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July 16, 2013

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The Staff of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence

April 30, 2013

How the NRA Arms Criminals

While zealously promoting the most permissive of gun laws, the National Rifle Association (NRA) seems to at least pay lip service to the concept of keeping firearms away from dangerous people. Take for example, the words of NRA President David Keene, who says his organization wants to “keep guns out of the hands of potential killers.” But in truth not only does the NRA oppose laws that would prevent criminals from obtaining firearms in the first place, it goes a step further and supports efforts to restore “gun rights” to individuals who have lost them because of dangerous and/or violent behavior.

Here’s four ways the NRA ensures that “bad guys” will always have easy access to guns:

1) Opposition to Background Checks. Following the mass shooting at Columbine in 1999, the NRA actually supported efforts to require background checks on the private sales of firearms. Today, however, the NRA has flipped 180 degrees and adamantly opposes any and all efforts to expand background checks. Their opposition is in part due to the claim that background checks would place an undue burden on “the little guy,” meaning average law-abiding citizens. Law-abiding citizens, however, have no problems passing background checks. And approximately 90% of background checks are completed in a matter of minutes, so no “burden” exists.

Meanwhile, a study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that nearly 80% of prison inmates incarcerated for gun-related crimes acquired their guns through private transactions. [U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Survey of Inmates in State and Federal Correctional Facilities,” 2004; and Daniel Webster, Jon Vernick, Emma McGinty, and Ted Alcorn, “Preventing the Diversion of Guns to Criminals through Effective Firearm Sales Laws” in “Reducing Gun Violence in America: Informing Policy with Evidence and Analysis,” 2013, p. 110.]

We know that background checks work. Between 1994 and 2009, background checks conducted by federally licensed firearms dealers prevented nearly two million prohibited purchasers (i.e., convicted felons, those under active restraining orders for domestic abuse, dangerous mentally ill individuals, etc.) from buying guns. Still the NRA did everything in its power to make sure the recent Toomey-Manchin amendment—which would have required background checks on all private sales of firearms through “commercial” venues like gun shows and websites—failed in the Senate. The NRA’s efforts included grading all the votes on the amendment (including procedural ones) and sending a letter to Senators that called the campaign to expand background checks “misguided.”

2) Support for “Restoration” Programs. Prohibited under federal law from buying guns because of dangerous behavior? No problem, the NRA believes in second chances. In 1986, the NRA-drafted Firearm Owners Protection Act significantly altered federal law by allowing states to restore gun purchasing/ownership rights to convicted felons. Since that time, the NRA has lobbied aggressively in the states to establish such restoration programs.

Today, restoration is automatic for non-violent felons in at least 11 states. Several other states allow violent felons to petition to have their gun purchasing/ownership rights restored. The application and review process in many of these states is often superficial and deeply flawed.

For example, in 2001, three police officers in Minneapolis were shot and wounded by a convicted murderer whose gun rights had been restored automatically in 1987. He had served a six-and-a-half year prison sentence for killing his estranged wife and a family friend with a shotgun. Then there was the case of Mitchell W. Reed from the state of Washington. He was disqualified from purchasing/owning firearms after a 1984 felony cocaine conviction (he also had seven prior misdemeanor convictions, including for assault). Nonetheless, in 2003, he successfully petitioned to get his gun rights back in Snohomish County Superior Court. The following year, he began to physically abuse his wife, growing progressively more violent with each attack. He was then arrested in 2009 and charged with harassing and threatening to kill his wife’s ex-husband. While those charges were pending, he was again arrested, this time on second-degree assault charges after he beat up and tried to strangle his wife. He eventually pleaded guilty to third-degree assault and intimidating a witness, as well as fourth-degree assault and harassment.

3) Protecting Arsenals of Domestic Abusers. The NRA also makes it difficult to remove firearms from violent individuals under active restraining orders for domestic abuse. In 1994, Congress passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which forbid most domestic abusers subject to full restraining orders from purchasing or possessing firearms. However, lobbying pressure from the NRA caused lawmakers to exclude individuals facing temporary orders of protection.

While some states like California, Hawaii, and Massachusetts do require the surrender of firearms by individuals under temporary protection orders, efforts to enact similar legislation in other states have been blocked by the NRA. The results in those states are often ugly.

For example, in 2012 Washington resident Stephanie Holten received a temporary order of protection against her ex-husband. It did not require him to surrender his guns. The day the order was filed, Holten came home with her children to find her ex-husband waiting for them with a semiautomatic rifle. Luckily, she was able to call 911 and first responders arrived before anyone was harmed. Others have not been so lucky... In July 2010, Oklahoma resident Barbara Dye received an emergency order of protection against her husband, who she was in the process of divorcing. Two weeks later, her husband shot and killed her in a parking lot with a revolver.

Guns and domestic violence are a toxic combination. Approximately a quarter of women murdered every year are murdered with a firearm by their intimate partner. According to a study in Criminal Justice Review, one out of every five women slain by an intimate partner had a protective order against their killer. Despite these tragedies, the NRA continues to shut down legislation that would mandate that those under temporary protective orders surrender their firearms.

4) Altering Standards by which Courts Evaluate Gun Laws. Having failed to convince the U.S. Supreme Court to broaden the level of scrutiny gun laws face in this country (an argument they pushed in their amicus brief in the 2008 case of D.C. v. Heller), the NRA is now pushing state courts to do so.

The NRA has already accomplished this goal in Louisiana with Amendment 2, which was passed by legislative ballot referendum in November 2012. Amendment 2 subjects gun laws to “strict scrutiny,” which is the highest level of legal scrutiny. When a law is subject to strict scrutiny, it is presumed to be unconstitutional until proven otherwise—the same level of judicial protection that the right to free speech and racial equality receive.

Only an extremist would suggest that Amendment 2 is vindicating constitutional rights intended by our Founders, however. On March 21, 2013, Orleans Parish Judge Darryl Derbigny dismissed the case of convicted felon Glen Draughter, who had been caught riding in a car with a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson and an AK-47 with a 30-round magazine. Derbigny ruled that banning felons from owning firearms is unconstitutional under the strict scrutiny standard of review required by Amendment 2.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, who had promoted Amendment 2 as “an ironclad guarantee of freedom” prior to the ballot referendum, suddenly didn’t agree with what it had wrought. After Derbigny’s ruling, the Jindal administration put out a statement saying, “We disagree with the judge’s ruling. The amendment passed last session is not in conflict with Louisiana or federal law barring felons from owning guns.” The governor should have realized that it’s “buyer beware” when you let the NRA write your state’s gun laws.

The NRA doesn’t shame easily, however, and is pushing similar legislative ballot referendums in Minnesota, South Dakota, Iowa, Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Alabama.

With gun industry executives sitting directly on its Board of Directors, and millions of dollars rolling into its coffers every year in direct corporate contributions from the industry, the NRA is interested in one thing and one thing only: profit. And at the end of the day, the money made from a gun sale is the same whether that sale is made to a “good guy” or “bad guy.” It’s time to get the fox out of the chicken coop and allow gun policy to be written by those with a legitimate interest in the safety of America’s families. Until then, expect the NRA to continue with its efforts to exploit the criminal market for financial gain.

March 20, 2013

Mass Shootings by "Good Guys"

Inevitably, when a gruesome mass shooting occurs in the United States, the gun lobby responds by stating that any reforms to our gun laws aimed at preventing future tragedies would affect only “responsible, law-abiding citizens.” Indeed, in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee on January 30, 2013, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre responded to the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary by declaring, "Law-abiding gun owners will not accept blame for the acts of deranged criminals."

But what about when the deranged criminals who kill innocent Americans en masse are “law-abiding gun owners” and “good guys,” at least as defined by contemporary American gun laws, which are the weakest in the civilized world?

To be clear, the overwhelming majority of modern mass shootings were committed by Americans who legally purchased the firearms they used to kill with. Mother Jones analyzed 62 mass shootings that have taken place in the United States since 1982. Of the 142 guns possessed by those killers, more than three-quarters were obtained legally.

The following is a compilation of mass shootings by legally armed killers:

  • September 27, 2012 – Andrew Engeldinger kills seven and injures one in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

  • August 5, 2012 – Wade Michael Page kills seven and injures three in Oak Creek, Wisconsin with a gun purchased from a federal firearms licensed dealer in nearby West Allis.

  • July 20, 2012 – James Holmes kills twelve and injures fifty-eight in Aurora, Colorado with guns purchased over the Internet and from gun shops.

  • May 20, 2012 – Ian Stawicki kills six and injures one in Seattle, Washington with guns purchased from Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply in Tacoma, Washington.

  • April 2, 2012 – One L. Goh kills seven and injures three in Oakland, California with a gun purchased from Bullseye in Castro Valley, California.

  • February 22, 2012 – Jeong Soo Paek kills five in Norcross, Georgia.

  • October 14, 2011 – Scott Evans Dekraai kills eight and injures one in Seal Beach, California.

  • January 8, 2011 – Jared Lee Loughner kills six and injures thirteen in Tucson, Arizona with a gun purchased from Sportsman’s Warehouse in Tucson.

  • August 3, 2010 – Omar Thornton kills nine and injures two in Manchester, Connecticut with guns purchased from a dealer in East Windsor, Connecticut.

  • November 5, 2009 – Nidal Malik Hassan kills thirteen and injures thirty in Fort Hood, Texas with a gun purchased from a gun shop in Killeen, Texas.

  • April 3, 2009 – Jiverly Wong kills fourteen and injures four in Binghamton, New York with guns purchased from Gander Mountain in New York.

  • March 29, 2009 – Robert Stewart kills eight and injures three in Carthage, California.

