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May 27, 2008

The Light through the Loophole

It’s official—the next president of the United States will support closing the Gun Show Loophole, which allows unlicensed gun show vendors to sell firearms without conducting background checks.

Senators Barack Obama (D-IL) and Hillary Clinton (D-NY) have publicly reiterated their support for closing the loophole during the current presidential campaign. On May 16, Republican nominee for president Senator John McCain (R-AZ) removed all doubt about his own position, stating, “I believe an accurate, fair and instant background check at gun shows is a reasonable requirement.”

To his credit, this was consistent with McCain’s previous actions and statements on the issue. The senator has co-sponsored two bills to close the Gun Show Loophole in the past: one with Senator Joe Lieberman (D-CT) in 2001 and another with Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) in 2003. He also supported efforts to close the loophole at the state level in Oregon and Colorado in 2000, appearing in television ads on behalf of Americans for Gun Safety.

McCain’s advocacy drew strong criticism from the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA has opposed all regulation of private sales at gun shows despite the fact that background checks typically take only a few minutes to complete. In response to McCain’s legislative efforts with Senator Lieberman in 2001, the NRA described him as “one of the premier flag carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment.”

Despite these past grievances, McCain is typically a friend of the gun lobby. He holds a C+ rating from the NRA, has supported many of their key initiatives, and was invited to address 6,000 members of the organization at their recent 2008 annual convention in Louisville, Kentucky.

During that speech, the senator demonstrated that he agrees with the NRA on a number of issues and is eager to court the votes of gun owners in the 2008 presidential election. McCain indicated he opposes renewing the federal ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, supports legal protection for gun dealers who channel firearms to criminals and traffickers, embraces the NRA’s interpretation of the Second Amendment in the landmark Supreme Court case District of Columbia v. Heller, and subscribes to the idea that the proliferation of guns in American society makes us safer.

But not necessarily McCain himself safer...

A few hours before Senator McCain gave his speech to the NRA, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee took the stage. When Huckabee’s speech was interrupted by a loud noise, he said, "That was Barack Obama. He just tripped off a chair. He's getting ready to speak and somebody aimed a gun at him and he dove for the floor.

Huckabee’s audience responded with laughter, but the Secret Service officers in the building seemed to take his comment more seriously. When Senator McCain spoke that afternoon, those attending his speech were forced to pass through metal detectors and hand over any weapons they were carrying. This included not just firearms, but any potentially harmful implements. As one convention attendee stated, “It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it? We preach the right to carry [handguns] everywhere, and we got to start by turning in a pocketknife.”

Senator McCain is well acquainted with this no-firearms-on-the-premises policy from his work at the U.S. Capitol, where all visitors are prohibited from bringing firearms.

Despite his electioneering at the NRA convention, McCain should be credited for demonstrating some common sense. His reiteration of support for closing the Gun Show Loophole in front of the “Guns Anytime, Anywhere, Anyhow” crowd is a good sign—and bad news for criminals and dangerous individuals who have grown accustomed to easy access to firearms. We hope the senator will now practice what he preaches and co-sponsor the “Gun Show Background Check Act of 2008,” which has been introduced in his chamber on Capitol Hill.

May 12, 2008

Loose Gun Laws Put Law Enforcement in Crosshairs

The murder of Sergeant Stephen Liczbinski in Philadelphia on May 3 demonstrates how weak laws and unfettered access to firearms in America leads to tragic consequences.

Responding to a bank robbery call, Sgt. Liczbinski was shot five times by an assailant who used a Chinese-made SKS assault rifle. Assault weapons are semiautomatic versions of fully automatic military rifles, and are disproportionably used by criminals to kill cops (the Violence Policy Center has released a report that shows that one out of every five law enforcement officers slain in the line of duty is killed with an assault weapon). These types of weapons are not ideal for either hunting or for self-defense—they were designed to rapidly fire high-velocity rounds at human targets in combat situations.

Officer Thomas Krajewski Sr., who held Sgt. Liczbinski in his arms as he died, commented: “There is absolutely no reason that anyone should be carrying around military-style assault weapons. I mean, we saw what a weapon like that did to a human body. I mean, I own guns and my sons and I hunt as well, but I don't have assault rifles or anything. There's no need for it.”

Unfortunately, the federal ban on assault weapons expired in September 2004. It was not the only gun law implicated in Sgt. Liczbinski’s murder. The shooter, Howard Cain, was a convicted felon, and therefore prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms. According to a report in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

“[Tony Robbins, ATF assistant special agent] noted that the ATF was able to trace the SKS rifle used to gun down Liczbinski to a gun show in Fayetteville, NC. He said that because it had been bought at a gun show, the owner did not have to undergo a background check—another proposal that's been blocked by the gun lobby.” The rifle was trafficked illegally and passed through the hands of at least three other convicted felons.

North Carolina is one of many states that allow individuals to sell rifles and shotguns at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers. Commonly referred to as the “Gun Show Loophole,” this loophole actually allows individuals to sell guns in this manner not just at gun shows, but also via the Internet, through classified ads in newspapers, across their kitchen tables, etc., etc. The ATF has found that: "Prohibited persons, such as convicted felons and juveniles, do personally buy firearms at gun shows and gun shows are sources of firearms that are trafficked to such prohibited persons."

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has successfully thwarted all efforts to close the Gun Show Loophole at the national level since the time of the Columbine tragedy (where gun shows were implicated). Undaunted, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Jack Reed have introduced a bill to close the loophole during the current session of Congress.

In Philadelphia, Mayor Michael Nutter has also taken action, signing five gun control bills into law, including one that bans the sale and possession of assault weapons. Unfortunately, a 1994 law enacted by the Pennsylvania General Assembly at the behest of the NRA blocks municipalities in the state from enacting their own gun control laws. The NRA has also sued Philadelphia over the signing of the five new bills, and pending the outcome of that lawsuit, the assault weapons ban and other measures will go unenforced.

The result is that loose gun laws will continue to provide outlets for criminals and other prohibited purchasers to acquire firearms, and America’s law enforcement officers and citizens will continue to be caught in their crosshairs.