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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.