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February 16, 2009

Deranged Shooters, Legal Handguns

A horrific tragedy occurred last month when a 24 year-old man opened fire with a handgun outside a popular under-21 nightclub in Portland, Oregon. On January 24, Erik S. Ayala drove downtown to The Zone, got out of his car, and began shooting into the crowd gathered outside. He fired 8-10 times before fatally shooting himself. Ayala had taken a tranquilizer prior to the shooting, but otherwise had no alcohol or drugs in his system.

The shooting took the lives of two bright young women: Marta “Tika” Paz de Noboa, 17, a Peruvian exchange student, and Ashley Wilks, a 16-year old high school sophomore. Seven other individuals were injured, including the manager of a nearby restaurant and other foreign exchange students.

Like the shooters in the tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, Erik Ayala had an established and well-known history of mental illness and violent tendencies. In high school, Ayala was identified as a “student of concern.” School officials received an anonymous tip in September 2000 that Ayala had made threats against others and talked about bringing a gun to school. In December of that year, he was hospitalized for attempting suicide by overdosing on over-the-counter pills.

As a result, Ayala was diagnosed with “numerous mental disorders,” including schizophrenia, and received intensive counseling from a team composed of school officials, psychologists, police, county mental health experts, and Oregon Youth Authority officials (which was formed in response to the 1998 Thurston High School shooting in Springfield, Oregon). This treatment was administered during a month-long stay at a Portland mental health facility and continued when Ayala returned to school.

Once Ayala graduated high school in 2002, his treatment ended (in part because he was unable to obtain health care insurance). He worked as a data entry operator for the Oregon Department of Health and Human Services until July 2007, and then part-timed with a temp agency. At the time of the shootings, police say that Ayala was unemployed and battling depression.

Ayala purchased the weapon used in the shooting, an Italian-manufactured EAA Witness 9mm pistol, for about $350 from 99 Pawn & Guns in Milwaukie, Oregon. He visited the pawn shop on January 6 to browse and returned the next day to purchase the handgun, but was told he did not have appropriate identification. Two days later, he returned with an alien resident card and proof of three months residency in the United States in the form of utility bills. Ayala then passed the required instant background check and left the store with his gun later that day.

Despite his history of mental illness and threatening behavior, Ayala appears never to have been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution or declared “mentally defective” by a court of law. He was therefore not prohibited under federal law from purchasing firearms.

That’s not to say that Ayala’s handgun purchase couldn’t have been prevented, however. States such as New York and New Jersey require would-be purchasers to obtain a license/permit before they are allowed to buy handguns. The permitting process involves an actual background investigation where law enforcement officials interview significant figures in the applicant’s life (such as a spouse or relatives) about issues ranging from substance abuse to the applicant’s mental health. Under this process, Ayala would certainly have been denied a permit once authorities spoke with members of his family or local officials.

Commenting on the Portland shooting, Dr. Joseph D. Bloom, professor emeritus at the Oregon Health & Science University Department of Psychiatry, said, "It's all becoming very familiar. A person with recent losses and some history of past difficulties who is depressed and becomes suicidal, and then deliberately purchases a gun with a clear plan in mind to end his life and take out his anger on society by a random shooting event and ends it by taking his own life."

Such tragedies don’t have to be familiar, however, and won’t be for long if our elected officials take the necessary steps to assure that gun purchasers are not a threat to themselves or others.

February 9, 2009

“We believe in absolutely gun-free, zero tolerance, totally safe schools”

In the wake of recent shooting tragedies at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University, there has been a push by the gun lobby to allow concealed carry permit holders to bring handguns onto college campuses. To date, lawmakers in 17 states have considered bills that would prohibit university officials from regulating the possession of firearms on school property. Fortunately, all of these measures have gone down in defeat due to the strong opposition of students, university administrators, and campus law enforcement officials.

During the past six months, two respected organizations, the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA) and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), have released well-researched policy briefs that argue clearly and convincingly against allowing concealed handguns on college campuses.

IACLEA was founded in1958 and is affiliated with the National Association of School Safety and Law Enforcement Officers (NASSLEO) and campus law enforcement organizations in 29 states. In their position paper, “Concealed Carrying of Firearms Proposals on College Campuses,” IACLEA’s Board of Directors states unequivocally that such initiatives will not make campuses safer, pointing out that, “There is no credible statistical evidence demonstrating that laws allowing the carrying of concealed firearms reduce crime. In fact, the evidence suggests that permissive concealed carry laws generally will increase crime.”

The paper also states that, “IACLEA is concerned that concealed carry laws have the potential to dramatically increase violence on college and university campuses that our Members are empowered to protect. Among the concerns with concealed carry laws or policies are: the potential for accidental discharge or misuse of firearms at on-campus or off-campus parties where large numbers of students are gathered or at student gatherings where alcohol or drugs are being consumed, as well as the potential for guns to be used as a means to settle disputes between or among students. There is also a real concern that campus police officers responding to a situation involving an active shooter may not be able to distinguish between the shooter and others with firearms.”

The American Association of State Colleges and Universities—a group devoted to helping to advance public education, economic development and the quality of life at our nation’s universities—has issued a policy brief entitled “Concealed Weapons on State College Campuses: In Pursuit of Individual Liberty and Collective Security.” The brief states that “the vast majority of college administrators, law enforcement personnel and students maintain that allowing concealed weapons on campus will pose increased risks for students and faculty, will not deter future attacks, and will lead to confusion during emergency situations.”

