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March 23, 2009

“I want to look in the eyes of our children and promise them that they will be safe.”

A new article from the April 2009 edition of the National Rifle Association’s flagship magazine, America’s First Freedom, demonstrates the gun lobby group’s unerring capacity to smear anyone who stands in their way, no matter how sensible and well-intentioned their views. The piece, entitled “Arne Duncan: Education at the Extremez,” is a scathing attack on the new Secretary of Education, whom author David Kopel describes as “the most extreme anti-gun member of President Barack Obama’s Cabinet.”

What did Arne Duncan do to make the NRA so steamed? For starters, he was selected to receive a 2008 “Abraham Lincoln Award” from the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence (ICHV), a group that “advocates for policies designed to minimize the impact gun violence has on Illinois residents.” The award honors “individuals who have shown great political and personal courage in the fight to reduce gun violence …. [The award is] named for an Illinoisan who had the courage and conviction to work for change in our society. Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents, but tragically was a victim of gun violence.” Past ICHV Lincoln Award honorees have included mayors, members of the Illinois legislature, members of the U.S. Congress, and a U.S. President.

ICHV was recognizing Duncan, then the Superintendent of Chicago Public Schools, as “a longstanding proponent of reducing gun violence,” and as a public servant who “work[ed] within the Chicago school system to help make schools and communities safer for students and their families.”

Duncan’s second sin, in the NRA’s eyes, was to state that it is an “undeniable fact that guns and kids don’t mix” at the ICHV Awards Ceremony that year. One would think that is simple common sense, but the NRA quickly portrayed the statement as “an attack on the Scholastic Clays Target Program, gun clubs with small-bore shooting teams for teenagers, and parents who take their children hunting.”

Duncan likely had a different type of hunting on his mind—during the 2007-08 school year, a record 34 Chicago Public School students were killed, the overwhelming majority with firearms. It was for this reason that Duncan refused to accept ICAHV’s Lincoln Award that evening, saying:

"I wish we could stand here today and declare victory over gun violence ... I want to look in the eyes of our children and promise them that they will be safe—and that their only concern is whether they did their homework, not whether they can walk to school. I wish we could preserve their innocence long enough to foster a love of learning instead of a fear of death. I wish that our society valued children more than it values violent rituals and traditions that might have been at home in a frontier society two centuries ago but make absolutely no sense today. I wish for all of these things—but none of them are yet true ... And so, while I am deeply honored to be here...I cannot accept your award. I don’t feel I have earned it. I don’t feel any of us have earned it. Instead I would ask us all to remember the horror and tragedy of children who live with death every day. I would ask us all to renew our commitment to reducing gun violence.”

While Duncan spoke that night about youth who had recently been killed in Chicago, the problem is certainly not limited to the state of Illinois. The NRA is apparently unaware of—or simply doesn’t care about—a series of gruesome shootings involving children that have occurred in the five months since Duncan attended the ICHV awards ceremony, including the following incidents:

11-Year-Old Boy Kills Future Stepmother, Brother
Ohio Teen Convicted of Killing Mom Over Video Game
Angry Ohio Boy, 4, Shoots Baby Sitter
Brother Shot Girl in the Chest
12-year-old Arizona Boy Guilty in Mom’s Shooting
Boy, 8, Shot to Death in Massachusetts Gun Show Accident
Boy, 8, Admits Shooting Dad, Neighbor in Video
Father's Gunshot Kills Boy, 12
10 Year Old Killed, Brother and Father Charged
Real Gun Mistaken for a Toy; Girl Shoots Brother

In the America’s First Freedom article, author Kopel also expresses outrage that Duncan spoke at a protest outside Chuck’s Gun Shop in Riverdale, Illinois, on May 26, 2007. For those not familiar with Chuck’s Gun Shop, it is the leading supplier of firearms to criminals among all federally licensed gun dealers in America. From 1996-2000, 2,370 guns were traced from crime scenes to the store (to put that in perspective, only five other dealers in the entire country had more than 1,000 guns traced to crime during this period). Chuck’s sits in a suburb directly outside Chicago. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) has confirmed that most of Chicago’s crime guns come from dealers in-state (“We are our own worst enemies as a dealer state,” said ATF agent Thomas Ahern of the Chicago Field Division). Criminals go outside Chicago to make purchases because the city’s gun laws have made it virtually impossible for them to get firearms there.

