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June 22, 2009

The Myth of the "Black Market"

The cities of Washington, D.C. and Chicago have been under siege in recent months by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which is attempting to overturn gun laws in both jurisdictions.

The NRA’s battle with Chicago has been in the courts, where the gun lobby is seeking to have the Supreme Court’s Second Amendment ruling in the case of D.C. V. Heller incorporated at the state level. This would have the practical effort of repealing Chicago’s handgun ban. After the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the NRA’s lawsuit, it appears headed to the Supreme Court on appeal.

D.C. v. Heller, of course, already repealed the District of Columbia’s handgun ban, but the Supreme Court’s ruling did not go far enough for the NRA. They are now seeking to have the city’s new, constitutional gun laws repealed through an amendment that was initially attached to the “D.C. House Voting Rights Act” by Senator John Ensign (R-NV). That bill has yet to be considered by the House of Representatives, and the amendment’s next likely target is the D.C. appropriations bill, which Congress will likely take up this summer.

Time and time again, the NRA has blamed violence in the two cities on their tough laws, despite evidence that shows that criminals are totally unable to acquire firearms inside Chicago and Washington. So why is it so easy for criminals and gun traffickers to get firearms outside the borders of cities? A fascinating new essay by David Kairys, a professor of Law at Temple University, provides some answers.

The essay, entitled “Why are Handguns So Accessible on Urban Streets?” is a chapter in the new book Against the Wall: Poor, Young, Black and Male. Kairys argues that we need to avoid a “pervasive acceptance and strange sense that the extraordinary level of death and killing is a normal or inevitable aspect of life in urban America,” and that only after understanding why guns are so readily available in cities can we begin to correct the problem.

Kairys explains that “the market makes new handguns so easily available—often for less than one hundred dollars new, right out of the box—that it makes no sense to steal one.” In fact, “anyone who does not have a record can go to a licensed gun store in most states, legally buy as many handguns as he or she wants, and walk out the door with them.” Kairys also points out that there are no “meaningful limits on the resale of handguns,” because private individuals, unlike federally licensed gun dealers, are not required to run Brady background checks on purchasers.

In Kairys’ words: “The bottom line is this. Under federal law and the law of most states, any person so inclined can buy huge quantities of cheap, easily concealed handguns and sell them to others indiscriminately, often without violating any law and usually without having to worry about getting arrested, prosecuted or convicted. Nor are the identities of owners of handguns, or the persons to whom they transfer ownership, registered or maintained by government, unless state law so provides—and most do not.” Capitalizing on this weak regulation, gun manufacturers produce “more guns than could be sold to law-abiding people,” knowing full well their product will be distributed to criminals and other prohibited purchasers downstream.

So what can we do to address this problem? Kairys advocates for registering handguns and licensing handgun owners; adopting strong, clear and specific “straw purchase” laws that make all of the parties to a straw purpose criminally and civilly responsible; limiting multiple purchases of handguns in a given period; and providing large urban areas with the authority to regulate handguns within their borders. All of these measures would help to reduce the flow of handguns to criminals on America’s streets.

But most importantly, we must learn to overcome our own misconceptions of the problem. As Kairys writes, “the common image of an underground, illegal market is largely fictional.” The ability of dangerous people to easily obtain guns is the result of our weak gun laws, which do little to regulate the firearms industry. The good news? Significant progress can be made in reducing gun violence as soon as our elected officials are made to realize that “the loss of life, the economic and social costs, and the undermining of the safety and the quality of life in America are unacceptable.”

June 15, 2009

“Those types of weapons ... They’re pretty powerful.”

The National Rifle Association (NRA) has long claimed that assault weapons are no more dangerous than any other type of rifle, stating: “In the mid-1980s, gun control groups invented the slang term ‘assault weapon’ and applied it to certain semi-automatic firearms which, though designed for civilian use, look like modern fully-automatic assault rifles used by the military.” That view contrasts sharply with that of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), which apparently speaks in slang: “Assault weapons were designed for rapid fire, close quarter shooting at human beings. That is why they were put together the way they were. You will not find these guns in a duck blind or at the Olympics. They are mass produced mayhem.”

The expiration of the federal Assault Weapons Ban in September 2004 has led to real violence in our country, as we have seen in a series of disturbing shootings this year. Sadly, it is our nation’s law enforcement officers who are often caught in the crosshairs of these weapons. Just ask Officer Sean Fleming of the Chesapeake Police Department.

On June 1, Fleming was on his way home from the Department’s third precinct when he responded to a call of shots fired near Interstate 64. He arrived at the scene in his green Jeep Wrangler and immediately met an onslaught of bullets fired by Christopher White, who hours earlier had assisted in the abduction of Tione Vincent, 30, off of East Liberty Street in Norfolk, Virginia.

White jumped out a van and opened fire on Fleming with a semiautomatic AK-47 assault rifle. In the resulting firefight, Fleming was shot four times. The gunfire also blew out two of the Jeep’s tires, shattered its front headlights and left 12 bullets holes in the front windshield. Police believe that two rounds went through the metal of Fleming’s car before piercing his bullet-proof vest—a demonstration of the power of the AK-47. All told, White fired approximately 30 rounds at the Jeep in a matter of seconds.