The brief further notes that, “While police are extensively trained to deal with crises, students or university staff with concealed weapons are not trained or integrated into campus security plans. Even with the best of intentions, armed students or employees could escalate an already explosive situation further, accidentally cause harm or use a gun in a situation that is not warranted.”

Once upon a time, even the National Rifle Association recognized the wisdom in keeping schools gun-free. In the aftermath of the Columbine High School shootings, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre addressed the issue in a speech at the 1999 NRA National Convention, stating: “First, we believe in absolutely gun-free, zero tolerance, totally safe schools. That means no guns in America's schools, period, with the rare exception of law enforcement officers or trained security personnel. We believe America's schools should be as safe as America's airports. You can't talk about, much less take, bombs and guns onto airplanes. Such behavior in our schools should be prosecuted just as certainly as such behavior in our airports is prosecuted.”

Great irony can also be found in recent comments by Ken Stanton, the Virginia Tech Campus Leader for Students for Concealed Carry on Campus (SCCC). SCCC believes “there is no pragmatic basis for declaring college campuses off-limits to concealed carry.”

Speaking about Haiyang Zhu, who tragically murdered a fellow Hokie on campus last month, Stanton said, “He wasn’t like [Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho] at all. He’s a very social, outgoing guy. He was just a normal outgoing kind of person like the rest of us. We couldn’t have seen this coming.” Stanton did not make it clear why the behavior of students with concealed carry permits—which now can be obtained through a one-hour online “training” course in Virginia—would be any more predictable.

February 2, 2009

New York's New Senator

Controversy erupted last week when New York Governor David A. Paterson announced U.S. Representative Kirsten Gillibrand as his appointee to fill the Senate seat vacated by now-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Senator Gillibrand, an upstate Democrat from New York’s 20th District, has drawn strong criticism from politicians and advocacy groups in her home state regarding her positions on gun issues. While in the House of Representatives, Senator Gillibrand continually supported legislation to weaken gun regulations and received an ‘A’ grade and 100% rating from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Jackie Hilly, Executive Director of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence, stated that, “It is clear that the public at both the national and state level want reasonable regulations of guns and Kirsten Gillibrand stands outside that mainstream.”

Gillibrand has stated that she is “very pro-Second Amendment” and supports the rights of hunters and sportsmen, but also believes that “gun safety, keeping guns out of the hands of children [and] making sure our guns are the safest in the world” should be goals of lawmakers of both sides of the aisle. Her voting record, however, suggests that she has shown little inclination towards compromise.

Last year, Gillibrand co-sponsored H.R. 4900, the “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Reform and Firearms Modernization Act,” in the House. This NRA-drafted legislation would have made the “Tiahrt Amendment” restrictions on crime gun trace data permanent, allowed law-breaking gun dealers to claim ignorance of the law as a full defense, blocked ATF from modernizing and updating its recordkeeping procedures, and codified the “Fire Sale Loophole” which allows crooked dealers to sell off their inventory without conducting background checks after their federal licenses have been revoked. H.R. 4900 would have effectively gutted law enforcement’s ability to curb the illegal trafficking of firearms across state lines, which occurs on a daily basis in the United States. As a New York representative, you would think Gillibrand would have been familiar with the scope of the problem—in 2007, 70% of New York’s crime guns were trafficked in illegally from outside states.

In 2008, Gillibrand also co-sponsored H.R. 6691, the “Second Amendment Enforcement Act.” This NRA-drafted bill would have repealed the District of Columbia’s registration requirement for handguns, legalized semiautomatic assault weapons, allowed individuals who have been voluntarily committed to psychiatric institutions within the last five years to own firearms, and prohibited the D.C. Council from enacting any gun-related legislation in the future. Most disturbingly, H.R. 6691 would have allowed individuals to openly carry loaded rifles and assault weapons on D.C.’s streets. Gillibrand has frequently stated that “hunting rights” are very important to her. After two years of living in the District of Columbia, you would think she would be aware that the only thing hunted in the city is human beings.

Due to Gillibrand’s strong pro-NRA stance, New York Representative Carolyn McCarthy has promised to challenge the new Senator in the 2010 Democratic Senate Primary. Rep. McCarthy has long advocated for stronger gun laws, having lost her husband in the 1993 Long Island Rail Road shooting massacre. To her credit, Senator Gillibrand has been gracious to her colleague, and even offered to work on Rep. McCarthy’s “signature bill,” the “NICS Improvement Act.” This bill was initially drafted to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to prevent individuals disqualified under federal law from purchasing firearms. However, the NRA was allowed to rewrite the bill during the 11th hour to include provisions that would restore gun-purchasing rights to veterans who have been deemed mentally incompetent by the VA. Time will tell if this was a serious offer by Senator Gillibrand to work to improve our background check system (which lacks millions of mental health records that would disqualify purchasers), or yet another attempt to appease the gun lobby.

Senator Gillibrand replaces a legislator with a strong history of support for gun control measures. Hillary Clinton made repeated efforts during her days as First Lady and Senator to reduce gun violence. While running for president, Senator Clinton advocated reinstating the federal Assault Weapons Ban, repealing the Tiahrt Amendment and closing the Gun Show Loophole that allows individuals to buy guns from private sellers without a background check. Senator Gillibrand’s views on gun control appear to stand diametrically opposed to those of her predecessor.

Despite her past record, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence is eager to work with Senator Gillibrand and educate her about the problem of gun violence in New York and the country as a whole. Like Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY), we hope that Senator Gillibrand’s views will “evolve” and that she will represent all of her constituents—statewide—during her time on Capitol Hill.