Friday, February 21, 2014

Building codes - brutally violated!

Today, I learned that an investigation of building construction practices in schools hit by the 20 May 2013 tornado in Moore, OK showed the schools were egregiously in violation of building codes.  Seven children died in the Plaza Towers school.  So how can this be happening?

The sad fact is that to anyone with any knowledge of construction practices, doing damage surveys virtually anywhere across the USA will understand how pervasive building code violations are in this nation.  When I participated in the FEMA Building Performance and Assessment Team (BPAT) survey of damage in Moore after the 3 May 1999 tornado in the company of a team of civil engineers, I was appalled by how widespread building code violations were in the rubble of the damage tracks I walked.  I have seen similar things outside of Oklahoma.  It's truly disgraceful how bad construction practices are in the USA.  And they have not changed appreciably since 1999, sadly.

Rural construction often is done in the absence of any local building codes.  But in most communities, local governments have adopted the standards of the American Society of Civil Engineers, more or less verbatim.  Through most of the US, the standard is that structures built to code should suffer no structural damage in winds of up to 90 miles per hour.  It can be argued (and I've done so) that in the tornado-prone parts of the USA, this requirement should be upgraded to match those in hurricane-prone parts of the US eastern and Gulf of Mexico coasts (120 mph).

But, as has been suggested by Tim Marshall, and by my own experience in damage surveys, many if not most structures in the USA aren't even built to that minimal code!  I repeat - how can this be happening?  It seems to me that there are at least three reasons for this blatant disregard of public safety.

Reason #1:  The builders have no financial incentive to build homes properly.  Homeowners typically have no clue about how to evaluate the structural integrity of their homes, and likely never paid any mind to what was actually going on at their homesite when the home was being constructed.  Building to code takes extra time and incurs additional cost for materials.  The builders often seek and are granted "exemptions" from various aspects of the building code by the community politicians.  Homebuilder profits increase when corners are cut and the code violations accumulate.  And some of them simply take outright illegal shortcuts to pad their profits. 

Reason #2:  There's no builder accountability for building code violations.  If the builder is sued for negligence, the company declares bankruptcy and there's nowhere to go for financial redress via the law.  The owner walks away scot-free, perhaps to form a new company and resume the same practices, without penalty.  Corporations and LLCs are created specifically for their executives to avoid personal liability for the practices of their companies.  The company assets can be seized, but the owners are free of accountability.  This is wrong in the case of builders, and needs to be addressed.  Repeat violations should result in the owners being charged and prosecuted as criminals!

Reason #3:  Code enforcement is not even marginally adequate.  Community politicians either don't care about building code violations or they may have been "convinced" by the homebuilders to oppose any attempt to strengthen building codes and/or code enforcement.  Code enforcement is limited by the need for multiple inspections as the structures are built, and inadequate staffing to do a rigorous job.  Code enforcers often join the construction industry in saying "Trust us, everything going on that you don't see is being done properly."  Unfortunately, the sad reality is that this is simply a monstrous lie. 

If you want your structure built to meet code, you essentially need to teach yourself what are proper construction practices and then be on-site every day as the builders work, to ensure they aren't taking code-violating shortcuts.  There are a few scrupulous homebuilders, but endorsements and certifications aren't reliable indicators of their commitment to proper construction practices.   You need to more concerned about structural integrity (and drainage, proper plumbing, and electrical) than about the granite kitchen countertop and the fancy fixtures in the bathroom.  Building in a saferoom as a storm shelter is much easier and less expensive when the home is being built than fitting one in retroactively.

If you don't have any idea of how your home was built, it's probably safe to assume it does not meet even minimal code requirements.  Likewise, the schools your children attend are probably in violation of code requrements - likewise for churches, workplaces, shopping centers, stores, community buildings, entertainment venues, and so on.  It's likely that finding and repairing all the code violations in your home (or other structures) would be so expensive, you'd never be able to afford it.  It's fortunate that the chances of your home being hit by the violent winds of a violent tornado are pretty small on an annual basis.  Most of the time, routine safety precautions will be enough to save your lives.  But every year, someone is hit by a violent tornado, and in some events, routine safety precautions aren't sufficient to save your lives.  Do you have an adequate tornado shelter?  Some unscrupulous shelter companies sell products that aren't sufficiently well-built to provide "near absolute" safety, so shelter buyers should do some homework and not accept claims at face value.

As it stands, there's little hope for a short-term solution to code violations.  The only way this can change even in the long-term is for concerned citizens to rally around the cause of putting some teeth into codes and code enforcement.  If we stay at "business as usual" the problem will never go away.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Some more thoughts about gun violence in the USA

The issue of gun violence continues to plague the USA.  Many so-called "gun rights activists" refuse  even to consider the possibility of enhancing gun control legislation.  For them, it's a black and white issue:  any proposal to increase the controls on guns is immediately resisted vigorously and rejected out of hand with no possibility of compromise.  No civil discussion is possible.

