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December 21, 2009

Practice Makes Perfect

A failed shooting attempt at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College (NVCC) suggests that there has been progress made in responding to “active shooter” incidents at our nation’s colleges and universities.

On December 8, student Jason Hamilton, 20, walked into a classroom at NVCC and fired two shots at his mathematics professor with a Marlin .30-06 bolt-action rifle he had bought the day before at Dick’s Sporting Goods. The teacher took cover under a desk after the first shot and was not injured. As Hamilton attempted to fire a third time, his gun jammed, and he discarded it. He then walked out of the classroom and sat down in a chair in the hallway.

It didn’t take long for authorities to find him. Prince William County police began arriving on the scene within two to three minutes of the shots. An emergency response team at NVCC’s offices in Annandale coordinated the response via phone and Internet and locked the Woodbridge campus down.

NVCC had created the job of Director of Emergency Planning a few months after the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007. Since that time, NVCC has trained faculty and staff in emergency response, purchased additional emergency notification equipment, and enhanced cooperation with local law enforcement. Just two days before the December 8 incident, NVCC’s campus police had conducted a mandatory, eight-hour training session where they practiced a scenario in which a student shot a teacher. “Everything that was done on Tuesday, we had practiced on Sunday,” said Cheryl Creed, NVCC’s acting Police Chief.

The county and campus police kept the campus locked down for approximately three hours after Hamilton was arrested in case there were other suspects still at large. “We erred on the side of caution and kept the lockdown until we could complete the search and evacuation,” said Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane.

Not everything went smoothly. It was more than 30 minutes before an announcement was made over classroom speakers informing students and faculty to shelter in place due to an emergency. As a result, some rushed out of the building after shots were fired in violation of the school’s emergency policy. Interestingly, students made up for some of these communication mishaps by sharing information through text messages.

In any case, it was a vast improvement over the Virginia Tech response, where the administration never ordered a campus shutdown and delayed notifying students and faculty after the first two victims were shot and killed in West Ambler Johnston Hall.

Perhaps in part because of improving emergency preparedness, Colorado State University’s Board of Governors recently voted unanimously to overturn the school’s policy allowing concealed handguns on its two campuses. “This makes us fairly unusual,” said Pueblo Campus President Joe Garcia, “as most institutions of higher education have a complete concealed weapons ban.”

Garcia is right. Utah’s public colleges and universities and Blue Ridge Community College in Virginia are now the only schools in America (out or more than 4,300 colleges and universities in the United States) that allow concealed handguns on campus.

Colorado State University is also now aligned with the policy of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA), which has stated, “There is no credible evidence to suggest that the presence of students carrying concealed weapons would reduce violence on our college campuses” and called on public policy makers to “weigh heavily the…unintended consequences of any proposals to allow college students and any other persons to carry concealed weapons on campus.” IACLEA is instead “working with other campus public safety stakeholders to provide and promote campus crime prevention training programs, as well as to develop strategies and programs to enhance emergency preparedness.”

It is good to see that such efforts are bearing fruit. While the Woodbridge incident could have been far worse-particularly if Hamilton had used a more dangerous firearm like an assault rifle-law enforcement deserves credit for taking campus safety seriously and demonstrating results.

December 14, 2009

"That's not a civilized society."

Earlier this year, an interesting study was published in the University of Miami Law Review by Zachary Weaver. Entitled “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law: The Actual Effects and the Need for Clarification,” it raises some serious questions about the expanding parameters for the use of lethal force in our country.

On April 26, 2005, Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed “Stand Your Ground” (aka “Shoot First”) legislation into law. The law eliminated the state’s common law duty to use every reasonable means available to retreat prior to using deadly force, which the Florida Supreme Court had legitimized by explaining, “human life is precious, and deadly combat should be avoided if at all possible when imminent danger to oneself can be avoided.” The law states that any individual who is in a place where he/she has a legal right to be, and who is “not engaged in an unlawful activity ... has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” Individuals using lethal force in this manner are immune from criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.

In his article, Weaver catalogues the opposition of prosecutors and law enforcement to the law, citing the National District Attorneys Association, the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, multiple State Attorneys, and police chiefs from cities like Miami and St. Petersburg. Palm Beach State Attorney Barry Krischer is quoted as saying, “I dislike the law because it encourages people to stand their ground…when they could just as easily walk away. To me, that’s not a civilized society.” Paul Logli, president of the National District Attorneys Association, points out that the law “give[s] citizens more rights to use deadly force than we give police officers, and with less review.”

Most troubling to Weaver is that the law creates a conclusive presumption that an individual had a reasonable fear of death or great bodily harm if an he/she can prove that an intruder unlawfully entered (or attempted to unlawfully enter) the individual’s home or vehicle. As Weaver describes it, “If the presumption applies, then there can be no criminal or civil repercussions for the use of deadly force. When found to apply, the presumption’s practical effect is that a jury will no longer be able to decide the factual question of whether the defendant had the reasonable fear necessary to use deadly force ... According to the law, if an intoxicated teenager enters his neighbor’s home by mistaking it for his own, the homeowner can presumably use deadly force. Even if the State could prove that the homeowner knew the intruder was his neighbor’s teenager and that the teen meant no harm, the presumptions entitle him to use deadly force.”

As a result, the law is “causing cases to not be filed at all or to be filed with reduced charges,” according to Russell Smith, President of the Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Duval County State Attorney Harry Shorstein has observed “a lesser sensitivity to gun violence and death” since the law was passed.

Weaver cites several disturbing incidents from the Sunshine State that highlight these problems, including the following:

  • On March 28, 2006, decorated Army veteran Michael Frazzini was shot and killed outside his house by neighbor Todd Rasmussen. Rasmussen stated that he shot Frazzini because he was “lunging” at his son Corey, who was armed with a knife (and who has a lengthy criminal record, including violent offenses). Frazzini was “armed” with only a small, souvenir baseball bat. No charges were brought against Todd Rasmussen.

  • On June 6, 2006, Jason Rosenbloom was shot by his neighbor in a dispute over trash collection. Rosenbloom, who was unarmed, went to Kenneth Allen’s home to talk about the issue and was shot twice outside the house. Bleeding profusely, he had to crawl home next door to his wife and young son to get medical attention. Allen was never arrested or charged with a crime.

  • On June 11, 2006, prostitute Jacqueline Galas of New Port Richey shot and killed longtime client Frank Labiento after he threatened to kill her. She made no attempt to escape from Labiento, shot him without any warning, and failed to call for medical help as he was dying. Second-degree murder charges against Galas were eventually dropped, despite the fact that she admitted to being involved in “unlawful activity” (prostitution).

    Finally, Weaver draws attention to a curious passage in the law that lays out its rationale in part by stating, “WHEREAS, Section 8 of Article I of the State Constitution guarantees the right of the people to bear arms in defense of themselves...” Citing the “heavy influence and publicity by the NRA” that preceded the passage of the law, he asks: “What is the real purpose behind including the statement about the right to bear arms under the Florida Constitution? What message is the legislature sending to the citizens of Florida? Is the legislature encouraging the use of firearms when a person acts in self-defense? And if so, should it be?”

    Weaver offers several recommendations for the Florida legislature to clarify the intent of the law and provide insight as to how it should function in practice. First, he advises the legislature to create a system to track self-defense claims—whether or not they result in indictments—so that Floridians can see the actual effects of the law. Second, he recommends that the legislature either eliminate the presumptions of reasonable fear and of an intruder’s malicious intent or make these presumptions rebuttable with other evidence. This would discourage a “shoot first mentality” by allowing a jury to determine if an individual’s use of lethal force was justified under the circumstances. Third, the permissible amount of force which can be used in confrontations should be defined; and it should be roughly equivalent to the force of the threat. Finally, the legislature should clearly define “unlawful activity” and “explain the extent to which the provision applies, including the precise time-framing and degree of unlawful activity that will exempt an individual using force from claiming the law’s benefits.”

