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December 20, 2010

Virginia's "Phantom Menace"

An all-too-common argument voiced by opponents of sensible gun legislation is the false claim that there is no such thing as the Gun Show Loophole. The loophole, of course, refers to the fact that private individuals who are “not engaged in the business of dealing” firearms can sell guns at gun shows to purchasers without conducting background checks or maintaining any records of sale.

Recently, those who would dismiss the danger of totally unregulated gun sales have been vocal in the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the Gun Show Loophole remains a hot issue.

For starters, Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist Bart Hinkle published an editorial on December 5 where he attacked “the so-called ‘gun-show loophole.’” He referred to a 1997 survey in claiming that only 1 or 2 percent of offenders obtain their weapons from gun shows. That survey, however, was based on the personal statements of convicted criminals and made no attempt to investigate the veracity of their claims or identify, confirm, and trace the crime guns they reported. Hinkle also claimed that “private, person-to-person sales is not limited to gun shows, so calling it a ‘gun-show’ loophole is disingenuous.” If you want to strictly talk semantics, Hinkle is right. Private sellers can also sell guns without any oversight through newspaper classified ads, over the internet, across a kitchen table, or even on a street corner. But does Hinkle think that is supposed to make Virginians feel safer?

Thankfully, Andrew Goddard—whose son Colin was shot four times during the Virginia Tech tragedy and survived—was on hand to respond to Hinkle’s column. In a December 10 letter to the Virginian-Pilot, he pointed out that in 2009, “the [Virginia] State Police arrested 68 people attempting to buy guns at Virginia gun shows who were ineligible” to purchase firearms under federal and state law. Goddard continued: “These were people who knowingly attempted to buy traceable guns from licensed dealers and voluntarily submitted to a background check. Hinkle would have us believe the ludicrous idea that no ineligible buyers went to the tables of unlicensed sellers nearby and bought identical but untraceable guns that they knew were being sold 'cash and carry' with no questions asked.”

The next denial came from Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell on December 13. In a report by a New York affiliate of ABC News, reporter Jim Hoffer confronted the governor about the Gun Show Loophole. When asked about why the loophole has been left open in Virginia, McDonnell replied, “It’s not open.” When told that individuals could indeed purchase firearms in Virginia without undergoing a background check, McDonnell replied, “Well, not at a gun show.”

Hoffer had a surprise for McDonnell, however, informing him: “We’ve witnessed [it] firsthand. We’ve gone to a Roanoke Gun Show just a few weeks ago and saw how easy it is for anyone, including a criminal if they wanted to, to buy a gun and not have a question asked, not even asked about their name.”

Hoffer was referring to a brand new undercover video he filmed with Colin Goddard, who is now working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. During that shopping spree at a Roanoke gun show, Colin purchased the following firearms from private sellers in the span of just one hour: a .40 caliber Sig Sauer Pro semiautomatic pistol, a Mossberg Shotgun, a Tec- 9 semiautomatic assault pistol (along with 50-round ammunition clips), and a .22 caliber semiautomatic carbine. He paid $2,000 in cash, never underwent a single background check, never presented any identification, and never even gave his name. At one point in the video he asks a seller, “Cash and carry, yeah?” to which the seller responds, “Yep, cash and carry!” Stranger yet was that after completing his day at the gun show, Goddard was required to undergo a background check when he turned his firearms over to the Henrico County Police. “If I know it’s so easy,” Goddard says, “I’m sure the person who is trying to bypass a background check also knows that this is an easy way to [buy guns].” [A recent case from Front Royal, in which an unlicensed dealer was indicted for selling firearms to convicted felons, shows how true this is.]

Confronted with the fact that he was part of a video that directly disproved his misstatements, McDonnell told Hoffer, “The [choice] that we made in Virginia is to not regulate the private sales of firearms.” That policy choice, of course, is not popular with Virginia residents. A 2009 poll from Rasmussen Report showed that 76% of Virginians think the Gun Show Loophole should be closed. Indeed, even 69% of National Rifle Association members support closing the loophole.

So, please no more denials. It is a fact that criminals and the dangerously mentally ill can and do buy firearms at Virginia’s gun shows without a background check. The only open question is why McDonnell and his friends still think this is a good idea.

November 22, 2010

Heeding God's Call in Maryland

The involvement of faith leaders in efforts to strengthen gun laws in the United States goes back decades if not further. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, for example, was originally founded by the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society and other religious organizations in mid-1970s. An exciting campaign known as “Heeding God’s Call,” however, is providing the faith community with new opportunities to take the lead in reducing gun violence in our country. Originally started in Pennsylvania, Heeding God’s Call has now spread south into Maryland.

The mission statement of Heeding God’s Call calls for the campaign to “unite people of faith in the sacred responsibility to protect our brothers, sisters and children.” The campaign realizes it mission by: 1) Helping local faith communities organize advocacy campaigns to encourage gun shops to adopt a code of conduct to deter illegal purchasing and trafficking of handguns; 2) Providing support and resources for faith communities to form multi-racial, ecumenical and interfaith partnerships working together, on both social and legislative levels, to prevent gun violence; 3) Serving as a “connection point” for congregations and partnerships to connect with, learn from and support the work of gun violence prevention organizations and efforts already in place, and ; 4) Advocating for faith communities to make commitments to raise voices and take action to prevent gun violence.

Started in 2008, the signature victory of Heeding God’s Call came in September 2009 when the sustained protests of faith leaders in Philadelphia pressured the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) to shut down Colosimo’s Gun Center, a store that was the source of one out of every five crime guns recovered in the city. That same month, a Heeding God’s Call campaign took root in the Pennsylvania state capital, Harrisburg. Now, in 2010, new groups have sprung up in Baltimore and Prince George’s County, Maryland.

On October 20, faith leaders from Baltimore gathered at Clyde’s Sport Shop in Lansdowne, Maryland. They asked the store’s owner, Clyde Blamberg, to sign a 10-point Code of Conduct. This voluntary code asks gun dealers to implement marketing safeguards to prevent illegal “straw” sales; such as videotaping gun sales, deterring fake IDs, and conducting background checks on all store employees. A 2008 report from the Abell Foundation found that Clyde’s was the second largest source of crime guns seized in Baltimore during the period January 1, 2006 through March 31, 2007.

"We are not implying that you break the law," Bishop Douglas Miles of Koinonia Baptist Church told Blamberg. "I'm sure you faithfully follow the procedures. We just want to ask you to help us to help prevent the havoc that is going on in our communities.” “We need people voluntarily who will decide to do the right thing. We can’t just depend on the law to have good communities, we need people of good will,” added Rev. Dr. Eugene Sutton, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. Standing with Miles and Sutton were Rev. Peter Nord, Presbyter Executive of the Presbytery of Baltimore; Rev. Jack Sharpe, President, Central Maryland Ecumenical Council; Rev. Wolfgang D. Herz-Lane, Synod Bishop, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America; Imam Earl El-Amin, Muslim Community Cultural Center of Baltimore; Rev. John R. Schol, Baltimore-Washington Conference United Methodist Church; Dr. Arthur Abramson, Executive Director, Baltimore Jewish Council; Rev. Dr. John Deckenback, Central Atlantic Conference United Church of Christ; and Rev. Denis Madden, Auxilliary Bishop, Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore.

