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December 22, 2008

A Fine Example

Tragedy was averted on December 9 when police arrested 15-year-old Richard Yanis, who planned to carry out a mass shooting at his high school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Yanis was going to “shoot everyone he did not like” at Pottstown High School. He planned to tell friends to leave the school’s grounds prior to opening fire on teachers and students. Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman characterized the would-be school shooter as “an outcast, a loner who didn’t have many friends. He was picked on, he felt like he didn’t fit in very well.

In preparation for the shooting, Yanis stole three handguns and ammunition from his father’s locker and gave them to a friend. The friend was to deliver the weapons to Yanis at the high school on the day of the shooting. However the plot began to unravel when Yanis’ father, Michael Yanis, reported the guns stolen to police, touching off an “intense, month-long investigation.” The friend holding the weapons soon dumped them in a river with the help of his stepmother and alerted school officials. Police intervened and quickly took Richard Yanis into custody. He has been charged with criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder.

The incident touches on a number of hot button issues regarding the role of guns in schools and the responsibilities of firearm owners...

Recent years have seen aggressive efforts by the gun lobby to push concealed weapons into America’s schools. Gun rights organizations have argued that arming teachers and allowing others to carry handguns into schools will enhance children’s safety. The Harrold School District in Texas made national news when it became the first K-12 campus in the country to allow teachers and faculty to carry concealed handguns. Defending the district’s decision, Superintendent David Thweatt stated, “When the federal government started making schools gun-free zones, that’s when all of these shootings started. Why would you put it out there that a group of people can’t defend themselves? That’s like saying ‘Sic ‘em’ to a dog.”

Not only did Thweatt ignore the facts—a recent study showed that youth ages 5-18 are over 50 times more likely to be murdered when they are away from school than at school—he also failed to consider that a better solution might be to prevent active shooter situations before they even happen. The Pottstown case demonstrates that good investigative work by police, and vigilance by school administrators, can forestall a tragedy without the need to inject guns into a learning environment.

The Pottstown incident also highlights the importance of reporting lost and stolen firearms to the police. One can imagine what might have happened had Michael Yanis failed to make that critical call to law enforcement. As District Attorney Ferman noted, Richard Yanis “had the immediate capacity to commit the crime with the guns and arsenal of ammunition waiting to be delivered upon his word.”

One might think that reporting lost and stolen guns is a common-sense thing to do. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has reported, however, that “most gun owners do not report stolen firearms to the police.” In the state of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Police recently reported that out of 1,900 firearms recovered on crime scenes in 2007 and 2008, only 231 had been previously reported missing or stolen.

The city of Pottstown recently passed a new ordinance that requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to the police. The National Rifle Association (NRA), remarkably, opposed the ordinance, stating, “It’s not going to end up lowering crime. All it ends up doing is further victimizing someone who’s been a victim of crime.” The NRA, however, has been unable to cite a single instance where a law-abiding gun owner was wrongfully prosecuted under the law in any of the seven states where it has been enacted. At a recent Pottstown City Council hearing, one local gun owner, David Blankenhorn, had a very different view: “[My pistol] turned up in a drug raid in Auburn. Because I reported it in 24 hours, because I cooperated with the law, I was given that gun back. This ordinance can have a major benefit. If you simply follow the law, it works with you.”

Hopefully, municipal officials across the country will look to Pottstown as an example of how to prevent tragedies in their schools without putting students at additional risk of gun violence.

December 8, 2008

The Unstudied Study

In September, three researchers from the University of Maryland and University of Michigan released a study that examined eleven years of data on the date and location of “every” gun show in the states of California and Texas, the nation’s two most populous states. They combined this with information on the date, location, and cause of every death occurring in these same two states during the same period. They then attempted to determine if the gun shows had an effect on gun-related deaths, with “two important caveats.” They only examined deaths that occurred within 25 miles of the gun shows, and in the four weeks immediately following their conclusion.

They concluded that the results of their study “suggest that gun shows do not increase the number of homicides or suicides and that the absence of gun show regulations does not increase the number of gun-related deaths as proponents of these regulations suggest.” The inference was that the 87% of Americans who want to close the Gun Show Loophole—which allows private individuals to sell guns at these events without conducting background checks on purchasers–are misguided.

The National Rifle Association was ecstatic, and claimed that the study “obliterates Anti-Gunners’ claims” that gun shows are “totally unregulated arms bazaars.”

The NRA’s victory dance might have been a tad premature, however. Just last week, researchers from five universities across America sent the study’s authors a formal and public letter. They had examined the study’s methodology and found it deeply flawed. Two of their main criticisms were as follows:

The geographic and time restrictions in the study reflected a poor understanding of illegal gun markets. The study only looked at gun-related deaths within a 25-mile radius of a gun show, despite evidence that a large portion of crime guns recovered are purchased either out-of-state (19.3% and 27.7%, respectively, for Texas and California in 2007) or in-state but not in the immediate vicinity (For Dallas and Los Angeles in 2000, only half of traced crime guns were recovered within 25 miles of their point of initial sale). Furthermore, the study only looked at gun-related deaths in the four weeks immediately following a gun show. In Texas and California, however, the average time from a gun’s sale to its recovery following use in crime was 9.8 and 12.9 years, respectively, in 2007.

The study failed to account for every gun show in California and Texas. The study used just one publication, the Gun and Knife Show Calendar, to identify gun shows in the two states. Additional listings in publications like the Big Show Journal, however, indicate that the study’s authors failed to identify roughly 20% of the gun shows that occurred in California and Texas during the study period.

The NRA might have also missed a story that came out of Texas just two weeks ago. Gregorio Martinez, a convicted felon, was arrested at the Bell County Gun Show in Texas after attempting to purchase an AK-47 assault rifle. Criminals don’t shop at gun shows? Martinez didn’t get the gun lobby memo. Nor did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which has confirmed that gun shows are the second leading source of illegally diverted firearms in the United States (behind only corrupt federally licensed dealers).

November 24, 2008

No Small Offense

The Second Amendment—as defined by the Supreme Court in the recent District of Columbia v. Heller decision—provides “an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.” In the same decision, the Court defined certain areas of firearm regulation that are both reasonable and constitutional. For example, the Court said that its opinion “should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill…

Such “longstanding prohibitions” were defined in the 1968 Gun Control Act. The Act also prohibited “anyone who is a subject to a court order that restrains a person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner” from purchasing or owning a firearm(s). The U.S. Congress took further action in 1996, adopting the Lautenberg Amendment, which made it a felony for anyone convicted of a misdemeanor crime of “domestic violence” to ship, transport, possess or receive firearms or ammunition. The Amendment also made it a felony for anyone to sell or issue a firearm or ammunition to a person with such a conviction.

Unfortunately, this latter category of domestic abusers could find themselves rearmed after an upcoming Supreme Court ruling in the case of U.S. v. Hayes.

The case originated last year in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. The defendant in the case, Randy Hayes of West Virginia, abused his wife and pled guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge in 1994. Ten years later, police responded to a domestic violence call from his home and learned that he had owned or sold five firearms (one was found on the premises). In light of this, he was convicted in 2005 of illegal gun possession under the terms of the Lautenberg Amendment.

Hayes challenged the conviction in the courts, alleging that since the West Virginia statute under which he was originally convicted did not have a domestic relationship between offender and victim as an element, he could not be prosecuted under the Lautenberg Amendment. A District Court upheld Hayes’ conviction, citing the United States v. Ball definition of domestic abuse as “needing only to have one element—the use or attempted use of physical force; the relationship between the perpetrator and the victim need not appear in the formal definition of the predicate offense.” The Court of Appeals, however, overturned this decision and ruled that the Lautenberg Amendment applies only to individuals convicted under state domestic violence laws (only 1/3 of the states currently have such statutes on the books). Exempt were individuals convicted of simple misdemeanor assault or battery (even for offenses that occur inside the home).

The case has now been appealed to the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments on November 10. The Justices’ comments that day suggest that they are leaning toward upholding the Court of Appeals ruling. In one interesting exchange, Justice Antonin Scalia stated that possessing a gun was “lawful conduct” and the wife-beating charge against Hayes was “not that serious of an offense.” The government’s attorney countered that Hayes “hit his wife all around the face until it swelled out, kicked her all around her body, kicked her in the ribs…” Justice Scalia was unmoved, declaring that Hayes therefore “should have been charged with a felony, but he wasn’t.”