    With 23 other states having adopted versions of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Weaver’s scholarship could not be more timely. Hopefully, it will help spur a new look at legislation that is at best confusing, and at worst, dangerous.

  • November 23, 2009

    What's Going On (at Gun Shows): Free Trade

    Bullet Counter Points’ “What’s Going On (at Gun Shows)” series takes an inside look at what happens at the nation’s gun shows when no one’s looking. Our first blog highlighted a UC Davis researcher who photographed widespread illegal activity at gun shows in 19 different states. Next, we took a look at an undercover investigation by the city of New York that captured a host of illegal sales at gun shows on video.

    Our latest entry involves two unconventional tales of free trade between the United States and Mexico.

    On July 25, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents were conducting surveillance at a gun show at the Expo Center at Kansas City International Airport in Missouri. They spotted Myrna Guerra carrying a semiautomatic AR-15 assault rifle and taking a “circuitous route” to his car. After looking over his shoulder several times, Guerra placed the assault rifle in his trunk. He then re-entered the show and traded cash for another assault rifle with a second private seller. Guerra placed this weapon in his car and was stopped by Kansas City Police Department officers soon after he departed the show.

    At this point, Guerra presented a fraudulent Missouri’s drivers license and social security number. After police confirmed this through a computer check, Guerra admitted that in fact he was not even an American citizen-but instead an illegal immigrant from Guatemala. He was immediately arrested, as his status as an undocumented person made it illegal for him to possess firearms under federal law. From his car, police confiscated the two AR-15 style rifles, two ammunition magazines, and gun show calendars from several states. After searching his home, authorities found an additional six ammunition magazines, nine handgun holders/cases, gun cleaning supplies, more gun show calendars, a western Union receipt for $4,000, and three Social Security Cards under a false identity.

    In a recent plea agreement, Guerra admitted to buying and selling guns for the past six months at gun shows to earn extra money. He would purchase guns from private sellers at gun shows and sell them to an intermediary, who would then bring the guns into Mexico for resale to the country’s drug cartels. Private sellers were attractive to Guerra because they are not required by law to conduct background checks or maintain records of sale, a problem known as the Gun Show Loophole.

    Guerra isn’t the only gun show visitor who saw the Mexican Drug War as a business opportunity, however.

    On October 16, Alfred Dwight Watkins, a resident of Luling, Texas, was sentenced to ten months in federal prison for dealing firearms without a license. Watkins, formerly a federally licensed firearms dealer (FFL), had been selling guns at gun shows in Austin and San Antonio despite the fact that his license expired in 2003. He told authorities that he would tell customers that no paperwork was required to do business with him in order to “flip” more firearms. In March of this year, ATF agents searched Watkins’ residence and recovered 65 firearms-including a dozen assault rifles-and 59,000 rounds of ammunition.

    Watkins admitted knowingly selling a firearm to a prohibited purchaser. He also admitted straw purchasing a firearm that was recovered three weeks later from Los Zetas, a prominent Mexican drug cartel.

    The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report in June which stated: “While it is impossible to know how many firearms are illegally smuggled into Mexico in a given year, about 87 percent of firearms seized by Mexican authorities and traced in the last 5 years originated in the United States, according to data from Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). According to U.S. and Mexican government officials, these firearms have been increasingly more powerful and lethal in recent years. Many of these firearms come from gun shops and gun shows in Southwest border states.”

    Unfortunately, the total lack of paperwork involved in these sales makes them nearly impossible to trace. As ATF agent Steve Foreman recently pointed out: [An unscrupulous private seller will] sell to anybody and everybody, trade up or trade down, he doesn’t care ... It’s actually a great business, if you don’t get caught.”

    Thankfully, the “entrepreneurs” described in this blog weren’t so lucky.

    November 16, 2009

    The Lessons of Fort Hood

    On November 5, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a licensed Army psychiatrist, walked into the Soldier Readiness Processing Center on Fort Hood military base in Killeen, Texas. After yelling “Allahu akbar,” Hasan, 39, opened fired with a semiautomatic handgun, killing 13 people (12 of them Soldiers) and wounding 32 others before he was shot by military police. Hasan sustained multiple injuries and is currently hospitalized in stable condition at an Army hospital in San Antonio. He will face 13 charges of premeditated murder in a military court.

    The Fort Hood shooting ranks as the nation's worst ever on a military installation. It also has raised new fears about terrorist attacks on the homeland, as Hasan had been in contact with a radical imam that has praised the killings.

    The U.S. Congress is now preparing to investigate the shooting to determine what action they might take to prevent similar tragedies in the future. Later in the month, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, headed by Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT), will begin hearings on the subject. As these inquiries commence, we would urge legislators to take several important actions concerning America’s gun laws:

    1) Close the “Terror Gap” in Gun Purchasing Laws and Allow Federal Agencies to Share Critical Information
    A May 2009 Government Accountability Office (GAO) study found that 865 individuals on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List were allowed to purchase firearms from federally licensed gun dealers between February 2004 and February 2009. Amazingly, while individuals on the FBI’s list are prohibited from boarding planes, they can purchase as many guns as they want as long as they can pass an instant computer background check.

    While there has been no indication from federal officials that Hasan was on the Terrorist Watch List, the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force had investigated Hasan after they discovered 10-20 email communications between him and Anwar al-Awlaki. Al-Awlaki, a radical imam now living in Yemen, was known to have associated with two of the 9/11 hijackers. Hasan worshipped at the Dar al-Hijrah mosque, led at the time by al-Alwaki, in Great Falls, Virginia, in 2001 along with the two hijackers.

    When Hasan purchased his weapons in August 2009, the Joint Terrorism Task Force was not informed. An NRA-drafted provision in the “Tiahrt Amendments” attached to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) appropriations bill requires the Department of Justice (DOJ) to destroy completed background check records within 24 hours. The NRA has also been able to enact restrictions that restrict federal agencies from sharing information about legal gun purchases.

    "The piece of information about the gun could have been critical," said former FBI Special Agent Brad Garrett. "One of the problems is that the law sometimes restricts you in what you can do." "We need to be smarter about sharing information," added former 9/11 commissioner Richard Ben-Veniste. "It's very disturbing to see…that the FBI is precluded from sharing information."

    There is no rational reason to allow potential terrorists to purchase firearms. The U.S. Congress should act immediately to pass S. 1317—sponsored by Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ)—and H.R. 2159, sponsored by Representative Peter King (R-NY). This legislation would give DOJ the discretion—subject to judicial review— to block gun sales to individuals on the Terrorist Watch List. Congress should also remove current information-sharing restrictions on federal agencies so that they can better monitor gun purchases.

    2) Oppose and Defeat the “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act”
    In the U.S. Senate, Senator Richard Burr (R-NC) has offered a legislative proposal, the “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act,” that would require that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to stop submitting the records of those found to “lack the mental capacity to contract or manage their own affairs” to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). The immediate effect of this measure would be the removal of approximately 116,000 such records already in the system. These individuals would be free to purchase and own firearms even if the VA determined they are “mentally incapacitated,” “mentally incompetent,” or “experiencing an extended loss of consciousness.”

