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February 15, 2010

With a Little Help from our Friends

Over the years, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) has been blessed to receive charitable donations from the founder of The Fest for Beatles Fans. The Fest started in 1974, when Beatles fan Mark Lapidos decided that he wanted to organize an event to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America. He arranged a personal meeting with John Lennon and proposed a Beatles convention at New York’s Commodore Hotel. Lennon’s response? “I’m all for it,” he said. “I’m a Beatles Fan, too!” That fateful meeting led to “the original and longest running Beatles celebration.”

Over the past 35 years, Lapidos has held conventions in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Orlando, Las Vegas and Boston. “The first generation—baby boomers—still attend,” Lapidos says, “but there is always a great amount of younger fans. With the release of the Remastered CDs and Beatles Rock Band, we are sure there will be another resurgence in their popularity.” Lapidos also operates the world’s largest Beatles mail-order catalogue.

The Beatles will be forever linked with the issue of gun violence because of the violent and untimely death of John Lennon. Lennon was shot and killed in front of his Manhattan apartment building on December 8, 1980, by a deranged fan, Mark David Chapman. Lennon was only 40 years old.

Chapman, like so many contemporary American mass shooters, was seriously mentally ill and never should have been allowed to purchase the Charter Arms .38 Special revolver he used to kill Lennon. Three years prior to the assassination, he had attempted suicide and was admitted to a psychiatric facility for clinical depression. Chapman had developed a series of obsessions and heard voices in his head. Despite this, he not only was able to purchase firearms, but also found employment as an armed security guard. Six psychiatrists/clinical psychologists were prepared to testify at Chapman’s murder trial that he was psychotic before he pled guilty.

This horrific tragedy drove Lapidos to support the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “John’s dear friend Harry Nilsson became a national spokesperson for gun control and CSGV and, at the same time, we started raising money and awareness for the cause.” The Fest for Beatles Fans also supports Yoko Ono’s Spirit Foundation, which was set up to further her and Lennon’s philanthropic initiatives. “We thought these two were the best way to remember John on the charity side,” Lapidos says.

Lapidos was joined in mourning the loss of Lennon by millions of people around the world. Lennon was not only a musical icon, but also a global spokesman for peace and nonviolence. He once said, “I think the only way to do it is Gandhi’s way. And that’s non-violent, passive, positive, or whatever he called it in those days.”

Regarding the famous “Bed-Ins” for peace in Amsterdam and Montreal that he conducted with wife Yoko Ono, Lennon recalled, “People said, ‘Well, what does this do for peace?’ We thought, ‘The other side has war on every day, not only on the news but on the old John Wayne movies and every damn movie you see: war, war, war, war, kill, kill, kill, kill.’ We said, ‘Let’s get some peace, peace, peace, peace on the headlines, just for a change!”

The song “Happiness is a Warm Gun” gave Lennon an outlet to tackle the issue of gun worship. “They were advertising guns and I thought it was so crazy that I made a song out of it,” he recalled. “[Beatles Producer] George Martin showed me the cover of a magazine that said ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun.’ I thought it was just a fantastic, insane thing to say. A warm gun means you’ve just shot something!”

Lennon’s loss continues to be felt to this day. 2009’s “The New York City Years” exhibition at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame featured a display with a picture of Lennon’s bloodied glasses, the paper bag his clothes were put in, and a placard that read, “More than 932,000 people have been killed in the U.S.A since John Lennon was shot and killed on December 8, 1980.”

The surviving Beatles refuse to relinquish their optimism, however. Paul McCartney, looking back on the Beatles’ years together, said, “I’m really glad that most of the songs dealt with love, peace, understanding. It’s all very ‘All You Need is Love’ or ‘Give Peace a Chance.’ There was a good spirit behind it all, which I’m very proud of.”

And we at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence are proud to be associated with that legacy through the generosity of Mark Lapidos and The Fest for Beatles Fans.

February 8, 2010

They Definitely Deserve Our Attention

The gun lobby never tires of telling Americans about the fine character of the captains of the firearms industry. Whether it’s National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre lecturing about the “law-abiding firearm manufacturers, retailers and owners in this country” or politicians like former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist painting an idyllic picture worthy of Norman Rockwell (“I’ve toured gun manufacturing facilities. I’ve shaken their hands. I’ve looked them in the eye. They’re hard-working, law abiding citizens who deserve our attention.”), we are continuously assured that the industry has nothing but our best interests in mind.