We’re not interested” was Blamberg’s immediate response (Clyde’s supporters find no fault with his business practices, instead pointing a finger at the “culture” of “black males in the city”).

The Baltimore group is not giving up so easy, however. “With a primary goal to reduce the flow of illegal handguns on city streets,” Heeding God’s Call will return to Clyde’s Sports Shop on December 11 at 3:00 PM to again ask Blamberg to sign the Code of Conduct.

Blamberg is not the only gun dealer in Maryland who has been approached by the faith community. On November 13, the Partnership for Renewal in Southern and Central Maryland (PRISCM) conducted a prayer vigil and protest at Realco Guns in Forestville. 60 people attended the event, including religious leaders, gun violence survivors, and elected officials. They were responding to a recent Washington Post investigation that revealed that more than 2,500 guns used in crimes have been traced back to Realco in the past 18 years. In addition, nearly one in every three guns confiscated by authorities in the District of Columbia and Prince George's County was purchased from the dealer.

We’re not here today to necessarily gang up on Mr. [Carlos] del Real, who is the owner of this shop, but we are here to bring attention to this shop,” said Youth Minister Raimon Jackson of Gethsemane United Methodist Church. “We are here to...let him know that our community will no longer stand for...the traces of guns that are found in connection with this shop.”

Minister Rosita Barnes of St. Paul's Baptist Church contributed a prayer: “Lord we ask that you would touch the buyers, the would-be buyers and the sellers...We pray that each would-be buyer in this shop—or anywhere else—looks deep within themselves where we believe [they] will find God and ask the question, ‘Lord, what shall I do?’

The faith leaders in Prince George’s County presented del Real with a copy of the Code of Conduct. He accepted it, but like Blamberg, refused to sign. Like their counterparts in Baltimore, however, these faith leaders were not deterred. They announced they, too, would be coming back, and soon.

November 15, 2010

One Who Can't Walk Away

On the morning of April 16, 2007, students and teachers alike went to their classrooms at Virginia Tech as if it were any other school day. Before the morning was over, 32 of them were murdered, and an additional 17 wounded, in the deadliest shooting rampage in the nation's history. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, had previously been evaluated in a psychiatric facility. A judge determined that Cho “present[ed] an eminent danger to [him]self or others as a result of mental illness, or [was] so seriously mentally ill as to be substantially unable to care for [him]self.” According to federal law, Cho should have been prohibited from buying firearms, but because of a loophole in Virginia law he was able to pass background checks and purchase two handguns.

Colin Goddard was one of the students wounded on that snowy day in April. He was shot four times by Cho—in his left knee, left hip, right shoulder and right hip. A new, critically acclaimed short documentary, “Living for 32,” tells the story of the Virginia Tech tragedy through his eyes (a trailer for the film is available here).

In the film, Kristina Anderson, another survivor who was shot that day, says, “There’s three ways that I’ve seen that people react to things like this. The first is they completely deny it. The second way is probably that they admit it, but also don’t want it to have any effect on their future life and they go on. [The] third person can internalize it, turn it around and put it towards their future to kind of make something come out of that; and that’s a survivor’s mission. It’s usually something that was so traumatic, and so powerful, and so life changing to you that you have to do something about it ... You can’t walk away from it.”

Colin Goddard is the latter type of person. He doesn’t believe that he was “saved” as part of some divine plan. “I was one of seven students to survive out of a class of 17,” he says. “I don’t know why. I know that there were people who were killed all around me who did nothing different than I did. I just got lucky.” Not wanting future Americans to have to rely on similar good fortune, Goddard has chosen to use his story to promote and create a safer America.

Soon after graduating from Virginia Tech, Goddard began interning for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, where he offered to go undercover to expose one of the most dangerous aspects of our nation’s weak gun laws: the Gun Show Loophole. Goddard traveled to gun shows across the country and legally bought everything from an AK-47 to the exact model of handgun that he was shot with with nothing but cash. He never underwent a background check as part of these “private sales,” and in some cases didn’t even have to show identification. Goddard’s father, Andy, explains that his son secretly filmed these purchases to, “make it easy for people; put it right there in front of their faces; hang it in front of them on the TV screen and say, ‘Look, this is legal, all of this is legal; everything that was done is legal. Do you want it to be legal? Do you think that that makes you safe, that this kind of thing’s legal?’”

In “Living for 32,” however, Colin Goddard learns that changing things is tough even when the overwhelming majority of people are on your side. On July 14, 2010, Rep. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA)—the Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security—co-hosted a Congressional Forum with Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL). The forum was designed to explore the merits of H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009.” Goddard provided moving testimony at the forum—Rep. Castle described Goddard’s words as the “most compelling” he had ever heard during his time in Congress.

Nonetheless, H.R. 2324 has not received a full hearing or a vote on the House floor despite having 112 co-sponsors. “I didn’t think that changing some laws in Washington was going to happen by me telling my story,” Goddard states. “As I learn more I’ll change my strategy, I’ll change it up to do whatever I have to do to get what I want changed ... It’s not changing the whole world, it’s not getting guns from every man. [I’m] talking about two or three small little things that I think would make America a better place.”

“Living for 32” documents Goddard’s courageous journey from tragedy to triumph—which is still in its infancy. The film has received a strong reception after multiple public screenings across the country. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that “Living for 32” is among the eight finalists for this year’s Best Documentary Short award.

The film’s next big screening will take place at New York University’s Skirball Center for Performing Arts on Wednesday, November 17, from 6:00-8:00 PM. Members of the public are invited to attend and can RSVP here.

It will be just one more night of work for Colin Goddard. “There is no meaning in our tragedy,” Kristina Anderson reflects in the film. “We didn’t ask for this, but unfortunately there are people that don’t have a voice anymore, and so it’s kind of like we should speak for them ... I think that’s what Colin has done.”

November 8, 2010

A Winning Issue

It has already been well chronicled that gun control supporters fared well in the November 2 elections. As the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence pointed out, candidates who endorse common-sense gun laws won Senate races from both sides of the aisle. Victorious on Tuesday were the following Democrats: Barbara Boxer in California; Chuck Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand in New York, Ron Wyden in Oregon; Barbara Mikulski in Maryland; Daniel Inouye in Hawaii; Richard Blumenthal in Connecticut, Michael Bennet in Colorado; and Chris Coons in Delaware. Then there is the incoming Republican Senator from Illinois, Mark Kirk, who currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Task Force on Illegal Guns in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Much was made of the fact that the National Rifle Association (NRA) endorsed many Blue Dog Democrats running for re-election in the House, but the support of the gun lobby did little to improve their fortunes. Of the 49 Democratic incumbents who lost in the November 2 elections, 29 (59%) had an A rating from the NRA, 27 were endorsed by the NRA (55%), and 25 (51%) received financial support from the NRA. On the flip side, only three of the 101 Democratic House incumbents who co-sponsored legislation to close the Gun Show Loophole (H.R. 2324) lost on Tuesday. The loophole allows private individuals to sell firearms at gun shows without conducting background checks on purchasers or maintaining records of sale.