    Senator Burr’s legislation would put veterans, their families, and the public in danger. Researchers are predicting that the rate of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) among veterans returning from Operation Iraqi Freedom could be as high as 35%. Furthermore, the Army suicide rate is at its highest level in three decades. The New York Times reported that “at least 128 soldiers killed themselves [in 2008], and the Army suicide rate surpassed that for civilians for the first time since the Vietnam War.” All told, 12,000 veterans under VA care attempt suicide each year. A 2007 study by researchers at Portland State University and Oregon Health & Science University found that male veterans are twice as likely to commit suicide as their civilian counterparts. The study also found that veterans are 58% more likely to use firearms to commit suicide than non-veterans.

    The shooting at Fort Hood wasn’t the only recent tragedy to remind us of how lethal the combination of mental illness and guns can be. Just two days after Hasan’s attack, a 63 year-old veteran suffering from PTSD opened fire while being escorted out of a bar in Vail, Colorado, killing one and injuring three.

    The “Veterans Second Amendment Protection Act” is an affront to common sense and the well-being of America’s veterans and should be rejected by Congress.

    3) Enact Licensing Laws for Handgun Purchasers
    Currently, only 11 states in the entire country require the licensing of handgun purchasers. Of these, nine states conduct a thorough background investigation on licensees that goes far beyond a simple instant computer check through the FBI’s National Instant Computer Background Check System (NICS).

    The problem with NICS checks (like the one which Hasan passed at Guns Galore) is that they lack critical information from state and local authorities. According to a Third Way report entitled “Missing Records,” “91% of those adjudicated mentally ill or involuntarily committed cannot be stopped by a gun buyer background check” because their disqualifying records are not in the system. In addition, one out of four felony conviction records are not in NICS. Third Way’s overall assessment of the database is that it is “deeply flawed.”

    Would a background investigation (as opposed to a computer check) have stopped Nidal Malik Hasan from purchasing a handgun? Possibly.

    There were several red flags in Hasan’s background that suggested he might have been a threat to himself or others. He had been working with service members suffering from PTSD for more than six years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and experienced problems that required counseling.. He had also begun openly opposing America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and espousing extremist Islamic views. While a senior-year psychiatric resident at Walter Reed, Hasan gave a PowerPoint presentation to mental health staff members which concluded, “It’s getting harder and harder for Muslims in the service to morally justify being in a military that seems constantly engaged against fellow Muslims.” In the Spring of 2008 and again in the Spring of 2009, key officials from Walter Reed and the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences met and expressed concern about Hasan's behavior, which fellow students and faculty had described as "disconnected, aloof, paranoid, belligerent and schizoid."

    Finally, as described above, Hasan was being monitored by the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force because of emails he had exchanged with the radical imam Anwar al-Awlaki. The FBI was also investigating whether he was behind violent anti-American comments left on a website under the screen name of "NidalHasan."

    None of these warning signs were revealed by the NICS check that Hasan underwent at Guns Galore. But any or all of this information might have been uncovered by a background investigation if Hasan had had to obtain a license in order to purchase a handgun. Such investigations typically involve interviews with licensees’ family, friends, and co-workers/colleagues.

    Because instant computer checks are imperfect, the U.S. Congress should adopt licensing standards for handgun purchasers similar to those enacted in New York and New Jersey. This would help ensure that dangerous individuals do not legally acquire handguns.

    4) Regulate High-Powered Firearms on the Civilian Market
    Hasan used a Belgian-made FN Herstal Five-seveN semi-automatic pistol during the shooting which he legally purchased at Guns Galore in Killeen. The weapon's name refers to its 5.7 mm bullet diameter. The Five-seveN is popular with U.S Secret Service agents and police SWAT teams because of its ability to penetrate body armor. It is also popular with the Mexican drug cartels, who call the Five-seveN the “Mata Policia” (“Cop Killer”).

    The Legislative Director of the International Brotherhood of Police Officers, Steve Lenkhart, has called the Five-seveN "an assault rifle that fits in your pocket."

    FN Herstal maintains that armor-piercing ammunition for the Five-seveN is only available to law enforcement and military personnel. However, when first launched for civilian sales, FN officials advertised that “enemy personnel, even wearing body armor can be effectively engaged up to 200 meters.” Additionally, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence tested the Five-seveN in January 2005 with commercially-available SS192 ammunition and found that it penetrated both Level IIA and Level IIIA body armor.

    The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence joined the Violence Policy Center, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Legal Community Against Violence, Freedom States Alliance, and States United to Prevent Gun Violence on a November 19 letter urging President Obama to use existing executive authority to prohibit the importation of the Five-seveN as well as 5.7X28mm ammunition with armor-piercing capabilities.

    November 2, 2009

    The Point of No Return

    Two recent undercover investigations, by the City of New York and a researcher at UC Davis, drew national attention by exposing widespread illegal activity at America’s gun shows. But however shocking these studies might have been, they contained no new revelations.

    It has now been ten years since “The Gun Show Loophole” became a household term following the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. It is well-known that the shooters at Columbine obtained firearms through Denver-area gun shows, but two new books—Dave Cullen’s Columbine and Jeff Kass’ Columbine: A True Crime Story—have shed light on how weak federal and state gun laws were purposefully exploited in the tragedy.

    A Tragedy of Epic Proportions
    On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold drove to their high school in Columbine with an arsenal of bombs, guns and ammunition. Their subsequent rampage lasted approximately 45 minutes and left 13 dead (one teacher and 12 students) and 24 injured. Harris, armed with a Hi-Point 995 9mm carbine rifle (with thirteen 10-round magazines) and a Savage-Springfield 67H sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, would fire a total of 124 rounds during the shooting. Klebold, armed with an Intratec Tec-9 semiautomatic assault pistol (with one 52-, one 32-, and one 28-round magazine) and a Stevens 311D double-barreled, sawed-off 12-gauge shotgun, would fire 64 rounds. Their final rounds were used to take their own lives.

    The plans for the mass shooting had begun to take shape in the fall of 1997. On November 3, 1997, it was mentioned for the first time when Klebold wrote in his diary, “[Name blocked] will get me a gun. I’ll go on my killing spree against anyone I want.” What Klebold had in mind was a “straw purchase,” where a prohibited purchaser recruits another individual to buy guns on his behalf—a federal felony offense for both parties.

    Both Klebold and Harris were intimately familiar with existing gun laws. On November 12, 1998, Harris referred to Jim Brady and the 1994 “Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act” in his diary, writing, “Fuck you Brady! All I want is a couple of guns, and thanks to your fucking bill I will probably not get any! Come on, I’ll have a clean record and I only want them for personal protection. It’s not like I’m some psycho who would go on a shooting spree….fuckers. I’ll probably end up nuking everything and fucking robbing some gun collector’s house. Fuck, that’ll be hard. Oh well, just as long as I kill a lot of fucking people. Everyone is always making fun of me because of how I look, how fucking weak I am and shit, well I will get you all back, ultimate fucking revenge here ... Guns! I need guns! Give me some fucking firearms!

    Harris was being playful and sarcastic. He knew that getting guns would not be difficult, despite the fact that at age 17, he and Klebold were barred under federal law from buying both long guns (minimum age 18) and handguns (21). Harris had previously written an essay about the Brady Act for school. “The FBI just shot themselves in the foot,” he declared. “There are a few loopholes in the new Brady bill. The biggest gaping hole is that the background checks are only required for licensed dealers…not private dealers.”

    Too Easy
    Just ten days after Harris cursed Jim Brady in his diary, he and Klebold would exploit that loophole. On November 22, 1998, they brought Robyn Anderson, an 18 year-old friend of Klebold’s, to the Tanner Gun show in Denver. There, Anderson purchased three of the guns used in the shootings (the Hi-Point 9mm rifle and two shotguns) for Klebold and Harris through three different private sellers. As these sellers were (supposedly) “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms, Anderson never had to undergo a background or fill out any paperwork. Only one of the three sellers checked her driver’s license to see if she was of legal age to purchase long guns. Klebold and Harris were able to buy ammunition at the show themselves. The entire process took only about an hour.

