put to death than to serve life sentences.

That may be true. Defense lawyers grimly joke that if you’re falsely convicted of a crime, it’s best to be sentenced to death — because then at least you will get pro bono lawyers and media scrutiny that may increase the prospect of exoneration. Researchers find that an exoneration is 130 times more likely for a death sentence than for other sentences.

Yet if death penalties get unusual scrutiny, there are countervailing forces. Researchers find that juries are more likely to recommend the death penalty for defendants who are perceived as showing a lack of remorse — and innocent people don’t display remorse. A second factor is that death sentences are often sought after particularly brutal crimes that create great pressure on the police to find the culprits.

In 1989, for example, after five black teenagers in New York City were arrested in the rape and beating of a white investment banker who became known as the Central Park Jogger, Donald Trump bought full-page newspaper ads calling for the death penalty. The teenagers were later exonerated when DNA evidence and a confession by another man showed that they were innocent of that crime.

Donald Trump placed this full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers after the Central Park Jogger rape.

Donald Trump placed this full-page ad in The New York Times and other newspapers after the Central Park Jogger rape.

One peer-reviewed study suggested that at least 4.1 percent of those sentenced to death in the United States are innocent. With more than 2,700 Americans on death row, that would imply that more than 110 innocent people are awaiting execution.

The Supreme Court in 1976 restored the death penalty partly because it was confident that safeguards — such as meticulous rules about when death penalties could be applied — would eliminate the arbitrary application of capital punishment. In fact, “its defining feature is still its arbitrariness,” noted Jill Benton, an Atlanta lawyer who defends capital punishment cases.

Racial bias affects every aspect of the criminal justice system, and researchers have found that black defendants not only do worse than white defendants, but also that blacks with dark complexions fare worse than those with light ones. Of prisoners now on death row, 42 percent are black, 42 percent are white, and most of the remainder are Hispanic.

Bias is not just found in judges and prosecutors. In Washington State, researchers found that juries were four times as likely to recommend a death sentence for a black defendant as for a similar white defendant. The same study also underscored how random capital punishment is. In Thurston County in Washington, prosecutors sought the death penalty in 67 percent of aggravated murder cases; in Okanogan County, 130 miles away, zero percent. Over all in America, 2 percent of counties account for a majority of death penalty cases.

Researchers have found that whether Texas prosecutors seek the death penalty depends partly on how The Houston Chronicle covers the case. They have also found that if a jury has a majority of women, it is less likely to recommend death.

Justice is supposed to be blind. But it is not supposed to be random.

Aside from deterring murders and saving money, a third common argument for the death penalty is that it is appropriate retribution for a heinous crime, a way for a community to rise up and express its revulsion for some brutal act. We dishonor victims, so the argument goes, if we simply lock away a monster.

This is an argument that cannot be countered with data, for it rests on values. It has to be said, though, that the history of executions as an expression of a community’s moral values is not an inspiring one. Such values-based arguments have been made through history for stoning adulterers and burning witches — and, in Japan in the 1600s, boiling Christians alive.

Just this spring, the small Southeast Asian sultanate of Brunei defended the stoning to death of gays, adulterers and heretics as an expression of community values intended “to educate, respect and protect the legitimate rights of all individuals.”

Strom Thurmond, the South Carolina senator who was the longest-serving Republican in congressional history, used to boast that as a judge in the 1930s and 1940s, he had sentenced four men to death; he saw capital punishment as reflecting community values and had no regrets, for the men got what they deserved.

A South Carolina lawyer, David Bruck, looked into those four death sentences. Three involved black men: one who was deranged from syphilis, one who was accused of rape by a white woman but had many alibi witnesses and may have been innocent, and one who in self-defense shot an armed white man who attacked him. The fourth was a white man who, in a rage, killed his girlfriend.

At the time, it may have seemed to Thurmond and the white community self-evident that these four executions were righteous. Today thefirst three seem hideous examples of racist injustice. Our standards and perspectives have changed — but what is unique about the death penalty is that a person can never be un-executed.

Today the Supreme Court is caught in a bitter feud over the death penalty, with a conservative majority approving executions and fretting about “unjustified delay” in carrying them out, as Justice Neil M. Gorsuch put it in April. In her dissent in that case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor argued, “There are higher values than ensuring that executions run on time.”

The result of this division is that the court is unlikely to constrain executions significantly. Yet there is some recognition that the system is faulty, and capital punishment is becoming more rare. In 1998, there were 295 death sentences in this country; in 2018, just 42. In California, which has the largest death row, Gov. Gavin Newsom has bravely declared a moratorium on executions.

Kenneth Reams in 2014.

The case of Kenneth Reams, a man on death row in Arkansas, encapsulates the cruelty and absurdity of this system. It “shows clearly all the problems with a democratic society using the death penalty,” said George H. Kendall, a lawyer who is helping Reams challenge his sentence. 

Reams was a black kid born to an impoverished 15-year-old mom. He had a turbulent childhood, running away from home at 13 and dabbling in juvenile crime. Then at 18 he helped a friend who needed money to pay for his graduation cap and gown: They robbed a white man named Gary Turner at an A.T.M., and the friend shot and killed Turner.

Reams was defended by a part-time lawyer with several hundred other cases and no capital punishment experience, and there were indications that the jury was manipulated to underrepresent African-Americans. In the end, Reams was sentenced to death.

More from the Opinion section on Kenneth Reams.

Last year the Arkansas Supreme Court overturned the death penalty for Reams, but he remains on death row pending new hearings and a new sentence. Even if you believe it is appropriate to execute an unarmed robber because his partner shot someone, even if you’re unconcerned by a criminal’s troubled childhood, even if racial manipulation of juries doesn’t bother you, there remains the basic question of what the execution of someone like Reams would accomplish — and whether, more than a quarter-century later, that 18-year-old offender still exists to execute.

“People change,” Kendall told me. “Kenny was a reckless, out-of-control kid who, while barely 18 at the time of the crime, had the mental maturity of a 14-year-old. His maturation had been slowed by years of horrible neglect and abuse.” Behind bars, Reams has grown into an accomplished artist who encourages other prisoners to express themselves through poetry.

That’s something you encounter again and again: People evolve. So because of the glacial pace of “justice,” we sometimes execute a graying, kindly inmate quite different from the violent felon he once was. They may have the same DNA and fingerprints, but their hearts are not the same.

There is no evidence that the death penalty deters. It costs hundreds of thousands of additional dollars per prisoner. It is steeped in caprice, arbitrariness and racial bias. It is fallible — and when it fails, it undermines the legitimacy of our judicial system.

Some day, I believe, Americans will look back at today’s executions just as we now look back at witch burnings and public hangings, and they will ask, What were they thinking?

In Jacksonville, Clifford Williams Jr. is now trying to get used to freedom after 42 years as a convicted murderer. Buddy Schulz, his lawyer, told me what happened when he visited Williams in prison and told him that he would be released.

“He cried for the first 10 minutes,” Schulz recalled. “For the next 10 minutes, he laughed. And finally after 20 minutes, he said, ‘Mr. Buddy, I hope you don’t think me rude, but I’ve got to go to the chapel and thank God.’”

Schulz added: “I’m personally of the opinion that the death penalty serves no purpose whatsoever, and I think it’s immoral. This is an example. The judge imposed it and but for a close decision by the Supreme Court, here would have been an innocent man who would have lost his life.”