One particularly interesting House race took place in Virginia’s 11th Congressional District, where first-term Democratic Rep. Gerry Connolly faced off against Keith Fimian, a local businessman. The 11th is as “an odd-shaped Congressional District stretching from the rural Virginia horse country near Warrenton, then meandering east through the battlefields at Bull Run, and finally racing north headlong towards the uber-metropolian suburbs of Fairfax and Arlington. Nestled near the armpit of the District lies the impressive headquarters of the National Rifle Association.” In 2009, the 11th supported the Republican slate, voting for Bob McDonnell as Governor, Bill Bolling as Lieutenant Governor, and Ken Cuccinelli as Attorney General.

The NRA’s endorsement in its home district went to Fimian. The gun issue did not figure large in the race, however, until Fimian made the following controversial comments:

I think that at Virginia Tech, if one of those kids in one of those classrooms was packing heat, I think that would not have happened … The perpetrator of that crime would have thought twice before walking into a classroom if he thought there was any chance of someone being armed and preventing him from doing that.

Gerry Connolly immediately bucked the “conventional wisdom” among Democrats in rural and conservative districts that the gun control issue is “untouchable” and “a loser.” James Walkinshaw, Connolly's campaign manager, told the press that “Keith Fimian's extreme position on guns and outrageous comments about the Virginia Tech tragedy serve to show yet again that he is too extreme for Northern Virginia. Fimian's opposition to closing the Gun Show Loophole, his callous lack of regard for the victims of the tragedy, and belief that guns should be allowed on our schools and college campuses are way out of the mainstream.”

Survivors of the shooting at Virginia Tech also took great offense to Fimian’s remarks. Omar Samaha, who lost his sister Reema during the tragedy, appeared in a television ad sponsored by Americans United for Safe Streets (AUSS). "Ask Keith Fimian why he's protecting criminals, instead of protecting us,” he implored his fellow Virginians. Retired Lt. Col. Peter Read, whose daughter Mary was also killed, accepted an apology from Fimian for his remarks, but noted, “He has yet to decide his answer on the simple question of whether he'll support background checks for every gun sold at a gun show. I need my representative in Congress to know the answer to that question.”

The pressure to clarify his stance on these issues became so intense that Fimian’s campaign literally began to run from questions.

Overcoming a massive wave that saw the Republicans gain 60+ seats in the House, Connolly prevailed in the 11th on Election Day. He currently holds a 935-vote lead over Fimian, with only 300 ballots left to be counted. As one voter told The Connection Newspapers, “I heard some comments that one of the candidates made about Virginia Tech, and I decided to come out and vote for the other guy.”

Even the blog Red NoVA had strong words on the matter: “Keith’s comments saying that if a student was ‘packing heat’ there would have been fewer deaths were incredibly insensitive and damaging to his cause … To make matters worse, this entire drama unfolded on every network news station in the DC region.”

Time will tell if other Democrats in the Commonwealth and across the country catch on, but public safety was clearly a boon to the party in an otherwise disastrous 2010 election. Resources also make a difference—AUSS spent $450,000 on ads and mailers in the VA-11 race and it paid off. Far from a liability, strong support for policies to keep guns out of the hands of criminals is a career booster.

October 4, 2010

Celebrating Death

Late last month, the National Rifle Association’s Institute of Legislative Action (NRA-ILA) posted an alert highlighting an editorial by the founder of www.libertyunderfire.org. Quoting the first paragraph of the editorial, the alert read:

In light of the double murder in a prominent California city where two 16 year old thugs with baseball bat and knife bludgeoned an elderly couple to death after first robbing them in the hopes of acquiring more money for their frequent marijuana usage, I wonder if this tragedy may have been avoided had the victims used a gun to protect themselves. Many crime victims also are victims to our society's undying trust that if we are law abiding, others around us will be also, and those who are not will be dealt with swiftly by law enforcement. Such is naive, impossible and a great American myth.

A typical gut reaction to the story would be, “Sure, it would be great if all elderly couples were armed and ready to deal with murderous thugs.” After all, this was a horrific tragedy that involved the senseless loss of precious lives in a heinous crime. Caught up in emotions like anger and fear, one might forget that only 86 Americans were murdered during home burglaries in 2007. During that same year, of course, there were 613 accidental firearm deaths, 12,362 firearm-related homicides, and 17,352 suicides committed with a gun (CDC data, WISQARS tool). Furthermore, the FBI has confirmed through its Uniform Crime Report that victims know their murderers personally more than ¾ of the time (i.e., they are family members, friends, boyfriend/girlfriend, co-workers, acquaintances, etc.).

That has not stopped the NRA from perpetuating the myth that one must constantly have a loaded gun at the ready to deal with evil, faceless criminals, however. Since 1958, the NRA has published a column in its American Rifleman magazine entitled, “The Armed Citizen.” The column highlights “incidents of law-abiding Americans using firearms to halt or prevent crime” and elevates “justified” killers to the status of cult heroes.

Even assuming that the gun lobby has little regard for the Ten Commandments, a closer look at their “Armed Citizen” clippings reveals an overall picture that is far from black and white in terms of guilt and innocence. It seems that the only requirement for inclusion in the column is if a “good guy” shoots a “bad guy(s),” no matter what the particular circumstances of a given case are. Keep in mind, too, that many of these incidents take place in states where the laws governing the use of lethal force have been dramatically liberalized by NRA-drafted “Castle Doctrine/Shoot First” statutes.

Here are some recent examples of “Armed Citizens” Tweeted on the NRA News feed:

  • On September 10, an auto sales store owner in Imperial, Missouri, was sleeping at his business when he heard the sounds of a door rattling and glass breaking. Confronting a burglar at the door, he fired two shots from a revolver, killing the man, who was in his late 30s/early 40s. The would-be robber had no weapon of any kind and there was no indication that the shop owner’s life was under threat.

  • On September 16, Michael Pickering was at home in Caddo Parish, Louisiana, when Robert Lee Green, 48, appeared at his kitchen door and began knocking aggressively. Pickering, who knew Green personally, opened the door and told him to leave. According to Pickering, Green then rushed into the house. Pickering shot him in the head with a handgun, killing him instantly. Green had no weapon on him when he was killed. Pickering was taken into custody and an investigation is ongoing.

  • On September 17, Theodore Vinnet, 82, heard a noise outside of his window in St. Rose, Louisiana, and suspected someone was robbing his carport. According to Vinnet, he opened the window and blindly fired a round from his shotgun to scare the burglar. Instead he shot Morris Paul Jr., 39, wounding him. There was no indication that Paul had a weapon or made any threats to the homeowner. Vinnet failed to report the incident to police and was arrested later that day and charged with aggravated battery.

