About Me

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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Buying AK-47s in Bulk

The National Rifle Association (NRA) is filing a lawsuit against the Burearu of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF).  In a nutshell, the NRA is protesting a federal law that would require gun vendors to report bulk sales of AK-47s, AR-15s, and other semiautomatic rifles.  Representatives from the NRA claim that semiautomatic rifles aren't explicitly covered under existing gun control laws (which require vendors to report bulk sales of handguns), and therefore, want vendors to retain ultimate discretion over reporting/not-reporting semiautomatic rifle sales.

The AK-47: The gun of choice for revolutionaries across the world
The ATF is arguing that these policies would curb the illicit flow of guns--particularly high-powered rifles--into the hands of Mexican drug cartels.  This law is one of many that reflects a growing awareness of how much criminal groups (and individuals) rely on "straw buying" to get their guns.  For those who aren't familiar, straw buying or straw purchasing is a process in which someone with a clean record legally buys guns and then sells them to an illicit gun dealer or someone whose criminal record prevents them from legally buying a gun.  Although there is some murkiness over how many straw purchased guns eventually get used in homicides, assaults, and other crimes, there is quite a bit of evidence showing that straw buying is one of the main ways that criminals get guns.  At first a big and contentious issue at the state level, these debates are increasingly gaining steam at the federal level, particularly as cartel-related gun violence has started trickling into many towns across the US-Mexico border.

On one level, I see the logic in these kinds of gun control laws.  It seems reasonable to assume that if vendors have to be more transparent in their reporting, it could be harder for criminal organizations to get their guns in bulk.  After all, at a local and state level, law enforcement are also arguing that stricter penalties for individuals caught making straw purchases has helped reduce the underground trafficking of guns.

victims of a Mexican drug cartel
However, another side of me believes that there could be some interesting hidden motivations underlying these "crackdown" campaigns.  Like other crackdown campaigns, the ATF seems especially motivated to play a strong hand for gun control in he wake of recent operations flubs.  For instance, in the fall of 2009, the Phoenix, AZ division of the ATF knowingly allowed 2,000+ illicit firearms to travel across the US-Mexico border.  The gameplan was simple:  Follow these guns up the drug cartel food chain.

The problem, however, is that this program, "Operation Fast and Furious," failed to deliver.  In fact, critics are arguing that this plan was more of a botched experiment than a  smart tactical move.  In addition to minimal intelligence gathered on higher-ups in cartels, the ATF also apparently lost tabs on many of these guns, and in a case that is equally tragic and embarrassing for the ATF, 2 of these firearms were eventually traced back to the murder of a border patrol agent.

Guns seized from a cartel: How many of these came from the US?
I'm not sure if the ATF actually believes that stricter reporting laws will actually do anything to curb gun violence along the US-Mexico border.  In my opinion, the jury is still out on this one.  Maybe I'm being overly skeptical, but I feel like cartels capable of trafficking tons of drugs via boat, plane, etc. can find alternative ways to get their guns.  To me, these laws seem to be as much about creating some positive PR for an institution that has recently dropped the ball...What do you all think?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Getting Choked Unconscious

I got choked unconscious yesterday.  Don't worry, I wasn't a victim of a serial strangler.  Instead, I fell victim to a bow-and-arrow-choke (see below), a nasty submission move in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

I've been training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) for the past 6 months.  I love it.  I haven't loved a physical sport/activity as much since I first got into popping, back in 1999.  I train about 5-6 times per week at Balance Studios in Philadelphia, PA.  I can't say enough good things about Balance Studios.  People are very friendly; the instructors are top-notch; the atmosphere is low-key and unpretentious; and to top if off, people are really good at BJJ! 

World Champ, Ruben "Cobrinha" Charles does a bow-and-arrow choke
Typically, classes begin with about 30 minutes of drilling techniques.  This is a part of class in which you pair off with someone and work on a series of techniques.  On some days, you learn a sequence of submission moves that you can apply to an opponent; on other days, you learn various ways of defending and escaping moves and positions in which you are not safe.  This part of the class is then followed by 30-60 minutes of "rolling," a term for live sparring with a partner. 

Unlike other martial arts in which there is hardly (if any) sparring with resistance, BJJ really forces you to put the skills you've learned to the test.  Rolling is designed to simulate a situation that closely mirrors what you might expect in a real life self defense situation, or during a live BJJ competition.  As such, anybody who has rolled for a good amount of time can attest to how important it is for learning how to execute certain moves under duress.  I've figured out that many of the moves that flow seamlessly while drilling are quite a bit more difficult to pull off when somebody is resisting your moves.  I've also started learning how to make certain moves work for me. 