Interestingly, Kopel spends almost half the article commenting on an inappropriate and ill-advised remark that Chicago Pastor Michael Pfleger made at the protest, in a weak attempt to guilt Duncan by association. He curiously fails to identify others who spoke that day, like Annette Holt, the mother of a 16-year-old who was shot and killed on a Chicago Transit Authority bus days before the event as he heroically tried to save another patron. Perhaps a grieving mother like Holt, whose organization Purpose Over Pain supports a wide range of state and federal gun control measures, simply isn’t as convenient a target.

And the NRA might have another motive in defending Chuck’s Gun Shop. In 2006, the store won the NRA’s Dealer Recruiter of the Year Award for getting the most patrons to join the organization.

Americans like Arne Duncan who care deeply about the disproportionate toll that gun violence is taking on children in this country and want to do something about it? The only place they’re “extreme” is in the eyes of the National Rifle Association.

March 9, 2009

Sensible Second Thoughts

Last week, Bullet Counter Points commented on a controversial amendment to the Senate version of the D.C. voting rights bill (“A Dangerous Gambit”). Now, the legislation has been put on temporary hold as D.C. officials contemplate the price they are willing to pay for a vote in the House of Representatives.

On February 26, the Senate approved a version of the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” with an amendment drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The Ensign Amendment, sponsored by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), would repeal the District of Columbia’s new gun laws entirely and prohibit the D.C. Council from enacting any law in the future that would “unduly burden the ability of persons” to obtain and possess firearms. None of these changes to District’s gun laws were called for in the recent District of Columbia v. Heller ruling by the Supreme Court. Commenting on the Senate’s passage of the amendment, Dennis Hennigan, Legal Director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said, “It was a craven political decision to put at risk…this community in order to curry favor with the gun lobby. That’s all that was.”

After the Senate vote, there was a tremendous outcry in the District over the Ensign Amendment. One D.C. resident who published a letter in the Washington Post summed up the fears of many of her fellow Washingtonians: “If this amendment becomes law, it would make me frightened to work and live in a city that has been my home for thirteen years.” Meanwhile, there was a great deal of uncertainty as to how the Democratic Leadership in the House would produce a clean version of the bill free of any gun amendments.

Concerned that there was no clear strategy to overcome the gun lobby’s anti-democratic campaign, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence sprang into action. We alerted D.C. residents to the danger posed to public safety by the Ensign Amendment and urged them to contact D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. On March 3, we conducted a press conference along with the D.C. Council and the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence on the steps of the District Government Building. At the event, D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray announced a unanimously-approved council resolution that reads: "The United States Congress must not adopt any amendment to the District of Columbia Voting Rights Act that restricts the District Government’s ability to legislate the regulation of firearms." The Chairman of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary, Phil Mendelson, spoke and said, “To deny us a vote on an issue as fundamental as guns is wrong and it is reckless. It is reckless because not only would we not be able to respond to incidents of gun violence or suggestions on how to deal with gun violence, but what the Senate has done would significantly—significantly—weaken the laws regarding guns in the District.” Council Member Mary Cheh questioned whether D.C. officials should continue to support the voting rights bill if it meant the city would have to loosen its firearms regulations, saying, "To make us swallow this without objection…we're just lying down, just like always. What have we won?"

Within an hour of the press conference’s conclusion, the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” was pulled from consideration in the House. House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) explained that he did not have enough votes to bring the bill to the floor without the possibility of amendments. The rumor had spread on Capitol Hill that the NRA would be grading procedural votes on the legislation and House Democrats from conservative and rural districts took notice. Delegate Norton accused them of “reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to the NRA,” and stated that they were “doing something to kill a basic civil rights bill.”

D.C. voting rights advocates are now scrambling to lobby a group of 60+ “Blue Dog” Democrats in the House to “size up who [is] genuinely at risk” of repercussions from the NRA and to find out why these Representatives object to the District’s current gun laws. House Democratic Leaders believe they can pass a clean bill in that chamber if they secure 28 more votes in favor of blocking all amendments.

This is hard, man,” said Delegate Norton, commenting on the lobbying effort. Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Josh Horwitz put it a different way: "There are no easy answers here ... I don't think it's...done in the House yet, but it will take a lot of creative thinking." Even if a voting rights bill does clear the House free of gun amendments, a final version of the legislation would have to be approved in a House-Senate Conference, and there is no guarantee the Ensign Amendment would be stripped out during such negotiations.