  • On September 21, 15-year-old Otilio Rubio, 16-year-old William Murphy, 17 year-old Zachary Garcia and 15 year-old Austin Clements randomly chose a house to break into in their Davenport, Florida neighborhood. Homeowner Jose Luis Oyola-Aponte, 37, fired a handgun at Rubio and Murphy, hitting Rubio in the head and Murphy in the abdomen. Rubio died the next day at the hospital. Oyola-Aponte initially told police that the Rubio was in his home with another boy when he shot them. Later he changed his story, stating that Rubio had one leg in his window when he shot him. Murphy was shot as he stood outside the house. When police searched Oyola-Aponte’s home, they found a bag of cocaine in a fanny pack, which resulted in his arrest for possession of drugs and intent to sell. There is no indication that the teenagers were armed with weapons of any kind during the break-in. Only Rubio had any previous criminal history.

Why would anyone glorify a substance abuser and possible drug dealer who shoots two teenage boys, killing one? And isn’t it patently obvious that all of these incidents could have—and should have—been resolved without the use of lethal force? It is understandable that Americans would want to take reasonable precautions to defend themselves and their families from crimes. But when individuals open fire on unarmed perpetrators—some of whom have yet to commit any crime—it is hard to argue that justice is being done. Our country has never defined property theft as a capital crime—and for good reason.

The NRA might feel that it is “naive” for Americans to have faith in law enforcement, but these trained professionals are there for a reason. One of their primary duties is to ensure that conflicts in local communities do not escalate into unnecessary violence. Whatever the NRA thinks can be accomplished by Americans shooting each other (beyond increased gun sales), it will never lead to a more peaceful society.

September 20, 2010

A Serious Violation

Despite the critical mid-term elections that are rapidly approaching, the Democratic Congress has seemingly forgotten its base (and agenda) and is instead taking orders from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Two Congressional committees are currently planning hearings on H.R. 2296/S. 941, the NRA-drafted “Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) Reform and Firearms Modernization Act,” which would severely limit ATF’s ability to shut down corrupt gun dealers.

Under the legislation, it would be “all but impossible” for ATF to revoke the licenses of rogue dealers, even when they repeatedly break federal gun laws. The legislation would require ATF to show that a federally licensed dealer knew the specific law he/she was violating and intentionally disregarded that law, an unusually high and difficult burden of proof. The bill also creates a classification system for violations, but the ATF would only be allowed to revoke a license based on a “Serious” violation. “Minor” violations, such as “losing” hundreds or perhaps thousands of guns, would not warrant revocation of a dealer’s license. H.R. 2296/S. 941 would also allow dealers who have their licenses revoked to transfer their remaining inventory to their "private collection" and sell these guns for 60 days without conducting background checks on purchasers.

The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), had arranged a hearing on S. 941 for September 14, but chose to postpone it because of a “scheduling conflict.” Some speculate it was because of pressure from the Obama administration and grassroots activists who were outraged about Leahy’s priorities. A new date for the hearing has yet to be scheduled. Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) is also planning to hold a hearing on H.R. 2296 in the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security, date and time TBD.

Gun rights advocates have argued that H.R. 2296/S. 941 is necessary to prevent “heavy-handed” enforcement by the ATF. The NRA claims that it is all too common for the ATF to revoke licenses for “insignificant technical violations—such as improper use of abbreviations or filing records in the wrong order.” The problem is they have not produced a single example of a case where this occurred.

In truth, the ATF rarely uses its power to revoke federal firearm licenses. In 2007, the agency conducted 10,000 inspections and revoked only 100 licenses—which represents just 0.1% of the total population of federally licensed firearms dealers in the U.S.

So why is the NRA pushing H.R. 2296/S. 941? It is well aware that just 1% of federally licensed gun dealers are the source of more than 57% of guns recovered in crimes nationwide, and this small group of extremely bad apples is who the ATF targets for revocation. The NRA wants to protect their profits, and some of these dealers have extremely close ties to the gun lobby.

Sandy Abrams, a former NRA board member, was cited for more than 900 violations of federal law before his Valley Gun license was revoked in 2006. At the time, Valley Gun was ranked 37th out of 80,000 gun dealers in the country in terms of the number of guns it sold that were later linked to crimes. Almost 500 crime guns were traced back to Abrams’ store in one four-year period alone. The Department of Justice referred to Valley Gun as a “serial violator” and stated that Abrams had “endangered the public by failing to account for hundreds of weapons.” Abrams saw it differently. “Forms fall behind the counter. Or maybe someone throws it away,” he explained to authorities.

It’s clear why the NRA wants H.R. 2296/S. 941 to become law, but the bigger question is why are Democrats moving the legislation? One would think that Democrats would want to motivate their base to vote in the November elections. Gun owners have not traditionally been part of that base. Over the past three presidential elections, voters in gun-owning households have voted Republican 61%-63% of the time. Nor have Democrats received significant largesse from the gun industry. 78% of the money the NRA has contributed in the 2010 election cycle has gone to Republicans. And progressives are certain to take offense at Democrats’ support for an organization that has consistently undermined their agenda (i.e., see the DISCLOSE Act).

Additionally, it seems odd that Democrats would take action on legislation that law enforcement has serious concerns about. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) says H.R. 2296/S. 941 would “significantly impede criminal investigations and diminish the ability of law enforcement to protect their communities from the crime and violence associated with the illegal use of firearms.”

The IACP recognizes the obvious: In a country in which illegal firearms trafficking is epidemic, the ATF needs more authority and resources to put corrupt gun dealers out of business, not less. Concerned citizens can call Speaker Nancy Pelosi at (202) 225-0100. Tell her to cancel hearings on the "ATF Reform and Firearms Modernization Act" and table this dangerous legislation immediately.

September 13, 2010

What's so Funny About Shooting Government Officials?

When National Rifle Association (NRA) President Charlton Heston hoisted a rifle above his head at the organization’s 2000 convention and shouted the words “from my cold dead hands,” there was no joke about it. He was conveying a serious threat by expressing the organization’s belief that the Second Amendment provides individuals with the right to take violent action against our government—“one bullet at a time”—when they deem it has become “tyrannical.” Since the conservative wing of the Supreme Court gave legal backing to this dangerous “Insurrectionist Idea” in 2008, there have been a significant number of violent acts by those who fear and hate our government.

The NRA, however, now appears to find its advocacy for insurrectionism humorous. In a bizarre new video released in late August as part of its “Trigger the Vote” campaign, a group meeting is being held to discuss what should be done about the government coming to take away people’s guns. An old woman in the group, in an expletive-filled tirade reminiscent of Heston, states that if the government wants her gun, “they’ll have to pry it from my cold dead hands.” Martial arts expert/celebrity Chuck Norris then busts into the room and tells the participants that “there’s only one way to protect our rights,” by registering to vote.

The use of Chuck Norris as a voice of reason is curious, to put it mildly. Just last year, Norris told conservative radio/TV host Glenn Beck, “I don't use [guns] for hunting. I'm not a hunter. But the thing is, it's for protection ... If the government decides to become a tyrannical government, our guns are to protect us against that. And that's really what the Second Amendment is all about.” Norris even warned in March 2009 that a “second American Revolution” will happen “if the state of the union continues to turn into the enemy of the state.” Norris clearly buys into the insurrectionist ideology his new ad so casually dismisses.

