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December 22, 2008

A Fine Example

Tragedy was averted on December 9 when police arrested 15-year-old Richard Yanis, who planned to carry out a mass shooting at his high school in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Yanis was going to “shoot everyone he did not like” at Pottstown High School. He planned to tell friends to leave the school’s grounds prior to opening fire on teachers and students. Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman characterized the would-be school shooter as “an outcast, a loner who didn’t have many friends. He was picked on, he felt like he didn’t fit in very well.

In preparation for the shooting, Yanis stole three handguns and ammunition from his father’s locker and gave them to a friend. The friend was to deliver the weapons to Yanis at the high school on the day of the shooting. However the plot began to unravel when Yanis’ father, Michael Yanis, reported the guns stolen to police, touching off an “intense, month-long investigation.” The friend holding the weapons soon dumped them in a river with the help of his stepmother and alerted school officials. Police intervened and quickly took Richard Yanis into custody. He has been charged with criminal attempt to commit first-degree murder.

The incident touches on a number of hot button issues regarding the role of guns in schools and the responsibilities of firearm owners...

Recent years have seen aggressive efforts by the gun lobby to push concealed weapons into America’s schools. Gun rights organizations have argued that arming teachers and allowing others to carry handguns into schools will enhance children’s safety. The Harrold School District in Texas made national news when it became the first K-12 campus in the country to allow teachers and faculty to carry concealed handguns. Defending the district’s decision, Superintendent David Thweatt stated, “When the federal government started making schools gun-free zones, that’s when all of these shootings started. Why would you put it out there that a group of people can’t defend themselves? That’s like saying ‘Sic ‘em’ to a dog.”

Not only did Thweatt ignore the facts—a recent study showed that youth ages 5-18 are over 50 times more likely to be murdered when they are away from school than at school—he also failed to consider that a better solution might be to prevent active shooter situations before they even happen. The Pottstown case demonstrates that good investigative work by police, and vigilance by school administrators, can forestall a tragedy without the need to inject guns into a learning environment.

The Pottstown incident also highlights the importance of reporting lost and stolen firearms to the police. One can imagine what might have happened had Michael Yanis failed to make that critical call to law enforcement. As District Attorney Ferman noted, Richard Yanis “had the immediate capacity to commit the crime with the guns and arsenal of ammunition waiting to be delivered upon his word.”

One might think that reporting lost and stolen guns is a common-sense thing to do. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has reported, however, that “most gun owners do not report stolen firearms to the police.” In the state of Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh Police recently reported that out of 1,900 firearms recovered on crime scenes in 2007 and 2008, only 231 had been previously reported missing or stolen.

The city of Pottstown recently passed a new ordinance that requires gun owners to report lost or stolen firearms to the police. The National Rifle Association (NRA), remarkably, opposed the ordinance, stating, “It’s not going to end up lowering crime. All it ends up doing is further victimizing someone who’s been a victim of crime.” The NRA, however, has been unable to cite a single instance where a law-abiding gun owner was wrongfully prosecuted under the law in any of the seven states where it has been enacted. At a recent Pottstown City Council hearing, one local gun owner, David Blankenhorn, had a very different view: “[My pistol] turned up in a drug raid in Auburn. Because I reported it in 24 hours, because I cooperated with the law, I was given that gun back. This ordinance can have a major benefit. If you simply follow the law, it works with you.”

Hopefully, municipal officials across the country will look to Pottstown as an example of how to prevent tragedies in their schools without putting students at additional risk of gun violence.

December 8, 2008

The Unstudied Study

In September, three researchers from the University of Maryland and University of Michigan released a study that examined eleven years of data on the date and location of “every” gun show in the states of California and Texas, the nation’s two most populous states. They combined this with information on the date, location, and cause of every death occurring in these same two states during the same period. They then attempted to determine if the gun shows had an effect on gun-related deaths, with “two important caveats.” They only examined deaths that occurred within 25 miles of the gun shows, and in the four weeks immediately following their conclusion.

They concluded that the results of their study “suggest that gun shows do not increase the number of homicides or suicides and that the absence of gun show regulations does not increase the number of gun-related deaths as proponents of these regulations suggest.” The inference was that the 87% of Americans who want to close the Gun Show Loophole—which allows private individuals to sell guns at these events without conducting background checks on purchasers–are misguided.

The National Rifle Association was ecstatic, and claimed that the study “obliterates Anti-Gunners’ claims” that gun shows are “totally unregulated arms bazaars.”

The NRA’s victory dance might have been a tad premature, however. Just last week, researchers from five universities across America sent the study’s authors a formal and public letter. They had examined the study’s methodology and found it deeply flawed. Two of their main criticisms were as follows:

The geographic and time restrictions in the study reflected a poor understanding of illegal gun markets. The study only looked at gun-related deaths within a 25-mile radius of a gun show, despite evidence that a large portion of crime guns recovered are purchased either out-of-state (19.3% and 27.7%, respectively, for Texas and California in 2007) or in-state but not in the immediate vicinity (For Dallas and Los Angeles in 2000, only half of traced crime guns were recovered within 25 miles of their point of initial sale). Furthermore, the study only looked at gun-related deaths in the four weeks immediately following a gun show. In Texas and California, however, the average time from a gun’s sale to its recovery following use in crime was 9.8 and 12.9 years, respectively, in 2007.

The study failed to account for every gun show in California and Texas. The study used just one publication, the Gun and Knife Show Calendar, to identify gun shows in the two states. Additional listings in publications like the Big Show Journal, however, indicate that the study’s authors failed to identify roughly 20% of the gun shows that occurred in California and Texas during the study period.

The NRA might have also missed a story that came out of Texas just two weeks ago. Gregorio Martinez, a convicted felon, was arrested at the Bell County Gun Show in Texas after attempting to purchase an AK-47 assault rifle. Criminals don’t shop at gun shows? Martinez didn’t get the gun lobby memo. Nor did the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), which has confirmed that gun shows are the second leading source of illegally diverted firearms in the United States (behind only corrupt federally licensed dealers).