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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.