The “Trigger the Vote” campaign is a sharp departure from previous NRA rhetoric, and raises questions about the organization’s motives. The NRA’s embrace of insurrectionism—formalized through its amicus brief in the 2008 D.C. v. Heller case referenced above—has received significant press attention as of late, particularly after armed Americans began to appear at town hall meetings, presidential speeches, and other political events. The NRA might be trying to distance itself from this type of behavior with the “Trigger the Vote” campaign. It is also undoubtedly attempting to reach out to more moderate swing voters before a critical mid-term election.

Even long-time NRA supporters, however, are beginning to question its wisdom on the subject of guns, democracy and freedom. Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has done much to advance the gun lobby’s agenda, recently ran ads against Republican Senate candidate and Tea Partier Sharron Angle that strike directly at the Insurrectionist Idea. In one ad, the president of the Peace Officers Research Association of Nevada states that Angle’s “Second Amendment remedies” are a clear call for “armed resistance” and denounces them as “crazy” and “way over the line.”

Two weeks after Reid’s “Over the Line” ad ran, the NRA chose not to endorse him in the upcoming election. This prompted some to speculate that the NRA was punishing him for rejecting their extreme ideology. The NRA denied this, however, claiming that its decision had to do with Reid’s support of Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.

The bottom line, however, is that no matter how hard you try to mask insurrectionist ideology with a public relations campaign, if you put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig. If the NRA is sincere in its desire to condemn insurrectionism, it should have its legal counsel issue a statement making it clear that the Second Amendment does not provide individuals with the right to shoot government officials when they feel “oppressed” or sense “tyranny.”

Until then, when the NRA chooses to joke about this topic, all Americans should ask: What’s so funny?

August 30, 2010

"We have rights as well."

A place of worship is a sanctuary and an asylum. It is a place for families and friends to gather and celebrate their religion— a place of prayer that should be safe and free of violence. This may all be compromised in Louisiana by the passage of Act 944, which allows certain citizens with concealed handgun permits to bring their firearms into places of worship.

Under Act 944, churches, synagogues, and mosques are allowed to choose which concealed handgun permit holders—if any—are allowed to bring guns onto their premises. If a place of worship does allow some parishioners to carry handguns, they must announce that decision to their congregation. To attain a concealed handgun permit in Louisiana, applicants must undergo an instant computerized background check and complete nine hours of gun safety training (a one-time requirement). If a permit holder is selected to carry a gun in a place of worship, he/she is supposed to complete eight additional hours of training per year. However, according to the Louisiana State Police, it is up to the place of worship—and not law enforcement—to determine what type of training is acceptable and enforce this policy.

Advocates of the bill claim that the law will make churches safer and make it easier for people to protect themselves, but opponents argue exactly the opposite. Laura Cutilletta, a senior staff attorney for the Legal Community Against Violence, says, “Studies show that the more guns are around, the more opportunities there are for injury and death … If you bring guns into places of worship, they are increasing the danger to the families that are going there.”

During a February incident in an Orlando church, a man was shot in the foot after an NRA instructor’s handgun accidentally discharged during a gun safety class. If highly-trained professionals have accidents with their guns, how can we assume that average citizens with minimal training will perform better?

The rules regarding the use of lethal force in Louisiana are also a concern. A few years ago, the state eliminated residents’ duty to retreat to avoid violent conflicts. In the past, if it was possible for a person to remove him/herself from a violent situation without using deadly force, they were required to do so. But the new law reads, “A person who is not engaged in unlawful activity and who is in a place where he or she has a right to be shall have no duty to retreat before using deadly force…and may stand his or her ground and meet force with force.” Residents are now justified in shooting and killing someone if they believe they are in imminent danger of receiving “great bodily harm.” Are parishioners in Louisiana’s places of worship more likely to confront deranged mass murders or engage in mundane confrontations with friends, neighbors and acquaintances—confrontations that could escalate into something more dangerous because of the presence of firearms? It’s a question that should have been asked before Act 944 was signed into law.

Religious organizations in Louisiana are divided over the issue of concealed weapons in churches. Bishop Sam Jacobs of the Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux has stated that concealed weapons will not be allowed in any Catholic churches in the state. In contrast, Pastor Steve Folmar of the First Baptist Church of Houma has stated that members of the congregation will be allowed to carry weapons if they wanted to. “By and large, anyone with a permit is a law-abiding citizen and would not be a person with a probability for endangering other people,” he stated.

Louisiana, however, is a “Shall-Issue” state, which means that as long as an applicant passes an instant computerized background check and meets a set of basic requirements, the state must issue a permit. Unfortunately, dangerous individuals can slip through the cracks of this minimal screening. For example, a person who was convicted of a misdemeanor crime of violence may attain a concealed handgun permit as long as five years have passed. Additionally, residents who have previously been the subject of restraining orders can also obtain permits. Mental health screening is also quite menial.

CSGV board member and Presbyterian minister Jim Atwood has stated that it is a travesty that a place of worship would be associated with any policy that promotes violence. “The truest form of religion is about life and peace,” he said. “It is not advocating trust in deadly instruments. There is no such thing as security in the world, but we human beings spend our lives seeking it in wealth, position, power, and guns. True security is loving God with all our hearts, minds, and strength; and our neighbors as ourselves.”

Bishop Sam Jacobs of Louisiana sees it as a human rights issue: “Our churches are places of worship and sacred spaces. Yes, we respect the rights of someone to carry a concealed weapon if they have a permit. But at the same time, we have rights as well and we do not wish our rights to be violated to honor that person’s right.”

July 26, 2010

"Like Buying a Candy Bar"

On July 14, U.S. Rep. “Bobby” Scott (D-VA)—the Chair of the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security—co-hosted a Congressional Forum with Reps. Mike Castle (R-DE), Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and Mike Quigley (D-IL). The forum was designed to explore the merits of H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act of 2009.”

The “Gun Show Loophole” is a serious gap in our nation’s gun laws which allows individuals to buy firearms without undergoing a background check. Federal law mandates that all federally licensed firearms dealers (FFL’s) administer background checks to purchasers. In 37 states, however, the Gun Show Loophole allows “private sellers” who are “not engaged in the business of dealing” firearms to sell guns without processing background checks or keeping records of sale.

The forum began with a series of undercover videos that illustrate how easily the Gun Show Loophole can be exploited. One video from the City of New York showed investigators buying firearms from private sellers at seven gun shows in three states. The city’s investigators conducted “integrity tests” where they told the sellers outright that they “probably couldn’t pass a background check.” Nonetheless, 19 out of 30 private sellers sold them guns anyway in violation of federal law. One private seller from Ohio was caught on tape bragging that he had sold 348 assault weapons in the previous year (no federal agency monitors private individuals’ income to determine if their principal source of livelihood is firearm sales). He then told the investigator not to worry about not being able to pass a background check, stating, “I don’t care ... I wouldn’t pass one either, bud.