I reached out to Henry M. Coxe III, who four decades ago prosecuted the case against Williams and won the death sentence. I figured that he would see the issue differently, but he didn’t. In fact, he was relieved that of the five death sentences he won as a prosecutor, none were ever carried out.

“In hindsight, I don’t think the death penalty serves a meaningful purpose,” he told me.

Williams is now living with his daughter in Jacksonville, taking “one day at a time,” he told me. The fact that he knew he was innocent made it immeasurably harder, he said, but he added, “I was trusting God would deal with it.”

Calm and mild-mannered, he didn’t want to talk about his decades in prison. “It wasn’t a nice time,” he explained mildly. I told him that I was surprised he didn’t sound bitter. Williams laughed. “Well, I feel a little bit bitter,” he said.

I asked about the death penalty, and there was a long silence. I thought he hadn’t heard, so I asked again, and then I realized that he was struggling with his emotions. 

“Too many people,” he said, suddenly sounding exhausted, “are getting the death sentence who don’t deserve it.”

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Article of the Day: June 12, 2019 How do we measure up?

These are the top 10 landmarks in the history of making measurements

In no field of science is the gulf between appreciation and importance as wide as it is for metrology.

It’s not about the weather. Metrology is the science of measuring. It has a longer history than the modern sciences taught in school, and it’s essential to all of science’s usefulness and power. Without sound metrology, there’d be no trips to the moon, no modern medicine, no self-driving cars, no baseball analytics and no decent weather forecasts. (OK, so sometimes it is about the weather.) And even without science, metrology has earned its keep for millennia in the service of trade and commerce, ensuring that weights and volumes of produce and other products could be standardized to make fraud a little harder for the fraudsters.

May 20 marks the latest high point in metrology’s long history, with the official adoption of new definitions for some of science’s most important measuring units, including the kilogram, the standard measure of mass. Those changes reflect revisions in the Le Système International d’Unites (or SI), the modern version of the metric system. As overseen by the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures, SI is based on seven “fundamental” units from which other units of measure are derived. Besides the kilogram, newly defined basic units include the kelvin (for temperature), ampere (electric current) and the mole (quantity of material). Unchanged are the second (time), meter (length) and candela (luminous intensity).

This latest SI revamp represents an advance for science, but it’s only the latest of several historic landmarks for metrology. There are too many to list, but that’s no reason not to count down the top 10 momentous metrology moments of all time (or at least for as long as time has been measured).

10. Invention of anatomical units (a long time ago)

Anatomy-based units originated with early human civilizations, probably near the time of the beginning of agriculture. Units of volume, such as the mouthful and handful, preceded later units such as tablespoons, cups and pints. For length, human feet have been around as long as humans; the “foot” used by the ancient Egyptians was a tad under 12 (modern) inches. But even as late as the 1700s, the foot varied in some countries from as little as 10 modern inches to as long as 14.

Of the other early anatomical units, the cubit — based on the length of a forearm — was once the most widely used. It probably originated in the Middle East and was mentioned in the Epic of Gilgamesh, written before 2000 B.C. By most accounts, the cubit was supposed to be the length from the elbow to the tip of the middle finger, but that of course led to various actual lengths, ranging from under 18 inches to more than 25. Still, the cubit was an important and common unit throughout ancient times, and was very helpful in building arks.

It may be that the “double cubit” morphed into the yard. King Henry I of England, who reigned from 1100–1135, attempted to standardize the yard by defining it as the length from the tip of his nose to the end of his thumb (with his arm stretched out). Eventually the yard became three feet, a foot being 12 inches, an inch defined as the length of three barley grains placed end-to-end lengthwise. So the anatomical unit became a derivative of a botanical unit.

9. Magna Carta, 1215

One of the most important documents in the history of government established the necessity of metrology for the future of civilization, insisting that “throughout the kingdom there shall be standard measures of wine, ale and corn,” and the same for weights as for measures. It didn’t exactly work out that way for the next few centuries, but the principle was clear enough and subsequent metrologists have done a pretty good job of achieving the Magna Carta’s goal. Well one of its goals. It had others.

8. Queen Elizabeth I reforms system of weights, 1588

While her fleet was busy destroying the Spanish Armada, Queen Elizabeth I of England was busy establishing more rational rules for weights and measures. Before then, English merchants dealt with a bunch of different kinds of pounds, today’s “avoirdupois” pound among them. One, the “tower” pound, was abolished by Henry VIII in 1527 in favor of the troy pound for use in currency (hence pounds are English currency still, even when made of paper).

Elizabeth established the standard avoirdupois pound for most uses, retaining the troy pound for coins (and drugs). In so doing she set people up for the clever trivia question: Which weighs more, a pound of gold or a pound of lead? Quick-witted respondents often answer “Ha! Neither! A pound is a pound.” But those sufficiently versed in metrology say “lead,” because an avoirdupois pound weighs more than a troy pound. (But if you say an ounce of lead weighs more than an ounce of gold, wrong again. A troy ounce of gold is heavier. An avoirdupois pound is heavier because it contains 16 ounces, but a troy pound has only 12 troy ounces.)

7. Pendulum clock, Christiaan Huygens, 1656

Others (Galileo among them) had played around with pendulums as timepieces, but Dutch physicist and mathematician Christiaan Huygens built the first reliable pendulum clock. His earliest version, built in 1656, was accurate to about 15 seconds per day, a big improvement for the times. Further advances in pendulum clocks made them the most accurate timepieces until the 20th century. 

6. Metric system, 1799

In the 17th century, certain prescient savants recognized that a decimal system of units would be vastly superior for science and commerce than the then current hodgepodge of units that varied from country to country. Or even within the same country — in fact, some have suggested that one of the reasons for the French Revolution was dissatisfaction among the people with lack of weight and measure uniformity.

In the 1670s, the French clergyman Gabriel Mouton and astronomer Jean Picard (middle name unknown, probably not Luc) both discussed basing the basic unit of length on the length of a pendulum with a period of 2 seconds. (That’s pretty close to today’s meter, but unfortunately a pendulum’s period varies from place to place on the Earth’s surface.) But in the 1790s, when the French got serious about establishing the metric system, they defined the meter to be one 10-millionth of the distance from the equator to the North Pole. Other units were then related to the meter — a gram (mass) being equal to the mass in a cubic centimeter of water, for instance.

The metric system had its faults, but it made measurement much more rational and standard than it had previously been. Today only backwards countries (like Liberia, Myanmar and one other) don’t use its successor, the Système International.

5. Bureau International des Poids et Mesures (International Bureau of Weights and Measures) created, 1875

The Convention du Mètre in 1875 established the weights and measure bureau as arbiter for unit issues in a treatysigned by 17 countries (on May 20 — see Gibbs Rule 39). The treaty specified that the bureau (under the oversight of the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures(General Conference on Weights and Measures) should undertake production of standard prototypes for the meter and kilogram. It was an important step toward establishing worldwide use of the metric system, a goal almost successfully reached but for the intransigence of a certain large country in the middle of North America.