Justice Anthony Kennedy (a critical swing vote on the Court) found fault with the language of the Lautenberg Amendment, stating that it was “a mess.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg countered this notion, however, saying: “Wasn’t the statute responding to just that problem, that domestic abuse tended to be charged as misdemeanors rather than felonies? And it was that fact that the Senator [Lautenberg] was responding to when he included misdemeanor. The whole purpose of this was to make a misdemeanor battery count for the statute’s purpose ... All the circuits that had this question before the floor read it the way the Government is urging.”

There is certainly a great deal at stake in the case. According to the Family Violence Prevention Fund, “Access to firearms increases the risk of intimate partner homicide more than five times than in instances where there are no weapons, according to a [2003 study entitled “Risk Factors for Femicide in Abusive Relationships: Results from a Multi-Site Case Control Study”]. In addition, abusers who possess guns tend to inflict the most severe abuse on their partners.” The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence has also pointed out that “about 14% of all police officer deaths occur during a response to domestic violence calls.”

It is disturbing to think that thousands of criminals such as Hayes (who failed to change his spots a full decade after his initial battery conviction) could find themselves rearmed in the near future. Indeed, a High Court ruling in favor of Hayes would force Congress to go back to the drawing table to redraft the language of the Lautenberg Amendment—an uncertain proposition even in an era of Democratic control.

November 17, 2008

“I don’t keep a gun in my house, because I value my life.”

In August we blogged about an article in Esquire that looked into the background of Steven Kazmierczak, the grad student who shot and killed six people (including himself) and wounded 18 others at Northern Illinois University on February 14, 2008. The author of the article, David Vann, debunked the media’s simplistic portrayal of Kazmierczak as “an award-winning sociology student and a leader of a campus criminal justice group” who presented “no red flags.” Vann’s research uncovered something strikingly different—a young man with a lengthy and disturbing history of mental illness and volatile behavior.

Vann’s latest work, Legend of a Suicide, is a collection of stories and a novella that explores a more personal topic—the death of his father. Vann’s semi-autobiographical account—which incorporates both metaphor and allegory—is being published this month and has already garnered substantial praise. The book received the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler commented, “This is one of the most striking fictional debuts in recent memory.” Legend of a Suicide can be purchased through the University of Massachusetts Press website.

The young character at the center of Legend, “Roy,” shares a passion for firearms with his father. Vann confirms that this is based on truth: “I grew up in a hunting and fishing family in Alaska and rural northern California, so I was shooting guns at an early age. I was given a pump pellet gun at age 7, a 20-gauge shotgun at age 8, and a Winchester .30-.30 rifle—like in the westerns—at age 9. When I was 11 years old, I killed my first two deer with that Winchester. California law said I had to wait until I was 13 to legally kill a buck, but family law said 11, and killing my first buck included eating the heart and liver.”

Recalling his Esquire article about Steven Kazmierczak, Vann drew parallels between himself and the troubled student: Kazmierczak was trained by the U.S. Army not to have any emotional or psychological response to killing a human being. In the shooting at Northern Illinois University, he killed without any sign of emotion at all…and I do think that hunting trained me in a similar way. We killed everything that moved in Alaska or California, hundreds of animals. The second deer I shot, at age 11, was paralyzed, hit in the spine. My father made me walk up behind it and put the .30-.30 rifle to the back of its head to finish it off, execution style. I still find that tremendously upsetting.”

Vann also remembers his father owning a .300 magnum rifle (for hunting bears) and a .44 magnum pistol. The .44 was kept under the seat of his father’s car for personal protection. Tragically, instead of being used for self-defense, Vann’s father used the handgun to take his own life. “I saw that guns are simply too powerful, too easily misused,” Vann recalls. “My father’s .44 magnum pistol had a hair trigger. I had fired it once, and it went off before I expected it to, with just a faint touch.” Vann is also cognizant of research that shows that many gun suicides are attempted in the heat of the moment, without significant premeditation: “When I think of my father sitting at his kitchen table in Fairbanks, Alaska, alone, with the gun to his head, it bothers me that he only had to want suicide for an instant. It’s just too fast and too easy, and there’s no turning back.”

Nor was this his family’s only tragic experience with gun violence: My stepmother lost her parents to a murder/suicide. Her mother killed her father with a shotgun and then killed herself with a pistol. They were a wealthy couple with a large house on a hill overlooking an entire valley in California. Their lives should have been considered good, but in a moment of anger, guns made killing very easy and quick.”

Ironically, Vann would inherit his father’s gun collection after his suicide. Instead of using these firearms solely to hunt, however, he capitalized on the opportunity to blow off steam and avoid dealing with complicated emotions like shame and rage. “I learned to break the .300 magnum rifle into several parts and stuff them down the back of my jacket,” he remembers. “I’d ride my bicycle into the hills above my suburban Californian neighborhood and shoot out streetlights from hundreds of yards away. That rifle sounded like artillery, but I was never caught.” More ominously, Vann notes: “I also sighted in on our neighbors in the afternoons and evenings, right from my bedroom. I had a shell in the chamber and the safety off, and I’d be looking at someone’s face through the crosshairs as they stood in front of a living room window. I was a straight-A student, would become valedictorian, was in student government, sports, band, etc. No one would have guessed I was living a double life.”

But Vann says that his fascination with firearms is now a thing of the past: “It’s extremely rare that anyone is able to defend their life or the lives of their loved ones with a firearm. If you don’t do drugs or engage in crime, you’re unlikely to ever confront a gun. The only way you’re really put into an increased level of danger is if you own a gun. I don’t keep a gun in my house, because I value my life.”

Vann also has some important advice for families dealing with issues of depression: “One of the most critical steps is to ask for outside help. Right before his suicide, my father convinced our family that he was fine. He sounded reasonable and clear-headed. Professional help, from a therapist or psychiatrist, is necessary.”

It’s been 28 years since Vann’s father’s suicide, so he’s had the time and distance to transform family tragedy into art. The stories in Legend of a Suicide are simply beautiful, reinventing a terrible past and making sense out of chaos.

November 10, 2008

Zero Tolerance

While the Second Amendment has traditionally been a sacred cow for pro-gun activists, it would appear that the First Amendment isn’t accorded the same degree of respect in their ranks, as evidenced by the unfortunate case of Dan Cooper.

On October 28, USA Today published an interview with Cooper, the president and founder of Cooper Firearms of Montana, Inc., in which he admitted—to the horror of pro-gun extremists across America—his support for Democratic presidential candidate (and now president-elect) Barack Obama. Almost immediately, thousands of angry comments flooded the internet, including missives such as “This guy needs to be crushed as an example to others” and “Cooper Arms is unrepentant, arrogant, and needs to be bitch slapped HARD!” Simultaneously, pro-gun activists obtained Cooper Firearms’ dealer list and posted it online, urging gun buyers to contact these retailers and threaten a boycott if they didn’t stop selling the company’s rifles.

The outrage that Dan Cooper’s endorsement sparked in right wing circles had its genesis in the National Rifle Association’s $15 million political campaign to portray Senator Obama as someone who would ban all firearms and go down as “the most anti-gun president in American history.” Never mind that FactCheck.org and Newsweek, among others, thoroughly debunked these claims. Never mind that Dan Cooper spoke to Senator Obama personally and concluded that “he is a staunch supporter of the right to hunt and the right to bear arms.” His punishment for breaking with gun lobby orthodoxy—for having his own political views—was swift and brutal.

Just two days after the USA Today interview appeared, the Board of Directors at Cooper Firearms asked Dan Cooper to resign. Dan agreed to do so, stating, “There is nothing on this earth I will not do for my employees … we have fought through 20 years of building what I believe to be the finest rifles built in America … When the internet anger turned on these innocent people, I felt it was important to distance myself from the company so as not to cause any further harm.”