    In a statement she released after the shootings, Anderson said, "I think it was clear to the sellers that the guns were for Eric and Dylan. They were the only ones asking all the questions and handling the guns ... It was too easy. I wish it would have been more difficult. I wouldn't have helped them buy the guns if I had faced a criminal background check." Of the private seller that sold him his Stevens shotgun through Anderson, Klebold wrote, “He knew I was fucking buying it.”

    That night, Harris was ecstatic as he wrote in his journal: “Well folks, today was a very important day in the history of Reb [Harris’ nickname] today, along with Vodka [Klebold’s nickname] and someone else who I won’t name, we went downtown and purchased the following: a double barrel 12 ga. Shotgun, a pump action 12 ga. Shotgun, a 9mm carbine, 250 9mm rounds, 15 12 ga slugs, 40 shotgun shells, 2 switch blade knives, and a total of 4 10-round clips for the carbine. We ...... have ...... GUNS! we fucking got them you sons of bitches! HA! HA HA HA! Neener! Booga Booga. Heh. It’s all over now. This capped it off, the point of no return. You know what’s weird, I don’t feel like punching through a door...probably cause I am fucking armed. I feel more confident, stronger, more God-like.”

    The purchases made Harris hungry for more firearms. On December 3, 1998, he wrote in his diary, “I’m gonna still try and get my calico 9mm. Just think, 100 rounds without reloading.... hell yeah! We actually may have a chance to get some machine pistols thanks to the Brady bill. If we can save up about $200 real quick and find someone who is 21+ we can go to the next gun show and find a private dealer and buy ourselves some bad-ass AB-10 machine pistols. Clips for those things can get really fucking [big] too.”

    On December 18, 1998, Harris, paid for nine magazines of 9mm ammunition at Green Mountain Guns in Lakewood, Colorado. The store ordered the ammo for the 17 year-old, and Harris was able to pick it up on December 29.

    The duo then got the assault pistol they were looking for. On January 23, 1999, Harris and Klebold met Blackjack Pizza co-worker Philip Duran, 22, and his friend Mark Manes, 21, at the same Denver gun show they attended with Robyn Anderson. They shopped around for Tec-9s before Manes agrees to sell Klebold and Harris one he owned for $500. Klebold gave him a down payment of $300 that night and took possession of the gun.

    From February through March 1999, Harris, Klebold, Duran and Manes would hone their marksmanship together in a forested area outside Denver known as Rampart Range. On the third and last trip to the shooting range on March 6, Duran filmed the outing with a camera that Harris and Klebold had taken from Columbine High. In the video, Klebold and Harris can be seen gleefully firing their newly acquired firearms. Nine days later, Harris and Klebold would record the first of their “Basement Tape” videos and thank Duran and Manes. Klebold observes, “We used them, like you use a horse to carry shit.” And they add one final round of thanks: “Thanks to the gun show, and to Robyn. Robyn is very cool.”

    One final purchase was made the day before the shootings. On April 19, 1999, Manes went to Kmart and bought 100 rounds of 9mm ammo for Harris. Harris picked it up from Manes’ house that evening.

    A History of Violence
    In the wake of the shootings, commentators focused on Klebold and Harris’ age (17) when discussing their illegal gun purchases. But even if the two had been of legal age to purchase firearms, there were numerous red flags in their background that are eerily similar to ones we continue to see today in school shooters like Seung-Hui Cho and Stephen Kazmierczak. These warning signs included:

    • August 7, 1997—Teenager Aaron Brown reports Eric Harris’ website to the Jefferson County Police. The website contains information about homemade bombs and acts of neighborhood vandalism. Police meet with the Brown family and are given seven printed pages of Harris' website.

    • Fall 1997—Harris and Klebold bring a pipe bomb to work at Blackjack Pizza (they plan to blow up a watermelon after work, they say) and are admonished by their boss.

    • October 2, 1997—Harris and Klebold are suspended for hacking into Columbine High School’s computer system to get student locker combinations.

    • December 10, 1997—For a classroom assignment, Harris writes a paper titled “Guns in Schools,” which affirms, “It is just as easy to bring a loaded handgun to school as it is to bring a calculator.”

    • January 30, 1998—Harris and Klebold break into a parked van and steal equipment they find inside (total value: $1,719). They are arrested that evening and placed in a juvenile diversion program. Both are released from the program early for good behavior.

    • February 15, 1998—A passerby finds a homemade pipe bomb in a suburban park near Harris' house. The bomb is reported to the Jefferson County Police and they recover it.

    • February/March 1998—Klebold is suspended again for scratching something threatening into a student’s locker.

    • Spring 1998—In September 1998, Harris writes an essay in school about a time when he had to “give away all my weapons to my parents.” “I paid good money or spent a lot of time making them,” he says. Months later, in the “Basement Tape” videos, Harris and Klebold confirm that Harris’ parents found a tackle box in his room with pipe bombs in it. Nate Dykeman and Zack Heckler, friends of the pair, tell authorities after the massacre that Harris’ father detonated a bomb that had been confiscated from Eric’s room in the spring of 1998. Dykeman also claims that he saw Harris and Klebold blow up things with bombs on several occasions.

    • March 18, 1998—The Brown family calls Jefferson County Police again after Harris updates his website and writes, “God I can’t wait till I can kill you people. I’ll just go to some downtown area in some big ass city and blow up and shoot everything I can ... I will rig up explosives all over a town and detonate each one of them at will after I mow down a whole fucking area full of you snotty ass rich mother fucking high strung godlike attitude having worthless pieces of shit whores. i don’t care if I live or die in the shootout, all I want to do is kill and injure as many of you pricks as I can, especially a few people. Like brooks brown [a fellow student of Harris’ at Columbine High School].” Although one detective begins to prepare a warrant to search the Harris home for bomb-making materials (the warrant mentions that a pipe bomb matching a description by Harris was recovered in February 1998 near his home), no concrete action is ever taken in regards to the complaint.

    • November 1998—Harris designs a business project for his Government and Economics class. The proposal, “Hitmen for Hire,” is for a business “basically to kill people who anger our clients.” “Several weapons, such as a sawed-off pump-action riot shotgun, an AB-10 machine pistol, homemade rocket launchers, swords and daggers were gathered to help our business,” Harris adds. In a video produced for the assignment, Harris and Klebold take money from a student who complains of being bullied. The pair then shoot and kill a “jock” with fake guns in an alleyway.

    • December 1998—Green Mountain Guns calls the Harris house to report that the 9mm magazines which were ordered (for Eric Harris) are ready for pick-up. Harris’ father answers the phone, says he did not place any such order, and hangs up. In his journal, Eric writes, "jesus Christ that was fucking close, fucking shitheads at the gunshop almost dropped the whole project. Oh well, thank god I can BS so fucking well."

    • February 1999—Klebold tells Zack Heckler that he and Harris recently bought shotguns.

    • February 1999—Klebold writes an essay for his Creative Writing class. It tells the story of a man who kills “preps.” The man is Dylan’s height, wears a trench coat (like both Klebold and Harris), and uses bombs, a knife and two guns. The essay uses inappropriate words like “pussy” and “prick.” Klebold’s teacher talks to his parents and later calls the essay, “the most vicious story I have ever read.”

    • February/March 1999—Harris requests Zack Heckler's assistance in making napalm and asks another friend, Chris Morris, to store the finished batches at his house.

    • March 1999—Harris approaches Chris Morris and suggests they rig a "trip bomb" behind Blackjack Pizza to target kids crawling through a hole in the fence behind the restaurant.