I've discussed certain aspects of this problem here and prefer not to raise those points again.  Recently, in some e-discussions, certain additional points have been raised and I want to discuss them.  It's pretty clear that those already engaged in crime (drug dealing, gangbanging, burglary, organized crime, etc.) can obtain firearms without any regard for gun control laws.  They're already breaking laws, so what concern would they have for laws governing legal access to firearms?  For sure, no laws will prevent them from arming themselves.

But what about gun violence perpetrated by people with no obvious prior connection to criminal activity?  These are "responsible" gun owners, with nothing on their record to suggest that they would use guns irresponsibly or to commit a crime - until they do so.  Someone I know has indicated that if they commit a crime with a firearm, they were "criminals" even before that criminal act!  This is incomprehensible illogic - how can they be criminals before they commit a crime?  The idea reminds me of the movie Minority Report!

So if we exclude from legal gun ownership the usual suspects:  convicted felons, diagnosed psychotics, children under some reasonable age (say, 18), known terrorists, gang members, organized crime members, etc. - then what we have left are people who have not yet forfeited the right to keep and bear arms legally.  Of course, some percentage of those not excluded will, in the future, commit crimes using firearms.  By what means might we identify such people before they go outside the law and obtain one or more firearms, ammunition, and other paraphernalia associated with using firearms for a criminal act?  Short of the pre-cognitive capability of those in the sci-fi movie Minority Report, the simple answer is, unfortunately, we can't.

Even if we somehow could prevent them from obtaining firearms, they might use some alternative weapon to cause bodily harm:  knives, bricks, baseball bats, hockey sticks, poisons, martial arts, etc.  However, guns clearly are brutally efficient killing machines.  The likelihood of killing someone you've attacked goes up considerably if you use a firearm rather than any of these alternatives.  Guns are tools and by themselves are mostly harmless (save for the relatively rare accidental discharge).  Thus, the usual argument is "Guns don't kill people.  People kill people."  But when people use guns to kill (even accidentally), they're far more likely to kill than with other weapons.  Suicide attempts with firearms are much more likely to be successful.  For me, at least, to say guns don't kill people sounds weak when you read how often people are killed with firearms in the USA.

I don't know the percentages, but I think it's safe to say that those responsible people who'll go on to commit a violent crime are in the minority.  Hence, I believe that a majority of people will, in fact, obey gun control laws, precisely because they're law-abiding people.  If we make gun control more strict, the net result will be to reduce/limit gun ownership, of course.  One of the many ways criminals in the USA can obtain guns is by stealing them from others or by buying them from those who steal them.  The widespread ownership of guns in this country means that thieves can obtain guns to sell on the black market in the process of burglarizing many homes where guns are kept.  Guns are a high priority for burglars precisely because they command good money on the black market, where many criminal potential buyers do their "shopping".  When a homeowner's guns aren't kept in a locked cabinet, they're readily accessible - thieves know where people usually hide their firearms and search efficiently for hidden weapons.  I know this personally, because thieves have stolen guns I owned.

The argument that law-abiding people arm themselves in self-defense against gun criminals makes it more likely that criminals will be armed!  In turn, this can convince even more people to own guns.  A society where most people own and bear arms is not a peaceful society!  It's a society, like that of Afghanistan, dominated by violence and death.  More gun ownership cannot possibly be a solution to gun violence, regardless of the claims of the gun rights activists!  Even arming the police is not a solution, in part because criminals can use equal or even greater firepower against the police, and police are known on occasions to use deadly force inappropriately.  Armed police (and armed citizenry) simply encourage criminals to be armed!  This is the logic behind the lack of firearms among most British police, in a nation with very strict gun control laws.

The prevalence of gun ownership in the USA also means that thieves are usually armed in the process of burglary.  They don't want to be cornered and captured by some homeowner with a baseball bat or a gun.  Thus, even the seemingly nonviolent crime of robbery is closely coupled to the threat of gun violence.  Personally, if gun ownership was even more tightly limited by new gun control legislation, I would gladly give up my guns.  I'm not so besotted with love of guns that I'd prefer to be shot down in a battle with police rather than to surrender my firearms.  Anyone who would choose that alternative as a reality and not just an empty slogan doesn't deserve the right to own firearms, in my opinion - such a viewpoint indicates a kind of psychosis.  The notion of armed militias fighting a noble pitched battle with an evil government seeking to restrict their civil right to own firearms is absurd and childish, and flies in the face of the firepower a government could bring to bear.  Ask the Branch Davidians ...

One thing I would like to see is the implementation of laws that include consequences for irresponsible gun owners - even those who've not yet committed violent crimes with firearms.  For instance, if you keep your guns in your house in such a way that your children (or burglars) can gain access to them, you have your ownership rights restricted.  If you accidentally discharge your weapon and someone is injured or killed as a result, your right to own a weapon should be limited.  Multiple offenses should lead to eventual prohibition of legal gun ownership.  Being irresponsible with firearms should be considered a criminal act - one with consequences!  Carelessness with guns should be reflected in your background, so when you go to buy a firearm and undergo a background check, that information would be there for the seller to see.

Our heavily armed society is taking us closer and closer to the Afghanistan model, with serious consequences for pervasive gun violence that threatens all of us.  Yes, I concur that stricter gun control won't stop criminals, but it might keep at least most otherwise responsible people from becoming criminals!