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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.