    All told, Klebold and Harris had 15 confirmed contacts with law enforcement before the Columbine massacre. This is information that would have been readily turned up in any type of background investigation prior to a firearm purchase (as opposed to an instant computer check through the National Instant Criminal Background Check System database maintained by the FBI). Only a handful of states in the U.S.(New Jersey being one example) license gun owners and conduct such investigations. Virtually every other industrialized democracy in the world has licensing and registration laws in place for gun owners and their weapons.

    Criminal Neglect
    What was done in the wake of the Columbine tragedy to eliminate the loopholes in America’s gun laws that Harris and Klebold so deftly exploited?

    Not much.

    To Colorado residents’ credit, they acted quickly to close the Gun Show Loophole at the state level. In 2000, 70% of Colorado voters approved Amendment 22, a referendum to require background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows. The “Robyn Anderson” bill was also passed to clarify state law and make it clear that no individual can legally transfer a long gun to a minor without the consent of that juvenile’s parent or guardian.

    The U.S. Congress was a different story. On May 21, 1999, the U.S. Senate narrowly passed an amendment to close the Gun Show Loophole. Then-Vice President Al Gore had to use his constitutional power to break the 50-50 tie vote in favor of the amendment, which he dedicated “to all of the families that have suffered from gun violence.” Then the National Rifle Association (NRA) took over. They accused the White House of backing "a charade of lawmaking" and warned that they would "hold a mirror up to this dishonest process.” Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID), an NRA board member who led the effort to defeat the amendment, was equally confident. "I haven't lost," he said with a smile, wagging his forefinger in the air. "It's not over yet." These were not idle threats. Within days, similar Gun Show Loophole legislation was defeated in the House of Representatives. The Senate bill eventually stalled in conference committee.

    The NRA continues to oppose efforts to close the Gun Show Loophole to this day, portraying them as some secret scheme to confiscate all privately-held firearms in America. Their defiance is certainly not a reflection of the views of the American people. According to a recent national poll, 87% of Americans—including 83% of gun owners—support closing the Gun Show Loophole.

    One decade after Columbine, only 17 states in the U.S. have taken some action to close the Gun Show Loophole. It remains wide open for future Klebolds and Harrises in the other 33. As for illegal straw purchases, the recent undercover investigations by New York City and UC Davis demonstrate that they are as commonplace at gun shows as ever.

    The Cost of “Freedom”
    When police searched Dylan Klebold’s 1982 Black BMW following his shooting rampage, they found a newsletter from the Firearms Coalition of Colorado. “Dear Firearms Activist,” it read. “The Firearms Coalition of Colorado is working for you!” And working they were, to: a) Prohibit local municipalities from enacting gun control ordinances; b) Prevent law enforcement from exercising discretion in issuing concealed handgun permits, and; c) Bar the state of Colorado from suing firearm manufacturers “like the tobacco companies have had to fight.”

    Klebold and Harris would have been gratified to know that all three of these campaigns were ultimately successful. The pair was concerned about their legacy and hoped to kick-start a “revolution.” They even spoke directly to future students in the “Basement Tapes,” stating, “If you’re going to go fucking psycho and kill a bunch of people like us...do it right.” Those who have been inspired to kill by Klebold and Harris have had no problem in following their model—weak gun laws in this country continue to allow the obviously disturbed to acquire arsenals of firepower.

    “Whoever said the cost of freedom was free?” asked the Firearms Coalition of Colorado newsletter found in Klebold’s car. Certainly not the victims of Columbine. They understand the price we continue to pay for gun “freedoms” better than anyone.

    October 19, 2009

    What's Going On (at Gun Shows): Caught on Video

    Last month, Bullet Counter Points reported on a new study by Dr. Garen Wintemute of UC Davis that uncovered widespread illegal activity at gun shows in 19 states. This month sees the release of an equally revealing—and disturbing—study about these largely unregulated events.

    On October 7, the City of New York released “Gun Show Undercover: Report on Illegal Sales at Gun Shows.” The report details undercover investigations that took place at gun shows in three states–Tennessee, Nevada, and Ohio—between May and August of this year. Private investigators were hired by the Office of NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg to perform sting operations on federally licensed firearm dealers and unlicensed private sellers at 14 different shows in that time-frame.

    The investigations expose the dangers of the “Gun Show Loophole,” which allows individuals who are “not engaged in the business of dealing firearms” to sell guns to others without conducting background checks or maintaining records of sale. Private investigators posing as purchasers approached 33 unlicensed sellers and told them that they “probably couldn’t pass a background check.” 22 (or 67%) of the private sellers responded with quips like “I don’t care” or “I couldn’t pass one either, bud” and sold a gun to them anyway. In these transactions, 20 semiautomatic handguns and two semiautomatic SKS assault rifles were sold illegally to investigators (it is against the law for private sellers to transfer a firearm if they have reason to believe the purchaser is prohibited under federal law from buying guns)

    It also became apparent that many of these unregulated private sellers—despite not having a federal license—were indeed “engaged in the business” of dealing firearms, and therefore breaking the law. One seller in Sharonville, Ohio, told investigators that he had sold 348 assault rifles in “just under a year” for $174,000 in revenue.” Another seller had “over 100 guns on display in twelve professionally designed cases.” Others acknowledged that they sold firearms at gun shows on a regular basis.

    Not that the record of licensed dealers was much better during the investigations... 17 licensed dealers at the shows were approached by investigators who simulated a “straw purchase.” In a straw purchase, a prohibited purchaser recruits an individual with a clean criminal record to fill out paperwork, pass the background check, and purchase firearms for him/her. Only one licensed dealer refused to sell investigators a gun in this manner, despite the fact that it constitutes a federal felony offense. In these sales, 16 semiautomatic handguns were sold illegally.

    Undercover videos of several of these illegal sales can be viewed here.

    The guns purchased in the NYC investigation were turned over to law enforcement authorities and did no harm in nearby communities. Two homicides that were recently reported in the media show the real-life damage that can be done by guns that are trafficked from gun shows, however.

    A revolver sold by a private seller at a Reno gun show was recently found at the scene of a murder in Oakland. The seller informed authorities that the woman who purchased the gun suggested to him that she would not be able to pass a background check.

    In Dayton, Ohio, a police officer who lost his wife tragically to gun violence in 2000 recalled that the murder weapon came from Bill Goodman’s Gun and Knife Show—one of the shows investigated by NYC authorities. “I’m a firm proponent of the Second Amendment,” said Officer John Beall, “but it is true that the subject who killed my wife walked into Bill Goodman’s gun show, no questions asked, while under indictment [and purchased the gun].”

    As Mayor Bloomberg recently said, “This is an issue that has nothing to do with the Second Amendment; it’s about keeping guns from criminals, plain and simple.” That much is obvious—and we hope that President Obama and the ATF will pay heed to a paper recently sent to them by Mayors Against Illegal Guns (of which Mayor Bloomberg is a co-chair) entitled “Blueprint for Federal Action on Illegal Guns.” This document contains many important recommendations on how to better regulate gun shows—none of which require action from a U.S. Congress that lives in fear of the gun lobby.

    October 12, 2009

    "We cannot allow gun violence to take any more children's lives..."

    The Children’s Defense Fund (CDF), a member of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, has worked tirelessly during their 35 years of existence to better the lives of children. The driving force behind these efforts has been CDF President Marian Wright Edelman. Edelman was a longtime activist in the civil rights movement and later moved to the District of Columbia to found CDF.