Those present then heard testimony from two panels of law enforcement officials, municipal officials, and gun violence survivors. Some of the most informative testimony came from Gerald Nunziato, a retired Special Agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Nunziato worked for the ATF from 1970 to 1999 in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Nunziato’s extensive experience with illegal firearms trafficking investigations showed him that “gun shows are a major outlet for burglars to sell stolen firearms and a place for criminals to shop for the types of firearms they desire.” Nunziato observed that criminals frequently “sought out the known firearms traffickers who would go to gun shows to obtain the type of weapon they needed.” “Buyers at gun shows have a huge selection of firearms and the sellers of stolen firearms and those with criminal intentions have little fear of being detected,” he stated. Perhaps most disturbingly, Nunziato noted that during his time as head of the ATF’s National Tracing Center, 45% of guns used in crime nationally were untraceable, in large part due to unregulated private sales, which leave no paper trail for law enforcement to follow.

Colonel (Retired) W. Gerald Massengill, a former Superintendent of the Virginia State Police, also provided compelling testimony. Following the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech, Massengill chaired the Virginia Tech Review Panel, which recommended requiring background checks for all private sales, including those at gun shows. A firm believer in Second Amendment rights, Massengill stated the problem very simply: “A gun can be legally bought from a private sale at a gun show in Virginia today with no questions as to your identity or background—much like buying a candy bar in a candy store. It seems to me that common sense tells us that such sales are not in the interest of public safety ... We, as a society, need to do all that’s reasonable and prudent to ensure that firearms cannot go, unabated, to felons and the adjudicated mentally ill.” The Virginia Statehouse News has posted two videos of Massengill discussing the Gun Show Loophole outside the forum here.

Virginia Tech survivor Colin Goddard was the final—and perhaps most powerful—speaker at the forum. Goddard was shot four times in 10 minutes at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007; 10 minutes that, he said, changed his life forever. Although Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho acquired his handguns legally through FFLs, Goddard noted that “he could have easily attended any of the dozens of gun shows that take place throughout Virginia each weekend and bought the same weapons from a ‘private seller’ with no background check into his mental history, and no questions asked.” Goddard knows this first-hand, as last summer he travelled to gun shows in Texas, Ohio, Maine, Minnesota, and Virginia and recorded undercover videos of private firearm sales. He and a friend were able to buy semiautomatic handguns and assault weapons without showing any ID or undergoing any background checks. Goddard even purchased the same handgun that was used to shoot him—cash and carry. No transaction took more than five minutes to complete. “Why should sellers at one table be required to run background checks, when the sellers, literally two tables down—with the exact same weapons—are allowed to sell their guns to anyone who just has the cash in hand?” Goddard asked those in attendance. “It’s no mystery why the guns sold by so-called ‘private sellers’ are often more expensive than the exact same model sold by licensed gun dealers. Purchasers who know they can’t pass a background check are willing to pay a premium. One seller told me straight up, and I quote, ‘No paperwork, no tax, that’s gotta’ be worth something.’” As Goddard noted, “For gun traffickers, domestic abusers and felons who can’t pass a background check, that’s worth plenty.” Rep. Castle described Goddard’s testimony as the “most compelling” he has heard during his time in Congress.

The National Rifle Association continues to oppose closing the Gun Show Loophole and claims that gun shows are frequented not by criminals, but by millions of “law-abiding citizens, collectors, hobbyists, hunters, target shooters, law enforcement officers and memorabilia shoppers.” Why then, Gerald Nunziato asked, is the carrying of loaded firearms strictly prohibited inside gun shows? The lawless and dangerous atmosphere inside these events was highlighted this month when the Wyoming Department of Revenue suspended sales tax collections at gun shows because of violent threats that were being received by the state’s field tax agents. Dan Noble, director of the department’s excise tax division, said that “every one” of his state agents has experienced “animosity” from gun show attendees, and “because there are guns there...I don’t want to put my people at risk.”

H.R. 2324, the “Gun Show Loophole Closing Act,” currently has 109 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Its Senate counterpart, S. 843, the “Gun Show Background Check Act,” has 17 co-sponsors. You can help by calling your Members of Congress today at (202) 224-3121. Ask them to co-sponsor H.R. 2324/S. 843 and encourage their colleagues to do the same!

July 19, 2010

Thugs and Criminals

While Republican Senate candidates Sharron Angle (Nevada) and Rand Paul (Kentucky) have drawn a great deal of attention lately for their proposed “Second Amendment remedies,” they are far from the only Tea Party candidates with curious ideas about our Constitution. "The militant wing of the Republican Party" has been quite active this election cycle, and it has not been shy in affirming its view that the Second Amendment is “for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.” Consider the following recent examples from states across the country:

In Connecticut, Republican-endorsed candidate Martha Dean is running for attorney general on a platform that threatens the rule of law. At a "Second Amendment March" organized by the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, she exclaimed, "If government is legitimate and truly is the voice of the people, it need never fear the people themselves when they’re armed. Only a government that uses secrecy and force to impose improper laws [to] which the people do not consent need fear the wrath of its law-abiding citizens at the ballot box or, ultimately, with arms … Our right of free speech and to back it up with arms if necessary if our government becomes tyrannical and unjust as King George’s was to the colonists are the most essential of the rights we as Americans have.” But Dean didn’t stop there—she then advocated that private citizens have access to the same firearms as our military: “I will oppose all efforts to create nonsensical distinctions that are nowhere supported by our constitutions between different types of firearms. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say that the government gets the effective firearms and the people the ineffective ones. Nowhere in our Constitution does it say that the government gets the modern firearms and the citizens only get the antiquated ones.”

Two candidates for elected office in Alabama have used equally strident rhetoric on the campaign trail. Dale Peterson, who ran in the Republican primary for the Alabama Agriculture Commission, aired an ad attacking the “thugs and criminals” in Alabama’s government. Brandishing a rifle at the end of the ad, Peterson warns, “I’ll name names and take no prisoners.” After placing last among the three Republican candidates in the primary, Peterson ran an even more bizarre follow-up ad endorsing former opponent John McMillan. Again brandishing a rifle, Peterson threatens, “I better not catch any thugs or criminals stealing [McMillan’s] yard signs.” As a man in overalls approaches a McMillan yard sign, Peterson fires a shot into the air, sending him fleeing.

Peterson’s violent approach was more than matched by fellow Alabaman Rick Barber, who contended for a House seat in the Republican primary in the state’s 2nd Congressional District. Barber’s first campaign ad unapologetically promoted armed insurrection against our government with the supposed approval of America’s Founding Fathers. Barber is shown sitting in a pub talking to Benjamin Franklin, Sam Adams and George Washington. At the table is a copy of the Constitution and several pistols. Barbers tells the three Founding Fathers that he would impeach President Obama and suggests that the “progressive income tax” amounts to tyranny. At the end of the ad, a clearly angered George Washington exclaims, “Gather your armies.” Barber was apparently unaware that Washington, as president, presided over the first federal tax levied on a domestic product—the whiskey tax—and then enforced collection of the tax with a federalized militia force of 13,000 men when armed mobs in Pennsylvania rebelled against it.