But firearm manufacturers and dealers don’t always turn out to be so “law-abiding” in practice, as two recent national stories reveal...

On January 18, more than 20 representatives from companies that supply products to law enforcement and the military were arrested for violating the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a 1977 law that prohibits bribery of foreign government officials. Among those indicted and arrested was Amaro Goncalves, Vice President of Sales at Smith & Wesson, the firearms manufacturer that produces more handguns than any other U.S. company.

The arrests were the culmination of a two-and-a-half year investigation involving the FBI and Department of Justice. The FBI set up a sting operation where an undercover agent impersonated an official of an African country. Goncalves believed he was trying to win a $15 million contract to outfit the country’s presidential guard with pistols. He allegedly offered an illegal bribe—a 20% commission—to the official in order to obtain his business.

According to the Department of Justice, this is the single largest investigation and prosecution against individuals in the 33-year history of the FCPA.

Officials with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), however, have had less luck in bringing a corrupt gun dealer to justice in Wisconsin. ATF agents recommended a revocation of the license of Milwaukee’s Badger Outdoors gun shop after a 2006 audit revealed that numerous firearms in the store’s inventory were missing and unaccounted for. The store regularly ranks among the top five gun shops in the nation in terms of number of guns traced to crime. In 2005 they were first on that disreputable list when 537 guns sold at their shop were recovered from crime scenes nationwide.

Law enforcement officials were surprised when Badger co-owner Milton Beatovic announced he was retiring and voluntarily giving up his Federal Firearms License (FFL) in November 2006. Any hopes of seeing Badger put out of business, however, were dashed when Beatovic and co-owner Walter Allan exploited a loophole in the law and transferred ownership of the store to Allan’s 28 year-old son, Adam Allan, in January 2007. The store’s name was changed to “Badger Guns.” Walter Allan is now technically an employee of the store, working for his son. Beatovic, although “retired,” is still the landlord of the building from which Badger operates.

During his interview for an FFL, Adam Allan was unaware of key details about the gun store he was buying. One federal document states: "[We] asked Allan to estimate the dollar value of the inventory. He said he had no idea and asked [Beatovic] when he came in the room."

17 years of investigation of Badger Outdoors are now effectively down the drain, with the new owner having the equivalent of a clean legal slate. And the store has hardly cleaned up its act under its new “leadership.”

Since “Badger Guns” began operations on September 1, 2007, the ATF has uncovered new violations of federal law. The agency issued Adam Allan a warning letter on May 30, 2008, telling him he may face license revocation if the pattern continues. Additionally, an undercover investigation conducted by the Milwaukee Police Department in June 2009 found that one in five people exiting the store was a convicted felon. That investigation was prompted by the fact that, over the past two years, six Milwaukee police officers have been shot and wounded by individuals using guns purchased from Badger.

In talking about the transfer of Badger to Adam Allan, Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn said, "It looks like a cynical shell game to me." Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm added: “These guys are cagey, sophisticated dealers and they have legally thwarted every attempt ATF has made to regulate their conduct. They have a built-in escape clause. What other industry gets that kind of sweetheart deal?”

The answer is no other industry. For all other businesses, including liquor wholesalers, inspectors have the authority to investigate all the individuals behind a business and deny a license if any one of them is likely to break the law.

Here are Bullet Counter Points, we admit that there is some truth in the statement that gun manufacturers and dealers “deserve our attention,” but it’s probably for a different reason than gun industry lobbyists would have you believe.

February 1, 2010

What's Going On (at Gun Shows): The Heavy Hand of Reason

During the past year, there have been a number of groundbreaking investigations that have exposed the dangers of the “Gun Show Loophole.” The loophole allows unlicensed individuals to sell firearms from their “personal collections” at gun shows without conducting background checks or maintaining records of sale. The latest hotspot for gun show controversy is central Texas, where an effort by law enforcement to regulate criminal activity has run into resistance.