    Recently, CDF released its 2009 “Protect Children, Not Guns” report, which evaluates the impact of gun violence on America’s youth. According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 3,184 children died from gunfire in the United States in 2006, a 6% increase from 2005. More preschoolers (63) were killed by firearms that year than law enforcement officers (48) in the line of duty. Since 1979, gun violence has ended the lives of 107,603 children and teens in the U.S. The data also reveals that black males ages 15 to 19 are almost five times as likely as their white peers and more than twice as likely as their Latino peers to be killed by firearms. Edelman firmly believes that “the United States does not provide a level playing field for all children, and our nation does not value and protect all children’s lives equally.”

    Why does CDF continue to prioritize the issue of gun violence? Edelman says that “it is now more important than ever that we work to protect children from firearms in their homes, schools and communities.” In her mind, “we do not have a ‘child and youth problem,’” but a “profound adult problem.”

    “It is up to every one of us,” Edelman states, “to let our elected officials know that we care deeply about controlling gun violence.” She feels that “stronger federal legislation could help protect more children” and outlines some key measures she would like legislators to act on.

    First, she believes the “Gun Show Loophole” should be closed. While the Brady Law requires that federally licensed firearms dealers conduct background checks on every sale, the law allows private individuals to sell firearms without a license and avoid the required background checks, and these sellers frequent gun shows. One study estimated that 40% of all firearms in the U.S. are purchased without a background check. Edelman suggests that advocates push for passage of bipartisan bills to require background checks on all sales at gun shows, S.843 and H.R. 2324.

    Edelman also believes that the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) should be strengthened. “The system could be strengthened by requiring states to provide more information to the FBI’s national database on prohibited persons, extending background checks to cover all purchases of firearms, and closing the [Terrorist Watch List] Loophole,” she says.

    Finally, Edelman emphasizes the need to reinstitute the Assault Weapons Ban. While the ban, signed into law in 1994, banned 19 types of semiautomatic military-style firearms and high-capacity ammunition magazines, it expired in 2004.

    Legislation is not enough by itself, however. Edelman believes “America has a deadly, historic romance with guns and violence. Our culture frequently glamorizes guns and violence in movies, television, music, and on the internet.” This culture of violence is “desensitizing” us “to the value of life,” according to Edelman, and “individuals and communities must act to end [it].”

    Edelman envisions hard work on the road to a safer, more peaceful society: “Like the black students and other civil rights activists during the 1960s, we cannot wait placidly for change. They took control of their own destinies and fought inequality and discrimination—and we must do the same. We cannot allow gun violence to take any more children’s lives because of our complacency. We must take action now to let Congress know it must enact sensible gun legislation to stop the senseless killing of children and teens.”

    October 5, 2009

    Call Heeded

    A remarkable victory was achieved by grassroots activists in Philadelphia last month when one of the most corrupt gun dealers in America was forced to permanently shutter his business. The activists’ campaign, known as “Heeding God’s Call,” relied on one very powerful “weapon”: faith.

    The Heeding God’s Call campaign unites 39 churches, synagogues and mosques in the Philadelphia area that are frustrated with the high level of gun violence in the city and the refusal of Pennsylvania legislators to address the problem. "[We need] a reduction of violence, a reduction of homicides that are affecting Philadelphia," said Allen Bartlett, assisting bishop for the Episcopal Diocese of Philadelphia in 2008. "It's getting worse. Guns have to be acquired somewhere and so we're going to the source."

    It turns out the primary source of Philadelphia’s crime guns was Colosimo’s, a prominent gun store in Philadelphia. 2003 data from the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms, Tobacco and Explosives (ATF) data showed that from 1989 to 1996, Colosimo’s sold 425 guns traced to crime (10 homicides, 85 assaults, 30 robberies and 300 additional gun crimes). Colosimo’s ranked fifth among federally licensed dealers in the U.S. in terms of having the highest number of guns traced to crime. Additionally, ATF data showed that 20% of all the guns recovered at crime scenes in Philadelphia were originally purchased at Colosimo’s.

    Naturally, I have more traces,” said James Colosimo, the store’s owner. “I’m the oldest gun dealer in Pennsylvania. I’ve sold more guns.” Bryan Miller of Ceasefire New Jersey saw it differently. “All of the bad guys in Philadelphia and Camden know they can straw-purchase guns at Colosimo’s,” he said. “Colosimo’s values profits over the lives of others,” added Philadelphia Solicitor Shelley Smith.

    The members of Heeding God’s Calls met with Colosimo in December 2008 and asked him to sign a Responsible Firearms Retailer Partnership 10-Point Voluntary Code to reduce the amount of straw purchases and “irresponsible” gun sales taking place at his store. The code was based on one that had been adopted by Wal-Mart at the request of Mayors Against Illegal Guns in April of that year.

    After Colosimo refused to sign the document, members of Heeding God’s Call began a series of protests. Twice a week for nine months, they gathered in front of the gun shop to demonstrate and pray. On January 12, members of Heeding God’s Call were arrested after entering Colosimo’s and charged with trespassing and disorderly conduct. At their trial in May, their attorney argued that their behavior “was justified because they were trying to prevent a greater evil”—deadly shootings in Philadelphia. Defendant Kemah Washington, from the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, told the judge, “Being arrested in January was never my intention. I did not go to be a nuisance nor did go to engage in any tumultuous behavior, but I hear the cries from our children and knew I had to react to their cries, I knew I had to stand up and be a voice for those who have been killed or maimed by gun violence.” The 12 defendants were acquitted of all charges.

    Probably not coincidentally, the store began to draw intense scrutiny from federal agents during the demonstrations and trial. On September 22, U.S. Attorney Michael Levy charged Colosimo’s with making false statements and failing to properly maintain firearm transaction records. The ATF found that Colosimo’s had sold at least 10 guns to three people in straw purchases between 2004 and 2007, including through “controlled buys” that had been set up by the agency. On September 28, James Colosimo pled guilty. His federal license to sell firearms has been revoked and as of October 1 a small sign appeared on the front door of his shop that said “Closed for inventory.”

    After hearing that news, Cherie Ryans—a Philadelphia mother who spent Saturdays outside Colosimo’s in memory of a son she had lost to an illegal gun—said, “I will never find the person who took my son’s life, but another life will be spared because this shop has closed.”

    The Philadelphia Inquirer opined: “Activism of the Heeding God's Call variety—as well as the increasingly vocal Mayors Against Illegal Guns campaign in Pennsylvania –is the best hope for pushing back against National Rifle Association opposition to commonsense trafficking safeguards.” We agree, and hope the efforts of these courageous activists will serve as a model—and a source of inspiration—for other Americans trying to save lives in their communities.

    September 28, 2009

    A Greater Priority

    The recent murder of a young woman in Kentucky has given legislators cause for concern about current laws regarding domestic violence and firearms. Despite the fact that approximately 1,800 women are murdered each year by men in single victim/single offender incidents, it remains surprisingly easy for known domestic abusers to obtain guns and hold onto them—even after engaging in violent acts.

    On September 11, Amanda Ross, 29, was found shot and lying in the back corner of a parking lot outside her Lexington home. She was taken to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, where she died. Hours later, police found Ross’ ex- fiancĂ©e, former state Rep. Steve Nunn, in a cemetery near his parents’ graves with what appeared to be self-inflicted wrist wounds and a .38 revolver—the same caliber weapon used to kill Ross. Nunn fired the gun at police and was immediately arrested. After telling investigators that he was “at the end of his rope and wanted revenge,” he was charged with the murder of Ross and violation of a protective order.

    Nunn had become the subject of the restraining order after he was accused of attacking Ross in February. In the complaint, Ross claimed that Nunn become violent during an argument at her home, hit her in the face four times, pushed her against a wall, broke a lamp, and threw a cup of bourbon at her. Nunn was put on administrative leave from his job as the Deputy Secretary of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and officially resigned from his position in March.