  • June 25, 2008 – Wesley Neal Higdon kills six and inures one in Henderson, Kentucky with guns purchased online and from retailers in Champlaign, Illiniois.

  • February 14, 2008 - Steven Phillip Kazmierczak kills six and injures twenty-one in DeKalb, Illinois with guns purchased from Tony’s Gun & Ammo in Champaign, Illinois and from a website operated by TGSCOM, Inc.

  • October 7, 2007 – Tyler Peterson kills six and injures one in Crandon, Wisconsin with a gun given to him by the Forrest County Sheriff’s Department.

  • April 16, 2007 – Seung-Hui Cho kills thirty-three and injures seventeen in Blacksburg, Virginia with guns purchased from a website operated by TGSCOM, Inc.

  • October 2, 2006 – Charles Carl Roberts kills six and injures five in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania with guns purchased from local gun stores in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.

  • March 25, 2006 – Kyle Huff kills six and wounds two at a rave afterparty in Seattle, Washington with guns purchased at sporting goods stores in Kalispell, Montana.

  • January 30, 2006 – Jennifer Sanmarco kills eight in Goleta, California with a gun purchased from a pawn shop in Grants and Gallup, New Mexico.

  • March 12, 2005 – Terry Michael Ratzmann kills six and injures one in Brookfield, Wisconsin with a gun purchased from a gun dealer in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

  • July 8, 2003 – Douglas Williams kills seven and injures eight in Meridian, Mississippi with guns purchased from a private dealer.

  • February 5, 2001 – William D. Baker kills five and injures four in Melrose Park, Illinois with guns that were purchased from Pepper Sports in Glen Ellyn, Illinois.

  • December 26, 2000 – Michael McDermott kills seven in Wakefield, Massachusetts with guns purchased from gun stores in Massachusetts.

  • December 30, 1999 – Silvio Leyva kills five and injures three in Tampa, Florida with guns purchased from Big E’s in Tampa, Florida.

  • November 2, 1999 – Bryan Uyesugi kills seven in Honolulu, Hawaii with a gun he legally purchased ten years earlier.

  • September 15, 1999 – Larry Gene Ashbrook kills eight and injures seven in Fort Worth, Texas with guns purchased from federally licensed firearms dealers seven years earlier.

  • July 29, 1999 – Mark O. Barton kills nine and injures thirteen in Atlanta, Georgia with guns purchased from a gun store in Warner Robins, Georgia.

  • March 6, 1998 – Matthew Beck kills five in Newington, Connecticut with a 9mm pistol that he had a permit for.

  • December 18, 1997 – Arturo Reyes Torres kills five and injures two in Orange, California with guns purchased from B&E Gun Sales in Orange County, California.
  • February 9, 1996 – Clifton McCree kills six and injures one in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

  • April 3, 1995 – James Daniel Simpson kills six in Corpus Christi, Texas.

  • June 20, 1994 – Dean Allen Melburg kills six and injures twenty-three in Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington.

  • December 7, 1993 – Colin Ferguson kills six and injures nineteen in Long Island, New York with a gun purchased at Turner’s Outdoorsmen in California.

  • August 6, 1993 – Kenneth Junior French kills four and injures eight in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

  • July 1, 1993 – Gian Luigi Ferri kills nine and injures six in San Francisco, California with guns purchased at Super Pawn and Pacific Tactical Weapons in Las Vegas.

  • October 15, 1992 – John T. Miller kills five in Watkins Glen, New York with a gun purchased from Mumford Sports in Lichfield, Ohio.

  • May 1, 1992 – Eric Houston kills four and injures ten in Olivehurst, California with guns purchased from a local gun retailer.

  • November 14, 1991 – Thomas McIlvane kills five and injures five in Royal Oak, Michigan with a gun purchased from a local gun retailer.

  • November 1, 1991 – Gang Lu kills six and injures one in Iowa City, Iowa with a gun purchased from Fin & Feather in Iowa City, Iowa.

  • October 16, 1991 – George Hennard kills twenty-four and injures twenty in Killen, Texas with guns purchased from Mike’s Gun Shop in Henderson, Nevada.

  • September 14, 1989 – Joseph Westbecker kills nine and injures twelve in Louisville, Kentucky with guns purchased from Tilford’s Gun Sales in Louisville, Kentucky.

  • January 17, 1989 – Patrick Purdy kills six and injures thirty in Stockton, California with guns purchased from Sandy Trading Post in Sandy, Oregon on August 3, 1988, and Hunter Loan and Jewelry Co. in Stockton, California on December 28, 1988.

  • February 16, 1988 – Richard Farley kills seven and injures four in Sunnyvale, California with guns purchased from different sporting goods and gun stores in Northern California.

  • April 23, 1987 – William Cruse kills six and injures fourteen in Palm Bay, Florida with guns purchased from a gun store in Norwood, Ohio and The Oaks Trading Post in Melbourne, Florida.

  • August 20, 1986 – Patrick Sherrill kills fifteen and injures six in Edmond, Oklahoma with guns issued by the Oklahoma National Guard.

  • July 18, 1984 – James Oliver Huberty kills twenty-two and injures nineteen in San Ysidro, California.

  • August 20, 1982 – Carl Robert Brown kills eight and injures three in Miami, Florida with a gun purchased from Garcia Gun Center in Hialeah, Florida.

And it’s not like these shooters were squeaky clean individuals. In many of these cases, the shooter was able to legally purchase firearms despite having a significant criminal, mental health, and/or substance abuse history.

This includes the May 2012 shooting in Seattle, Washington, in which concealed handgun permit holder Ian Stawicki killed a total of five people. Friends and family members of Stawicki had seen signs of mental illness in him throughout his entire life. He was charged with four domestic violence-related misdemeanors in 2008 after his girlfriend was injured in an altercation with him at their home. Two years later, Stawicki inexplicably accused his younger brother of causing him blindness and punched him repeatedly in front of their mother. He was charged with assault. All these charges were later dropped when his girlfriend and family declined to press forward with them. Nonetheless, Stawicki’s own father, Walter Stawicki, saw the potential danger and tried to have his son’s concealed handgun permit revoked. Law enforcement told him that under the state’s existing “Shall Issue” law, there was nothing they could do.

Aurora, Colorado gunman James Holmes passed background checks and bought firearms despite seeking mental health treatment and confessing his violent thoughts to a psychiatrist at the University of Colorado. Dr. Lynne Fenton was so alarmed by her sessions with Holmes that she reported him to a campus threat assessment team as well as to campus police. Prosecutors also allege that Holmes threatened a professor at the university and was banned from campus at one point.

Sikh Temple shooter Wade Michael Page legally bought the firearm he used to kill in Wisconsin and had also obtained permits to purchase handguns in North Carolina. This was despite the fact that Page had an extensive history of alcoholism, with prior guilty pleas for DUI and criminal mischief offenses. Page had also been discharged after six years in the Army when he was caught doing exercises while intoxicated. Later, in 2010, Page was fired from a trucking company in North Carolina for driving under the influence. Then there was Page’s involvement in hate groups. In addition to two far-right wing punk rock bands (End Apathy and Definite Hate), Page was involved with many white supremacist organizations and was even suspected of funding a domestic terrorism group. Because of this activity, Page was being monitored by both federal officials and anti-hate watchdog groups.

Why are so many mass shooters “law-abiding citizens” and legal gun purchasers? Because the prohibited categories for gun purchasers are not particularly stringent and for the most part have not been updated since 1968. While the Lautenberg Amendment prohibits those with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions from purchasing firearms, other misdemeanor convictions (including for violent offenses) have no effect on a person’s ability to buy guns. In terms of mental illness, in most states only those who have been involuntarily committed or formally adjudicated by a court as a “mental defective” are prohibited from purchasing firearms. Many people who are dangerous mentally ill do not fall into one of these two narrow categories.

Clearly, more needs to be done to keep guns out of the wrong hands. And until something is done, we will continue to see “law-abiding citizens” take innocent American lives in mass shootings.

January 15, 2013

I Am a Teacher, Hear Me Roar: Another Way to Protest Gun Violence

[The following piece is a guest blog by global educator Laurence Peters. The views expressed here are his own, not those of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.]

In 1994, perhaps one of the most remarkable events of the 20th century occurred. The former leader of the anti-apartheid movement, Nelson Mandela, who was held captive for 27 years, was elected prime minister of South Africa. This peaceful handover of power was achieved not on the battlefield as many had feared, but because the world had divested from South African companies.

This movement took time to grow and become mainstream, but grow it did, eventually going global. Picketing and demonstrations by student radicals on the campuses of the nations’ universities helped, but it was the attack on South Africa’s once vibrant white-dominated economy that really did the damage. In the 1980s, “between one-half and one-third of the S&P 500 did business in South Africa, placing these companies among the best investments at the time.” The amount of stock held by North American pension funds was minute compared to the size of these companies, but it was a game-changer when major colleges decided they could not morally stomach doing business with South Africa’s apartheid economy. By the end of the 1980s, “90 cities, 22 counties and 26 states [in the United States] had taken some form of economic stance against the South African government” and the divestment movement began to spread to other countries. Finally, the South African government got the message: “Continue to do business the same way and expect to be isolated as a pariah in the world community.”

Now think about the contemporary American experience with gun violence. With our political leaders continuing to fail to make such basic changes to the law as outlawing assault weapons or banning cop-killer bullets, the anti-apartheid movement should give us confidence that we can still affect change.

