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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.”