4. Kelvin temperature scale

Before the 19th century, temperature was a slippery concept — thermometers used arbitrary units that allowed a measurement to determine whether one thing was hotter than another, but not how much hotter. In 1848, William Thomson, to become Lord Kelvin, proposed applying the principles of the new science of thermodynamics to devise a rational “absolute” temperature scale that would establish a zero point corresponding to the complete absence of heat. It took a while for thermodynamics to mature before the scale could be completely understood, but it eventually put thermometry on a solid foundation. Temperature units are now called kelvins, rather than degrees (a change from “degrees Kelvin” made in the late 1960s by the Conférence Générale des Poids et Mesures).

3. Michelson interferometer

Albert A. Michelson was obsessed with measuring the velocity of light, and in the late 1870s, he measured it more precisely than anyone else ever had. Shortly thereafter he realized he could detect small differences in light’s velocity caused by the Earth’s motion through the ether. To do so he invented an interferometer. It split a light beam into two paths, perpendicular to each other, and then recombined the two beams with mirrors. A velocity difference between the two paths would mean the light waves could misalign, creating an interference pattern. Michelson and his colleague Edward Morley tried the experiment in 1887 and it failed to detect the expected interference. But that’s because there’s no ether. Interferometry was a great idea and became a valuable tool for all sorts of metrological uses.

2. Lasers

The discovery in 1960 of lasers made Michelson’s interferometry even more precise, thanks to lasing’s control over light’s wavelength. So lasers not only provided the realization of science fiction ray guns but also quickly became the best measuring devices in history. Lasers make ultraprecise distance measurements possible for everything from the dimensions of a room to how far it is from Earth to mirrors left on the moon by Apollo astronauts. Lasers enable the construction of optical clocks that are thousands of times more precise than Huygens’ pendulum clock. Laser metrology also helps verify that things like airplanes and automobile engines have been manufactured to exact design specifications. And where would baseball analytics be without the use of laser radar guns to check fastball velocities? (Just for fun, you can also use laser interferometry to detect gravitational waves.)

1. Basic units redefined, 2019

In 1983, the metrology czars redefined the meter in terms of how far light can travel per second. That was the first step toward the new definitions of other units, based on fundamental physics, adopted officially on May 20. The kelvin, for instance, is now defined with use of a constant based on the kilogram, meter and second. The kilogram is now based on the quantum physics quantity known as the Planck constant plus the definitions of the meter and second. The second is still based on radiation emitted by a specific process in a certain cesium atom. Metrology is now not just standardized for all countries, but for all planets in all galaxies, no matter how far away.

That doesn’t render all uses of metrology immune to criticism, of course (think baseball analytics). And just remember, if you are tempted to criticize the omission of certain metrology items from this list, there is no way yet devised to precisely measure the proper ranking of metrology landmarks.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

Poem of the Day: June 6, 2019, D Day

I started writing poetry again in 1981 after I met Kathy. We were in one of those periods in a relationship when you feel you can tell each other anything. (Sadly, these periods come and go. Sometimes you are too busy to tell each other anything. Sometimes other matters interfere.) Anyway, this was during a period when it was safe for me to write poetry. Now that I’m 72 it’s also a safe time to write. Who cares anyway? There are few consequences. All is well. So, here’s a poem from around 1981.

Mammau’s House

Mammau and Pappau’s house,

Always called “house” 

But Home.

A place and people

            Front porch broad and friendly

            With brick floor, cool on bare feet

                        On soft breezy summer evening.

            Front door with locks only Pappau understood.

            Front room with big windows

                        Often looked out of

                        Offering a safe vantage point

                        During powerful, lawn-furniture-scattering

storms.

            Piano room where Boo’s piano lived

                        A place of bright sun.

            Den, full of people on Friday night,

                        The room dark, except for the flash light of the

t.v.,

                        White and gray and black tones of men fighting

                                    Sponsored by Gillette.

Me, past my bedtime

           Out of bed

            Sitting on the stairs

            And watching.

Article of the Day: June 3, 2019–A Reflection on Guns by a Gun Violence Victim

This is a very thought-provoking and interesting article by a man whose son was killed in a random act of gun violence. Although it is mentioned in a photo caption, the fact that his daughter also died in a gun-related incident is not discussed in the story. This one will make you think.

  1. Does having a gun make you more safe or less safe?
  2. Should people who follow Jesus use guns?
  3. Should gun ownership require a license like a drivers license?

A Gun Killed My Son. So Why Do I Want to Own One?

By Gregory GibsonNov. 6, 2017

To be clear, there was nothing I could’ve done to save him. It’s just a fantasy that has been circling my brain in a holding pattern for decades — that somehow I could have intervened.

On the evening of Dec. 14, 1992, a student armed with a semiautomatic rifle fired into the guard shack at the entrance to Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Great Barrington, Mass., seriously wounding the guard stationed there. Moments later a car pulled up to the guard shack and the killer shot point-blank into the car’s side window. The driver died instantly and the car ran off the road. Someone heard the noise and rushed into the college library to report the accident. My son Galen, a sophomore at the college, rushed out the door to help. The shooter was waiting there, at the end of the sidewalk. Galen was hit twice; the chest shot was fatal. He staggered back into the library and died.

If my pistol and I had somehow been on the scene that night, no matter how highly trained we might’ve been, it’s likely we’d have rushed out the door to see if we could render assistance in the reported auto accident. The killer would still have been there, and I’d have been shot instead of my son. Small comfort in that.

A few years ago, I was flying home to Massachusetts from the West Coast with a copy of The New Yorker to keep me company. As the cocktail cart approached, I came upon an article about Henry Worsley’s doomed attempt to walk alone and unaided across the continent of Antarctica. He was a distant relative of the explorer Ernest Shackleton’s comrade Frank Worsley, and he was obsessed with the idea of honoring those legendary explorers by repeating the journey. Exhaustion and illness brought him to a halt a mere 30 miles short of his goal. He was rescued and flown to Punta Arenas, Chile, but he died in the hospital of bacterial peritonitis.

The author at a friend’s home in the woods where he practices at a makeshift range.Damon Winter/The New York Times

The author at a friend’s home in the woods where he practices at a makeshift range.Damon Winter/The New York Times

Sitting in my comfy red-eye cocoon at 35,000 feet reading of his agonies on the ice, and of his even more agonizing decision to call for help so near the end of his walk, the poignancy of Worsley’s story brought tears to my eyes. Then I thought of his wife and two children, and everything else he’d left behind, and my moist-eyed mood lifted. Why would anyone with so much to lose attempt such a stunt? Though the article never explicitly said as much, I could imagine only one explanation for Henry Worsley’s crazy walk: He was using the continent of Antarctica and the extremity of the conditions he imposed upon himself to explore unknown regions of his psyche, his own interior portal to a vaster, universal interiority. I thought, Ah! That’s just what I’m doing! Then I fell asleep.

Since that night I have had occasion to think of Henry Worsley.

My progress from survivor of gun violence to practitioner of defensive shooting proceeded in the same manner as Worsley’s epic disaster.

Down at the pistol range, for example — a subterranean hall reminiscent of a bowling alley — firing my 9-millimeter Sig Sauer P320 at a man-sized paper silhouette during an advanced gun skills class. The air-treatment fans are running full blast, but about a dozen of us have been shooting for hours. I can taste the sweetness of vaporized lead in the back of my mouth.

Considering the role that guns have played in my life, such moments need explaining, and the Worsley trope is helpful in this regard. I could even imagine that my progress from traumatized survivor of gun violence to practitioner of tactical defensive shooting proceeded in the same manner as Worsley’s epic disaster — step by step.