In his second ad, Barber sits in the same pub, this time speaking to George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Barber compares taxation and "the tyrannical health care bill" to slavery and the extermination of Jews in Nazi Germany. "We live in perilous times ... We are all becoming slaves to our government," Barber warns. The "army of voters" depicted in the ad includes Dale Peterson, who is again openly armed. In a follow-up editorial in the Washington Post, Barber makes reference to "the possibility of evil conducted on a grand scale" and states, "Totalitarianism doesn't come all at once ... The road to serfdom is a long one, but I fear that we are well on the way."

Barber, a newcomer to politics, distorts the views of Lincoln, who in his first inaugural address said, “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” As he asked the country to go to war to protect its sovereignty against secession, Lincoln added, “And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States ... It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration…can always...break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the Earth.”

Whatever Barber’s confusion, his violent rhetoric fell short at the polls. Montgomery City Councilwoman Martha Roby soundly defeated him in the primary on July 13.

Finally, just last week in Alaska, supporters of Tea Party candidate Joe Miller openly carried assault rifles and handguns during a popular community parade in Eagle River and Chugiak while young children marched alongside them. Miller is running against Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary and has been endorsed by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, who described him as a “true Commonsense Constitutional Conservative.”

It remains to be seen whether the national GOP leadership will summon the courage to speak out forcefully against such insurrectionist shows of force by Tea Party candidates that have adopted its standard. As one commentator recently noted, “A party that is intimidated and silent in the face of its extremes is eventually defined by them.”

June 14, 2010

Self-Destructive Tendencies

This year, threats against Members of Congress are up 300%. According to the FBI, “The suspects [responsible for the threats] are mostly men who own guns, and several had been treated for mental illness.” Equally striking is that several of the legislators that have been threatened are ardent advocates for weak gun laws that allow dangerous, mentally incapacitated individuals to obtain firearms with little difficulty.

Case in point is U.S. Representative Heath Shuler, a Democrat from North Carolina’s 11th District. Shuler received a message on his office voicemail on February 5, 2009 in which the caller stated, “If you vote for that [economic] stimulus package, I’m gonna’ kill you. Simple as that.” An FBI investigation traced the call and found out that it was made by John Jackson Adams, a 70-year-old North Carolina resident with a “history of mental illness and a cache of guns.” When FBI agents confronted Adams, he admitted making the call and explained, “I was trying to work the political scene.”

Adams was charged with threatening to kill a federal official, a felony offense punishable by up to ten years in prison. After a psychiatric evaluation, however, a North Carolina court declared Adams “mentally incompetent” and the charges were dropped on the grounds that he was not fit to stand trial. His current whereabouts are unknown to the public.

Shuler has told the media he was badly shaken by the incident. “You get a threat like that, and you start to rethink your priorities,” he said.

His newly reorganized priorities, however, seem bizarre in light of what he went through. For starters, Shuler obtained concealed handgun permits for himself and his wife. In doing so, he ignored a study published in the American Journal of Public Health last year that showed that carrying a gun makes you more than four times as likely to be shot.

His next move was even more puzzling. Shuler became one of the few Democrats to appear at the National Rifle Association’s 2010 annual convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Clearly proud of his A-rating from the gun lobby, Shuler bragged to the NRA faithful that there “isn’t another Member of Congress that buys more ammunition in a year” than he does. He also fondly recalled hunting wild hogs with his young son and boasted, “it just wasn’t any gun...it was his own AR he was using,” referring to a semiautomatic version of the military’s M-16 rifle. “Keep up your good work,” he encouraged the NRA leadership.

That work, however, has not always focused on the interests of responsible, law-abiding gun owners. The NRA seems to be equally concerned with preserving the “rights” of criminals, the mentally ill, and other individuals who are prohibited under federal law from buying guns.

For starters, the NRA filed lawsuits in nine states challenging the “Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act” after it was signed into law in 1994. The Brady Law established a mandate for background checks to be conducted on all sales of firearms by federally licensed firearms dealers (FFLs) in the country. The NRA claimed that its only issue with the Brady Bill was the five-day waiting period the original bill created for handgun purchasers (which was phased out in 1998 following the introduction of an instant computer background check system), but contradicted themselves when they asked the Supreme Court to void the entire Brady Law. In 1997, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could not compel states to submit records to the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), but otherwise left the law intact. The result, however, is a NICS system that is missing millions of state records that should disqualify dangerous individuals from purchasing guns.

The NRA also created a loophole that allows private individuals to sell firearms without conducting background checks of any kind. In 1986, the NRA-drafted McClure-Volkmer Act (aka “Firearms Owners Protection Act”) established that parties “not engaged in the business” of dealing firearms are exempt from the background check requirement. A national survey by the Department of Justice found that approximately 40% of gun purchases occur through unlicensed sellers. Who exactly is buying guns in this manner? We don’t know—there is no paper trail for law enforcement to follow.

Finally, the NRA is currently urging the passage of the “Burr Amendment,” which would allow veterans deemed “mentally incompetent” by the Department of Veterans Affairs to purchase firearms. The proposed amendment requires a court ruling before a veteran can be placed in NICS, but without establishing a mechanism for such a ruling to occur. This is particularly disturbing given recent reports about the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the efforts of anti-government extremists to recruit returning veterans.

The NRA itself is certainly no friend of government. NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre has declared that “the people have a right to take whatever measures necessary—including force—to abolish oppressive government.” Specifically, the NRA has opined that the Second Amendment gives American citizens the right to take violent action when they deem their government has become “tyrannical.” “The guys with the guns make the rules,” LaPierre tells us. Is this not the same insurrectionist mentality that John Jackson Adams embraced when he threatened Shuler’s life because of his anger over the stimulus bill?

Does Shuler not understand that the NRA’s polices make it easier for deranged individuals to obtain guns? Does he not grasp that the gun lobby’s leadership is providing intellectual and constitutional “cover” for such individuals to respond violently to their grievances with government?

It’s one thing to put your constituents’ safety at risk for endorsements, PAC funding, and votes; but another altogether to put your own family on the firing line. Recently, another A-rated, NRA-backed politician asked, “What line will we not cross for the NRA? At what point do we say, ‘That’s too much’?”

Apparently, no line we’ve seen yet—even when self-preservation is at stake.

June 7, 2010

Holding Fire, Finding Peace

[This blog was written by Caitlin Rosser, who interned with CSGV between January-May 2010.]

The spring 2010 semester was pretty transformational for me. As a co-founder of the American University chapter of the Student Peace Alliance, not only was I involved in various D.C.-area rallies and activities, but I also interned with the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV). Initially, I wasn’t quite sure where issues of gun control fit into my interest in peace activism, but after several months, I came to realize that preventing gun violence—like the broader goal of working to end the culture of violence—is an essential element in the work of a peace activist.

One of the most interesting projects I worked on altered my perceptions of the civil rights movement and tested my convictions about nonviolence as an effective form of direct action. The Coalition sought to rebut claims by gun rights activists that gun control is historically racist; and violent, armed action is the method by which African Americans obtained important rights.

While researching the Deacons for Defense and Justice (DDJ), a small movement of men that took up arms to protect their communities in southern states between 1964-1968, I learned what it must have been like to stand up to a violent mob. In this case, that mob was the Ku Klux Klan. During this time, advocates of violence were much more prevalent than I had been taught. Student groups like the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) became much more militant during the 1960s, especially after seeing the terror of the Klan in the south.