This is not the first time that pro-gun activists have attacked one of their own. Last year, Jim Zumbo, staff writer for Outdoor Life magazine and the host of a television show on the Outdoor Channel, saw his career destroyed when he wrote about assault rifles: “Excuse me, maybe I’m a traditionalist, but I see no place for these weapons among our hunting fraternity. I’ll go so far as to call them ‘terrorist’ rifles.”

It is notable that none of Dan Cooper’s critics have questioned his management of his business, or the quality of the long guns that Cooper Firearms manufactures. Cooper’s only “sin” was to embrace Senator Obama’s vision regarding “the retooling of America, which involves the building of middle-class jobs and helping American small business be competitive with those overseas”…an important issue for Americans across the country who handed the Democrat a landslide victory in the presidential election on November 4.

By forcing a man into resigning from a company that he himself created, the National Rifle Association and its supporters on the far right have provided America with a stark reminder of the lengths they will go to in order to silence debate within the gun industry. Bob Ricker, executive director of the American Hunters and Shooters Association (AHSA), has said that the campaign against Dan Cooper is “really McCarthyism at its worst.” AHSA president Ray Schoenke has called on “rank and file gun owners who have no political ax to grind…to stand up, reject such underhanded tactics and have their voices heard.”

We hope they will heed this call—and maybe save a good man’s career before it is too late.

November 3, 2008

Heller Revisited

Four months after the fact, the Supreme Court’s historic District of Columbia v. Heller decision continues to receive national media attention, and some recent developments have cast new light on Justice Antonin Scalia’s controversial remaking of the Second Amendment.

Recently, the New York Times highlighted criticisms of Justice Scalia’s 5-4 majority opinion by markedly conservative jurists. Two federal appeals court judges who were appointed to the bench by President Ronald Reagan, J. Harvie Wilkinson and Richard Posner, have described the opinion as judicial activism akin to the Court’s 1973 ruling in the case of Roe v. Wade.

Judge Wilkinson—who was recently considered for nomination to the Supreme Court—argues in an article entitled “Of Guns, Abortion, and the Unraveling Rule of Law” that the majority opinion in Heller “reads an ambiguous constitutional provision as creating a substantive right that the Court had never acknowledged in the more than two hundred years since the amendment’s enactment. The majority then used that same right to strike down a law passed by elected officials acting, rightly or wrongly, to preserve the safety of the citizenry.” In Wilkinson’s judgment, “it is patently wrong to have an issue that will not only affect people’s lives, but could literally cost them their lives, decided by courts that are not accountable to them.”

Wilkinson recalls that it was Justice Scalia himself who lamented the Court’s treatment of the abortion issue in the case of Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, stating that, “by foreclosing all democratic outlet for the deep passions this issue arouses, by banishing the issue from the political forum that gives all participants, even the losers, the satisfaction of a fair hearing and an honest fight, by continuing the imposition of a rigid national rule instead of allowing for regional differences, the Court merely prolongs and intensifies the anguish.”

Judge Posner, described as “perhaps the most influential judge not on the Supreme Court,” recently wrote in the The New Republic that “the text of the [Second] amendment, whether viewed alone or in light of the concerns that actuated its adoption, creates no right to the private possession of guns for hunting or any other sport, or for the defense of person or property.” Posner argues that “the popularity of the decision and its prompt endorsement by both presidential candidates attests to the political power of the ‘gun lobby,’” and predicts that “the only certain effect of the Heller decision…will be to increase litigation over gun ownership.”

On another front, the plaintiff in the Heller case, security guard Dick Heller, recently emerged from relative obscurity to testify before the D.C. Council on the subject of the District’s gun laws. His public testimony could objectively be characterized as bizarre. Heller—the man who convinced the Supreme Court to overturn a gun control law on Second Amendment grounds for the first time in history—argued that gun owners should not have to undergo background checks or “store [firearms] securely & safely around minors.” He further stated that armed citizens in the District should be the first line of defense against the “large terrorist sleeper army” inside the United States.

Finally, the Heller ruling has even emerged in popular culture and was featured in a recent episode of the ABC series “Boston Legal.” The episode focuses on the trial of lawyer Denny Crane (played by William Shatner), who has been indicted for shooting a mugger with an illegally concealed handgun. Arguing for the defense, attorney Jerry Espenson exclaims, “I mean, no other Supreme Court in our two hundred year history could find a right to bear arms for non-military purposes. But suddenly! Presto! Thank God for the Big Five, I tell ya’! ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ It turns out that the trick is to just ignore the first thirteen words!

Crane later takes the stand and puts it in even simpler terms: “You don't have to be a legal genius to know that if you have a president in office who likes guns, and a vice president who likes to hunt lawyers and quail and a Supreme Court Justice who hunts with him, you're going to have a Constitutional right to shoot bad guys in the knee!

The October 6 episode, entitled “Dances with Wolves,” can be viewed in its entirety here.

October 20, 2008

Shooting with the Enemy

Recently, CSGV Director of Communications Ladd Everitt met with Brian Borgelt, the former owner of Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply, while spending time in Tacoma, Washington. Bull’s Eye was the source of the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle used by D.C. snipers John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo during their deadly shooting spree. Here is Ladd's recounting of his trip...

I recently traveled to Tacoma for the screening of a documentary entitled “Illicit Exchanges: Canada, the U.S. & Crime.” The film was produced by the School of Arts & Communication at Pacific Lutheran University and a premiere was held on October 4 at Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry. During a post-premiere reception, I was approached by Brian Borgelt, who owned Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply before his Federal Firearms License (FFL) was revoked in 2003 following the D.C. sniper shootings (we both appeared briefly in the documentary). He now runs the shooting range directly above the store.

Brian was surprised that I knew who he was, and I explained to him that being both a gun violence prevention activist and a longtime resident of Washington D.C., I was well acquainted with the specifics of the D.C. sniper case. I told him that I had been thinking of visiting Bull’s Eye during my stay in Tacoma, and he was kind enough to invite me in to see the store and shoot at his range.

The afternoon I spent with Brian two days later was one of the most interesting I have spent working in the gun violence prevention field.

The Gun(s) That Disappeared
The shooting spree perpetrated by John Allen Muhammad and Lee Malvo in October 2002 terrorized the entire Beltway area and was headline news across America. All told, ten people were killed and three others critically injured by the snipers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. Subsequent investigation revealed that Muhammad and Malvo were responsible for additional murders that had been committed previously in Alabama, Arizona, and their home town of Tacoma, Washington.

When Muhammad and Malvo were finally apprehended, the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle they used in the Beltway shootings was traced to Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply, which was owned at that time by Brian Borgelt. Brian told authorities he didn’t know how the gun left his shop. And it wasn’t just the Bushmaster. All told, Brian could not account for 238 missing guns in his inventory and indicate whether they had been lost, stolen, or sold off the books. In fact, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) had been investigating Bull’s Eye since 1994 because guns from the store were repeatedly ending up on crime scenes.

In July 2003, ATF finally revoked Brian’s Federal Firearms License, citing “willful” violations of federal gun laws (the required standard thanks to a 1986 law written by the National Rifle Association). Undeterred, Brian simply transferred ownership of the business to a longtime friend, Kris Kindschuh, and moved upstairs to run the Bull’s Eye Indoor [shooting] Range. The store never lost a day of business and Bushmaster, describing Bull’s Eye as a “good customer,” continued to supply them with firearms.

Straw Man’s Boon
When I visited the Bull’s Eye Indoor Range on October 6 to meet with Brian, he revealed to me some aspects of the sniper case of which I was not aware.

I learned that the Bushmaster rifle was not the first gun that John Allen Muhammad had acquired from Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply. In November 2001, Earl Dancy, Jr. straw purchased a .308 Remington 700 rifle (a gun often used by police departments for tactical shooting) from Bull’s Eye on Muhammad’s behalf. On August 17, 2002, that rifle was found perched on a bipod in a patch of woods in Tacoma. It had been loaded and pointed toward a nearby apartment complex. Law enforcement traced the gun to Dancy, who lied for Muhammad and claimed that the rifle was stolen from him sometime after he bought it. As the state of Washington has no law requiring gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms (only seven states currently have such laws in place), police had nothing to charge Dancy with and he was released after questioning.