My son’s killer was a fellow student, a sophomore in the throes of a psychotic break. The administrators at Simon’s Rock had seen the clearly labeled ammo package arrive in that morning’s mail, and an anonymous call to a member of the staff warned that the killer had a gun and was planning to use it. But school shootings weren’t seen as a national crisis in 1992; the dean and the administration hadn’t been trained in active-shooter response because that body of knowledge didn’t really exist back then. Those administrators were ill-equipped to prevent the shooting.

I was so furious at their failure that I sued the college. But the painstaking process of legal discovery served also as a trek through the sources of my grief. Eventually I realized that there was no redemption in revenge. I made peace with the college and became involved in the gun-violence-prevention movement, sharing my story with anyone who would listen. My relationship with guns at that time was uncomplicated. I’d hunted as a kid and I’d received basic firearms training when I joined the Navy in 1967, but like many people in the liberal circles in which I traveled, I believed that guns were stupid and awful and that there was something fundamentally wrong with people who liked to use them.

A family photo showing the author’s son Galen, who was later killed in a shooting at college, and his sister Wendy, who committed suicide using a gun shortly after this photo was taken.Damon Winter/The New York Times

A family photo showing the author’s son Galen, who was later killed in a shooting at college, and his sister Wendy, who committed suicide using a gun shortly after this photo was taken.Damon Winter/The New York Times

However, after 20 years of advocacy I was beginning to realize that something else was fundamentally wrong. I had always assumed that once people heard firsthand of the misery that a gun had caused, they’d be motivated to support laws that would prevent such tragedies from happening to anyone else. I kept believing this, and I kept telling my story, and Columbine, Virginia Tech and Aurora kept happening. On Friday in Virginia Beach, a city worker killed at least 12 people.

I’d been told repeatedly that my arguments for gun control had little credibility because I knew nothing about guns.

The real breaking point for me though, was, Dec. 14, 2012 — the 20th anniversary, to the day, of Galen’s murder — 20 children and six adults were shot to death at Sandy Hook elementary school. An avalanche of heartbreaking stories poured forth and still America did nothing. This nothingness inspired me, in the howling void of my survivor’s journey, to alter my course.

I’d been told repeatedly by gun owners — often from the back of whatever crowd I was addressing — that my arguments for gun control had little credibility because I knew nothing about guns or gun culture. Eventually I came to see some truth in that assertion. If there was a gun culture of Second Amendment zealots, there was also an opposing gun-control culture made up of people who knew little about guns except that guns were bad. People, in other words, like me.

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Growing More Divided

Percent who say it is more important to protect the right of Americans to own guns than to control gun ownership, by party.

Received wisdom had it that the two sides in the gun control “debate” would eventually hammer out a consensus resulting in “sensible” gun legislation that would “respect the Second Amendment” while making it harder for criminals and would-be mass murderers to get guns. But now it seemed that the implied dialectic was a sham, and that in fact the two sides were locked in a sterile opposition from which no consensus would ever emerge. America was in the midst of a culture war, not a debate. We were muddling our bloody way toward some new identity as a people, or perhaps our dissolution as a people, and no survivor’s story would change that. For the first time since Galen’s death, I saw the situation in a different light. That implied a step in the right direction, but I needed more information.

The long and the short of it is that I bought a gun.

I didn’t just rush out and buy one; I took my time doing research. I had conversations with people at gun shows. I read gun magazines and spent hours on YouTube watching guys take guns apart and put them back together and blast the bejesus out of bottles full of colored water. I watched women shoot, and men and boys and girls shoot. And I have to admit, I did not care for these people and their guns. I found them aesthetically displeasing. But I stuck with it, and eventually it became somewhat more interesting to watch, for example, the YouTube video of the lady in Texas with the pink Beretta, or the guy shoulder bumping his AR so that it fired as if it were on full auto.

I signed up for the gun-safety course at my local gun club. In Massachusetts, this training was required by law to apply for a firearm license. Ninety-five dollars bought me a morning of instruction followed by a few minutes of wrapping my hands around cold steel (polymer, actually) and firing a real gun. It was an exciting moment for me and it was marked by an unusual occurrence.

Somehow, during the live-fire part of the course, an empty brass casing — probably from the pistol of the student next to me — found its way into the right pocket of the vest I’d worn to class. I didn’t discover it until that afternoon, when I put my hand in the pocket and pulled out an expended .22 shell. I put it back in my pocket, and every time I stuck my hand in there I rolled the little brass cylinder around in my fingers. This produced an excitement from a place I could not identify.

Lax Laws, More Deaths

States with fewer gun restrictions had higher death rates from firearms. Most of the correlation is because of deaths from suicide, not homicide.

firearm deaths per 100,000 people

Fewer restrictions

I wore that vest to the police station a few days later. There, after surrendering my fingerprints, and producing my driver’s license and the certificate from my gun course, I filled out the requisite paperwork and had an interview with a police officer regarding my application. I had been advised to answer “for all legal purposes” as my reason for obtaining a license, but she didn’t ask me why I wanted to carry a gun. Instead, we bantered about local issues and characters and that was that. Some states are “shall issue” states, in which the local chief of police must issue a license to carry a firearm to any qualified applicant. Massachusetts is a “may issue” state, in which the chief has some discretion. This woman was his shrewd representative. A couple of weeks later I got a call from her. My license had come in.

When the weather warmed I visited my local gun shop and saw, in a glass case, a Ruger LC9s, a small 9-millimeter handgun that had gotten good reviews in the gun magazines. I’d already decided that I should begin my gun career with something modest, and this stubby little thing had an unassuming look to it. I took a calming breath and asked the guy behind the counter if I could handle the gun.

A 9-millimeter shell casing that the author carries with him.Damon Winter/The New York Times

A 9-millimeter shell casing that the author carries with him.Damon Winter/The New York Times

Soon I found myself engaged in a distinctly American rite of passage. I produced my driver’s license and my recently acquired class A large-capacity license to carry firearms. The salesman gave me a form on which I entered my personal information and checked the “no” box next to each of a number of questions intended to ascertain my fitness to own a gun. Was I a drug addict? Had I ever been “adjudicated as a mental defective?” I could have been as disturbed as the kid who thought God was commanding him to kill my son, but if my criminal record was clean and if I kept a straight face, it’s possible the purchase would have gone forward. 

I was the father of a gun-murdered child and I had purchased a gun. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this.

Pro-gun people are always talking about fixing the mental health system, but concrete proposals are in short supply. Meanwhile, the mental health community is fiercely protective of patient privacy, and these interests can run counter to the reporting necessary for any background check to be effective. The salesman took my paperwork into the back room, where he checked the six-digit PIN on my firearms license against the computerized state database and ran my information through the F.B.I.’s national instant criminal background check system. Fifteen minutes and a few hundred dollars later, I was an official gun owner.

Then I knew precisely the word for the feeling that shell casing gave me every time I felt for it in my vest pocket. The word was “transgressive” and the effect was steroidal. I was the father of a gun-murdered child and I had taken a gun course and obtained a gun license and purchased a gun. I wasn’t supposed to be doing this, but I was doing it anyway.