Federal agents from Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement (ICE) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) are partnering in an investigation that has uncovered dozens of cases of criminal activity occurring at gun shows throughout Texas. The Austin Police Department (APD) has assisted in this effort by arresting “prohibited persons (primarily convicted felons and illegal immigrants) that obtained firearms illegally at a local gun show.” “Virtually all” of these sales to prohibited purchasers were made by private citizens who are unlicensed sellers, both inside the shows and in the parking lots outside. Federal convictions have been obtained in a majority of cases.

Because of the recurring criminal activity at Texas Gun Shows events in North Lamar, the APD Nuisance Abatement Unit conducted a meeting with the property lessee for the shows (HEB Grocery), the building sub-lessee (Andrew Perkel, Austin Event Center) and the event promoter (Darwin Boedeker, Texas Gun Shows). At the meeting, ADP and ATF officials offered several recommendations to reduce illegal gun sales, including: 1) Allowing only licensed gun dealers at the shows; 2) Providing on-site security to prevent illegal sales in the parking lot, and; 3) Defining a process for non-licensed firearm sellers to participate to ensure that background checks are conducted. HEB Grocery agreed with these recommendations and instructed Perkel and Boedeker to implement them.

Boedeker complied with HEB’s request and put up a sign outlining the first two recommendations at the two-day gun show held on January 16-17. When police reported that a private gun sale to an illegal immigrant had nonetheless occurred that weekend, HEB Grocery announced that gun shows would not be hosted on their property until the issue was resolved.

Boedeker, outraged at the decision, began organizing a petition to the Texas Attorney General and stated, “All they are doing is keeping the honest man from being able to do what is afforded to him by the Constitution.” But he seemed to contradict himself in explaining what happened at the meeting. While on one hand Boedeker admitted, “[Law enforcement] made it a point to keep repeating themselves [to say] ‘these are just recommendations,’” on the other, he quoted them as saying, “You do what we say or we shut you down.”

Conspiracy theorist/radio host Alex Jones then interviewed Boedeker and helped him articulate his outrage further. Jones didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to attack the Obama Administration, saying, “He’s got these armed thugs doing this. This is tyranny. This is the end of America.” His comments about ATF agents were even more offensive and recalled the National Rifle Association’s “jack-booted thugs” smear. “They are an absolutely wicked bunch of un-American trash,” said Jones.

The controversy over Texas Gun Shows recalls a 2004-2005 investigation of gun shows in Richmond, Virginia, that was conducted by the ATF. During that investigation, 56 arrests were made for the following violations of state and federal law: Making False Statements on ATF Form 4473, Felon in Possession of a Firearm, Straw Purchase of a Firearm, Possession of Marijuana, Possession of Cocaine, Felony Fugitive Apprehension, Misdemeanor Fugitive Apprehension, Carrying a Concealed Weapon and Grand Larceny—Theft of Firearm.

The promoter of the Richmond shows, Steve and Annette Elliot of C&E Gun Shows, nonetheless described the investigation as follows: “It's just a persecution thing. It's not really an attempt to solve crimes or stop them. It's their way of trying to get rid of gun shows.” ATF was then hauled in front of the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security for a show trial. Chairman Howard Coble admonished, “it does appear that maybe the ATF activity may have risen to the threshold of being heavy-handed.” No action was taken against C&E Gun Shows. They continue to profit and have done nothing to modify their business practices to curb the criminal activity catalogued by ATF.

Were the actions of the APD and ATF in central Texas “heavy-handed”? Not by any reasonable American’s standard. For starters, Texas is the leading source state of guns being illegally trafficked to drug cartels into Mexico, and that is probably why so many illegal immigrants were arrested buying firearms at Texas Gun Shows events. Second, a 2009 survey by Republican pollster Frank Luntz showed that 69% of National Rifle Association (NRA) members and 85% of non-NRA gun owners support background checks for all firearm sales at gun shows. Finally, even the NRA was forced to admit that the “voluntary agreement concerning the transfer of firearms at the Austin gun show…was a self-imposed regulation, not a rule from the BATFE [popularly known as the ATF] or an ordinance of the City of Austin.”

It doesn’t take a law enforcement professional to realize there is a problem when criminals and illegal aliens (whom the NRA describe as “criminal aliens”) are openly buying firearms without undergoing background checks at gun shows. Hopefully, Texas officials will dispense with Alex Jones’ conspiracy theories and continue to act in the interest of public safety.