Straw purchasing a gun for another individual (so that they can avoid the required background check) is a federal felony offense. It is a common tactic for straw purchasers to claim a gun was stolen after it is traced back to them from a crime scene. This forces law enforcement to prove that they are lying, which can be extremely difficult if the shooter has yet to be identified and/or apprehended, or if the connection between the shooter and the straw purchaser is tangential.

Brian expressed a great deal of frustration to me that local law enforcement had failed to identify Dancy as a straw purchaser in the fall of 2002 (he was later convicted after the Beltway shootings). He believed Muhammad could have been stopped before the bulk of his shooting spree took place.

I was surprised, therefore, to learn that Brian opposes any requirement for gun owners to report lost or stolen guns. His explanation was that he knows many gun owners who own 30 or more guns and these individuals might not be aware if one or more of their guns were stolen. He was worried that law enforcement might prosecute these individuals if they did not comply with the law.

I told Brian that my personal concept of a “responsible gun owner” is an individual who takes the necessary precautions to prevent unauthorized individuals from gaining access to their firearms (i.e., by storing those firearms safely and securely). It disturbed me to think that a gun owner could be so cavalier about his collection that he could lose guns without even noticing.

I suggested to Brian that even a law that gave gun owners one, three, or a full six months to report lost or stolen guns would be better than nothing (most laws of this type allow gun owners 72 hours to make their reports). It would certainly help deter straw purchasers like Dancy, who would lose their most convenient alibi and face the threat of prosecution.

But Brian wouldn’t budge. Law enforcement should just do a better job of investigating these cases with the tools they have, he said.

It’s Hard to Get Good Help These Days
Regarding the Bushmaster XM-15 rifle that Muhmammad and Malvo used in the Beltway killings, Brian told me he still isn’t sure how it left his store. Bushmaster delivered the rifle to Bull’s Eye on July 2, 2002. Two Bull’s Eye employees later told investigators that they first noticed the rifle missing from a display case in August or early September. The first murders linked conclusively to the rifle occurred in mid-September at liquor stores in Maryland, Georgia and Alabama. Brian did not report the weapon missing—as required by federal law—until two weeks after the snipers’ arrests in November.

Lee Malvo would later tell authorities that he shoplifted the Bushmaster from Bull’s Eye. Brian had a different theory to share with me. He believes one of his employees took the rifle from the store and transferred it to Muhammad and Malvo off the books.

Brian believes he first met Muhammad and Malvo at a gun show in Washington many months before the sniper shootings. They came to his table to inquire about AR-15-type rifles and Brian referred them to an associate of his who was well versed in those firearms. He thought it might be possible that this individual was involved in the illegal transfer of the Bushmaster XM-15.

That was not the only employee that Brian had a problem trusting, however. He told me one horror story after another … One pair of employees he hired became involved romantically and conspired to steal his clients and open a new gun store … Another was embezzling money from Brian by keeping a calculator on top the cash register and ringing up transactions off the books …

To his credit, Brian did require new employees to possess a concealed carry permit in Washington (to demonstrate that they had passed a criminal background check). While not a perfect screening mechanism (such permits are only renewed every five years and it’s unclear how often state authorities check permit holders’ records to see if there is cause for revocation), there is no federal or state requirement in this area, so Brian took this step voluntarily. He also told me he wrote to the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF), the main trade group for the gun industry, requesting assistance in performing more thorough background checks on his employees. They never responded.

Despite these efforts, I found it hard to imagine that this much malfeasance had taken place at Bull’s Eye Shooter Supply without Brian’s knowledge. The showroom is just one large room, with the owner’s office sitting directly adjacent. Was Brian minding his shop at all?

I was also aware that it wasn’t only store recordkeeping that was an issue for Brian during this period. The record shows that Brian failed to file a partnership tax return for Bull’s Eye from 1994 to 2001. But he also failed to file personal income tax returns between 1995 and 2001. He was eventually indicted for tax evasion and pled guilty to a single charge. At that point, he agreed to pay back taxes, penalties and interest for all the counts alleged in the indictment—amounting to $230,884.

President Harry Truman used to keep a famous sign on his desk in the White House that read “The Buck Stops Here.” I’m still trying to figure out where the buck stopped at Bull’s Eye.

“They Stole Your Freedom”
During a conversation about self-defense, Brian threw me a curveball. While asserting his belief that citizens have the right to be armed in public against would-be criminals, he informed me that he had stopped carrying a concealed handgun twelve years ago. His reticence stemmed from an incident when he was jumped in a parking lot by two unarmed young men who mistook a hand gesture that he made. He told me that he spent most of his energy during this brief confrontation defending his own handgun (which he wore in a waist holster and never drew). Thankfully, he was able to subdue the men and prevent them from gaining access to his firearm until a nearby security guard arrived on the scene, but the encounter changed his thinking about concealed carry.

I told Brian I had thought a lot about this topic myself after being mugged in my neighborhood in the District a year ago. I was accosted by two young men (who may or may not have been armed) who took my wallet, cell phone, iPod, and work bag and left me unharmed to walk home to my family. To Brian, the equation was simple—these criminals were “terrorists” who had “stole my freedom.” I granted that I lost my freedom for about a minute, but while I was scared by the incident, I didn’t quite feel terrorized (I was walking in my neighborhood again the very next day and have been ever since).

I also wondered what might have happened had I been carrying a concealed handgun. These guys grabbed me seconds after I first spotted them turning a corner. Would I even have had time to draw a gun? If I was carrying a gun but didn’t draw it, would they have found it on my person and taken it from me, potentially using it against future victims? If I had drawn a gun, could they have overpowered me and taken it from me? What if I had fired a handgun in that type of tense situation? Did these young men deserve to die for stealing my property? And if I had missed my target(s), where would the bullets have gone? I was in a residential area with houses on all sides, mere feet away from where I stood.

I told Brian I had a difficult time imagining any positive outcomes that might have resulted from my being armed during that encounter.

Cause and Effect
That afternoon at the Bull’s Eye indoor shooting range, I underwent safety training and fired four handguns (.357 Ruger revolver, Glock 9mm, Sig Sauer 9mm, Ruger .22 caliber), a shotgun (Mossberg 12-gauge), and an assault rifle (Hi Point 9mm). It was my first time firing anything more powerful than an air gun, and I took to it pretty quickly, grouping most of my shots in fairly tight circles on the targets. I was awed by the power, lethality and accuracy of these firearms—particularly the Hi Point rifle, which had little if any recoil and which I was able to rapid-fire with great accuracy (placing 10 or so shots in the eye socket of the target). It was easy to see how even a teenager without any formal firearms training could become an efficient killer with such a weapon.

Brian was clearly a skilled shooter and proud of his range’s role in training gun owners. He also asserted to me that the range was great for kids, because it taught them patience, discipline and “cause and effect” (i.e., that there are consequences for their actions). On that point, I wasn’t so sure. It’s one thing to blow holes in a paper target; completely another to shoot another person and witness the damage that bullets can do to the human body. I was worried that having fun at the range could have the opposite effect and desensitize kids to the enormous damage that firearms can do.

I was reminded that John Allen Muhammad himself had once practiced at the Bull’s Eye range, honing his marksmanship. He had also reportedly practiced shooting with Lee Malvo—then just a boy in his mid-teens—in a backyard on South Proctor Street in Tacoma.

His Own Worst Enemy
The greatest irony of Brian’s story seems to be that—for all his concerns about street criminals and the damage he has endured in past assaults—it is his own criminal actions and the alleged actions of corrupt individuals that he himself employed that have had the greatest negative impact on his life. On one level, I had a great deal of sympathy for Brian. He clearly was proud of building Bull’s Eye into a profitable business in the late 1990s and devastated at losing the store and his reputation in the wake of the sniper shootings. On another level, it really bothered me that he never expressed any sympathy for the victims and survivors of those attacks, who suffered far worse than he did.

I was also dismayed that he refused to take ultimate responsibility for the guns that were lost or stolen from his store. When I asked him, “If you could go back and do it again, what would you do differently?” he said “nothing” other than that he would have kept a smaller staff once the store began to profit (presumably of those who were most trustworthy). As usual, it was a way to avoid his own culpability regarding the reckless manner in which his business was run.