One other realization accompanied the rush of power that surged through me. When you walk down the street knowing you are lethal, there can be no such thing as a “modest” gun. That was why the little Ruger remained so long in a drawer in my desk, rendered inoperative by a cable gun lock strung through its innards. Weeks passed before I was able to muster up the courage to try shooting the thing.

I looked at the gun. My hands were trembling. 

I have a friend who lives in the woods about half an hour from my house. Over the years he’d cleared a sort of firing range on which he practiced for the deer season, and when I explained my quest to him, he invited me to use it. We took a long walk through the field below his house to a pallet leaned up against a pile of rocks. A bullet-scarred squeeze clamp at the top of the pallet held a paper bull’s-eye. Twenty paces and turn. The gun barked and jumped in my hand; the target escaped unscathed. Ten paces forward. Same result. Five more, down to 15 feet now, and a hit. Then a miss, then another hit. 

After a few more rounds the muscles in my shoulders and neck began to ache. Standing sweating in the tall grass, mosquitoes humming around my ears, I looked at the gun. My hands were trembling. My loathing of guns had collided with my determination to master them. The impact was devastating.

Or was it? I recalled one of the more urbane YouTube gun gurus explaining that people have a natural aversion to holding things that explode. He illustrated his point by extending a lit firecracker at arm’s length in front of his face, which was exactly how it felt each time I yanked on the trigger. He referred to the phenomenon as “reactive interference” and the cure for it was … I couldn’t remember what the cure for it was. It probably involved signing up for his online gun tutorial. That night I found the business card of a firearms trainer that the salesman at the gun shop had given me. I called the man and we scheduled an introductory session at an indoor range not far from my house.

His name was Jerry. He was about my height, a little past middle age, with a neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper haircut and matching mustache. He told me he was a retired A.T.F. agent. He worked with a security firm and also trained civilians and professionals in everything from basic safety to advanced tactical shooting. 

I told him my story about the death of my son, my advocacy work and my belief that this work could not be properly carried forward without learning about guns. He nodded solemnly, taking it all in, his eyebrows arching slightly at the “dead son” part. I noticed this reaction only because I was watching for it. Galen’s death carries a peculiar power, potentially as deep as the grief that accompanies it. Over the years I’ve learned to deploy that power in a sort of grief-into-anger-into-action judo. I continue to believe that my attempts to turn dreck into gold give Galen, wherever he is, great satisfaction.

Jerry was an excellent teacher, full of stories, and somehow he imparted a calmness, a sense of control. He grinned and wiggled his index finger in front of my nose. “This is the only thing that will make the gun fire.” I scheduled a second lesson, and as my schoolboy hunting days came back to me, I began to experience the Zen of the whole thing — the stance, the breathing, the focus, the squeeze. Then the acknowledgment from the pistol, which seemed almost jovial once I got used to it. An affirmative punch back at me. There, now. Look what we’ve done!

At the end of that lesson Jerry and I got to chatting. I asked him what he thought about the most recent mass shooting and he said, “It scares me.”

“Really? Scared?”

“Every time these shootings happen, people run out and buy a gun, but not many of them will take the trouble to learn how to use it. Now when I go to the mall I get the creeps. All those guns in pockets and purses.”

A few months after my lessons with Jerry, I was able to purchase a .40-caliber double action/single action pistol in a private sale from the family of a local man, recently deceased. My friend’s woodland retreat rang with gunshots that fall. 

Eventually I attained a modicum of proficiency with my two pistols. They no longer seemed alien or perverse. Shooting had become — dare I say it? — therapeutic. I was mastering the instrument of my suffering. Still, I could no more think of carrying a loaded gun on my person than I could imagine wearing a live chain saw.

Checking his results at the practice range.Damon Winter/The New York Times

Checking his results at the practice range.Damon Winter/The New York Times

Then Betsy DeVos came into my life.

Actually, Parkland came first. In February 2018, following the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., President Trump suggested arming teachers. “You give them a little bit of a bonus,” he said. “So practically for free, you have now made the school into a hardened target.” Then, that August, the Education Department and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that they were considering allowing states to use a grant called the Student Support and Academic Enrichment program to finance the placement of guns in schools. Within a year, Florida and Texas passed bills allowing teachers, or increasing the number of teachers allowed, to carry guns in the classroom. The idea was out there, and it had taken root.

It took root in my imagination as well. Now, in that endless holding pattern of the re-enactment of Galen’s murder, appears Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, eyes wide behind those oversize eyeglasses, pulling a Baby Glock from her purse and going after the shooter. Or in her place, the librarian at the circulation desk, or the janitor. Or me. Again.

Except this time I have another reason for being there. I have a question: If we’re going to give guns to teachers so that they can kill the killers who want to kill the students, how much training will the teachers need to be able to kill the killers without accidentally killing the students they’re supposed to prevent the killers from killing?

I called Jerry.

So it was that I came to find myself engrossed in tactical defensive shooting, which proved to be at least as physically challenging and intellectually complex as mastering a flawless golf swing. My studies were also the occasion of a major surprise.

Jerry, the professional trainer of professional shooters, told me he thought arming teachers was a bad idea but that he’d take me and my project on. We had a relationship by this time and, full disclosure, I was paying him $50 an hour to get some sense of the kind and amount of training that an armed teacher would need to keep his or her students safe.

At first, under the pressure and urgency of my hypothetical teacher training, I had difficulty handling the guns. The Ruger was too small; I felt as if it might fly out of my hands. The .40 was difficult to operate with any speed or facility. I couldn’t accustom myself to the first hard pull on the trigger. To make matters worse, I’m left handed. All the controls for both of the guns were positioned for right-handed shooters.

Toward the end of the second session, Jerry went inside his equipment bag and came out with a pistol that was a little smaller than my .40-caliber. “Try this,” he said. “It’s simpler to operate and it’s ambidextrous.” He put the gun in my hand and it fit in a way the other guns had not. It was a Sig Sauer P320, the gun that had recently been selected as the Army’s official service pistol. I fired two or three rounds, then I didn’t want to give it back. After the lesson ended, I could not stop thinking about how right that gun had felt.

I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I liked that gun. I wanted it.

That was a measure of how far I’d come. I took the Ruger and the .40 down to the gun shop and swapped them for a Sig Sauer P320 chambered in 9 millimeters — identical to the gun Jerry had lent me — and went home feeling a little loopy. Like falling in love for the first time, at least in the sense that I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I liked that gun. I wanted it.

At his friend’s range with the Sig Sauer he decided was right for him.Damon Winter/The New York Times

At his friend’s range with the Sig Sauer he decided was right for him.Damon Winter/The New York Times

My lessons proceeded apace, and after 20 hours of instruction and at least 30 more of practice on my own, I was comfortable enough to park my loaded gun in a hard plastic “appendix holster” inside my belt, beneath my shirt, pressing into my groin. I learned to extract it rapidly and safely, and shoot it more or less accurately, and reload and fire while turning, crouching, ducking in and out of concealment, never, ever, presenting a stationary target.

The only thing standing between me and mastery of tactical defensive shooting was me.

Throughout my training, with disconcerting irregularity, I would experience flashes of intense doubt, echoes of the first bad reaction that had come over me in my friend’s field. I’d be overwhelmed by the realization that my experiment with guns was a childish, self-indulgent fantasy, disrespectful of the life Galen had lost and of all that my family had suffered.

