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January 19, 2009

Advocates Determined to Close Gun Show Loophole in Commonwealth

On January 13, staff from the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence was honored to join victims and survivors from the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech; concerned students from Longwood University; and representatives from Protest Easy Guns, the Virginia Chapters of the Million Mom March, the Virginia Center for Public Safety, and Students for Gun Free Schools as they attended a hearing of the Virginia State Crime Commission in Richmond.

The Crime Commission was scheduled to make a recommendation to the Virginia General Assembly on the Gun Show Loophole issue. The loophole allows individuals to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting criminal background checks on purchasers. The ATF has identified gun shows as the second leading source of illegally trafficked firearms in the United States, stating that “prohibited persons, such as convicted felons and juveniles, do personally buy firearms at gun shows and gun shows are sources of firearms that are trafficked to such prohibited persons … Firearms [are] diverted at and through gun shows by straw purchasers, unregulated private sellers, and licensed dealers.” An ATF investigation in Virginia found that between 2002 and 2005 more than 400 firearms sold at Richmond-area gun shows were recovered in connection with criminal activity.

The Virginia Tech Review Panel, the Virginia State Police, and an overwhelming majority of Commonwealth residents have called for the loophole to be closed. Omar Samaha, brother of Virginia Tech victim Reema Samaha, also made it clear to the Crime Commission how easy it was for him to buy handguns and assault weapons at a recent Virginia gun show from private sellers—no questions asked. “It’s like going to the store to buy a jug of milk or a candy bar,” Samaha said. “I had 10 guns in under an hour.”

Unfortunately, the Crime Commission failed to heed these recommendations, and deadlocked 6-6 on a vote to recommend that the Gun Shop Loophole be closed. The key vote was cast by House Minority Leader Delegate Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry), who had joined the commission only days earlier. He claimed his NO vote was because of the high unemployment rate in his district, and the importance of the annual Carroll County Gun Show. This logic was not immediately clear—background checks are inexpensive and gun shows continue to thrive in states that have closed the Gun Show Loophole, such as California. Armstrong also complained about not being well briefed on the issue, but decided to vote NO anyway even after Commission Chairman David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) recommended he abstain.

Gun violence prevention advocates were undeterred, and gathered by the Bell Tower on the State Capitol grounds immediately after the Commission hearing to conduct a Lie-In in remembrance of past victims of gun violence. Courtney Edwards, a Longwood student who lost her best friend, Nicole White, during the Virginia Tech tragedy, spoke and said, “I can't believe that they are even questioning this. I don't even understand what the question is about it." Nicole’s father, Mike White, was more blunt: “Indecision is what caused the murder of my child,” he said. “Indecision today is what will cause convicted felons, [the] mentally ill and others to walk into the next gun show and purchase a weapon in order to wreak more harm.”

The issue will now move to the Virginia General Assembly, where Senator Henry Marsh (D-Richmond) and Senator Janet Howell (D-Reston) have already introduced legislation, SB 1257, to close the Gun Show Loophole.

Advocates are committed to passing the legislation and ready for a tough fight. “I don’t care if it takes a decade,” said Lily Habtu, who was shot multiple times at Virginia Tech but survived. “No one should have to go through what I went through.” Omar Samaha agrees. “We are going to keep going until this law is changed,” he said.

January 12, 2009

Microstamping Proves its Worth...Again

For years, law enforcement has been stymied by an inability to draw significant leads from ballistic evidence recovered at crime scenes. When a crime gun is not physically recovered at a crime scene, investigators receive return hits from bullet and cartridge evidence entered into the National Integrated Ballistic Information Network only 1.5% of the time. In many cases, these “hits” are only matches to cartridges found at other crimes scenes—letting investigators know that the firearm has been used in another crime without actually identifying the weapon. The national “clearance” rate for homicide cases in 2005 was only 62%.

Thankfully, “microstamping” technology has been developed to address this problem. Microstamping utilizes lasers to make precise, microscopic engravings on the internal mechanisms of a handgun, such as the breech face and firing pin. As the gun is fired, information identifying the make, model and serial number of the gun is stamped onto the cartridge as alphanumeric and geometric codes. The technology allows law enforcement to trace firearms directly through cartridge casings found at crime scenes, without any need to recover the crime gun itself.

Seeking to avoid reform at all costs, the gun lobby has repeatedly attacked microstamping technology as unproven and unreliable. A recent test of the technology, however, has once again discredited that claim.

Microstamping’s co-inventors, Todd Lizotte and Orest Ohar, presented a research paper at the SPIE Optics & Technology Conference in San Diego in August 2008 covering the testing of a .45 Cal Colt 1991 A1 Commander semiautomatic pistol. This represented the first peer-reviewed publication of fully optimized and current state-of-the-art microstamping technology as applied to firearms.

During the stress test, Lizotte and Ohar fired 1,500 rounds from the Colt handgun. This firearm was purchased as a used model and equipped with microstamping technology. Using simple Optical Microscopy, Lizotte and Ohar achieved identifiable marks from the Colt’s expended cartridges over 95% of the time. The rounds were fired consecutively and each cartridge was collected and meticulously catalogued, allowing future researchers to review the evidence for themselves.

This followed a previous test in May 2007 that demonstrated the endurance and durability of the technology. During that test, Lizotte and Ohar fired over 2,500 rounds from a microstamped Smith and Wesson .40 caliber semiautomatic handgun using five different brands of ammunition. Microstamped markings from the firing pin were transferred successfully 97% of the time using both Optical Microscopy and Scanning Electron Microscopy. Additionally, breech face markings transferred to cartridge casings 96% of the time.