    It is not known at this time where Nunn obtained the .38 revolver found in his possession. As the subject of an active restraining order, Nunn was prohibited under federal law from possessing firearms. Unfortunately, there are few state laws in this area (24 states have restrictions on access to firearms by persons under active restraining orders, 13 have restrictions on access to firearms by domestic violence misdemeanants, and 18 allow confiscation of firearms at a domestic violence scene) and state and local law enforcement authorities rarely confiscate firearms from domestic abusers. Typically, local law enforcement would rely on federal agents to confiscate these firearms, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) lacks the manpower to handle such requests. As Greg Vincent, the president of the Kentucky County Attorney Association, has noted, “For the average Joe who doesn't make it onto the front page or onto every TV station, the ATF doesn't come down.”

    Only one county in Kentucky, Jefferson County, is currently removing guns from the homes of domestic violence offenders. The county’s Sheriff’s Department now holds 4,700 firearms in a vault that were confiscated from such individuals. The Operations Commander for the department, Chris Hancock, has said, “I most certainly think it saves lives.” Still, there are challenges in getting others to follow suit. Jefferson Family Court Judge Jerry Bowles, a national domestic violence expert who served on a statewide domestic violence task force with Steve Nunn in 1991, has stated that the effort to uphold the law on a state level is “a struggle because a lot of judges work to circumvent the laws because of their own personal views.”

    Kentucky legislators, to their credit, have stepped up to address the problem. Reps. Joni Jenkins and Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville are drafting a state law to prevent those under protective orders from retaining their firearms. Jenkins has also proposed a measure that would extend Domestic Violence Orders (DVOs) to dating couples (currently, DVOs are available only to those who are married or living together). Finally, Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo plans to offer legislation named for Ross that would allow judges to require those with protection orders against them to wear ankle bracelets that track their whereabouts.

    In commenting on the murder of Amanda Ross, Brian Namey of the National Network to End Domestic Violence pointed out that “more than three times as many women are murdered with guns by their partners than are murdered by a stranger’s weapon.” Thankfully, even those who typically pay homage to the gun lobby are now taking note of that fact. In February, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the federal law that bars those convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning guns. And Kentucky Judge Bowles recently set the stage for action in his own state by declaring that “the priority to protect women’s lives is greater than the constitutional right to bear arms.”

    Those will be welcome words to women across America who are suffering in abusive relationships.

    September 21, 2009

    Gunning for the President

    The nation, sadly, has become well acquainted with the phenomenon of individuals bringing loaded guns to town hall meetings, presidential speeches and other political events. Initially, these shows of force were headline news and covered nationally. Recently, however, two disturbing incidents occurred that barely made a blip on even the local media radar.

    On the evening of September 9, President Barack Obama was at the U.S. Capitol preparing to address a joint session of Congress on the subject of health care reform. At approximately 8:00 p.m., Joshua Bowman, 28, of Falls Church, Virginia, attempted to drive his Honda Civic into a secure area near the Capitol. U.S. Capitol Police stopped him and, searching his car, found a rifle, a shotgun and 500 rounds of ammunition. Bowman was arrested on the spot and charged with two counts of possession of an unregistered firearm and one count of unlawful possession of ammunition. An Associated Press article noted that “Bowman’s intentions were unclear.”

    A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington has stated that they have decided against prosecuting Bowman on more serious charges. It is difficult to imagine, however, what legitimate reason there might have been for bringing that kind of firepower to the Capitol when so many important elected officials were gathered in one place.

    Three days later, Josh Hendrickson of Rogers, Minnesota, traveled to a rally outside the Target Center in downtown Minneapolis, where President Obama was giving another speech on health care reform. Hendrickson, a concealed carry permit holder in Minnesota, was carrying a .40 caliber Glock 22 handgun in a holster on his hip, and a Kel Tec 380 in his pocket. “The Second Amendment isn’t suspended just because the president’s in town,” he explained. He was questioned by Minneapolis police and Secret Service agents, but no charges were pressed.

    Hendrickson described himself as a “pretty laid-back guy,” a National Rifle Association member who always takes his keys, wallet and guns when he leaves the house. In reality, Hendrickson is a “Truther” with a violent criminal history. In fact, he was recently released after serving a 60-day stint in jail for pepper spraying a customer at the Cub Foods where he worked as a security guard. The woman had parked illegally, Hendrickson claims, and was being belligerent. “It didn’t cause a commotion,” though, he assured a reporter. Nonetheless, Hendrickson was fired, charged with fifth-degree assault, and convicted.

    Nor was that his only contact with law enforcement. Hendrickson described two other incidents, one “a disorderly conduct charge involving a parking lot argument as his son’s school” and another “a dispute over a neighbor’s dog, in which police were called.” A search of the Minnesota Trial Court Public Access website reveals a total of 9 convictions for Joshua David Hendrickson, born in November 1976: 1 for 5th degree assault, 1 for Disorderly Conduct—Brawling or Fighting, 3 for Disorderly Conduct, 1 for Reckless Driving, 2 for Driving While Intoxicated, and 1 for Interfering with an Emergency Call.

    Sadly, Hendrickson was able to obtain a concealed handgun permit in Minnesota and hold on to it despite this extensive criminal record. Under Minnesota law, Hendrickson’s permit could have been revoked after his conviction for fifth-degree assault. And the law would have required law enforcement to revoke Hendrickson’s permit following his DWI convictions had he been armed during either one of these incidents. Although Minnesota is a “shall-issue” state, Minnesota sheriffs are also permitted to deny permits if they believe there is a “substantial likelihood that the applicant would be a danger to self or others.”

    That Hendrickson was able to avoid all these hurdles and carry handguns near the president without being arrested is astonishing. “Now I’m going to be the guy with the assault record—the gun-carrying assaulter of people who’s outside the Obama rally,” Hendrickson predicted.

    On that point, he was right. The natural question is now: How many other individuals carrying guns at political events (either openly or concealed) have disturbing criminal histories? And why is the media already losing interest in what should be headline news?

    September 14, 2009

    Few Volunteers for NRA Agenda

    In recent months, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has been pushing state legislatures across the country to legalize the carrying of concealed handguns in sensitive public places—an agenda that hasn’t sat well with the public itself. One key battleground concerning such legislation has been the state of Tennessee.

    A new law in Tennessee that went into effect on September 1, SB 1518, allows concealed carry permit holders to take their handguns into parks, natural areas, campgrounds and “similar public places.” Cities and counties are allowed to opt out of the law by passing local legislation, however, and maintain their concealed handgun bans in parks. Approximately 70 municipalities have already exercised this option; ranging from major cities Memphis and Nashville to rural towns with populations under 2,000. Vice Mayor Steve Brown said of his city: "Hendersonville is a fairly conservative community, and I'm a fairly conservative alderman. Four of our aldermen have carry permits—I'm one of them—and all four of us opted out of that law." When told that the sponsor of SB 1518, Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), was considering offering new legislation to take away the opt-out provision for local governments, Brown said, "If you make a law that 70 percent of your people don't like, you'd be pretty foolish to bring it up again in an election year. I wouldn't touch that law with a 10-foot pole."

    Recently, some Knoxville officials who expressed support for the ban have received threatening emails from concealed carry permit holders. Knoxville City Councilwoman Barbara Pelot received approximately 400 such emails, and said, "It made me think strongly about what kind of training do these permit holders have? ... These people don't have psychological testing. They don't go through what Knoxville Police Department officers and the Sheriff's Office do. The passion and the intensity of these e-mails made me think some very bad choices could be made by these people who have permits."