I stuffed gleaming brass slugs into their magazines as if I were fingering prayer beads.

My patient wife had some idea of what I was up to and found it distasteful in the extreme. My son, a burly, bearded contractor who looked like he should be the one with the Sig strapped on, thought I was nuts. A gun had killed his brother. Guns were stupid and awful and there was something fundamentally wrong with people who liked to use them. Of the three of them, my daughter seemed to have the most understanding of my Worsleyan venture. (I often wondered what hiskids thought of what he’d done.) As with all my other advocacy projects, I was expending time and treasure in Galen’s name. My family was proud of me for that, but it could not be denied that the time and treasure thus expended might otherwise have been spent on them.

What I was doing was wrong and it seemed wrongest when I had a gun in my hand, as happened one Saturday afternoon during one of Jerry’s training classes. We were between drills when the feeling came upon me. I stuffed gleaming brass slugs into their magazines as if I were fingering prayer beads and tried to talk myself down. I’m learning about guns so I can better understand the problem of gun violence in America, which will enable me to do a better job advocating against it. (Whatever “it” was — a riddle that grew more complex the more I learned.) Three magazines loaded with 10 rounds apiece. Then on to our next exercise, the mirror drill, in which a full-length mirror is positioned between two shooters. One draws and the other reacts to what he sees in the mirror. Usually it would take three minutes to shoot through a ten-round magazine this way. That day it felt like an hour.

Being the sort of person I am, I combed the literature for information that would help me make sense of what I was feeling. Eventually, inevitably, I encountered the writings of Dave Grossman, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, pioneer researcher and scholar in the field of Killology (his designation, not mine, and a perfect example of his sometimes-tin ear). He is the author of “On Killing” and “On Combat” and is perhaps best known for an idea he discusses in those books that divides everyone into three distinct groups.

“If you have no capacity for violence then you are a healthy productive citizen: a sheep,” he has written. “If you have a capacity for violence and no empathy for your fellow citizens, then you have defined an aggressive sociopath — a wolf. But what if you have a capacity for violence, and a deep love for your fellow citizens? Then you are a sheepdog, a warrior, someone who is walking the hero’s path.”

It seemed corny and unscientific to me. But if, as an actual sheepdog might, you see the world in black and white, its humorless piety, self-righteous rectitude and complete absence of subtlety would seem appealing.

In fairness, Colonel Grossman has done groundbreaking work delving into the psychology and physiology of killing. One of the starting points of his study is the observation that although we have little difficulty bombing whole nations into the Stone Age, we are hard-wired against killing one another face to face. Was that the source of my yips? I was, after all, training to shoot people at close range.

There was another aspect, laid out in exquisite detail by Colonel Grossman, to this business of up-close-and-personal killing. When one is under the extreme stress of having to do so, the forebrain stops giving orders and yields to the hypothalamus, the stress control center. Bladder and colon involuntarily empty, and the autonomic nervous system kicks in. The adrenal glands release potentially damaging levels of cortisol, adrenaline and other hormones. Blood pressure and respiration spike. Time seems to slow; nausea, auditory exclusion, tunnel vision and even temporary physical paralysis may ensue. Jerry never told us about any of that!

Post-Grossman I have a very different scenario of what takes place in my fantasy library in 1992. Professional trainers are largely in agreement that there’s really no predicting how a person will react in a combat situation. No matter how diligently Betsy DeVos and I might have prepared, we’d be in the midst of a giant mess.

That was it for me. I airlifted myself out of there.

Happily, I didn’t die of peritonitis in a hospital in southern Chile. I wound up in a house of worship in northern New England. In the preface to “On Combat,” Colonel Grossman wrote that he spends nearly 300 days a year traveling the country evangelizing the sheepdog mind-set. According to the Sheepdog Seminar website, he was coming soon to a church near Bangor, Me. I decided to go up there and hear what they had to say about the idea of people with guns keeping people safe from people with guns. One foot in front of the other.

A few of us were carrying openly; many more had pistols concealed in baggy cargo pants.

About 150 of us were gathered at Calvary Chapel, a large modern building across the river from Bangor. Mostly men of middle age and beyond, with a smattering of women and teenagers. A few of us were carrying openly; many more had pistols concealed in baggy cargo pants or beneath untucked shirts. Jimmy Meeks, a minister and the director of the seminar, scooted back and forth in front of us, an agitated, white-haired penguin of a man, making Fox News jokes, church jokes about the uselessness of deacons, even a New England Patriots joke about deflation. Then he gave us the real news: Our country was in a season of violence, a holocaust of unprecedented dimension. Immigrants were pouring over the border like a freight train. Angry people were everywhere. “Our Heavenly Father’s heart is broken over the violence,” he announced, looking up toward the presumptive source of this information. “Our Heavenly Father intends to respond to the violence.” He paused for a beat, then turned on the audience. “His response is … you!”

I had some acquaintance with Mr. Meeks. He’d called me shortly after I submitted my online application for the seminar, to tell me that he’d looked me up and learned that there was a Gregory Gibson in my town who’d lost a son in a school shooting. (Being good sheepdogs, I supposed, they researched every seminar applicant who hadn’t been vetted by the sponsoring church.) Was I that Gregory Gibson? I said that I was, and that he could call me Greg, since Gregory was merely my internet moniker, to distinguish me from the Major League Baseball umpire named Greg Gibson. That elicited a cackle and then a moan, as he told me how sorry he was for the unimaginable loss I had suffered. He was calling, he said, because he was concerned that I hadn’t understood the nature of the Sheepdog Seminar. It was primarily about how church people could keep their churches safe, though the information would be useful to anyone. He was worried that I might be traumatized by some of the material in the presentation.

Perhaps it was the twang in his speech, so fresh to my ear. The way he’d said, “It breaks my heart” gave me the feeling that if I had burst into tears at that moment, he would have wept with me. He began telling me his story. He was 61 years old, a retired cop and a preacher, Southern Baptist. There were issues with his family back home in Texas. He wanted so much to be there with them but he couldn’t stop traveling. He was driven by love. His voice wobbled. He took a breath and told me, “I’m a very emotional guy.” Despite my reservations about sheepdogs and preachers, I found myself falling for the Rev. Jimmy Meeks, calling me out of the blue the way he had, to be sure I wouldn’t be traumatized, to tell me how sorry he was for my loss and to share with me a glimpse of his own travails.

On either side of the stage at the front of Calvary Chapel was a big screen. “Matthew 10:17” appeared on both of them. Mr. Meeks read it, loud and slow, to be sure he had our attention. Then, for those of us — probably a minority — who hadn’t memorized chapter and verse, he flashed the text beneath it. “Be on GUARD against men; they will flog you IN their synagogues.” This was followed by a list of 50 headlines, also projected onto the screens, highlighting some of the “811 VIOLENT DEATHS” that had occurred on faith-based property since 1999.

Over the course of the two-day seminar, two case studies were presented and analyzed in detail by people who had shot and killed, or participated in the shooting and killing of, armed persons attempting mass murders. There were important things to be learned from these brave presenters, a great many things, ordered, elucidated and drilled into us by Jimmy Meeks — urging, weeping, scorning, confessing, praying. He called me out at one point, actually called my name and asked me to stand as he told my story, his voice quavering again. Poor planning. No training. Officials in denial. People approached me after that, shyly offering their condolences.