These tests demonstrate the viability of microstamping under even the most extreme conditions, but very rarely are handguns fired thousands of times before being used in crimes. A 2000 ATF study found that semiautomatic handguns have the shortest median “time-to-crime” of any firearm type, 4.5 years. This marks the length of time from a firearm’s first retail sale to its recovery by law enforcement as a crime gun. Furthermore, Joe Vince, a former Chief of ATF’s Crime Gun Analysis Branch, has noted that crime guns are frequently recovered with fewer than 20 rounds fired.

In October 2007, California became the first state to enact a microstamping law for semiautomatic handguns. Several other states, and the District of Columbia, are now considering microstamping legislation, and microstamping bills have been introduced at the federal level in both the House of Representatives and Senate. Lizotte and Ohar are also promoting the technology’s application for border security (more than 90% of illegal firearms seized in Mexico come from the United States) and counterinsurgency/counterterrorism in war zones.

For more information, visit the Microstamping Technology Exchange blog and read CSGV’s “Microstamping Technology: Precise and Proven” memo.

January 5, 2009

“I still see the faces of the people…that died that day…”

Here at Bullet Counter Points we like to highlight the exceptional work that everyday Ameri Today we focus on the victim of a horrible shooting tragedy that has turned his grief and trauma into a determination to help others.

On the evening of February 7, 2008, Todd Smith, a reporter for the Kirkwood-Webster Journal, was covering a city council meeting at Kirkwood City Hall in Missouri. Just after the meeting began, Charles Lee "Cookie" Thornton—a local resident who had been embroiled in a long running property dispute with the City of Kirkwood—entered the chambers and opened fire with two handguns, a .44 Magnum revolver and a .40 caliber handgun (the latter of which had been taken from a police officer Thornton killed in the parking lot outside the meeting). Before he was stopped by police, Thornton killed a total of five people (two police officers, two city council members, and Kirkwood’s public works director) and wounded two others. One of the wounded was Kirkwood Mayor Mike Swoboda, who would finally succumb to his head injuries and pass away seven months later. Also wounded was Todd, who was seated in the front row at the meeting and shot in the hand. He told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “[Thornton] was completely possessed … He looked at me directly and I felt complete rage.”

Like most of those present at the meeting that night, Todd was familiar with Thornton and his grievances. “I had seen him before at other city council meetings, and on one occasion he decided to speak at a council meeting and I decided to ask him what his issues were,” he recalls. “I had trouble understanding him and what he was wanting—he seemed angry and I had just started on Kirkwood beat and did not know his whole history. Even at this particular meeting he was somewhat incoherent and erratic and wearing a sign on his body in protest of the Kirkwood City Council.”

Sadly, this was not the first time Todd had been a victim of gun violence. He describes another traumatic incident that occurred more than a decade earlier:

“I had moved to New Castle, Delaware. A few days after July 4, 1997, I went to a nearby 7-Eleven around 9:00 p.m. I purchased a soda and was walking through a shopping center when two teenagers came up behind me with guns in their hands. They asked for money. I ran, and one of them shot at me. They ran away. I kept walking, but noticed there was blood coming from the back of my leg. I made it to a gas station that was across the street. I told the clerk to call 911. A guy getting gas noticed me sitting down in front of the gas station and took off his shirt and it was used as a tourniquet to stop my bleeding. I never saw this man again, and wish I had the chance to thank him. About 30 minutes after the shooting, an ambulance arrived on the scene and took me to a nearby hospital. A doctor came to see me and studied the wound and decided to pull the bullet out. He did numb the area, but I remember it being a painful process. I was in the hospital for three days before being released. The African-American teenagers that committed the act were never found. A police officer did come by once, I looked at pictures, but it was hard to tell who it was. I only saw them briefly, it was dark out, and their faces were partially covered.”

Todd’s recovery from these violent episodes has been difficult. The injuries he sustained in the Kirkwood shooting required two surgeries, the second of which involved a joint replacement. “I will never fully recover from this incident,” he says. “Emotionally, I have come a long way, but have a ways to go. I still have a fear of being alone at night and have fears of being in a setting with a large group of people.”

Despite the trauma he has been through, however, Todd wants to create something positive from his experience. “I feel the need to be a spokesperson on gun control,” he says. “The victims in Kirkwood were expecting to leave the meeting to go home and be with their families, like any other night. Instead, they never had a chance to say goodbye to their loved ones. I think there is something to be said about stronger gun control measures so people can go on living with the people they care about.”

Todd notes, “I am not against guns. I grew up around guns. I lived in a rural area, where people hunted and worked at a gun club. I would not like to see people’s right to have a gun taken away. I just believe in properly screening those who want to purchase guns, and developing ways to identify guns so that we know where they came from and where they were originally purchased.”

He has contacted the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and become involved in their Program for Victims and Survivors. Todd will take part in legislative advocacy efforts at the federal and state level, and reach out to other journalists to educate them about gun violence prevention.

Still, some memories do not go away easily. “I still see the faces of the people that were friends of mine that died that day in Kirkwood,” Todd says. “One did her best to help people like Thornton. She worked to make sure that the council considered the views of constituents so their concerns were always heard and represented. I also will never forget Kirkwood Police Officer Tom Ballman. He stood up when Thornton pulled out his guns and in that instant he was killed. This image will haunt me for the rest of my life.

“The instantaneous ending of a human life—which guns allow for—should not be allowed.”