As Guardian reporter Brett Scott points out, “We’re used to the narrative of how weapons companies support lobby groups such as the National Rifle Association, but we're seldom encouraged to think about who funds the weapons companies themselves.” It’s us funding them, through our pension funds, as police officers, doctors, teachers, etc. Just as with the South African situation, the percentage of stock held individually by these funds in these companies is quite small, but collectively it is a significant stake. We, too, have the capability to send a powerful moral message that is clearly heard in boardrooms across America.

This kind of thinking is beginning to provoke some large-scale changes. Announcements from pension funds around the country suggest that teachers are finally exerting their long-neglected power. Shortly after the Newtown tragedy, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System (the largest educator-only pension fund in the world) announced that it would review its investments in the national and international firearms business, including the $600 million it had invested in the private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which owns a significant chunk of the gun industry.

Not coincidentally, on the same day Cerberus announced that it was divesting itself from its gun industry properties (Freedom Group International), including Bushmaster, the firm that manufactured the AR-15 rifle Adam Lanza used to kill 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Cerberus, however, has so far failed to act on its stock ownership of two of the largest gun manufacturers in the world Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Smith & Wesson Holding Corp.

The movement is gaining its legs. The California action seems to be moving the New York State Teachers’ Retirement System to review its stake in Sturm, Ruger & Co. and Olin Corp, which manufactures Winchester Arms. Other interested parties taking a close look at their investments include Rhode Island Employees' Retirement System in Providence; Connecticut Retirement Plans and Trust Funds in Hartford; and the $37.5 billion Illinois Teachers' Retirement System in Springfield. What we now need is a national divestment movement to include the billions of dollars that state and municipalities across the country invest in firearm and ammunition manufacturers.

Some pension fund managers will of course argue (as they have begun to do) that their role is not to decide the politics of the investments they make, but to simply serve fiduciaries. In other words, they claim their only mission is to ensure that members receive the highest return possible on their investments. But in a nation that suffers approximately 87 gun deaths per day, don’t they bear at least some level of responsibility for supporting the reckless marketing and sales practices of gun manufacturers? And even looking strictly at their financial argument, when bad publicity about gun manufacturers mounts following mass shootings tragedies like Newtown, these stocks are often highly volatile, and can create undisclosed legal liabilities.

If you want another way to circumvent the bought-and-paid-for politicians who have refused to listen to rational arguments, you now have another way to make your voice heard. Call your local pension fund. Tell them you want them to divest 100% from investments in firearms and ammunition manufacturers.

Working together, we can end the epidemic of gun violence in America. The divestment strategy worked in South Africa. It can work here, too.

January 11, 2013

"I know I for one will never touch a firearm again."

[The following piece is a guest blog by gun owner David Myles. The views expressed here are his own, not those of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.]

Before you read this, take a moment to look at the pictures of the children and their teachers who were murdered a few short weeks ago.

I like guns and love the range, but I would trade every day of enjoyment I got out of skeet shooting, every rabbit I've cooked, and target I've blasted to hell (including an old Chevy that pissed me off) for the lives of those children, and all the children that—if if the NRA has its way—will die next, and the ones after, and after that, world everlasting.

Leaving out the sit-down with a psychiatrist talk we need to have about the argument that you should keep your gun because you might have to shoot at the police one day (for anyone thinking that a gun will protect you from tyranny, I'd like to see you go up against a drone with a Bushmaster), the only "weapons" you need these days are good information and your vote; and the only tyranny you need to worry about is the tyranny of an armed society which provides naught but the illusion of safety and the horrors of incidents like Newtown.

Here is my proposed path to stopping gun violence...

Ammunition must be stored at a licensed gun range. It is already illegal to fire your weapon within shouting distance of a home. When at the range you may fire as many rounds as you wish. Hunting licenses will also issue an ammo permit for your hunting weapon. There will be no more stockpiling of ammunition outside of licensed storage facilities. You may load your own shells, equipment, primer, and powder will be issued after a rigorous background check and standard military psych test. You may not posses more than one full magazine of ammunition in your home or on your person, for self-defense. May your God have mercy on the family member you are more likely to kill than an intruder. May your God have mercy on those of of you that will die alone in despair, by your own hand, with your own weapon.

Liability insurance is required if you have more than ten rounds of ammunition, multiple assault-style weapons, or a concealed carry permit. As the Constitution guarantees the right to keep and bear arms, nothing is mentioned about modern firearms and ammunition. Criminal and civil penalties will apply to those who fail to provide proof of insurance. Localities are encouraged to pass these laws for municipalities and counties.

All bullets are to be microstamped so crime guns can be traced to their source.

I understand that most gun owners live in the murky, scary world of criminals, rapists, and "commies who run our government" and I pity them for the utter terror in which they walk through the world. But I am tired of innocents dying to maintain their false sense of security. Aren't you? The real problem is that quaking gun owners, hiding in their military-style bunkers oiling and stroking their rifles with soft velvet hands, with their fear of attack and violence, and obsession with the fact that they have no reason with which to face the world, are supporting policies that are killing our community's men, women, and children, and ultimately, even themselves.

"I am certainly not an advocate for frequent and untried changes in laws and constitutions. I think moderate imperfections had better be borne with; because, when once known, we accommodate ourselves to them, and find practical means of correcting their ill effects. But I know also, that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the same coat which fitted him when a boy, as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors."

- Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Kercheval, July 12, 1810

Please be part of the solution. I know I for one will never touch a firearm again.

November 8, 2012

From Young Man To Young Man

[The following blog is by CSGV intern Jack Anthony.]

“My mom pushes me to do better, she always tells me to never settle. I think the kids that are on the street not doing anything with their lives don’t get the type of support they need from family. They probably don’t have anyone to look up to.” - Dajae Coleman, “My Belief Statement”

On the night of September 24, Dajae Coleman, 14, was fatally shot in the chest as he was walking home from a party less than a mile from his home in Evanston, Illinois. A fight had broken out at the party, supposedly involving the female cousin of the shooter, Wesley Woodson III. She texted him to say she had been in the altercation. He arrived wielding a 9mm and gunned down Dajae in what prosecutors are calling it a “case of mistaken identity.”

Woodson, 20, has been charged with first-degree murder and aggravated discharge of a firearm without bail. According to Evanston Police Commander Jay Parrot, “Woodson has gang affiliations and this was a retaliatory act upon an innocent group of teens with no gang affiliations.”

Dajae was described by Evanston Township High basketball coach as a “tremendous athlete and a tremendous person…a guy who led by example.” Dajae was also a leader in the classroom. To be a good student at Evanston Township High is no small order. 100 percent of the class of 2011 scored above the national average on the ACT and 43 of the 693 members of the current senior class received National Merit Awards. Dajae’s middle school teacher Willa Williams wrote, “Dajae had dreams, Dajae worked hard all the time, and Dajae was first true to himself and his family.” Finally, when Dajae wasn’t studying or playing sports, he held a job at a local community center.

Dajae’s father, Richard Coleman, described his son in the following words: “He wasn’t one of those guys. He wasn’t someone who you’d think would get killed like this. But really, in the society we’re living in, he actually was one of the good ones, the innocent ones that leave early. He told me he wanted to be an engineer or maybe a doctor, I told him that’s a lot of work. And he said, ‘You know me dad, I can do it.”

I am now 18 years old, the time when teenage aspirations begin to turn into a working reality. Dajae was about to seize this opportunity. He was a great student at a great school, the kind of kid that politicians claim we need to invest in. He was doing everything right in his life. Why was it cut short? Because he was near a petty argument he had nothing to do with? It’s time for politicians to talk about the flaws in our gun laws that abetted this tragedy.

In a phone interview, Commander Parrot told me that the 9mm gun used to kill Dajae has yet to be recovered. “There are a few ways these gang members get guns,” he said. “In Chicago, if you have a license you can buy a gun, but some sometimes guns are stolen and they scratch off the serial number; sometimes guns are transferred through straw purchases; and sometimes they buy them in other states and bring them over [into Illinois].”

As commander Parrot suggested, many of Illinois’ crime guns do indeed come from out of state. A 2011 study by Mayors Against Illegal Guns shows that Indiana and Mississippi are the two main exporters. Most of the crime guns recovered in Chicago, however, are originally bought in Illinois. Just one county– Cook County—is estimated as being the source of 45% of the state’s crime guns (based on a study from 2008 to 2012 by the University of Chicago Crime Lab). And the biggest supplier in Cook County is Chuck’s Gun Store, estimated as the source of about one in five crime guns in Illinois. Roseanna Ander, executive director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab said that the data “suggests a key strategy in keep guns off the street is for law enforcement agencies to target the local gun stores most likely to sell firearms to straw purchasers.”

Given this data, it’s shocking how little Illinois does to crack down on illegal gun trafficking. For example, in Illinois there is no limit on bulk purchases of handguns—which are popular among straw purchasers. Residents are not required to report firearm thefts, or register the guns they buy. There is no regulation on private firearm sales in Illinois—residents can sell guns to one another without conducting background checks or keeping records of sale. Finally, there is no state-level regulation of gun dealers in Illinois and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF)—due to a lack of manpower—is only able to inspect the inventories of federally licensed firearms dealers once every ten years on average. Does Illinois really expect us to believe it’s doing everything in its power to stop gun crime?

On a human level, from young man to young man, I’m writing about Dajae Coleman so that all his talent, his promise, is not diminished by the horrible act that stole his life. In the slaughter of this young man, we see a broken promise of politicians. A principal function of our government is the establishment of justice and the preservation of “domestic tranquility.” How many more victims of gun violence will it take before we start to realize that life is liberty? No one is free who has to worry about being shot on his way home. A society in which thugs and vigilantes establish their own code of “justice” is no society our Founders would approve of. Nor a society that any of us should accept.