Yes, there would be guns, but the people carrying them would be the right people.

In the evening, at the end of the first day, we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, hands over hearts, sang the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” with lyrics to all the verses projected onto those same screens that had listed the grisly church crimes. Then we prayed, as Jimmy admonished us, “with your eyes open and your heads up!” and I thought how sweet it would be, if Christ had ever come into my life, to be dwelling in the bosom of the church with these strange, earnest people. How comforting it would be to know what to do. To have a plan. Yes, there would be guns, but the people carrying them would be the right people, carefully selected, thoroughly trained. In that moment of communal prayer, I had no doubt that I could trust these people with guns.

Colonel Grossman joined us on the second day of the seminar. He was fit and wiry, constantly in motion, delivering his pitch, very much the military man, punctuating his utterances with “Do you understand?” — as much a command as a question. He had a growly way of speaking and a rhythmic vocal tic, a sort of grunt or “umph” that reminded me of a sheepdog’s affirmative “Ruff!” It pleased me to imagine that after decades of researching, formulating and evangelizing the sheepdog mind-set, Dave Grossman had become one.

He gave a brief pitch for his many books that pertained to the matter at hand. “Why Mommy Carries a Gun” is one title that stuck in my mind. Then he told us what he had learned from training soldiers, from desensitizing them to their natural aversion to killing up close. The terrible news he brought us on this day was that our national video game addiction was creating a generation of killers.

Guns had always been present in our society, he said, but there had been no multiple homicides by a juvenile in schools until the 1970s. Guns didn’t change; we changed. He talked the pioneering work of Dr. James McGee, a co-author of the groundbreaking “Classroom Avenger” study on school shooters. According to Dr. McGee, the one thing these young killers had in common was that they were loners, and, in Colonel Grossman’s telling, immersed themselves in “sicko movies and video games.” He described video games as a form of “pathological play” that rewarded the player for causing death. Colonel Grossman’s take on the research got more dire: Violent visual imagery actually changed the brains of players. Video games were digital crack. The media were taking no responsibility for the content they put out there. The mental health of an entire generation was a stake.

It was a chilling performance. I thought of my 7-year-old grandson, hunched over his tablet, keeping the world safe from zombies.

After it was over, Jimmy Meeks took me up to meet Colonel Grossman. I told him I’d read and been impressed by his work. He thanked me and inscribed a copy of one of his books for me. The book was about video games. It was called “Assassination Generation.”

As it happened, I had business in Washington the week after I attended the Sheepdog Seminar. And as it also happened, I knew Dr. James McGee, the expert to whom Colonel Grossman had alluded. I’d met him 20 years before at a seminar on school safety and threat assessment, and we’d become friends. I decided to visit him at his home outside Baltimore.

He’s a twinkly eyed, avuncular guy, with a record of achievement that belies his genial affect, including service as a recon Marine — their inside joke is that they’re the ones who show up when the SEALS dial 911. He is a trained hostage negotiator, special consultant to the F.B.I.’s critical incident response group, retired director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt Hospital in Baltimore and, charmingly, team psychologist for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1980s, including the year they won the World Series, with a big, clunky World Series ring to show for it.

According to Dr. McGee, giving guns to teachers doesn’t even merit serious discussion except in terms of bad outcomes. Cops become cops because they want to be cops. Teachers, by and large, do not want to become killers. But even in the hands of professionals, there was no guarantee of success. He told me that the accuracy rate of police officers in real gunfights is nothing to be confident about and that the accuracy rate in a classroom would be even worse because of the possibility of collateral damage, whereas the shooter would have no such concern. “Assumption of accuracy is not a deterrent for suicidal people,” he said. In Dr. McGee’s learned opinion, resources would be better spent on hardening targets (which, essentially, was the point of the two days I’d spent at the Sheepdog Seminar) and on threat assessment.

We sat in his living room sipping tea. A fluffy little dog and an exotic bobtail cat, both rescue animals, mooched around looking for treats or pats. Birds sang nesting songs outside and a spring breeze wafted through the room. We talked about Menninger’s triad (wish to die + wish to kill + wish to be killed), the duty of clinicians to warn of serious threats from patients, the work of Dr. David Phillips on cluster suicides, the media’s role in the increasing sophistication of classroom shootings and similarly grotesque topics. Much as the Rev. Jimmy Meeks had quoted scripture and Colonel Grossman had repeated “Do you understand?,” Dr. James McGee ended many of his utterances with “You can look it up.”

We went downstairs and admired his basement full of S-gauge and O-gauge model trains, laid out in switch yards and freight depots and small-town stations, tidy worlds in perfect miniature. We walked back to my car and talked about the road trip we’d take together some day, while we still could, and then I headed south.

That was when the trouble started.

Now, the wrongness of arming teachers was more than a mere notion.

As I drove, I thought about the ground I’d covered since deciding to become a gun owner. I’d assumed that my experiences along the way would lead to a deeper understanding of gun violence in America and that I would emerge at the end of my journey a more effective advocate of gun safety. I was therefore surprised to discover that in a certain sense, I hadn’t made any progress at all. I’d started out believing that giving guns to teachers was a bad idea, and here I was, driving down Interstate 95 thinking that there were things we could do to make schools safer but that giving guns to teachers was not one of them. I’d stumbled around in a circle and come right back to where I’d started.

Now, though, the wrongness of arming teachers was more than a mere notion. I’d tested my ideas with help from Jerry, Colonel Grossman, Mr. Meeks, Dr. McGee, Secretary DeVos and President Trump. (I’d been enraged by his “practically for free” statement about school safety. Only later did I realize how that rage had propelled me.) I’d also tested my theories with all the people I’d spoken with at gun shows, the gun shop clerks and habitués, and my fellow trainees — as good, bad and ugly as any random lot of folks, except that many of them saw no connection between gun violence and their own interest in guns. 

I considered the power of the sad story I’d shared for all those years.

All of them would agree that what happened Friday in Virginia Beach was a revolting tragedy, but what did that have to do with what he was doing? For some, this decoupling of guns and gun violence was accompanied by a link between fear and demand. If the world was a threatening place and gun grabbers were going to make it impossible to get the guns we needed to protect ourselves, didn’t it make sense to get more while we still could? I know. It’s a minuscule sample size, but that’s not the point. There were consequences to all the interacting and information-gathering I’d been doing. What if the beliefs I’d encountered weren’t gun-nut pathology but simply a worldview oriented 180 degrees from the one to which I was accustomed?

I considered the power of the sad story I’d shared for all those years with hungry journalists who gobbled my suffering and pushed out content, and the pink-faced politicians brought to the verge of tears by the recitation of my sorrows, who then went out and voted against me. I considered my friend with the house in the woods. The first time I used his shooting range I asked him — this guy who routinely kills, butchers and eats the animals who share the forest with him — whether he wanted to take a few shots with my Ruger. He looked at the pistol and made a face. “No, thanks,” he said. “I’m good.”

I considered the fact that in hopes of becoming a more effective advocate, I had ceased advocating altogether. Now I was simply bearing witness. Where I’d expected fewer certainties, I discovered many more, and they all came in diametrically opposed pairs. My wife and children and I had lost our beloved Galen in the most hideous, random, wasteful way, and yet I could not see the world as a threatening place. I was a perfect sheep, except for the loaded gun nestled in my crotch.