There’s no doubt that legislation to grant voting representation to the District is long overdue. Washingtonians should not be forced to choose democracy over their own safety, however. As D.C. Council Chairman Gray recently noted, the Ensign Amendment is “extremely offensive” to the very principle upon which the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” rests: self-determination. Hopefully, Democrats at both the federal and local level will take Gray’s assertion to heart in the crucial days ahead.

March 2, 2009

A Dangerous Gambit

District of Columbia residents have been rightfully excited this year about the prospects of finally gaining voting representation in the U.S. Congress. After the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” passed the House in 2007 and came tantalizing close in the Senate, the stage seemed set for victory with the election of President Barack Obama, who has stated openly he will sign the legislation if it comes to his desk. Bipartisan and vote-neutral, the Act pairs a seat for the traditionally Democratic District with an additional seat for Republican-leaning Utah (the next state eligible for a seat based on U.S. Census numbers).

What should have been a day of celebration last Thursday turned into a nightmare for the District, however, when the Senate approved its version of the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” S. 160, with an amendment drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA).

The Ensign Amendment, sponsored by Senator John Ensign (R-NV), would gut the District of Columbia’s new gun laws entirely. D.C.’s firearm registration system would be eliminated, assault weapons and high-capacity magazines would be legalized, federal anti-trafficking laws would be rolled back so that District residents could buy guns across state lines in MD and VA (without any oversight by D.C. authorities), and the D.C. Council would be prohibited from enacting any law in the future that might “unduly burden the ability of persons” to obtain and possess firearms. None of these changes to D.C.’s gun laws were called for in the recent District of Columbia v. Heller ruling by the Supreme Court.

Speaking of the amendment, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said, "It's reckless; it's irresponsible; it will lead to more violence." The D.C. Council was equally blunt in its assessment. "The Senate action is of huge concern," said Phil Mendelson, Chairman of the council's Public Safety and Judiciary Committee. "It strips our authority. The irony here is that on one hand they vote to give us voting representation, but on the other hand they strip any local representation in regards to our gun laws."

The amendment passed the Senate on a vote of 62-36 with the support of 22 Democrats. Asked to explain the vote count, Senator Ensign (who appears to be the NRA’s new point man in the Senate with the retirement of Idaho Senator Larry Craig) said, “People are afraid.” Norman J. Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, concurred with this assessment, noting, "people don't want to vote against the National Rifle Association."

Democrats who voted for the Ensign Amendment noted that they were not pressured by their leadership in the Senate to vote NO (Senator Majority Leader Harry Reid himself was a YES vote). It also appears that D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty and Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, through their deafening silence on Thursday, signaled to Democrats that they could vote as they wished on the amendment as long as voted YES on S. 160. Delegate Norton failed to even mention the passage of the Ensign Amendment in her press release after the Senate votes, referring only obliquely to “tough anti-home rule battles.” This was in direct contrast to the action of D.C. Council members, who sent a sharply-worded letter to Senators on Thursday describing the amendment as a poison pill.

It would seem that Mayor Fenty and Delegate Norton are banking on the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” gaining approval from the House of Representatives this week without any gun amendments attached. But even though House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) has branded the Ensign Amendment "inappropriate and wrong," saying, "I hope it won't be in the final product," that outcome is far from certain. In fact, just this past September, 266 House Members voted to pass H.R. 6842, a bill that was nearly identical to the Ensign Amendment.

And even if the "D.C. House Voting Rights Act" is approved by the House without a gun amendment attached, it still has to go to a House-Senate Conference. The conference could elect to include, or not include, the Ensign Amendment. As one unnamed aide on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee noted, "There's a lot of behind-the-scenes things that could happen."

Finally, it should be stated that the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” is certain to draw a constitutional challenge in the courts. What would happen if the bill was signed into law with the Ensign Amendment language attached only to have its congressional representation provisions struck down shortly thereafter? At that point, D.C. residents would see their democratic aspirations vanish along with their gun laws.

A single voting representative in the House is not worth the price of increased gun violence in the District. D.C. residents have a basic right to self-determination, and that is what the "D.C. House Voting Rights Act" is supposed to stand for. Should the bill, burdened with the Ensign Amendment, come up for final passage in the House, Mayor Fenty, Delegate Norton and the Democratic leadership must end their risky venture and kill the bill.