Just before I left that day, Brian told me he had filed a lawsuit and was seeking to regain his FFL. It was still his dream to be a successful gun dealer. I told him that if he got his license back, I would move to Washington and handle his books. I was joking—I have no bookkeeping experience to speak of—but sadly, I was also certain that if tasked with that job, I would do it right and make sure the store presented no threat to the public. In a better world, well-funded trade organizations like the NSSF and National Rifle Association would step in and work directly with gun dealers to make sure they are running their businesses responsibly (as opposed to turning a blind eye to negligent conduct). But I’m not holding my breath.

Despite my disappointment, I enjoyed my time with Brian. I think he put it best when he said we were able to “come together as human beings rather than political or ideological rivals.” Unlike so many gun rights activists I deal with on a regular basis, Brian was always civil, and eager to engage in polite conversation on a number of topics. Demonizing him would be easy, but he treated me with great hospitality and listened to what I had to say—even when I was critical of him. It left me with hope that we might have more in common than we realize and that—if we’re willing to listen—we might ultimately find some things to agree on that can make us all feel more secure about this world we live in.

October 13, 2008

The Old West Mentality

In the aftermath of recent shooting tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, much attention has been focused on the policies of colleges and universities concerning the carrying of concealed handguns by students and faculty.

The group Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC) has insisted that the only way to address future shooting sprees is to eliminate “gun-free zones.” They seek revisions in state laws to force colleges and universities to allow concealed handguns on their campuses. In active shooters situations, SCCC advocates that concealed carry permit holders present on the scene take charge of the situation before trained law enforcement officers arrive. In their view, “the answer to bullets flying is almost always more bullets flying. That’s why the police bring so many guns with them when they respond to a report of ‘shots fired.’

The problem is that this directly contradicts the actual advice of campus police across the country, such as that of University of Cincinnati Police Chief Gene Ferrara, who said, "I don't think the answer to bullets flying is to send more bullets flying. My belief is we ought to be focusing on what we do to prevent the shooting from starting." University of Georgia Police Chief Jimmy Williamson concurred, stating, “I don’t know if society is quite ready for the Old West mentality to come back. How are police to know who the bad guy or good guy is [after responding to an active shooter situation]?

SCCC’s “More Bullets” philosophy isn’t even endorsed by the 11 colleges and universities where concealed carry is allowed on campus. The Colorado State University Police Department has created a pamphlet titled “Handguns on Campus: Do You Have the Facts?” with a section on “Active Shooter Response.” Their recommendations for concealed carry permit holders? For those directly involved in an active shooter situation and unable to exit the building, they advise the following:

1. Go to the nearest room or office.
2. Close and lock the door.
3. Turn off the lights.
4. Seek protective cover. This may be under a desk or table or anywhere else that offers some concealment.
5. Keep quiet and act as if no one is in the room.
6. Do not answer the door.
7. Notify 911, if it is safe to do so.
8. Wait for law enforcement officers to assist you out of the building.

They also emphasize that their officers “receive specialized training for active shooter situations,” unlike the day-class of general handgun safety training typically required of concealed carry permit holders (if they are required by their state to have training at all). Louisiana State University Police Department spokesman Major Lawrence Rabalais recently stressed the same point when Guns on Campus legislation was considered in his state, noting that his officers repeat firearm training twice a year and participate in seminars about how to keep control of their gun during a confrontation.

The Virginia Tech Review Panel was equally clear on this matter in their final report, stating, “If numerous people had been rushing around with handguns outside Norris Hall on the morning of April 16, the possibility of accidental or mistaken shootings would have increased significantly.

SCCC might argue that their lack of training is acceptable because concealed carry permit holders are not meant to “act like amateur, one-man SWAT teams,” but what else would you call it when individual students make unilateral decisions about whether to use lethal force in crisis situations where the potential for collateral damage is enormous?

As Chief Ferrara noted above, as opposed to turning our classrooms into war zones, the logical solution is to enact tougher gun laws to ensure that unstable persons (such as Seung Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak) are unable to obtain lethal weapons with which to ravage our schools. For that reason, we are happy that there are students actively opposing SCCC’s agenda, including those in Students for Gun Free Schools (SGFS), an organization founded by victims and survivors of the tragedy at Virginia Tech.

September 22, 2008

"More Guns, Less Crime" - International Style

Can the United States enhance international stability by dramatically increasing its arms exports to outside nations? The Bush Administration certainly seems to think so. Recent reports indicate that in this fiscal year alone, the Department of Defense has agreed to transfer more than $32 billion in weapons and other military equipment to foreign governments, compared with $12 billion just three years ago. These are heady numbers, even for the number one exporter of arms in the world.

Even more notable than the sheer quantity of weapons being transferred is the roster of arms recipients. There are some usual suspects on the list; traditional U.S. allies like Egypt, Israel, and our NATO partners. Other recipients are better acquainted with ethnic strife and conflict than stability and democracy, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, India, and Pakistan. Bruce S. Lemkin, the Air Force Deputy Undersecretary, has stated that, “This is not about being gunrunners. This is about building a more secure world.” But some Members of Congress are fearful of a “spiraling arms race that in the end could decrease stability.”

One of the concerns is that the U.S. does not have a very good track record in accounting for inventories of transferred arms. Recently, the American military lost track of approximately 190,000 pistols and automatic rifles that were transferred to Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005. A recent report by Amnesty International notes that these small arms transfers were marked by a “poorly managed and unaccountable process” that led “to diversions of supplies to armed groups and illicit markets.”

Travis Sharp, a Military Policy Analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, also worries that in a world of tremulous alliances, the U.S. could end up looking down the barrel of its own weapons—as we have in the past in both Afghanistan and Iraq. In Sharp’s words: “Once you sell arms to another country, you lose control over how they are used, and the weapons, unfortunately, don’t have an expiration date.” Lemkin, however, seemed dismissive of such fears, stating, “Would you rather they bought the weapons and aircraft from other countries? Because they will.”

That rhetoric will sound familiar to gun violence prevention advocates—similar language is often employed by the gun lobby to justify weak regulations that allow criminals easy access to firearms. The “logic” is that there are already too many guns in circulation in America anyway, and criminals will get their hands on them no matter what you do, so why bother putting any obstacles in their path that could interfere with the shopping habits of law-abiding gun owners?

Sadly, this philosophy has been embraced by the Bush administration. The U.S. has been a non-participant in recent negotiations aimed at curbing the illegal international trade in small arms. After intense lobbying by pro-gun groups, including the National Rifle Association, the U.S. government virtually boycotted a recent United Nations meeting that sought to address this issue through work on a Global Arms Trade Treaty.

Is the United States shirking its responsibilities as a model of democracy and the world’s number one exporter of arms to ensure that its weapons do not end up in the hands of human rights violators? According to researcher Helen Hughes, “Governments can either carry on ignoring the horrific consequences of irresponsible international arms transfers or they can meet their obligations in an arms trade treaty with a ‘golden rule’ on human rights that will actually help save people’s lives.”

We certainly hope the next administration will choose the latter course, for the betterment of all mankind.

September 15, 2008

Homeland Absurdity

In June, the Supreme Court issued a 5-4 decision in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller, ruling that the District’s longstanding ban on handguns and safety & storage laws concerning firearms in the home violated the Second Amendment. D.C. lawmakers responded quickly by enacting emergency legislation to comply with the ruling. These temporary measures created a registration procedure for privately owned handguns and revised the city’s trigger-lock requirements to allow for self-defense in the home. Simultaneously, the D.C. Council announced they would enact permanent and comprehensive gun laws when they returned to work in the fall.

This good faith effort, however, was not good enough for the National Rifle Association (NRA), which saw an opportunity to turn the matter into a campaign issue. The NRA authored new legislation, H.R. 6691, which would go far beyond the stipulations of the Heller decision and eviscerate what’s left of the District’s gun laws. Their bill would repeal D.C.’s registration requirement for handguns, legalize semiautomatic assault weapons, allow individuals who have been voluntarily committed to psychiatric institutions within the last five years to own firearms, and prohibit the D.C. Council from enacting any gun-related legislation in the future. Most disturbingly, however, H.R. 6691 would allow individuals to carry loaded rifles and assault weapons in public.