Dajae did everything he could to make his life and those around him better. Shouldn’t we hold our elected officials to the same standard?

February 27, 2012

Where’s the Part About the Guns?

Normally when a representative for the National Rifle Association (NRA) visits the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), we’re talking about NRA Executive Vice President and CEO Wayne LaPierre, and he’s there to promote a range of bizarre conspiracy theories concerning gun confiscation and the Obama Administration. Over the years, Wayne and the NRA have learned that there’s no better fundraising tool than good ol’ fearmongering. This year, however, a far more interesting and revealing moment occurred at CPAC when NRA President David Keene presented Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli with the “Defender of Freedom Award” on behalf of the NRA and the American Conservative Union (for which Keene served as Chairman from 1984-2011).

To put it lightly, Ken Cuccinelli has been a controversial figure since entering Virginia politics in 2002. In the words of the Washington Post, “Mr. Cuccinelli has profited from an affability and quick wit that have tended to mask his extremist views. As a lawmaker in Richmond, he has displayed contempt for non-English speakers; for those who care about global warming; and for the First Amendment. Many of his fellow Republicans regard him as occupying the far-right fringe of the party, the ultimate small tenter."

The NRA’s president saw things quite differently when he honored Cuccinelli on February 9th, however. Before bestowing him with a document signed by Founding Fathers James Madison and James Monroe, David Keene called Cuccinelli “a man of faith … a man…healthily suspicious of government in all circumstances … a man who has never turned his back on his values, has never turned his back on his beliefs, and has never refused to stand up when principle demanded that he do so.” “He has never, in fact, varied from the beliefs that motivate him and motivated our Founders,” said Keene. Keene also praised Cuccinelli for filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of “Obamacare” (i.e., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010). The NRA president made absolutely no mention of the Second Amendment or Cuccinelli’s record on the gun issue.

Curiously, neither did Cuccinelli. After thanking the NRA for the award, Cuccinelli launched into a bizarre tirade on a host of issues that—at first glance—have nothing to do with the NRA’s mission or political agenda.

First, Cuccinelli suggested that the Constitution shouldn’t have been ratified, remarking, “James Monroe voted against the U.S. Constitution because he didn’t think it was cautious enough with respect to federal power. Seems like he had a crystal ball, one might think. But that’s the role of states when the federal government oversteps its boundaries. And the worst example of course is the health care bill [the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act …signed by the president on March 23, 2010. And about 34 minutes later, give or take, we filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia … Seventeen blocks to the east, 235 years to the day, before we filed that suit, and before the president signed that bill, Patrick Henry gave his ‘Give Me Liberty, Or Give Me Death’ speech … And that seemed very appropriate, given that that legislation represents one of the greatest legislative invasions of liberty in the lifetime of anyone in this room. And that suit we filed is not about health care. It’s about liberty … We know that it has to be stopped. Certainly the Founders would think so.”

Turning to the topic of the environment, Cuccinelli said, “[W]e sued the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency]—which I have taken to calling the Employment Prevention Agency, because they are so good at that—for their greenhouse gas endangerment finding … Virginia and Texas will argue on behalf of 16 states that they broke the law .. And when the EPA said that the CO2 that you are exhaling right now—let’s all annoy [EPA Administrator] Lisa Jackson together [exhales loudly]. Hi, Lisa. When they passed that regulation in violation of the law they brought on enormous consequences, many of which they hadn’t calculated and which they said they hadn’t calculated. Those are the economic consequences. The only science behind that regulation is political science.”

Finally, Cuccinelli directed his wrath at organized labor: “You all are familiar with the National Labor Relations Board’s assault on South Carolina and Boeing. Make no mistake about it, that is an assault on the right to work…the right to hold a job without being coerced into joining a union … We have never seen such an across-the-board assault on the rule of law by any administration in the lifetime of anyone in this room. It has never happened. The Constitution gets not no respect. States gets no respect. The courts get no respect. Federal law itself that they find inconvenient gets no respect. And when we don’t have enough politicians in Washington who adhere to the constitution and the rule of law, state attorneys general become the last line of defense.”

Not a single word about guns…

One might be amazed at how blatant this whole episode was, but the truth is that Cuccinelli’s extreme views on a host of non-gun-related issues are in lockstep with members of the NRA leadership. A recent examination of the NRA by the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence revealed that the organization is largely lead by individuals with a vested interest in conservative politics—including social and economic issues. Whether it’s fighting the advance of LGBT rights, engaging in immigrant bashing, or supporting the “1%”, the NRA never met a progressive cause it wasn’t prepared to gun down.

While superficially bipartisan, the NRA is closely aligned with the most extreme elements in the Republican Party and has brought a number of the GOP’s most influential operatives into positions of power within their organization. The GOP and NRA are now locked in a symbiotic relationship where Republican legislators advance the NRA’s extreme agenda while the NRA musters its hardcore supporters to serve as attack dogs for a wide-ranging conservative agenda. Honoring Cuccinelli—a charismatic pied-piper of the far-right wing movement—makes that job that much easier.

January 31, 2012

Gun Politics (as Usual) in D.C.

[This blog is a report by CSGV Director of Communications Ladd Everitt, who attended a D.C. Council hearing yesterday on the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.”]

Yesterday, I attended a public hearing of the D.C. Council’s Committee on the Judiciary regarding a new piece of gun-related legislation, Bill 19-614, the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.” The hearing provided a perfect snapshot of the way gun politics operate in the District, with the usual cast of characters in lead roles on the pro-gun side.

Everyone is familiar with the District of Columbia’s tough gun laws, but the “Firearms Amendment Act” would actually address many of the criticisms of pro-gun activists and eliminate some existing regulations. Specifically, Bill 19-614 would:

  • Allow D.C. residents to take their guns to firearms safety and training courses before they have officially registered them with the city.

  • Eliminate the vision testing requirement to register a firearm. Those who are legally blind would still be prohibited from registering firearms.

  • Accept military training, or the possession of a state firearms license for which comparable training was required, to satisfy the District’s mandatory training requirement to register a firearm.

  • Repeal the requirement that registered handguns undergo ballistics identification testing.

  • Require the Metropolitan Police to take photographs for use in the registration application process, rather than requiring applicants to supply their own photographs.

All of these changes were initiated by Judiciary Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson (D-At Large), who sought to accommodate pro-gun activists in the District after meeting with them personally to hear their concerns. You never would have known that sitting through yesterday’s hearing, however. Pro-gun activists spent the morning and afternoon browbeating Mendelson and issuing additional demands in a manner that was frequently impolite and sometimes downright rude.

First up to testify was Emily "I'm meh on voting rights" Miller, the Senior Editor of the Washington Times Opinion pages (which embrace even the most bizarre conspiracy theories perpetuated by the NRA) . Miller has become something of a cause célèbre in the pro-gun movement because of her “Emily Gets Her Gun” blog at the Times website. The blog basically gives Miller a platform to complain about D.C. gun laws ad nauseam. But there are fun features for people who really like weapons, too, like gun porn photos and a poll that allows them to vote on which semiautomatic handgun Emily should buy to take down “bad guys” with.

Miller spent about 20 minutes at the hearing complaining about the process needed to satisfy the training requirement for registering handguns in the District, which is strange, because she successfully completed that training more than two months ago, and Bill 19-614 would make it even easier for future applicants to do so. Nonetheless she made it clear to Chairman Mendelson that the list of 46 certified firearms instructors supplied by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPDC) was grossly insufficient. Why? Because she did not want to travel to the home/office of one of these “armed strange men” and put herself at personal risk to undergo the training. [Miller was presumably referring to pro-gun activist Ricardo Royal, one of the 46 who was on hand to testify.]

Let me get this straight… Miller is scared to spend a few hours with a firearms instructor that’s been certified by the MPDC (i.e., multiple, thorough background checks), but thinks she’ll be safer if the “strange men” of Washington, D.C. can arm themselves under far less stringent oversight? At the hearing, Miller praised Virginia laws that allow someone to walk out of a store with a handgun in just 10 minutes, no training required. “It’s much easier to shoot a gun than drive a car,” she told Mendelson. “Anyone can do it.” Except perhaps Miller. She inadvertently revealed that she has sometimes violated the basic rules of firearms safety that were taught to her by instructors (e.g., by placing her finger on the trigger of a gun before she was prepared to fire it).

Miller also showed little grasp of facts, boasting at one point that “gun ownership is at its highest [level] in 30 years.” In reality, data from the General Social Survey tells us exactly the opposite—that only one in five Americans now owns a firearm.

Finally, Miller apparently associates with criminals. “Anecdotally, a lot of people have come up to me and said, ‘I have a gun, I don’t register it,’” she told Mendelson. So much for that “law-abiding citizens” thing the NRA likes to shout about.

Back to the topic of “strange men,” the next pro-gun activist to testify, James Collier, told Mendelson that he wanted the city to legalize the civilian version of the military’s M-16 rifle (the semiautomatic-fire-only AR-15) so he could shoot feral pigs in the swamps of South Carolina with it. No, I didn’t make that up.

George Lyon, the President of the D.C. Chapter of the Community Association for Firearms Education (CAFE), said he needed to carry a loaded handgun while walking his dog at 1:00AM. The dog wasn’t on hand to offer his own view about the wisdom of such behavior.

NRA Lifetime Member/Plaintiff Absalom Jordan compared D.C.’s elected officials to Virginians who sought to keep schools segregated from the 1950s-70s. He also falsely accused Mendelson of offering Bill 19-614 only because of the threat of gun lobby litigation—which was later rebutted by pro-gun witnesses.