Yet I also came to understand that while it may have been necessary for some African Americans to arm themselves to protect the lives of those they loved, it really was nonviolence that gained national attention and helped thrust the civil rights movement ahead. As Martin Luther King, Jr. emphasized, “Nonviolence is not a method of cowardice. It does resist. It is not a method of stagnant passivity and deadening complacency. The nonviolent resister is just as opposed to the evil that he is standing against as the violent resister but he resists without violence. This method is nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.” Nonviolence requires you not to “humiliate or defeat the opponent but to win his friendship and understanding.” The end goal is reconciliation, not bitterness, and that is why nonviolence has been and is still so effective today.

This old debate still resonates today. The gun rights movement aggressively fights for the right to use lethal force at home and in public and portrays the gun violence prevention movement as “anti-civil rights.” In the end, though, the debate isn’t about restricting anyone’s rights—it’s about ensuring a safer world for us all. And isn’t that (or shouldn’t it be) the goal of both “sides” in this debate?

While advocates of armed, “justified violence” may have good intentions, they cannot succeed in establishing a just and sustainable peace in our country. Gandhi was right when he said, “Nothing enduring can be built on violence.” More guns, more hostility, more distrust, and more violence will never bring peace, and there is a serious deficiency in this country if we continue to believe in that fallacy.

In addition to my strengthened convictions about the power of nonviolence, I also learned a great deal about grassroots activism and the critical balancing act between community organizing and legislative advocacy. You can rarely be successful in any campaign without both components. For example, the “Advocacy Day” that the Coalition participated in along with its partner organizations in Virginia on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was critical in making state residents feel appreciated and part of the political process. The day included not only a vigil to remember victims of gun violence, but also lobbying inside the State Capitol in Richmond. Rallying and/or protesting raises awareness and fosters solidarity, but if you aren’t willing to work with lawmakers, you’ll never see the change you want.

The perseverance of every person I met at and through CSGV last semester affirmed for me that nonviolence is a lifelong commitment. They are truly in it for the long haul—through good times and bad. Many have never even been personally affected by gun violence. Some of them are volunteers who receive no pay for their efforts.

They have convinced me that peace activism isn’t just something I want to do on the side while I pursue a presumably lucrative career with my college degree. Being an advocate for nonviolence is the only worthwhile thing I could ever want to do with my life; and I intend to do just that.

May 24, 2010

Whose Values?

During the weekend of May 14-16, the National Rifle Association (NRA) conducted its annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. The theme of the gathering was “A Celebration of American Values.” The message delivered by speakers at the event, however, leads one to wonder exactly what the gun lobby thinks our country stands for.

Charlotte is the same city where, a decade ago, Charlton Heston hoisted a rifle over his head and shouted the insurrectionist battle cry, “From my cold, dead hands!” The speakers this year were no less emphatic, with a line-up including celebrity Chuck Norris, Fox News personality Glenn Beck, and 2012 Republican presidential nominee hopefuls Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin.

Palin demonstrated NRA values by claiming that Americans who care about the 30,000 gun deaths a year in the U.S. are immoral purveyors of “emotionalism” and “propaganda.” Gun death is not a public health issue, explained Palin: “In fact, more people die from car accidents than they will from a gunshot. Is driving then a health issue? I supposed you can say just about anything is a health issue if you want.” Apparently, Palin is completely unaware of decades of local, state and federal regulation that have made our roads exponentially safer and saved countless lives. Auto safety was one of the biggest public health issues of the 20th century and it continues to be addressed head-on by American manufacturers and policy makers.

Palin also addressed the topic of gender equality, opining that, “God made men and women, and Colonel Colt made them equal.” We think most American women would agree that it is their intellect and character—and not their ability to wield a revolver, Glock or AK-47—that makes them the equal of their male counterparts.

The convention’s keynote speaker, Glenn Beck, demonstrated the great American values of tolerance and pluralism by comparing Obama administration officials to Nazis, “Marxist revolutionaries” and “free-love, smoking-dope, having-sex-in-the-mud Woodstock hippies.” Beck also come out strongly in support of a controversial new anti-immigration law in Arizona that will require residents of Latino descent (or those who look like they are of such descent) to present identification papers to authorities upon request or risk detention. A coalition of national Jewish groups, conscious of Jews’ treatment during Nazi-era Germany, have described the law as “an affront to American values.”

Beck apparently also believes that pride in violence is an American value. Mocking a proposal to establish an award for military service members who display “courageous restraint” by holding fire in civilian-occupied areas, Beck exclaimed, “‘Courageous restraint?’ I’m sorry, you’re coming at me with a gun, I’m going to shoot you!”

Just two days after the convention, Representative Mark Souder (R-IN), who enjoys an A+ rating from the NRA, put “family values” on display. The sponsor of the NRA-drafted “Second Amendment Enforcement Act” to eradicate the District of Columbia’s gun laws announced that he would be resigning from the House of Representatives due to a sexual affair he conducted with a staffer. Souder joins Sens. John Ensign (R-NV), David Vitter (R-LA) and Larry Craig (R-ID) as NRA champions on Capitol Hill whose careers have been diminished and/or ruined by extramarital sex scandals over the past three years.

Not everyone agrees with the NRA’s concept of “American values.” This was evident when a peaceful protest gathered outside the NRA convention on May 15. Abby Spangler, the founder of Protest Easy Guns, conducted a “Lie-In” with other participants to call attention to NRA policies that have weakened America’s gun laws and facilitated the arming of dangerous and deranged individuals. “I'm fighting for American lives,” said Spangler. “I'll do what it takes.” Dee Sumpter, the founder of the Charlotte-based Mothers of Murdered Offspring, described the “loss, hurt, sorrow, anguish, pain and suffering” that still lingers from the 1993 murder of her only daughter, Shawna Denise Hawk (presumably, the NRA sees Sumpter as just another American peddling “emotionalism” and “propaganda”).

It’s telling that not even the attendees inside the convention center fully agreed with the NRA. In fact, several NRA members attending the convention were interviewed on video and indicated they fully support prohibiting individuals on the FBI’s Terrorist Watch List from buying firearms, a direct contradiction of the NRA’s position on the issue. These interviews corroborated a recent survey by noted Republican pollster Frank Luntz that showed that 68% of NRA members reject the NRA’s brand of “patriotism” and support closing this “Terror Gap” immediately.

A Tennessee state legislator, Rep. Joe McCord (R-8), recently provided a clue as to why even the NRA “faithful” go along with the lobby. McCord—an A-rated NRA legislator and lifetime member of the organization who is not seeking re-election—recently voted against legislation to allow loaded, concealed handguns in Tennessee bars. The bill passed comfortably regardless. McCord explains that the NRA told legislators, “If you don’t support and vote for carrying guns in bars, we will not endorse you.” McCord felt that, “This line of reasoning borders on lunacy ... What line will we not cross for the NRA?”

A good question... One would think that values aren’t for sale, but a gun lobby that’s given more than $17 million to politicians over the past 20 years (82% of it to Republicans) has significant purchasing power to work with.