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April 28, 2008

"You don’t have to be a mother..."

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 Virginia mother whose work has reached beyond her state and had a national impact.

When the tragedy at Virginia Tech occurred on April 16, 2007, Abby Spangler, like so many other Americans, was overcome by grief. Yet another school shooting—this time the deadliest in American history—had extinguished 32 bright lives. Abby knew little about federal and state gun laws at that point, but as reports of Seung-Hui Cho’s mental health problems and handgun purchases appeared in the media, she suddenly realized “just how lax and ineffective our gun laws are in this country.”

Abby knew the typical response to such tragedies was to conduct candlelight vigils in honor of the victims. But she envisioned a day when candlelight vigils would become a thing of the past. With a mind on preventing future tragedies, she thought, “If we want to truly memorialize these victims, we have to fight for change and strengthen our gun laws.” As she noted, “The status quo was simply not working.” Time and time again, the complacency of elected officials had failed to produce meaningful reform.

So Abby stood up for the safety and well being of millions of American families by lying down. She conceived of a new form of protest, the “Lie-In,” to bridge the gap between our increasingly apathetic society and the great protest movements of the civil rights era. A Lie-In involves 32 people (the number of victims at Virginia Tech and the number of Americans who die each day from gun homicide) who lay on the ground for three minutes of silence and reflection (symbolizing the brief amount of time it takes to buy a gun in America). Abby conducted the first Lie-In with other mothers in front of City Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, and then founded the group ProtestEasyGuns.com. By February 2008, she had helped to inspire and organize 37 other Lie-Ins in towns and cities across America.

It was on April 16, 2008, however, that the Lie-In movement would reach a new level. On the one-year anniversary of the Virginia Tech shootings, more than 70 Lie-Ins were conducted in 29 states and the District of Columbia, where several hundred demonstrators gathered in front of the Supreme Court and U.S. Capitol. Gun violence survivors, their friends, and families were heartened beyond their hopes and dreams by the Lie-Ins as they witnessed the growing collective of Americans determined to prevent future suffering.

Regarding the future of the gun control movement, Abby believes “the framework is there, but we need to mobilize the American people and create a social movement. It’s going to take people to put their feet down and say, “‘we won’t allow our fellow citizens to die.’” She is encouraged to see some movement in the U.S. Congress, with Senators Lautenberg and Reed having recently introduced a bill to close the Gun Show Loophole.

Abby is quick to point out that she is just an ordinary person, and that we all can make a difference in the struggle to save lives lost to gun violence: “You don’t have to be a mother, you just have to love someone enough that you wouldn’t want them to be ripped from you.”

April 21, 2008

The Latest from the Gunshine State

Permissive Gun Laws Fail to Prevent Dramatic Increase in Violent Gun Crime

Florida has long been known as a state with loose gun laws. A “Shall Issue” state for concealed carry permits (meaning that local law enforcement must issue a concealed weapons license to an applicant if he/she passes a background check and meets modest safety/training requirements), Florida is also notable for being the first state to pass a “Shoot First” law at the behest of the National Rifle Association (NRA). The 2005 law expanded Floridians’ right to use deadly force in self-defense inside and outside the home and eliminated any duty to retreat (if possible) before resorting to the use of such force.

The NRA and other pro-gun groups have praised these laws, arguing that the more than 400,000 Floridians who have obtained concealed carry permits will make their state safer because criminals will be concerned that potential victims could be packing heat. As the gun lobby frequently claims, “an armed society is a polite society.” Skeptics were even told that these laws would deter rapists by arming women and giving them the freedom to fight back.

Recent statistics from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, however, have cast serious doubt on these claims. The figures for 2007 show an 11.5% increase in gun murders, a 25% increase in armed robberies with guns, and a 20% increase in forcible rapes in which a gun was used. Notably, the overall violent crime rate in the state went up by only 1.4 percent in 2007.

These statistics demonstrate a point that Harvard researcher David Hemenway has often made. America is not unique in its overall level of violent crime. What separates us from other industrialized democracies is that American violence tends to end in death; and that is because we own more guns per capita than any other high income country. Looking at Florida’s 2007 statistics again, the overall murder rate went up by 6.5%, but murders in which a knife was used actually decreased by 24%. Easy access to guns in the state is responsible for the discrepancy, as it makes crime more lethal.

Perhaps Florida’s permissive gun laws are arming criminals and violent individuals in addition to law-abiding citizens. It was only a little over a year ago that the Orlando Sun-Sentinel released a bombshell report indicting the failures of Florida’s concealed carry permitting process. In a 2007 article, the Sentinel revealed that Florida’s CCW list included more than 1,400 people who pleaded guilty or no contest to felonies, 216 people with outstanding warrants, 128 people with active domestic violence injunctions against them, and six registered sex offenders. In response, the Florida legislature passed a bill banning the public and press from accessing this information in the future.

Recent action by Florida’s elected officials has been equally puzzling. First, Governor Charlie Crist refused to make any comment on the increase in gun crime. Then, on April 9, the Florida legislature finalized its approval of a bill that will prohibit businesses from preventing those with concealed carry permits from keeping handguns and assault rifles locked in their cars at work. The governor has indicated he will sign the bill, despite the intense opposition of business interests in the state.

Florida’s elected officials are clearly eager to please the gun lobby. Are they up to the task of protecting their citizens, ensuring public safety and protecting individual rights? A serious effort in this area would begin with measures to prevent criminal access to firearms and to respect the interests of private property owners who do not want firearms on their premises.

More guns, less crime? Not in sunny Florida…