During a September 8 hearing, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform called three law enforcement officials to testify about the potential impacts of H.R. 6691 on public safety and homeland security: D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, Capitol Police Chief Phillip Morse and Deputy Chief of the Park Police Kevin Hay. All three voiced serious concerns about the bill. The Secret Service and the U.S. Marshals Service were also invited to testify, but were blocked by the Bush administration from doing so.

Chief Lanier stated that she had “grave concerns” about H.R. 6691 and opined that it would make her officers’ job to protect the public, government officials and visiting dignitaries “far more difficult.” She noted that over 4,000 special events occur in D.C. annually, including high-profile events such as the 4th of July celebration on the National Mall and the Presidential Inauguration. In her words: “Imagine how difficult it will be for law enforcement to safeguard the public, not to mention the new president at the inaugural parade, if carrying semiautomatic rifles were to suddenly become legal in Washington.” Chief Morse echoed this sentiment, saying such a situation “becomes an officer safety issue, as well as a public safety issue.”

Even with D.C.’s current gun laws, there are innumerable dangers for law enforcement to manage in the nation’s capital. Members of Congress were reminded of this just last week when an individual armed with an AK-47, a homemade grenade, and three magazines of ammunition was apprehended one block from the U.S. Capitol. His explanation to officers on the scene was that he “wanted to provide more ‘manpower’ in case of a conflict with a secret society.”

Do we really want to put law enforcement in situations where they can’t arrest individuals who are carrying loaded rifles near federal buildings? Apparently, in their zeal to appease the gun lobby during election season, Members of Congress are ready to put even their own lives at risk (in addition to the lives of D.C. residents and visitors to the nation’s capital). Sadly, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has announced that she will let H.R. 6691 come to the floor for a vote.

The NRA, feeling haughty and attempting to redefine the standard for hypocrisy, has even chastised the members of the D.C. Council for “demonstrating their arrogant disregard for the Supreme Court’s decision and the safety and liberty of their own law-abiding constituents.” Given the current lunatic provisions of H.R. 6691, however, it is clear that the D.C. Council—working through a democratic process—would do a far better job of protecting Washingtonians than Wayne LaPierre and the extremist leadership of the gun lobby.

September 1, 2008

Looking a Gift Loophole in the Mouth

In July, Bullet Counter Points reported on the “Fire Sales Loophole,” which allows corrupt gun dealers who have had their licenses revoked by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to sell off their remaining inventory without conducting background checks or keeping records. That blog focused on a Chicago dealer who had his license revoked after committing 500 violations of federal law, and yet who was still permitted to transfer 200 guns from his "business inventory" into his "personal collection" of firearms. Those guns ended up on crime scenes in Canada after the dealer illegally trafficked them across the border and sold them off the books to gang members and others.

Now, an equally disturbing story comes to us from Michigan. On August 14, ATF agents and Michigan State Police troopers descended on the Gun Barn in Highland Township and confiscated more than 612 firearms from the store. The owners of the store, Gabriel Kish III and Deborah Summers, were arrested for dealing in firearms without a federal license.

The ATF had revoked Kish and Summers’ Federal Firearms License (FFL) in 2004 for violations of the 1968 Gun Control Act. Despite the threat they posed to public safety, the couple was then allowed to exploit the Fire Sales Loophole and sell off their remaining inventory without conducting background checks on purchasers or maintaining records of those sales.

Kish and Summers didn’t stop there, however. ATF soon received a tip that the couple was continuing to sell guns off the books even after depleting their remaining inventory. An investigation was launched, during which undercover agents were able to purchase firearms from Gun Barn—cash and carry, no questions asked. Now, after several years of dealing guns illegally, the couple has—finally—been put out of business for good.

ATF resident agent in charge Robin Shoemaker admitted that tracing the guns that were sold by Gun Barn after the store’s license was revoked will be difficult, if not impossible—because there is no paper trail whatsoever for the agency to follow in determining who bought them. Commented Special Agent Thomas Brandon from ATF’s Detroit Field Division: “The unlawful sale of firearms, especially dealing firearms without a license, can put guns into the hands of criminals, and put our communities at risk.”

That would seem so obvious that you’d think Congress would have taken action years ago to close the Fire Sales Loophole. Ever eager to please the gun lobby, however, they have yet to even consider legislation to do so. This has the 320 members of Mayors Against Illegal Guns up in arms (pardon the bad pun).

The tragedy is that the simple effort it would take to close the Fire Sales Loophole would do an enormous amount of good. The ATF has reported that just 1.2 percent of licensed dealers are the source of over 57 percent of guns found on crime scenes. Putting this small but dangerous group of bad apples out of business—immediately and permanently—would go far in drying up the gun pool that criminals swim in.

August 25, 2008

"No one should have to go through this..."

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Americans are doing to prevent gun violence in their communities. Today we focus on a young lady who faced tragedy at Virginia Tech before channeling her grief into a positive campaign to keep America’s campuses safe.

On the morning of April 16, 2007, Megan Meadows was sitting in her Media Writing class at Virginia Tech when a friend turned to her and said, “Something’s happened.” For the next four hours, her class was in lockdown as word spread about a shooting at West Ambler Johnston Hall. She and her fellow students spent that time watching CNN for developing news and hiding under their desks for protection.

During this time, Megan began calling her close friend Reema Samaha to see if she was okay, but there was no answer. Hours later, she would go to the Inn at Virginia Tech, where many families who could not get in touch with their loved ones had congregated. When she saw Reema’s brother there, she knew immediately—Reema was one of those killed at the shooter’s second stop that day, Norris Hall. In Megan’s own words:

“That was the most awful place I have ever been in my life. Just hoards and hoards of sobbing people, crying out names… I was so fixated on the one person I lost, that I couldn't even fathom the real number of people killed at the hands of one person until later.”

“No one should have to go through this, especially at their own school,” she thought.

Shortly thereafter, Megan saw a letter from a new group called Students for Concealed Carry on Campus in Virginia Tech’s school paper, the Collegiate Times. “I was not aware that allowing guns onto campuses was even being considered,” Megan remembers, “and when I saw this letter in support of allowing guns into schools, I became quite angry. I did not understand how after having such a tragedy happen because of guns at our school, how anyone would want to support more guns on campus. I knew I had to be a part of taking a stand against it. I knew Reema would not want this and I knew her family would not either.”

Megan met with Reema’s family soon thereafter and her suspicions were confirmed. Together with Reema’s siblings, Omar and Randa; VT survivor Lily Habtu (who was shot three times in Norris Hall); and another close friend of Reema’s, Brian Hickey; she would form Students for Gun Free Schools (SGFS).

Why does SGFS object to the presence of concealed handguns on campus? “I don't want to be forced to go to school where someone sitting next to me could possibly be carrying a weapon, and having to worry about it in class,” Megan said. “Unless that person is a police officer, I think they have no right carrying in a campus setting. The college learning environment is such a sacred thing…allowing guns—or any weapon for that matter—in schools is essentially promoting violence in that environment.”

SGFS stresses that America’s campuses remain some of the safest places in the country, with an extremely low rate of homicide. They would prefer to see a focus on tightening gun control and mental health laws to prevent future Seung-Hui Chos from committing horrific acts. “That doesn't mean that I don't think people shouldn't be able to have guns,” Megan says. “I am just saying that guns by nature are lethal weapons and we shouldn't be handing them out like an ice cream truck does popsicles.” Megan also regrets the many warning signs that were missed with Cho. “I don't think he was able to help himself, and I think the people around him at school just didn't know what to do,” she says. “There is nothing shameful about being sick, and I think this is a lesson for everyone—speak out if you know someone who needs help, who might be capable of hurting themselves or others. The SPEAK OUT campaign by PAX is a powerful resource, and I think their anonymous hotline (800-226-7733) where people can report potential threats is a step in the right direction in preventing future tragedies.”

Students for Gun Free Schools is welcoming students across the country to join their group on Facebook and become involved on their campuses. “Students can make a difference by becoming educated,” Megan says. “I think if more students were aware that state legislators could force their schools to allow guns in their classrooms and dorms, they would take action on this issue.” What can students do to make a difference? “The first step could be contacting your Members of Congress or state legislators, writing a letter to your campus newspaper, organizing a discussion on your campus to inform others of what you have learned, or starting a chapter of Students for Gun Free Schools at your school!” Megan says.