Blacks and whites of the gun control debate smeared into gray. I’d gotten pretty comfortable with shooting, but even better (I thought!) at living in a perpetual state of cognitive dissonance, as if I had consumed America’s gun problem and now embodied it. But when it came to actual people and realistic approaches to the problem of gun violence, black and white were still worlds apart. Focusing on legislation as a means of reducing gun deaths felt to me like a project for white people — detached from the ways in which systemic racism and economic exclusion drove gun violence. I’d spent a fair amount of time doing advocacy work in urban neighborhoods. From talking with people there, I knew that when your main concern is raising money to bury your 14-year old son or getting the police to investigate the murder of your husband, crafting sensible gun legislation can seem like an afterthought.

I drove on, and the opposing terms in my internalized gun-violence “debate” began canceling one another out. Instead of synthesis or consensus, I was left with nothing. What was the point of advocacy, anyway? It hadn’t worked because it didn’t work. Nothing I could do would rid the world of sociopaths and criminals. By the time I reached my hotel in Washington, I was a wreck. Somehow, inadvertently, I’d succeeded in breaking myself down completely, much as Navy boot camp broke civilian recruits down before building us back up as sailors. I must confess that I experienced a few difficult weeks after my visit with Jim McGee. I’m just beginning to rebuild.

I think I’ll keep shooting. I enjoy it, and I want to see whether I can become more efficient and more accurate. And I’ll resume my advocacy work, but I’m going to go about it differently. As with school safety, there are things we can do to reduce gun deaths. Some of them will require education and cultural change, some can be addressed through legislation. Would every Second Amendment zealot have to lose a child in a preventable gun death to understand the sense in this?

It’s a terrible thought, and one I don’t need to think. I’m thinking instead of Jimmy Meeks’s God telling his flock that they were the answer. More than 125,000 people a year are killed or wounded by guns in America, and each of them is surrounded by friends, relatives and loved ones — a million people a year whose lives will never be the same because of that experience.

According to one poll, 58 percent of American adults have said that they or someone they care for has experienced gun violence. Those are the people I want to talk with now. That’s my church.

Randy Hoover-DempseyLearning More Every Day

Article of the Day: June 1, 2019 Leon Redbone R.I.P

A one-of-a-kind entertainer and a wonderful guitar player. Check him out on Youtube if you haven’t seen or heard him. Well worth your time.

Leon Redbone, Idiosyncratic Throwback Singer, Is Dead at 69

Leon Redbone in performance in Cambridge, England, in 1995. His music defied easy categorization; he was sometimes described as a jazz singer, other times as a folk or pop or blues artist.CreditDave Peabody/Redferns, via Getty Images

Leon Redbone in performance in Cambridge, England, in 1995. His music defied easy categorization; he was sometimes described as a jazz singer, other times as a folk or pop or blues artist.CreditCreditDave Peabody/Redferns, via Getty Images

By Neil Genzlinger

Leon Redbone, who burst onto the pop-music scene in the mid-1970s with a startlingly throwback singing style and a look to go with it, favoring songs from bygone eras drolly delivered, died on Thursday in Bucks County, Pa. He was 69.

His family announced the death on his website. A specific cause of death was not given, but Mr. Redbone had retired from performing in 2015 because of ill health.

Toting an acoustic guitar, his face generally half-hidden by a Panama hat and dark glasses, Mr. Redbone channeled performers and songwriters from ragtime, Delta blues, Tin Pan Alley and more, material not generally heard by the rock generation. His music defied easy categorization; he was sometimes described as a jazz singer, other times as a folk or pop or blues artist. He sang in a deep, gravelly voice that combined singing and mumbling, but he also deployed a falsetto of sorts on occasion.

He began turning up on the coffeehouse circuit in Toronto in the 1960s and developed a cult following. He broke through to a larger audience in late 1975 with his first album, “On the Track,” which included songs like “My Walking Stick,” by Irving Berlin, and “Lazybones,” by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer. His sound was unique for the era, as The New York Times noted in a January 1976 article about the record and its producer, Joel Dorn:Leon Redbone – “Walking Stick” Live at the 1973 Buffalo Folk FestivalCreditCreditVideo by OfficialTMR

“Redbone, who in his nightclub appearances plays the role of a grinning, almost catatonic folkie, will undoubtedly confound many, but Dorn has certainly given him his due in a completely ungimmicked musical setting.”

The album earned Mr. Redbone two appearances on “Saturday Night Live” in 1976, during the show’s first season. Fifteen more albums followed, most recently “Flying By” in 2014. Mr. Redbone also sang the theme songs for the television series “Mr. Belvedere” and “Harry and the Hendersons,” was heard on various commercials, and provided the voice of an animated snowman in the 2003 movie “Elf.”

His stage persona remained consistent for his entire career, as did his determination to reveal little about his personal life or background. The announcement of his death said he “crossed the delta for that beautiful shore at the age of 127.”

He was actually born on Aug. 26, 1949, in Cyprus. An authoritative article in The Oxford American this year said his parents had relocated there from the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem after the new Israeli government seized their property. Mr. Redbone’s birth name, the article said, was Dickran Gobalian, though he always remained elusive about that and other details of his life.

“When he broke onto the scene in the early ’70s, no one knew where the hell he came from, and he liked it that way,” Loudon Wainwright III, who was paired with him on bills back then and again more recently, said by email. “Somebody once saw a Canadian passport, I think, but Redbone refused to be pinned down.”

By the mid-1960s Mr. Redbone was living in Toronto, and, self-taught on the guitar, he began performing at folk clubs and coffeehouses. A pivotal moment came in 1972, when Bob Dylan noticed him at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Ontario and was so impressed that he talked of producing his first album. That didn’t happen, but Mr. Dylan did commend Mr. Redbone to Rolling Stone in a 1974 interview.

“Leon interests me,” he said. “I’ve heard he’s anywhere from 25 to 60, I’ve been this close” — Mr. Dylan here held his hands a foot and a half apart — “and I can’t tell. But you gotta see him. He does old Jimmie Rodgers, then turns around and does a Robert Johnson.”

Mr. Redbone was by that time playing at larger halls and festivals and was being paired on bills with Tom Rush, John Prine, Mr. Wainwright and others.

“Mr. Redbone does amusing, funky old blues songs with a sly gentleness that almost amounts to parody,” John Rockwell wrote in The Times in 1974, reviewing a performance at the Bottom Line in Manhattan, “but so lovingly and exactly that he can only invite affection.”

His other albums included “Double Time” (1977), “No Regrets” (1988) and “Up a Lazy River” (1992).

Mr. Redbone, who lived in New Hope, Pa., is survived by his wife, Beryl Handler, who acted as his manager; two daughters, Blake and Ashley; and three grandchildren.

In a 1996 interview with The Las Vegas Sun, Mr. Redbone spoke of what he was trying to achieve with his performances and his eclectic song selections.

“It’s painting something, it’s you creating a mood,” he said. “You can create a mood anywhere you want, with colors, noise, yelling and screaming. I myself prefer serenity, calm, peace and quiet.”A version of this article appears in print on May 30, 2019, on Page A24 of the New York edition with the headline: Leon Redbone, 69, Idiosyncratic Throwback Singer Who Piqued Bob Dylan’s Interest. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe
Randy Hoover-DempseyLearning More Every Day