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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.

May 17, 2010

The Strong Link in the Chain

The record is clear: Gun control primarily impacts upon upstanding citizens, not criminals,” the National Rifle Association (NRA) states on its website. Ignoring both national and international data on gun death and homicide, the gun lobby claims that gun control has no positive effect whatsoever. A recent high-profile tragedy, however, illustrates how dangerous individuals can be effectively prevented from acquiring firearms by strong gun laws.

On March 4, California resident John Patrick Bedell, 36, opened fire on two police officers at the entrance of the Pentagon. He was armed with two semiautomatic 9mm handguns despite a history of mental illness and early warnings from family members that he might pose a danger to himself and others. The officers were wounded and, returning fire, killed Bedell.

Bedell’s early adulthood was marked by promise and potential. He was an intelligent young man who was close to receiving a degree in electrical engineering from San Jose State University. Approximately ten years ago, however, he began to spiral into mental illness. Doctors diagnosed him as bipolar and manic-depressive, and Bedell began to self-medicate by growing and smoking marijuana that may have enhanced the symptoms of his disorder. His family states that despite their attempts to keep him in treatment, he was eventually consumed by conspiracy theories and virulently anti-government beliefs.

Eventually these extreme beliefs led to violent thoughts. Jeffrey Bedell stated that his brother had attempted to purchase a firearm in Rancho Cordova, California, in January. The purchase was denied because he failed to pass the required background check as a result of his mental health history.

Under federal law, anyone that has been adjudicated as a “mental defective” or involuntarily committed to a mental institution is prohibited from purchasing firearms. California provides additional restrictions under state law that give it the most effective gun control regime in the country, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. As a “Point of Contact” state, California searches not only the FBI’s National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) for disqualifying records, but also a database maintained by the California Department of Justice. This database contains records from the California Department of Mental Health, which is required by state law to forward them. California has submitted more mental health records to NICS than any other state, more than 200,000 in total. The Golden State also requires background checks on all gun sales, whether they are made by Federally Licensed Firearms Dealers (FFLs) or private individuals.

After he was prevented from buying a handgun in California, Bedell still had the option to buy firearms in neighboring states with far weaker gun laws. It appears that at least one of Bedell’s handguns was obtained through an unregulated private sale in Nevada. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) traced the Sturm, Ruger & Co. 9mm used by Bedell to a Las Vegas gun show 19 days after he failed his background check in Rancho Cordova.

The Ruger’s trail originated with the Memphis Police Department in Tennessee. The department seized the handgun five years ago from a felon during a traffic stop and traded it to a licensed gun dealer in Georgia. The Ruger then turned up at a Las Vegas gun show earlier this year, where it was transferred through a private party sale. Authorities say this individual then sold the handgun to another private party, which may or may not have been Bedell. At that point the trail goes cold, because although Las Vegas County requires handgun registration, it is the only county in Nevada that does. Wherever and whenever Bedell obtained his handguns, he did so without undergoing a background check or filling out any paperwork.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca summed up the problem accurately: “The key is anyone can leave California and buy a gun anywhere else that doesn’t have strong gun laws. Whether you’re mentally ill or stable, either way, guns are easily accessible because states have different policies.” Translation: A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.

The next time the gun lobby tells us that gun control is doomed to fail because criminals don’t obey laws, we should remember that states like California don’t give them a choice in the matter. If the Golden State was the model for the other 49 states, deranged individuals like John Patrick Bedell would be significantly hindered in their quest for lethal firepower.

May 10, 2010

D.C. United

Two events during the past month have demonstrated with striking clarity the viewpoint of D.C. residents regarding gun violence and firearm regulation.

The first was the "Second Amendment March," which took place at the Washington Monument on the National Mall on April 19. Organized by Skip Coryell, a gun enthusiast from Michigan, the mission of the rally was “to galvanize the courage and resolve of Americans; to petition our elected officials against establishing anti-gun legislation; and to remind America that the Second Amendment is necessary to maintain our right to self defense.”

Approximately 2,000 individuals from across the country listened to far-right-wing speakers like Gun Owners of America Executive Director Larry Pratt tell them, "We're in a war. The other side knows they are at war, because they started it. They are coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They are coming for everything because they are a bunch of Socialists." For his part, Skip Coryell opined that his God-given rights were being infringed because he could not carry a fully automatic assault rifle on the National Mall.

Few—if any—residents of the District of the Columbia attended the rally.

Nearly three weeks later on May 5, D.C.’s elected officials, local victims of gun violence, voting rights organizations, and community groups stood together at a press conference to denounce legislation that would dramatically weaken the city’s gun laws. S. 3265/H.R. 5162, the “Second Amendment Enforcement Act,” was recently introduced in Congress by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jon Tester (D-MT) and Representatives Travis Childers (D-MS) and Mark Souder (R-IN). Drafted by the National Rifle Association (NRA), the legislation would legalize assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines in the nation’s capital; repeal the District's licensing and registration system; allow some convicted substance abusers and violent misdemeanants to purchase and own firearms; roll back important regulations curbing illegal gun trafficking; and prevent the D.C. Council from enacting gun-related legislation in the future.

Speaking at the press conference at city hall were D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty; D.C. Council Chairman Vincent Gray; and Council Members Phil Mendelson, Michael Brown, David Catania, Marion Barry, Harry Thomas, Jr. and Muriel Bowser. Last month, the council unanimously approved a resolution that stated their opposition to “any [legislation] that would restrict the Council’s authority to legislate laws or regulations that restrict the private ownership or use of firearms or that would repeal major portions of the District’s firearms regulation law.” They were joined at the event by local and national organizations including Reaching Out to Others Together (ROOT), the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, DC for Democracy, DC Vote, Peaceoholics, Inner Thoughts and Safe in the Streetz.

The most powerful testimony, however, came from family members who lost loved ones
to gun violence in the District. This included Nardyne Jefferies, whose 16-year-old daughter Brishell Jones was killed in the March 30 mass shooting in Southeast Washington involving an AK-47; Brishell’s two grandmothers; and Norman Williams, who lost his son Jordan Howe in the March 30 shooting. Williams had a decidedly different take on assault rifles than Skip Coryell. “Those weapons belong in Afghanistan or something,” Williams said. “They don’t belong here.” Nardyne Jefferies agreed, noting the damage such a weapon had done to her daughter.

After the press conference, these gun violence survivors traveled to Capitol Hill to meet with D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton. In a statement this week, Del. Norton said, “I am grateful that the victims of last month's massacre are not standing alone, but have been joined by the voting rights coalition and organizations that have always stood up for our right to enact gun safety laws. Together we must expose Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate who profess to be for self-government, and then sponsor bills to take away the self-governing rights of the District of Columbia, even though the federal courts have now found the District's new gun laws to be constitutional."

Mayor Fenty agreed with these sentiments, saying, “Any introduction of a law which would introduce more guns into the streets of Washington, D.C. would be a law that would set us back from a public safety standpoint. Great to see the unity here today. Great to see everybody coming out saying, ‘Let’s have less guns. Let’s continue to reduce crime in Washington, D.C.’”

Kenny Barnes, the founder of ROOT who organized the press conference, was even more effusive. “Incredible, what took place today,” he said. “It was historic, and we’re all united to try to stop violence.”