Rolling, however, has also been an interesting experience because it has allowed me to confront my own pain threshold.  For example, while rolling, people get you in moves that if executed fully (without submitting) can maim, permanently injure, or even become fatal.  Of course, the point of rolling is not to do any of these things to your opponent.  In fact, rolling--like other kinds of sparring and practice--typically has a very collegial and collaborative spirit.  At Balance, many of my rolling partners help explain weaknesses in my game, and are very sharing with their knowledge. 

Yesterday, however, I got my first live experience of what can happen if you are put in a submission move and do not submit in time. While doing drills, a training partner put me in a bow-and-arrow choke (see above picture).  This particular training partner has had me in this move probably 100 times.  Most times, I try to resist and get submitted.  Occasionally, I'm able to squirm out of said position (which usually results in me being put in another submission, or another bad position).  I won't pretend to know all of the ins-and-outs of how to execute the bow-and-arrow choke, but in lay terms it's a really effective version of what you might know as the "sleeper hold."  Like other chokes in BJJ, the bow-and-arrow choke is designed to disrupt blood flow to the brain by constricting the carotid arteries on your neck.

Protect Ya Neck! (Wu Tang Clan
When it's done properly, this move (like so many others in BJJ) strikes with amazing quickness and efficiency.  In addition to the sudden loss of blood flow to your noggin' (which is accompanied by a sudden loss of vision and an overall tingling feeling that runs across one's entire body), the move can be quite painful. In applying the choke, the person doing the move to you wraps the lapel of your gi tightly around your throat and neck.  If this gi is particularly coarse, it can feel as if someone is taking a piece of rope and strangling you with it.   

I've had the (mis)fortune of being put in this move several times by my training partner.  In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is one of his favorite moves.  Up until yesterday, I knew exactly when to submit.  Typically, after trying to counter his submission moves, I experience the early onset of being choked unconscious.  My vision starts to blur, my entire body begins to feel heavy, and I start to experience what I imagine to be similar to the "K-Hole," an out-of-body experience that users of Ketamine (an animal tranquilizer) report while high.  This prompts me to tap my partner on the leg, shoulder, etc...which is followed by a release of the move. 

Yesterday I found myself in familiar waters.  As his choke became tighter, I began to feel all of the early symptoms of unconsciousness.  My legs felt heavy.  My vision started blurring.  Everything slowed down...

...And then, I woke up!  I opened my eyes and was confused and disoriented.  My training partner was looking at me with a concerned face, motioning for me to not sit up too quickly.  I then scanned a row of other guys at my gym, staring down at me.  In those first moments, I couldn't recognize any of them.  I've seen and trained with many of these guys for the past half year, and felt for a brief moment that I was staring at a row of complete strangers!  

Side control aka a "bad place to be if you're the guy on your back!"
Within 10 seconds or so, I began to realize that I was at my gym and that I was in the middle of drilling how to escape a position called "side control." As I removed my mouthpiece and began taking a drink of water from my water bottle, I began to think about what had just transpired. 

My training partner told me that he felt me resisting the move and then in a flash, my body went limp.  This is when he released the move.  He also told me that I was unconscious for only a second or two, and that after being out, I woke up chewing on my mouthpiece.  This is the part of the experience that literally blew my mind: the 1-2 seconds in which I was unconscious felt like an hour or two.  I woke up feeling refreshed and vaguely recall having some sort of dream while laying there unconscious.  Earlier that day, while working in my home office, the song "Give Me Everything" by Pitbull came onto my Pandora station (Long story short, I have found that electronic music helps me get into a writing flow--but that is for another post).  Anyways, while unconscious, I remember having some sort of dream in which I was at a dance club and this song came on.  I don't remember if I was dancing, drinking, hanging out, or what, but I do remember this song blaring in my head during those brief moments when I was out...

Anyways, that's about it for me.  This experience and all of my training has lead me back to re-reading "Body & Soul" by Loic Wacquant.  For anyone interested, it's an interesting ethnographic study in which a sociologist describes his process of becoming a boxer in a Southside Chicago gym.  And for those interested, here's a link to the Pitbull song that was playing during my "nap."