In the end, the issue is very simple to Megan: “The overwhelming majority of Americans do not want guns on campus, so why should we let a small contingent control legislation that will greatly affect our lives?”

August 11, 2008

"Even the smallest action can make a difference..."

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Americans are doing to prevent gun violence in their communities. Today we focus on a nurse/attorney/writer from New York who became involved with this issue after the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

In 1980, Robyn Ringler was employed as a nurse at George Washington University Hospital. In December of that year, she and her fellow staff suffered a tremendous shock when a beloved cardiologist at the hospital, Dr. Michael J. Halberstam, was shot and killed by an escaped convict. That night, Robyn said, “was one of my worst as a nurse.” And questions about Halberstam’s killer began to form in her mind: “How did that guy get a gun?” she thought. “How could we as a society allow this to happen?”

Then, on March 30, 1981, President Reagan was shot and wounded by a deranged individual, John Hinckley, Jr., while leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel. As Robyn describes it:

“The experience was exciting, scary, exhilarating, and eye-opening. When President Reagan was rushed to the emergency room at the hospital with a gunshot wound to the chest, I had no idea I would take care of him. But after surgery and a stint in the intensive care unit, he was brought to the medical/surgical unit where I was an assistant head nurse. The first two evenings, he was in terrible shape—his breathing was labored, he spiked a fever and became disoriented. We administered intravenous antibiotics and chest physical therapy and monitored his vital signs and the blood drainage from his chest tube. When I spoke to the president to offer reassurance, the gray-white color of his face scared me. I thought there was a good chance he would die.”

Each morning, the Washington Post would quote a hospital spokesman who said how well the president was doing. But, as Robyn notes, “It simply wasn’t true. The president was fighting for his life and the country was kept in the dark. I gained a quality I had never had before—skepticism—and learned to always question things.”

And again, the most haunting question of all was:“How could a guy like John Hinckley, with a history of severe mental illness, have gained access to a gun?”

It wasn’t until the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, however, that Robyn would become actively involved as a volunteer in the gun violence prevention field. As she recalls it: “When Columbine happened, I was a mom. I could see that shootings like this could happen to any child, including my own. It was a devastating realization.” On Mother’s Day 2000, Robyn would join 750,000 other Americans on the National Mall during the Million Mom March. “Marching on Washington with thousands of others who agreed that we needed change—in the form of sensible gun laws—was a life-changing experience,” says Ringler. “I returned home and immediately joined New Yorkers Against Gun Violence (NYAGV), becoming the leader of the capital district chapter and a board member. We lobbied at the New York State Capitol for safe gun laws and had some huge successes under Governor George Pataki.”

One of Robyn’s next experiences, writing a blog about gun violence for the Albany Times Union, was not as positive. In her words, it “was one of the most disheartening experiences I’ve ever had. Most of the comments I received were so mean and lacking in compassion and empathy it was hard to believe people would write such things. Death threats were common. When I wrote about children dying from gun violence, responders wrote that inner city children were not really children, but rather thugs and monsters. Racism and prejudice seemed to motivate a lot of the comments.”

Recently, Robyn opened an independent bookshop in upstate New York, adding bookseller to her long list of professions. But she remains active with NYAGV and the League of Women Voters and continues to write editorials and letters to the editor on the subject on gun violence prevention.

Can Robyn imagine a future free from gun violence? Yes, she says. “If every person, whether they believe in the right to unfettered gun ownership or not, took action to help other human beings, we could go a long way toward ending gun violence. We need to obliterate the poverty, lack of educational opportunities, and hopelessness that feed gun violence and help it grow. And we need to maintain safe gun laws that will keep guns out of the hands of children, the mentally ill, criminals, and others who should not have them.”

Robyn cites the collective power of people of good faith. “Even the smallest action can make a difference if everyone decides to take that action together,” she says. “I believe in that.”

August 4, 2008

The Same Old Story

In the aftermath of the shooting at Northern Illinois University in February of this year, Americans struggled to understand how Steven Kazmierczak could have perpetrated such a terrible tragedy. National media outlets quoted close friends of Kazmierczak who described him as “probably the nicest, most caring person ever.” His professors said he was “a nice kid” and “extremely respectful.” NIU Police Chief Donald Grady said that law enforcement had "no indications at all this would be the type of person that would engage in such activity … There were no red flags.”

They were wrong.

A recent article in Esquire, published more than five months after the shooting, paints a far different picture. Unlike the sweet, award-winning graduate student that we heard about in February, Esquire writer David Vann tells the story of a troubled, volatile individual who was clearly a threat to himself and those around him.

The warning signs in Kazmierczak’s behavior date back to his childhood. In high school, he idolized serial killers like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, and was fascinated by Hitler and his crimes against humanity. Along with this obsession with violence, Kazmierczak developed severe mental health problems as a teenager. By the time he graduated from high school, Kazmierczak had attempted suicide three times, taken eight different medications for mental illness, and been institutionalized on five different occasions—including a stay at the Mary Hill Residence, a psychiatric hospital, where he spent nine months in in-patient care.

After leaving Mary Hill, Kazmierczak decided to join the Army. When it was found he had lied on an enlistment form, Kazmierczak was sent to the William Beaumont Army Medical Hospital’s psych ward. The Army then determined he was a potential danger to himself and others, and Kazmierczak was given an “uncharacterized” discharge and kicked out of the service.

After 22 troubled years, Kazmierczak arrived at Northern Illinois University, where he tried his best to conceal his past from his new peers, friends and mentors. However, his disturbing behavior continued. At NIU, Kazmierczak engaged in long, detailed conversations about school shootings with a friend on campus. When Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 fellow students at Virginia Tech, Kazmierczak was excited. He studied everything about Cho—his writings, his planning, his timing, and how he obtained his guns.

Not long thereafter, Kazmierczak began stockpiling his own weapons. In December 2006, he applied for a Firearms Owner Identification (FOID) The FOID application contained only one question that pertained to mental health. Kazmierczak was asked if he had been institutionalized in the past five years. He hadn’t been—and no further explanation was needed.

Having obtained his card, Kazmierczak purchased five handguns and two shotguns over the next 13 months from federally licensed firearm dealers. Then, on February 14, 2008, he entered NIU’s Cole Hall and killed six people (including himself) and wounded 18 others. Not long before the shooting, he told a former girlfriend, “If anything happens, don’t tell anyone about me” and “You can write a book about me some day.”

The truth is that Kazmierczak exhibited as many red flags as Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter. Six months earlier, the Virginia Tech Review Panel had published a report detailing Cho’s disturbing and lifelong struggles with mental illness. The report also included a list of recommendations on how to prevent such a tragedy from happening again—including measures to improve screening of gun purchasers.

Regrettably, the U.S. Congress and state legislatures have taken little action in the wake of the panel’s report to deny deranged shooters access to firepower.

Today, gun laws in Virginia and Illinois remain fundamentally unchanged. The current FOID card application in Illinois is nearly identical to the one that Kazmierczak sailed through in December 2006. And while Virginia clarified the process by which mental health records are transmitted to their State Police, loopholes remain open that allow prohibited purchasers and others to buy guns without undergoing a background check.

At the federal level, the picture is no more impressive. Last year, Congress passed the “NICS Improvement Act of 2007,” which was signed into law by President Bush. The bill was intended to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) by creating financial incentives for states to submit more disqualifying records to the federal database, including mental health records. Before it was passed, however, the National Rifle Association was permitted to make a number of detrimental additions. Contrary to its original purpose, the legislation will now require states who accept grant funding to create programs to restore firearm purchasing privileges to those previously restricted because of mental health disability. Moreover the bill has yet to be appropriated and no grant money has been disbursed. The bottom line, however, is that the U.S. Congress has not passed meaningful gun control legislation since 1997.