But the strangest man of all is Dick Heller, the lead plaintiff in the Cato Institute lawsuit that overturned D.C.’s handgun ban in 2008 (the five Supreme Court Justices who wrote the D.C. v. Heller opinion are the same five who decided corporations have a right to free speech in Citizens United). Heller’s testimony took the form of a bizarre presentation on “Firearms Development” in which he showed Mendelson multiple home-printed photos of guns. During this presentation, Heller claimed that the AR-15 assault rifle is “the most safest rifle…to use” and proudly told a story about how his friend in West Virginia bought his five-year-old daughter a pink AR-15. Heller also expressed support for allowing D.C. residents to carry loaded, concealed handguns in public with no screening or training, including on college campuses.

Heller didn’t want to talk much about his current lawsuit against the District of Columbia, which has gone nowhere. As Daniel Vice, the Senior Attorney for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, noted at the hearing, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has upheld D.C.’s licensing/registration laws and its assault weapons ban in Heller II, writing, “none of the District’s registration requirements prevents an individual from possessing a firearm in his home or elsewhere.”

For more information on Dick Heller, visit the Heller Foundation website, where Heller supports voter suppression backed up by the threat of political violence, claims the American Nazi Party is supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement, and quotes virulent racist/insurrectionist Jeff Cooper. To put it simply, the fact that longstanding, democratically-enacted gun laws in the District were overturned on this man’s behalf is nothing short of shameful.

Not a single pro-gun witness thanked Chairman Mendelson for sitting down with them, listening to their concerns, and offering the “Firearms Amendment Act of 2011.” They were there only to harangue him and make additional demands.

Like Mendelson, MPDC Police Chief Cathy Lanier stood in stark contrast to the pro-gunners with her willingness to listen, reach compromise, and accommodate. In her testimony at the hearing, Chief Lanier defended the city’s licensing-registration process, laying out four ways that it helps preserve public safety: 1) It allows law enforcement to verify the eligibility of firearm owners; 2) It ensures that firearm owners have a body of knowledge about D.C. gun laws and firearms safety; 3) It allows police to quickly distinguish between legal and illegal firearms in the field; 4) It helps track firearms that have been lost, stolen or used in a crime.

But Lanier also suggested several ways that the process can be made more convenient for gun owners. She said the department believes it can use information technology to eliminate subsequent visits to MPDC for background checks when registrants renew their licenses. She also was open to revisiting training requirements, suggesting that classes can be shorter and conducted at MPDC facilities. Finally, the MPDC is now providing office space for Federal Firearms Licensee Charles Sykes, so registrants no longer have to make multiple trips between his office and MPDC headquarters.

But the bottom line is that since January 2009, only 2,115 total firearms have been registered in the District of Columbia. Mendelson had it exactly right when he said at the hearing, “People in the district, it’s an urban environment, there isn’t a lot of hunting in the city … Within the culture of the city, [there is] not as much of a desire to have guns as was thought or speculated.”

We should salute Mendelson and other D.C. Council members for being willing to listen to all D.C. residents and consider all points of view, no matter how extreme. That’s democracy at work. At the same time, we should be aware that pro-gun activists do not appreciate such gestures and will not stop until they have imposed their far-right-wing political values on our city and eradicated our gun laws entirely—even if/when this involves voiding the democratic decisions of D.C. residents. Monday simply provided additional evidence of that unfortunate fact.

[To watch a full video of the hearing, click here. Dick Heller’s testimony starts at the 3:29:40 mark and is worth watching.]

October 24, 2011

Making Sense of the NIU Tragedy

Back in August 2008, Bullet Counter Points talked to journalist/author David Vann about a fascinating article he had just written for Esquire entitled “Portrait of the School Shooter as a Young Man.” The article dug into the past of Northern Illinois University (NIU) school shooter Steven Kazmierczak, and what it uncovered was truly frightening. Kazmierczak had attempted suicide three times, taken eight different medications for mental illness, and been institutionalized on five different occasions. Despite this history, he was still able to legally buy guns in Illinois and then kill 6 and wound 18 in a gruesome mass shooting at NIU on February 14, 2008.

But the information Vann had uncovered was far too extensive for just a magazine article. So he set about to write a full-length book about Kazmierczak and the massacre at NIU. It was released on October 20 and is titled Last Day on Earth (after a Marilyn Manson song that Kazmierczak listened to just before the shooting). We were able to ask Vann a few questions about his book and this horrific tragedy and here are his answers:

Going back to your original article in Esquire, why did you decide to learn more about Steven Kazmierczak and the horrific mass shooting at NIU?

I wanted to write an article about how armed suburban youth are. I inherited my father’s guns after he killed himself with a gun, when I was 13, and I led a double life in which I was a straight-A student by day, then wandering our neighborhood at night with his .300 magnum rifle (a rifle for hunting bears), shooting out streetlights and sighting in on the neighbors through their windows. I think it’s frightening how many kids and teens have access to guns in America, so I wanted to write about that. But my editor at Esquire suggested I look at Steve’s story, since he was an A student and everyone seemed very surprised by his shooting.

Why did you decide to contrast your own life with Kazmierczak’s in Last Day On Earth?

I wanted to try to answer the question of why Steve crossed the line and I didn’t. When I was 13, I was angry, alone, and had access to all these guns. Looking back, it seems possible I could have ended up killing someone, but I didn’t. I wanted to understand why I didn’t and why he did. What I found was that there were half a dozen strong influences on Steve’s life that made his shooting possible, influences I didn’t have in my own life. These included military service, time in the mental health system, libertarian politics, a mother who loved horror movies, etc.

The picture painted of Steve’s parents is one of indifference—two people who were more than happy to place their son’s care into other hands and be rid of him (He “was a pretty good guy,” was all his dad would say after the murders). But we know surprisingly little about Steve’s mom, who perhaps was the most powerful figure in his life. There are hints of serious mental health issues, but why is she so shrouded in mystery?

Steve’s sister Susan wouldn’t talk with me. I do have transcripts of all the interviews that law enforcement did with her, so I know everything she told police. And I asked Steve’s high school and junior high friends and girlfriends about his mother, and I have his own comments about his mother in his emails. He said, for instance, that she never forgave him, despite his earning nearly perfect grades in college. And, as I describe in the book, I have the accounts of his mental health history, in which he ran away from the institution in the Chicago area and begged his mother to take him back; accounts of his fights with her in which he called her a whore; his godfather’s claims that Steve’s mother was mentally ill, etc. So there is quite a bit about her in the book, and her death was perhaps the main event that precipitated his regressive slide into becoming a killer. But I wasn’t able to meet or interview her, since she was dead, and Susan wouldn’t talk with me, so I can’t provide a full portrait. I was very careful in the book not to make anything up or to try to draw conclusions that would go too far. I stuck to the 1,500 pages from the police file and the interviews, and the book, as a result, is a mountain of thousands of facts you can rely upon. But sticking to the facts also means there are gaps in the narrative.

Steve’s infatuation with violence starts perhaps earlier than his depression, with the abuse/sodomy of animals, shooting at cars, bombmaking, etc. Like the Columbine story, you wonder why no one picked up on these obvious red flags in his background—that perhaps he was not only a threat to himself, but others. Yet that element seems to be absent from his experience with mental health treatment as a teenager. How could they have missed it?

His parents knew he was mentally ill and asked the high school for help, but they refused. Soon afterward, Steve attempted suicide. In the bombmaking episode, which is earlier, in junior high, another kid was the instigator and had told a dozen kids how to make the bombs. The police saw Steve as a frightened, repentant kid. And the truth is that Steve was always afraid of getting into trouble and he wasn’t as scary as many of his friends. At least three kids in his neighborhood became drug dealers, for instance. There are so many violent, frightening kids in America, it was difficult for someone like Steve to stand out. Even in the end, after the shooting, many at NIU were surprised to learn the shooter was Steve because they had assumed the shooter must have been one of several other grad students who were scarier.

You hint briefly at Steven’s embrace of libertarianism as a factor that drove him to commit the murders. What role do you think it played?

Libertarianism favors the individual or small group above society and is therefore antithetical to most of what holds our society together. It’s very frightening. Most of our mass murderers have been libertarians. It’s the perfect political belief for them and fits well with Nietzche’s concept of the “superman,” someone above moral code. I don’t think Americans realize how frightening and dangerous libertarianism is. I would count it as the number one warning sign for a potential shooter, and it’s particularly dangerous when combined with former military service.

There is a fascinating chapter in your book where you talk about entering your neighbors’ houses during the day while they were away and looking for their guns. How often did you find them? Does it give you any perspective on the problem of gun theft today?

In 1980, it was very easy to get into someone’s house. Most people didn’t have answering machines yet, so I’d let the phone just keep ringing while I was in their house. And I didn’t have to break anything, because they all left their bathroom windows open a bit for air. I didn’t steal anything, but I did look through all their stuff, and they all kept their guns in the same places: in their closets or under their beds. It was very easy to find the guns, and they weren’t locked, and they had ammunition available. Nearly everyone had several guns in their home. The potential for gun theft is frightening, as is the access kids and teens have to guns. Even locked and hidden guns can be a problem. I know someone whose daughter committed suicide with a pistol that was locked with ammunition in a separate location. Over time, she was able to find the key to the lock and where the ammunition was kept.

What role does Steve’s taste for men play in his psychological make-up? Why did he hide his bisexuality/homosexuality so carefully? Did he reach a point where the sexuality of his partners no longer even mattered?