As Chesapeake Police Major T.D. Branch noted, “Those types of weapons, depending on what kind of rounds, typically penetrate metal. They’re pretty powerful.”

Additional officers arrived on the scene quickly and gave chase to White and his fellow captors, who fled the scene. In a firefight that ensued, White was killed and two other suspects were arrested. Sadly, Tione Vincent was found dead in the back of the van, apparently killed before police arrived.

Thankfully, Officer Fleming survived his injuries after being airlifted to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital and is now recovering. It is also a credit to law enforcement that no civilians were injured given that the shootout occurred in a busy intersection near rush hour.

As of June 11, the Chesapeake Police Department was still attempting to determine how White acquired the AK-47 used in the shooting. Before this incident, White was wanted in Norfolk on a series of charges including robbery, conspiracy and failure to appear in court—and as a fugitive from justice would have been banned under federal law from purchasing or owning firearms. It is possible that he acquired the weapon through an unregulated private sale in Virginia. Such sales do not require sellers to conduct background checks or maintain records of sale.

The NRA justifies its support for the legalization of assault weapons by stating that “self-defense is the primary purpose of the right to keep and bear arms.” After a series of assault weapon shootings this year targeting police, perhaps the best response to this question is: Defense against whom?

June 8, 2009

Anarchy and Vigilantism

On May 31, Americans across the country were shocked to learn that Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, had been shot and killed in the foyer of Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, Kansas. Just three hours after the shooting, authorities apprehended a suspect—Scott P. Roeder of Merriam, Kansas—on Interstate 35.

Initial reporting on the case linked the murder to Roeder’s extensive history as a pro-life activist. One Kansas City pro-life protestor, Regina Dinwiddie, commented that Roeder, “believed in justifiable homicide. I know he very strongly believed that abortion was murder and that you ought to defend the little ones, both born and unborn.” A September 3, 2007, post from a “Scott Roeder” on the website www.chargetiller.com reads as follows: “It seems as though what is happening in Kansas could be compared to the ‘lawlessness’ which is spoken of in the Bible. Tiller is the concentration camp ‘Mengele’ of our day and needs to be stopped before he and those who protect him bring judgment upon our nation.”

Subsequent investigation, however, revealed that Roeder’s ties to right wing extremist groups were far more extensive. In the words of Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman, Roeder’s “extremism cross-pollinated between anti-government extremism and anti-abortion activism.”

In April 1996, Roeder was pulled over in Topeka, Kansas, for driving with a homemade license plate. Police found a military-style rifle, ammunition, a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a one-pound can of gunpowder, and two 9-volt batteries in his car. He was subsequently convicted on one count of criminal use of explosives and several driving-related misdemeanors, and ordered to stop associating with violent anti-government groups. The convictions were overturned on appeal a year later, however, after a court determined that the evidence was illegally gathered.

At the time, the FBI listed Roeder as a member of the Montana Freemen, a radical anti-government group. From March-June 1996, the group engaged in an armed standoff with FBI agents who were attempting to serve warrants at their compound. Federal prosecutors had alleged that Freemen members wrote worthless checks and money orders to pay taxes and to defraud banks and credit card companies. Though no shots were fired, the heavily-armed Freemen remained in their Jordan, Montana, compound for 81 days before allowing the FBI to enter. Several of the group’s members were subsequently convicted on a range of charges.

This information suggests that Roeder’s killing of Dr. Tiller could be the latest manifestation of the Department of Homeland Security’s warning that, “the combination of environmental factors that echo the 1990s, including heightened interest in legislation for tighter firearms restrictions and returning military veterans, as well as several new trends, including an uncertain economy and a perceived rising influence of other countries, may be invigorating rightwing extremist activity, specifically the white supremacist and militia movements.” One cannot ignore the parallels between Roeder and right-wing extremists like Neo-Nazi Richard Poplawski, who killed three police officers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in April; Joshua Cartwright, who killed two police officers in the Florida panhandle in April; and Jim Adkisson, who killed two parishioners at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church in July 2008.

It is unclear at this point what type of gun Roeder used in the shooting or how he acquired it. Because Roeder’s felony conviction for criminal use of explosives was thrown out in the late 1990s, that would not have stopped him from passing a criminal background check. During a custody battle over a girl Roeder claimed was his daughter, a 2005 court ruling noted that Roeder had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and did not take medication, "which may pose a clear and present danger to the minor child." Had Roeder been adjudicated “mentally defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution, he would have been prohibited under federal law from purchasing or owning firearms.

Though the shooting of Dr. Tiller has obvious religious overtones due to Roeder’s pro-life activism, it is also clear that Roeder felt that violence was an appropriate way to oppose what he viewed as an illegitimate government that refused to ban abortion. Such insurrectionist beliefs pose a direct threat to any constitutional democracy, a fact recently noted by conservative FOX commentator Bill O’Reilly, who said, “Anarchy and vigilantism will assure the collapse of any society. Once the rule of law breaks down, a country is finished. Thus, clear-thinking Americans should condemn the murder of late-term abortionist Tiller. Even though the man terminated thousands of pregnancies, what he did is within Kansas law.”