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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.