Last Day On Earth has much more information about Steve’s sex life than my Esquire article had, including the creepy emails he exchanged with one of his girlfriends which were a confusion of sex, mass murder, and racism. By the end, sexual despair was an important driving force for him and he was exhausting himself. One night, he had sex with at least three different women, for instance. He may have been sexually abused before junior high, but I wasn’t able to find any proof, only hints. Sex was secretive and shameful for him from the first, though, and he was attracted later to Marilyn Manson’s androgyny. He shaved his pubic hair and eyebrows and wanted to be dominated. He was with men in high school and also near the end, and part of his love of the movie “Fight Club” was a denial of his homosexuality (that movie is about the denial of homosexuality through a hyper-heterosexual alter-ego, played by Brad Pitt). Steve’s sister Susan is gay, and he told her near the end that he thought he might be gay, and I think this was a move in a good direction for him, accepting his sexuality, but it didn’t last long. He went back into denial. I want to be clear in this answer that I’m not saying homosexuality was a problem for him, only his denial and shame around it. And there’s too much in the book about his sexuality to really summarize effectively here.

Steve’s racism also had a conflicted feel to it, particularly since he apparently dated (and really cared for) an African American girl at one point.

I think Steve’s racism was an important part of how he was able to commit mass murder. As James Baldwin pointed out so well more than 50 years ago, you can’t be racist without hating yourself, and Steve’s final act was one of self-erasure in more ways than just his suicide and the killings, but also in staging it in the one place where he had succeeded and made something of himself. And racism is of course always conflicted. One of his college roommates reported to police that Steve struggled to recover from a former relationship with an African-American woman, a relationship that ended because of stress and strain over race.

Steve’s interaction with the military is almost exactly the situation we saw with Jared Loughner, the Tucson shooter. They bring these young men in, determine that they have severe problems, and then discharge without notifying any other federal agency of these issues. So both are free to buy guns legally—and in Steve’s case, he’s also been taught to kill without emotion because he’s completed Basic Training.

The Army realized Steve was a danger to himself and others, so they kept him in a psychiatric ward with precautions against suicide and then dumped him in his hometown, Elk Grove Village, without any notifications to anyone that he might be a danger. I think we should consider this a criminal act and work to prevent the military from doing it. People discharged from the military in this way also should of course never be able to buy a gun. But it’s important to remember the larger problem here. Most of our mass murderers who were old enough to have served in the military did. And this is because the military teaches not only how to kill a person with a gun but also how to do that killing without feeling anything, with no emotional or psychological response. Steve explained this to his best friend. He mentioned several times that he’d been trained to kill without feeling anything, and indeed in the mass murder he committed, he appeared to feel nothing at all. The teacher in the classroom said that when Steve pointed the pistol at him, it made him think of someone who’s painting a room and realized they’ve missed a spot.

Steve’s decision to go to NIU was a double-edged sword. On one level, it allowed him to leave his past behind to a degree and define a new, more satisfying life for himself. On another, as a therapist had warned, it allowed him to ignore his mental health issues and eventually led to a “hard crash.”

The mental health system did not serve Steve well. I think it only amplified his problems. And though one therapist did warn him against setting out too quickly, I hate to give the therapist any credit, because the fact is that Steve became worse in the mental health system, not better, and he did improve in all ways at NIU. I think there was no downside to his success at NIU, and I think if he could have stayed at NIU longer, without moving to the University of Illinois (UI), he might not ever have killed.

The double life Steve lived at NIU is fascinating. His professors and many of his friends knew him as this quiet, incredibly polite, well groomed young man who was thoughtful, sensitive, highly intelligent, and always eager to help other students. In reality, he spent much of his time obsessing over mass shootings, playing first person shooter video games, trolling for sex on the internet, fighting with his family, and agonizing over his mental illness. Only a select few knew about this side of him.

In the book, I describe the timing and all the transitions, and the timing is very important. When these professors and friends knew him, his life actually was better. And as his life took a dive, he was more removed from them and moved away at UI. The key is that he was regressing to who he was in high school and junior high, and that former life really was perfectly shaped for mass murder. His professors and friends at NIU, with the exception of Jessica Baty, didn’t know this past, so they couldn’t get the Steve they knew to fit with this killer. There was a 5-year gap they couldn’t cross. The FOID card he acquired for buying guns legally only checked the past 5 years for mental health history, so that system also couldn’t know who he really was. Background checks obviously have to go all the way back. If we learn one simple thing from his story, it should be that. But of course the gun nuts will howl and claim we’re taking away everything American.

In your life, you experienced a turning point when you were able to escape your teenage angst and let those emotions go. Kazmierczak seemed so close to that at one point in NIU after being given the Dean’s Award and graduating, only to fall into despondency and insanity again when he just can’t make it in a work environment and his mother dies. It’s perhaps the most tragic and powerful moment in your book—that thought of “what could have been.”

Steve had this tremendous drive to reshape himself—the true American dream—which is not really about money, but about the larger reshaping of identity and worth. And it’s amazing he could get that Deans’ Award after his terrible mental health history and the years in which it seemed he had no future at all. And I do think he almost made it. The combination, though, of his mother’s death and the move to UI was just too much. His last semester at NIU, his grades didn’t matter (they wouldn’t transfer over to UI), so he started going to the shooting range instead of classes. From my own experience of shooting things for three years after my father’s suicide—years in which I told everyone he had died of cancer since I was so ashamed of his suicide—I think that guns are a dangerous substitute. I don’t think guns are ever really about guns but always about something else; and those who want guns are in denial of that something else.

Another fascinating discovery is that Steve was a proud NRA member who bragged about this affiliation to his friends. Steve’s comment about Illinois’ FOID licensing system is also telling, particularly since it never stopped him from buying guns: “It’s back to the days of the Hitler regime. The government is trying to track us.” He reads gun magazines, indulges conspiracy theories about Timothy McVeigh, cites the Turner Diaries. This kid was fully submerged in the gun culture and its extreme ideology.

Steve’s views really were right in line with the views of the pro-gun lobby, with his libertarianism, paranoid beliefs about the federal government, desire for secrecy, love of guns, interest in crime, etc., but he actually thought it was ridiculous that he was able to buy a gun legally after his terrible mental health history. He wrote a paper titled “(NO) Crazies With Guns,” and here’s an excerpt: “I have only five words for you: From my cold, dead hands. Those words spoken by Charlton Heston, and immortalized by the popular press, have come to symbolize the pro-gun lobby’s arguably firm and unshakeable ideology with respect to their opposition to anti-gun (whether real or perceived) legislation. With that being said, what if those so-called cold, dead hands happen to not only contain a firearm, but also a half-filled bottle of anti-psychotic drugs?”

It’s a telling statement about our country that Steve and Seung-Hui Cho both purchased weapons/apparel from the same online gun dealer, Eric Thompson, who was totally unrepentant and went to Virginia Tech AFTER both tragedies to promote his business to students. You can’t help but think, too, of the t-shirts Steve wore—like the one of the handgun superimposed over the American flag.

The Glock 19, which Steve and Cho both used (and which Jared Loughner in Tucson also used), is made to kill a lot of people very reliably at close range in a short period of time. Mass murder is an American right, and there are lots of weapons to choose from: We have high-capacity handguns; short-barreled riot shotguns; assault rifles that can easily be converted to machine guns; .50-caliber sniper rifles, etc. It’s the Wild West but with better equipment. In some states, it’s now legal to wear a pistol on your hip in a bar. We just had a mass-murder in California yesterday, and we’re going to have more. One weekend while I was in DeKalb investigating, April 19-20, 2008, there were 36 separate shootings in Chicago, with 9 homicides. Weapons included an AK-47 assault rifle. Is it “media spin” to mention this?

What role did high-capacity ammunition magazines play in the NIU shooting?

Steve bought several 32-round magazines for the shooting but ended up not using them. I think this was because he wanted to begin with the “shock and awe” of the shotgun first, which wouldn’t kill anyone (he was using only birdshot) but would create confusion. In order to use the shotgun first, he had to tuck the pistols away, and I think there was no way of doing that easily with the longer magazines. But the Glock 19 has a high-enough capacity standard magazine to be very deadly. It killed everyone in Steve’s shooting, and it killed most of Cho’s victims at Virginia Tech. We should of course step back a moment and wonder why we want citizens to have high-capacity magazines. In what situation do we want a citizen to be able to kill a lot of people quickly, without having to change magazines? What is the situation, exactly, that the gun nuts are imagining? Invasion by zombies is the only one I can think of.

Steve told Jessica “If anything happens, don’t tell anyone about me.” And she hasn’t. It’s obvious in the book that disturbs you deeply. It’s the moment in The Last Day on Earth where it’s clear this book is personal to you. Your fury at her is barely veiled, and you go as far as to suggest that she is as mentally ill as he was. It’s almost as if you’re bitter at these people—Jessica and many of Steve’s other NIU friends—for defending someone they considered a friend even after he takes so many innocent lives in a cold-blooded way, even after all the facts about Steve’s past are laid bare to them. And yet even you express sympathy for Steve in the last two lines of your book.

I do have sympathy for all who were affected by Steve’s shooting, including Jessica. And as I mention in the book, I have sympathy for her especially because of the Valentine’s Day gifts he sent to her, one of them an engagement ring. She thought she was going to be proposed to, and instead he committed mass murder. But I don’t like lies, so I don’t like that she lied to me and tried to cover up the story. I don’t have any negative feelings toward his professors and fellow grad students at NIU. They really didn’t know who he was. He had reinvented himself in the previous five years and kept his past a secret from them. And I certainly have full sympathy for anyone going through suicide bereavement. I have sympathy, also, for Steve, who really struggled and almost succeeding in escaping his terrible past, and I think the end must have been bitter to him. But of course our sympathies in the end have to be with his victims—including the larger community affected—and by the time I finished writing the book, I couldn’t help but think of Steve as a monster, despite all my attempts to remain sympathetic. He planned the killing at least 11 days in advance, and he was chirpy in his emails and such right up to the end, so that makes him a monster.