If the cases of Seung-Hui Cho and Steven Kazmierczak have taught us anything, it’s that red flags and warning signs do appear consistently among shooters before they engage in acts of mass destruction. What is needed is a screening process that effectively identifies these warning signs before individuals purchase handguns, assault weapons, and other firearms. A handful of states have effective laws that go beyond a simple computerized background check and thoroughly screen gun purchasers. New Jersey is a good example—the state conducts an actual background investigation on an applicant before licensing them to purchase a handgun. Moreover, the recent decision by the Supreme Court in District of Columbia v. Heller expressly stated that background checks and licensing and registration laws were constitutional.

The question is, how much more bloodshed will it take until we implement such best practices on a national level to prevent terrible tragedies like the ones at Northern Illinois and Virginia Tech?

July 21, 2008

No License? No Problem.

For years, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence has called attention to the problem of “bad apple” gun dealers who violate federal regulations and sell firearms that are later used in crimes. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) reports that just 1.2 percent of dealers are the source of over 57 percent of guns found on crime scenes.

A recent story demonstrates how easy it is for these “bad apples” to continue arming criminals even after ATF has revoked their licenses to sell firearms. The story focuses on Project Blackhawk, a two-year investigation of an organized gun and drug-smuggling ring between the United States and Canada. As part of the investigation, authorities traced more than 200 crime guns to one particular Chicago-area dealer, Ugur “Mike” Yildiz.

Yildiz was the owner of Chicagoland Bells, a gun shop in the suburbs of Chicago. In 2003, just one year after the store opened, ATF agents inspected it and found 500 violations of the Gun Control Act. Soon thereafter, the agency revoked Yildiz’s federal license to sell firearms. Instead of confiscating his remaining inventory, however, the ATF allowed Yildiz to transfer 200 guns from the store’s inventory to his personal collection of firearms. Yildiz then illegally smuggled these guns across the Canadian border and sold them to criminals and traffickers. Ontario police have seized 80 of Yildiz’s guns from gang members and have even connected one with an attempted murder.

Current law requires individuals “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms to possess a federal license, to conduct background checks on purchasers, and to keep records of sales so firearms can be subsequently traced if they are later used in crime. Private or “hobby” sellers, however, are exempt from these requirements under a loophole created by a 1986 law, the Firearm Owners Protection Act. Once Yildiz transferred his store’s guns to his “private collection,” he was able to evade government oversight altogether.

This is not the first time a bad apple dealer has exploited the Fire Sale Loophole. A similar situation occurred at Valley Gun Shop in Maryland in 2004. ATF recorded 900 violations of federal law by gun shop owner (and then-National Rifle Association Board member) Sandy Abrams and revoked his license to sell firearms. With legal assistance from the NRA, Abrams sued the federal government, seeking an order that would allow him to continue selling guns privately. The Bush Administration and the Department of Justice concurred with Abrams and announced in court papers that “when a dealer loses his license he can dispose of his inventory by selling those firearms” privately without being charged for illegal dealing in firearms. Through such unregulated private sales, Abrams continued to sell guns, one of which was an assault weapon later used by a criminal to shoot at police.

The NRA has worked with Members of Congress to codify the Fire Sale Loophole through the ATF Modernization and Reform Act. This legislation would enhance the ability of prohibited purchasers to obtain firearms without undergoing background checks.

Mayors around the country, however, have stood against the bill and are determined to close the Fire Sale Loophole for good. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City and Mayor Thomas Menino of Boston are the co-chairs of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition which joins over 320 mayors from 45 states in opposing unlawful gun trafficking. Their proposal to close this loophole is common sense. Dealers who repeatedly violate federal law clearly pose a threat to public safety and should not be allowed to sell firearms without processing any paperwork after their licenses have been revoked.

July 14, 2008

Guns and the Workplace

Dixon, Kentucky residents were in a state of shock last month when they learned that a member of their community had opened fire at a local plastics plant in their small Ohio River town. Around midnight on June 24, Wesley N. Higdon, a worker at Atlantis Plastics, shot and killed five of his fellow employees before turning his handgun on himself and committing suicide.

Higdon had become upset earlier that day when his supervisor reprimanded him for using his cell phone and not wearing safety goggles. Higdon called his girlfriend, Teresa Solano Ventura, two hours before the shooting and told her he wanted to kill himself. Ventura did not take the warning seriously due to similar previous threats from Higdon and failed to contact the police.

In his shooting spree, Higdon used a .45 caliber pistol which he legally kept in his car. In 2006, Kentucky enacted a law at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA) that forces businesses to allow employees to keep firearms in their vehicles on company property. Kentucky is not alone—seven other states have adopted such Guns in the Workplace laws, Florida being the latest. These laws have passed despite the determined and nearly unanimous opposition of business groups, who view them as a historic attack on private property rights. In the Sunshine State, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Retail Federation have launched a lawsuit to overturn the law. A federal court in Oklahoma has already declared that state’s law unconstitutional.

The gun lobby also seems to be fighting the statistical evidence about the dangers of guns in the workplace. One study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workplaces where guns were permitted were five times more likely to be the site of a workplace homicide compared to workplaces where guns are prohibited. Higdon’s threats were also not uncommon—in a 2005 survey, nearly 60% of major employers indicated that a disgruntled employee had threatened a manager or co-worker at their firm in the last 12 months.

Higdon was no hardened career criminal. He legally purchased his handgun and was precisely the type of “law-abiding gun owner” that the NRA claims will make our communities safer by being armed and ready. Why Higden suddenly became a killer we might never know ... It was likely the result of stresses in his life, stresses in the home and workplace, the likes of which millions of American experience every day. Higden’s easy access to a handgun after an argument with his supervisor, however, turned what should have been a verbal spat (or, at worst, a fistfight) into a tragic incident that has left six dead and traumatized a community. Hopefully, future legislators will keep that in mind when the NRA comes calling.

July 7, 2008

If Chávez Were Alive...

Here at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV), we are fortunate to be able to work with talented and passionate interns from across the country. This summer, Hector Argueta, a student at the César Chávez Public Charter School for Public Policy in Washington, D.C., spent three weeks interning at the Coalition. Hector enjoyed his experience with us and contributed the following blog about the great American his school is named after:

“César Estrada Chávez, born in Arizona, was an American farm worker and labor leader. He co-founded the National Farm Workers Association, which later became United Farm Workers of America. Chávez’s work over three decades led to numerous improvements for union laborers. He is also hailed as one of the greatest American civil rights leaders. His birthday has become a holiday in many U.S states.

César’s mother, Juana, was one of the greatest influences in his use of non-violent methods to organize farm workers. His other influences were Indian political leader Mahatma Gandhi and American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.

Non-violence is a simple but powerful tactic. Non-violence takes away the power of the oppressor by encouraging people to withdraw their cooperation. If the non-violent resistors are then handled with force, the justness of their cause if revealed to the broader society.

César Chávez did this to secure rights for farm workers. He organized strikes, boycotts, marches, and other nonviolent events. Chávez even went on a 25-day fast, which attracted enormous national attention. The fast demonstrated his strong belief in non-violence.

If Chávez were still alive, he would be very supportive of efforts to reduce gun violence in America, especially because of his concern for the Latino community. Latinos are far less likely than blacks or whites to own guns, but they are murdered by firearms at a rate second only to blacks. All guns do is lead to violence, which in turn leads to more violence. Chávez would have tried to stop this in a peaceful way, by educating people about how easy it is to get a gun, and that guns kill thousands of people every year. He would have wanted things to be different—Chávez would have made sure that people could walk freely through their neighborhoods without constantly living with the fear of getting shot. He was always thinking of ways to improve people’s lives. Chávez tried to empower people who had no power, or thought they didn’t. If he were alive today, he would organize peaceful marches on the nation’s capital protesting to make gun laws stricter. He might have also fasted to attract more media attention to this issue and to convey to people that it is a real problem.

As Chávez once said, ‘Non-violence is not inaction. It is not discussion. It is not for the timid or the weak. Non-violence is hard work. It is the willingness to sacrifice. It is the patience to win.’ This demonstrates Chávez’s total commitment. Slowly but surely, he would have strived to make America a safer place. He would have not stopped until something had changed. Chávez would have even sacrificed his own body to make it so that other people would have been safe.

Change does not happen overnight—it takes time and nobody knew that better than César Chávez. In my opinion, Chávez would have never given up until something was done about the epidemic of gun violence in our country.”