    Another law that went into effect in Tennessee this year, SB 0575, allows “[any] person who has [a] handgun carry permit and is not consuming alcohol to possess [a] handgun in any restaurant that derives more than 60 percent of its revenue from the sale of food .” Tennessee does not differentiate between restaurants and night clubs for liquor licensing purposes, making the Volunteer State the first in the country to allow concealed handguns in bars (Arizona recently became the second). No mechanism has been specified to enforce the law—presumably restaurant owners would have to search everyone they serve alcohol to to see if they are carrying a firearm.

    In July, a group of 10 Tennessee restaurant owners and workers filed a lawsuit which alleges that SB 0575 “creates unsafe workplaces, [and] violates federal occupational safety and health laws.” Adam Dread, attorney for the plaintiffs and an NRA member, stated, “How hard is it to have a common-sense awareness that guns and alcohol don’t mix? It’s a deadly mix. Two guys with fists, you have a fistfight. But if one has a gun, you have a tragedy.” The Tennessee Hospitality Association, Nashville Chamber of Commerce, and Nashville Visitors and Convention Bureau are supporting the lawsuit.

    Proponents of the law, such as SB 0575 sponsor Sen. Doug Jackson (D-Centerville), claim that concealed carry permit holders are well-vetted and among the most responsible gun owners in America. Several recent developments, however, call these claims into question.

    In late 2008, the Tennessee Department of Safety discovered that approximately 200 individuals who held concealed carry permits in the state had active restraining orders against them for domestic abuse. Although this was a clear violation of the law (subjects of restraining orders are prohibited under federal law from possessing or purchasing firearms), the Department of Safety did not notice this oversight until informed by a Nashville television station.

    Then, in August of this year, the Tennessean discovered “a persistent group of Tennesseans with violent pasts who carry gun permits through loopholes, administrative mistakes, and the realities of a court system where charges based on violent incidents can be reduced or eliminated in plea bargains.” This group included convicted felons who illegally held permits and others who obtained their permits in accordance with the law despite long criminal histories. As a “shall-issue” state, Tennessee does not give local law enforcement any discretion over whether to issue a permit. If an applicant passes a basic computer background check, police must issue the permit, even if the individual is an obvious threat to public safety. "The circumstances of the cases…brought to our attention can certainly lead one to reasonably question the judgment and character of these individuals, and whether they should have permits to carry guns in public, including bars and restaurants," Nashville Metro Police Chief Ronal Serpas said in a statement. "But again, the law is the law."

    In an even more recent incident that occurred in Knoxville on September 3, Luann Keller, 55, was charged with aggravated assault after she allegedly pulled her gun on an off-duty police lieutenant. Authorities say the incident may have been the result of road rage. “She started blowing her horn and then pulled up beside him and pulled a firearm,” says Knoxville Police Department Lt. Kenny Miller. Keller had a valid permit to carry a concealed handgun.

    The NRA insists that allowing concealed handguns to be carried everywhere will make us safer. Opposition to their legislation in a “Red State” like Tennessee—hardly a liberal bastion—is convincing evidence that few Americans agree with them.

    September 7, 2009

    What's Going On (at Gun Shows): Sense of Impunity

    Last week, Dr. Garen Wintemute, the Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, released a fascinating study that takes an inside look at America’s gun shows. Entitled “Inside Gun Shows: What Goes On When Everybody Thinks Nobody’s Watching,” it catalogues Wintemute’s observations at 78 gun shows that he attended in 19 states between 2005 and 2008. More importantly, it contains hundreds of color photographs that he took surreptitiously at these events. These photos document illegal straw purchases; anonymous, undocumented private party gun sales; the widespread availability of assault weapons; and the links between gun shows and the Neo-Nazi movement.

    In the study, Wintemute describes the two systems of commerce that operate side-by-side at gun shows. On the one hand, you have dealers licensed by the federal government who are required to conduct background checks on gun purchasers. At the shows he attended, Wintemute found that those prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms (i.e., convicted felons, domestic abusers, drug users, the mentally ill, etc.) would often evade this requirement by engaging in straw purchases. In a straw purchase, a prohibited purchaser recruits an individual(s) with a clean criminal record to pass a background check and purchase firearms for him/her (a straw purchase is a federal felony offense for both the straw purchaser and the ultimate possessor of the firearms). “The openness and sense of impunity with which straw purchases were sometimes conducted was striking,” Wintemute reports. Licensed dealers account for two-thirds of trafficked firearms that come from gun shows.

    Private party sellers are also present at gun shows. These sellers are not licensed by the government and are not required to conduct background checks. A 1986 law exempted anyone who is “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms from the background check requirement. Theoretically, these are individuals who make “occasional sales, exchanges, or purchases of firearms for the enhancement of a personal collection or for a hobby, or who [sell] all or part of [their] collection of firearms.” The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), however, has noted that the effect of this law “has often been to frustrate the prosecution of unlicensed dealers masquerading as collectors or hobbyists but who are really trafficking firearms to felons or other prohibited persons.” More than 85% of crime guns recovered by ATF have gone through at least one private party transaction following their initial sale by a licensed gun dealer.

    Private gun sales don’t occur only at gun shows, Wintemute emphasizes. They can occur virtually anywhere—at flea markets, through classified ads in newspapers, over the Internet, in private homes, on the street, etc. Because they are anonymous and involve no paperwork, they are particularly attractive to prohibited purchasers.

    At gun shows, the ATF estimates that 25 to 50% of all gun sellers who rent table space are unlicensed. Private sellers can also walk around freely at gun shows, selling firearms they’ve brought with them to other attendees. Private sales were common at the gun shows Wintemute attended. He even observed such sales occurring in states where they are illegal.

    In terms of the wares that were available at gun shows, Wintemute observed that, “All types of guns are available at gun shows, but assault weapons, particularly civilian versions of AR and AK rifles, seem to figure more prominently at gun shows than in gun commerce generally.”

    Little enforcement action was evident at these events. ATF has stated that “too often [gun] shows provide a ready supply of firearms to prohibited persons, gangs, violent criminals, and illegal firearms traffickers.” Yet, as Wintemute notes, the understaffed ATF has no proactive program of gun show enforcement and conducts investigations at only 3.3% of the approximately 2,300 gun shows that occur each year.

    In terms of the social environment at gun shows, Wintemute observed three phenomena that have “significant potential to contribute to firearm violence. These concern: 1) promoting objectification and violence in relationships between men and women, 2) facilitating children’s access to firearms, and 3) endorsing violence as a tool for problem-solving.” Neo-Nazi and Neo-Confederate paraphernalia was common. The Turner Diaries is everywhere,” Wintemute notes, “and Mein Kaumpf can be found next to [John Lott’s] More Guns, Less Crime.”

    At present, 17 states regulate gun shows in some manner. Six regulate all private party gun sales and nine more regulate private party sales of handguns only. Two states regulate private party sales at gun shows only.

    In his study, Wintemute makes three key recommendations to improve existing regulation of firearm commerce. First, he says that law enforcement operations at gun shows must be expanded. “Ideally,” he says, “there would be an enforcement operation at every major event.” He cites California as an example of where such a program has worked, and well. Second, he calls for all private gun sales (not just those at gun shows) to be regulated to prevent prohibited persons from buying guns. “It appears that denial of gun purchases [through background checks] significantly lowers the risk of committing violent and gun-related crimes among the persons who are directly affected,” Wintemute notes. Finally, he calls for voluntary action by promoters and licensed dealers at gun shows to police potentially illegal sales. “Little goes on at a gun show that is not observed by those nearby,” he states.

    You can view the full study along with photographs and videos here.