It’s interesting that the owner of Tony’s Guns & Ammo, the place where Steve purchased some of his guns & ammo, voluntarily surrendered his Federal Firearms License after the murders. To your knowledge, what were the police or ATF investigating him for at that point?

It seems it was because Steve traded in his old guns at the store and Tony didn’t report this to police. I think it’s possible the ATF is hiding something, too, since their initial reports and all witness reports are consistent with a Remington 870 shotgun but they later claimed it was a Sportsman 48 (and perhaps this is what Tony put on the sales form). Perhaps they were just covering up the fact that gun forms could go through with the wrong model listed, or perhaps I just don’t have the full information, but it’s very strange.

What ultimately can we take from Kazmierczak’s story? Is there anything positive to learn from this tragedy? Could it have been prevented?

If the FOID card had checked lifelong mental health history instead of just five years of history, I think the shooting could have prevented, because I don’t believe Steve would have obtained firearms illegally. There are many other lessons we could learn from this shooting, also, as I’ve described above in answer to other questions. Because I had access to the full 1,500 pages of the police file, we have a very complete portrait that can help us identify risk factors. But the biggest risk factors (such as gun ownership, libertarianism, poverty, former military service, an interest in horror movies, etc.) are major currents in American culture, so unless we can change our entire nation in fundamental ways, we should expect many more shootings to come. One positive part about Steve’s story is seeing how close education came to preventing the shooting. Education does lead people away from all of the risk factors.

July 11, 2011

Getting to Know "Doc" Holliday

One of the great legends of the American Old West surrounds the 1881 shootout at the O.K. Corrall. The “winners” of this gun battle against the Clanton-McLaury gang—the Earp brothers and John Henry “Doc” Holliday—are still household names today because of popular films like “Tombstone” (1993) and “Wyatt Earp” (1994) and two recent books: “The Last Gunfight” by Jeff Guinn and “Doc” by Mary Doria Russell.

We were fortunate to catch up with Mary Doria Russell to ask her some questions about her new novel and the fascinating life of her lead character. Mary is the author of four previous best-sellers: The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, and Dreamers of the Day. Because of her historical knowledge about the Old West, and her familiarity with law enforcement (having grown up the daughter of a sheriff), she was able to provide valuable insight into the issue of gun violence and gun laws in the U.S. today.

What attracted you to the character of Doc Holliday?

I’m always interested borderlands, and in people who cross boundaries and defy categories. The characters in my novels are often migrants or foreigners, half-castes or marginal natives who don’t quite fit the place they're in and who have developed a somewhat distanced and ironic view of their world.

John Henry Holliday certainly fits that pattern, but it's important to realize that he was a real person—not just a fictional character—and he'd beaten some formidable odds simply by surviving infancy. He was born in Griffin, Georgia, in 1851 with a cleft palate and a cleft lip. His uncle, Dr. John Stiles Holliday, performed a successful surgical repair of that birth defect, although the achievement was kept private to protect the family's reputation for “good breeding”—a term taken literally until quite recently. [Editor’s Note: Mary has established the Doc Holliday Memorial Fund at The Smile Train, an organization that provides free cleft palate and cleft lip surgeries to children around the world. To contribute, go to www.MaryDoriaRussell.net and click on DONATE]. When the toddler began to talk, it was obvious that he would have a significant speech impediment, so his mother developed a form of speech therapy to improve his diction. Alice Holliday was also an accomplished pianist who began her son's lessons as soon as he could reach the keyboard.

The Hollidays were Georgia gentry, and John Henry was meant to be a minor aristocrat in a South that ceased to exist after the Civil War. Instead he went to the best dental school in the North, earning the degree of Doctor of Dental Surgery when he was still only 20 years old. He was a skilled and serious professional who expected to live a quiet life in the East but just as he was beginning to establish his adult life, he was diagnosed with advanced pulmonary tuberculosis. So he went West in 1873, at the age of 22, hoping that the dry air and sunshine of the Great American Desert would restore his health.

Talk about crossing borders and never truly really fitting in!

In the movies, the “legendary gambler and gunman Doc Holliday” usually arrives in town with a bad reputation and a hooker named Big Nose Kate. The real John Henry Holliday had studied the Greek and Latin classics as well as rhetoric, history and mathematics. At the Philadelphia College of Dental Surgery, his coursework included metallurgy, chemistry, physiology, gross anatomy, dental histology, oral pathology, in addition to surgical practicum. Plus, he played classical piano!

Now, few of us have read Homer or Virgil in the original languages, but at least we've seen the movie “Troy” on television! We may not be able to play Chopin or Beethoven, but most of us know who they were. So if we'd been dropped into Dodge City in 1878, our frame of reference would be more like Doc Holliday's than Wyatt Earp's. With John Henry Holliday as the focus of the novel, I was able to write in a very different way about the frontier. That was the era of Western boomtowns and cattle drives and pioneers, but also of Tolstoy and Dickens and Flaubert, of the ballet “Coppelia” and the opera “Carmen.” Rockefeller had founded Standard Oil. Electric lights and the phonograph and the telephone were developed about the time that Doc Holliday met Wyatt Earp in Dodge City. John Henry Holliday's knowledge and sensibilities bridge those worlds for us.

How did Doc Holliday—an educated, talented, skilled man—become involved with violence and gunplay?

Reluctantly, and as rarely as possible! Keep in mind that this was a sick young man, a six-footer who never weighed much more than 150 and was closer to 100 pounds when he died at just 36. One of the few true things Bat Masterson said about John Henry Holliday was that Doc “could not have whipped a healthy 15-year-old boy in a go-as-you-please fistfight.” As Doc himself told Wyatt Earp, “The only time I'm not nervous is when I'm working on someone's teeth.”

I believe Doc initially played up his dangerousness. Today, the same sort of scared, skinny boy in a rough neighborhood might try to seem more “gangsta” than he is. As time went on, however, Doc's reputation took on a life of its own. After the gunfight in Tombstone, the journalists of his day invented “The Infamous Gunman and Gambler Doc Holliday,” a character who could sell a lot more newspapers than Dr. John Henry Holliday, D.D.S.

There is so much mythology surrounding Holliday's marksmanship and the shootout at the O.K. Corral. How much of it is accurate?

The mythology isn't accurate, and neither was Doc! The most careful biographers—the ones who've gone over court records and contemporaneous newspaper reports to verify or debunk all the accusations—believe that John Henry Holliday was in five confirmed shooting affrays in his 15 years in the West.

At 3:00 A.M. on New Year’s Day in 1875, he and Charles Austin fired their pistols within Dallas city limits. While the peace was disturbed, neither man was hurt.

When Doc was 25, he was attacked and seriously wounded by Henry Kahn after a quarrel over cards, which Kahn started. Recovery took five months, and Doc needed a walking stick off and on for the rest of his life.

In 1880, a year before the famous gunfight, he got into an argument with the gambler Johnny Tyler over who was allowed to run card games in which Tombstone saloons. Milt Joyce decided to end the argument by picking Doc up bodily and flinging him into the street. Infuriated, Doc obtained a gun (it was illegal to carry one in Tombstone), returned to the saloon and emptied the revolver, hitting Joyce in the palm and a bartender in the big toe. I'm not downplaying those injuries—Milt Joyce almost lost the hand, and the bartender was lamed—but they are hardly evidence of deadly accuracy.

During the 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Tom McLaury was hit in the chest by a shotgun blast at a distance of six feet; he is believed to be the only man John Henry Holliday ever killed. Again, accuracy was not an issue when the weapon is a scattergun at two yards.

Finally, in 1884, Billy Allen threatened to kill Doc over a $5 loan that Doc—destitute and very ill—couldn't pay back on time. When Allen came after him, Doc defended himself with a pistol, wounding Allen in the right upper arm, at close range. Doc feared for his life, so I'm guessing he didn't deliberately try to “wing” Allen. I think that was just the best he could do. At 122 pounds, he was sick and shaky; the pistol was heavy for him. It's important to note that Doc did everything he could to avoid that confrontation, including asking for an extension on the loan and then appealing to the Leadville, Colorado police for protection from Allen. They declined to get involved until after the shooting.

Allen went down and if it were a movie, Doc would have “finished the job.” In real life, with Allen disabled, he allowed himself to be arrested without protest and stood trial for attempted murder. Doc pointed out in court that Allen outweighed him by 50 pounds, and noted, “If he'd got hold of me, I'd have been a child in his hands.” The jury could see that was true, and quickly acquitted Holliday on grounds of self-defense.

That's it. Everything else is fiction. And no, he didn't really knife a guy, as depicted in the movie “Tombstone.”As his long-time companion Kate Harony wrote of Doc, “Being quiet, he never hunted trouble.”

Kate also disputed Doc's reputation as a drinker. “He was not a drunkard. He always kept a bottle near, but when he needed something for his pain, he would only take a small drink.” Bourbon is, in fact, effective for calming a cough and also helped mute the chest and bone pain he suffered throughout his adult life. Tuberculosis is an awful disease.

Americans typically think of “the Wild West” as a place where gun laws were weak and permissive. Is that what you found in your research for the novel Doc?

Well, it depends on when and where you're talking about. Typically, western boomtowns mushroomed into existence in a place that was generating gigantic piles of cash—the buffalo killing fields; gold and silver mining camps; a railroad under construction, etc. For the first two to three years in these places, there was a total absence of law just when the population consisted of minimally educated, testosterone-driven young men, most of whom had a family history of what we consider violent abuse today, but which came under the heading of “Spare the rod, spoil the child” back then.

Huge quantities of alcohol were made available by enterprising entrepreneurs, and there were few recreational alternatives to drinking. Whores, mostly young runaways or orphans, were vastly outnumbered and frequently fought over. Boredom, simmering rancor and the assiduous cultivation of grudges led to manly moments of indignation. Disagreements were likely to get physical. And the entire country was awash in firearms after the Civil War.

Then, as now, enraged young men used what came easily to hand. So it's true that in those first couple of years in any given settlement, there was a lot of gun violence and many deaths, though stand-up shoot-outs in the street are almost entirely a movie fantasy (the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was one of very few such fights in real life). Frontier shootings were nearly always the result of momentary fury, drunken foolishness, or plain clumsiness in a place where guns were as common as trousers.

Soon, however, a city government would be organized by local businessmen, who noticed that dead men make poor customers. In Dodge City, for example, it was illegal to discharge firearms within the city limits except on the Fourth of July and New Year's Day. The rest of the year, when you came into town, you were required to surrender your firearms in the first place you entered. Most public buildings had peg racks for the purpose and you were given a claim number; when you left town again, you could retrieve your gun. If you were discovered to be carrying a gun, and the police officer decided you were not on your way in or out of town, you would be arrested, jailed and fined. The police commonly pistol-whipped anyone who showed the slightest sign of resistance to being disarmed. Concussions must have been epidemic, but that was considered more humane than shooting the idiot.

During the cattle boom of the 1870s and '80s, all the Kansas cow towns had gun control ordinances, and those laws were enforced by men like Virgil, Wyatt and Morgan Earp; Ed, Bat and Jim Masterson; by Bill Tilghman and Dave Mather. They all had formidable reputations. Their presence on the police force made these laws stick, despite the fact that the towns were seasonally flooded by thousands of young cowboys with no head for liquor, intent on blowing three months' wages as quickly as possible in saloons, gambling halls, and brothels.

And while the gunfight in Tombstone had many causes, what finally set it off that afternoon was a misdemeanor: carrying firearms inside city limits.

Wyatt Earp is purported to have written, “Doc was a dentist not a lawman or an assassin, whom necessity made a gambler.” Do you agree with that assessment?

The whole quote is “Doc [Holliday] was a dentist whom necessity had made a gambler; a gentleman whom disease had made a frontier vagabond; a philosopher whom life had made a caustic wit; a long lean ash-blond fellow nearly dead with consumption, and at the same time the most skillful gambler and the nerviest, speediest, deadliest man with a gun that I ever knew.”

I suspect that whole quote is bogus, although Wyatt always defended Doc's good character. You can usually tell when a ghostwriter or a journalist put a colorful quote in Wyatt's mouth. Wyatt was not well educated and not terribly articulate.

If you want an authentic quote about Doc Holliday, I believe this one by Virgil Earp, who said, “Tales were told that [Doc] had murdered men in different parts of the country, that he had robbed and committed all kinds of crimes, and yet when people were asked how they knew it, they could only admit it was hearsay, and nothing of the kind could really be traced up to Doc's account.”

Unlike Wyatt and Morgan, Virgil never really warmed to Doc, but he was a fair man and that's a fair statement. Everyone who really knew Doc agreed that he was a fine dentist, a quiet person who bore his illness with fortitude, and a gentleman who was grateful for the smallest kindness when he was ill. And he was generous when he tipped!

Holliday was once asked if his killings had ever gotten on his conscience and was reported to have said, “I coughed my conscience up with my lungs, years ago.” But Kate Harony, his long-time companion, remembered a different Doc Holliday, saying that after the gunfight at the O.K. Corral, he came back to their room and wept.

Again, the quote about Doc’s conscience is probably bogus. But, yes, Kate wrote that he came back to their room after the gunfight, sat on the side of the bed, and said over and over, “This is awful. This is just awful.” That was his private reaction to the only killing he ever did.

He was also horrified when the incident made national news. Soon after the gunfight, he wired his family in Georgia to assure them that he had been deputized before the event and was acting within the law, but the damage was done. The papers identified him as a professional gambler, and that was something he'd hidden from his family for years.

It's hard for us to understand now, but in those days, a professional gambler was beyond the pale. As John Henry Holliday's cousin Margaret Mitchell wrote in Gone with the Wind, “A man could gamble himself to poverty and still be a gentleman, but a professional gambler could never be anything but an outcast.” When John Henry Holliday's father found out his son was gambling professionally, he never spoke his son's name again. The Hollidays were besieged by reporters after the Tombstone event, and began to run them off by claiming that they were no relation to that man.

That was devastating for John Henry. He was profoundly ashamed of how his life turned out, but really—what were his alternatives? He'd arrived on the frontier just as the Crash of 1873 sent the country into a depression that lasted for years. Who had money for dental care? It was play cards, beg, steal, or starve in the street. So he played cards.

How did their participation in violence affect Holliday and the Earp family?

That's a difficult question to answer. And I'm not sure I should try, in the context of an interview like this. As a novelist, I can draw plausible conclusions about the mental states of the people I write about, but it's all conjecture.

We know that Nicholas Earp beat the daylights out of all his sons, and that had a big effect on all of them. Beaten boys often repeat the cycle: bullying others and abusing their own kids. Sometimes, however, they rebel against the abuse by becoming protective of others. Such men are often drawn to law enforcement, and the Earp brothers follow that pattern.

We also know that the older brothers—Newton, James and Virgil—served in the Union army during the Civil War. James was horribly wounded in battle and lost the use of his left arm. Newton and Virgil served until the end of the war. We now know that post-traumatic stress is common among combat veterans, but the older brothers' lives are not well documented and in any case, the symptoms of PTSD would not have been mentioned in their time. Wyatt, Morgan and Warren Earp were too young to enlist, as was John Henry Holliday, who was just 13 when the war ended. As mentioned above, he was severely injured and permanently lamed in 1877; we may presume that a gunshot wound like that would have had significant emotional aftereffects as well.

We do know, however, that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral changed the lives of everyone who participated—even peripherally—and all for the worse.

Tom and Frank McLaury were killed, as was Billy Clanton. Virgil and Morgan Earp were seriously wounded, and John Henry Holliday was grazed by a bullet; Wyatt was unscathed physically. Ike Clanton lost a beloved brother, and filed murder charges against the Earps and Holliday, who were only exonerated because—quite frankly—Wyatt and Virgil seem to have perjured themselves to protect Morgan and Doc. Sheriff John Behan has been denigrated as a coward and a conniver ever since the incident, and the men on both sides of the fight have been vilified for over a century.

Vendettas happen when people do not believe that the police or the courts can be relied on to serve justice. No justice, no peace. I think that is what happened in Arizona. Friends of those who died during the shoot-out decided the law wasn't going to punish the killers, so they took it on themselves. Virgil Earp was ambushed; a shotgun blast destroyed his arm. Morgan was shot in the back and died in Wyatt's arms. In reaction, Wyatt, Doc and several others hunted down those they held responsible for crippling Virgil and murdering Morgan. The Earp posse wore badges at the time, but Wyatt was certain the men would not be convicted if he brought them in for trial, so he gunned them down personally. We'd call those deaths “extra-judicial executions” today.

Wyatt was led to believe he'd be pardoned by the territorial governor, but that never happened. All the men in the Earp posse were wanted for murder the rest of their lives and had to flee across the Arizona border. Any arrest elsewhere could have resulted in extradition to Arizona, where they might be tried for murder, if not lynched. Direct retaliation was a constant threat for all of them. And they all had to deal with their (now deserved) reputation as killers.

For the next 50 years, Wyatt was suspicious of anyone who approached him. Even the little kids were unwelcome because he suspected “they just wanted to shake the hand of a killer.” Wyatt lived into his 80s, long enough to see the gunfight in Tombstone be turned into movie entertainment. He was really bitter about that.

What would the Earp brothers have thought of contemporary laws that allow cursorily screened individuals with a day-class in training (if that) to carry loaded, concealed handguns into bars?

I suspect Virgil would have snorted, "Idiots making laws for idiots..."

Wyatt might have thought, "That's going to set public order back 150 years."

And Morgan would have told Doc, "You've got to be more careful now. I can't always be around to protect you."

Have you or your family been impacted by gun violence or the threat of it?

Well, now, my father was a career cop. He was an MP in the Marines during the occupation of Japan, and later a village constable, a county deputy in a cruiser, a plain clothes detective, and an undercover narcotics officer. He also served five terms as the sheriff of DuPage County in Illinois, just west of Chicago. So I grew up with guns and cops. Police work was dinner table conversation in our house.

But I should point out that my father never once fired his gun in anger. That's typical. Most cops go their whole careers without pulling a trigger except at the gun range. If they do shoot someone, they're taken off active duty, there's an investigation, and every decision they ever made comes under scrutiny by people who have no idea what that job is really like.

Believe nothing you see in the movies or on TV. Nothing.

Do you still own a gun or have one in your house?

My dad always wanted me to keep a pistol in the house “for protection.” I always told him, “I believe in statistics. Any bullet fired in the middle of the night by a startled, stupefied homeowner is more likely to hit a family member, a pet, or a neighbor in the house next door than an alert intruder.”

A few years ago, my father—an ex-Marine, career policeman, five-term sheriff—was showing a pistol to one of the grandkids. It went off and the bullet went through the sliding glass door and into the neighbor's back yard. Dad was stunned and said, as people always do, “I was sure the gun wasn't loaded.”

It was: Q.E.D.

So no guns in my house. But I have a very ferocious dachshund.